EDITORIAL: The Rise & Fall of the Found Footage Movie

This offering of something of a delayed review concerning Project Almanac comes on the heels of giving it a look yesterday as it has become available on all home video viewing formats. I was interested in the film purely from a standpoint of the fact it was delayed several times which was somewhat obvious given the "found footage" nature of the film. Made for $12 million (not counting marketing costs) the film ended up making $22m domestically and $32m internationally, but while the actual film is fine enough in itself if not completely mediocre as far as time travel flicks are concerned it is something of a mystery why the found footage aspect was necessary and if it makes it a better, more interesting film. The whole found footage gimmick can be utilized in interesting ways; I'm not saying it's a bad idea all the time, but it is a cheap option that was initiated by The Blair Witch Project that became seen as innovative in the wake of its release and gained big returns on a tiny budget. Blair Witch, while the pioneer, was not the one to kick the trend into high gear though as even that films sequel was shot in a more traditional manner. No, it wasn't until a decade later that producers and other assumed studio drones realized they could capitalize on this method that produced cheap products to gain big returns when Paranormal Activity, through a remarkable viral campaign, made almost $200m on a measly $15,000 budget.

Inevitable sequels would see ridiculously good if not diminishing returns for the micro-budgets the Paranormal films were made on, but outside of this tentpole franchise studios began to pump out both more handheld horror flicks while exploring other genres. This became as strong a selling point as the story: see a found footage super hero movie/monster movie/comedy/kids movie! The horror films would still dominate this sub genre, but by the time last years offerings of this style came around with Into The Storm, Earth to Echo and the seeming swan song of Paranormal in The Marked Ones each making less than $50m domestically it looked as if the time had come when audiences would no longer fall for cheaply made movies while still having to pay the ever rising theater ticket prices.

And so, despite expecting rather low quality offerings come January sans the Oscar bait that slowly trickles out in the first month of the year to smaller markets, I found it strange that we were still getting something in the vein of Chronicle this year never mind the next step in the evolution of the found footage film three months later with Unfriended. While I enjoyed Unfriended much more than I ever expected to (and my high recommendation of it may have indeed been more in light of expectations than actual quality, but that will be determined once it gets repeat viewings) it does indeed feel like something more along the lines of what Paranormal Activity attempted than that of the multiple carbon copies (The Devil Inside, Devil's Due, Apollo 18) that have come since. At the very least, Unfriended is one of the more solid spawns of the trend that include the likes of The Last Exorcism though I admit I haven't seen Europa Report, As Above/So Below or Quarantine which all at least seemed competent in the goals they sought to attain. Given Project Almanac was filmed in 2013 at the height of the trend where development would have taken place as Chronicle, End of Watch, Project X and Paranormal Activity 4 were all doing solid business it's not hard to see why the film was greenlit. You had a super hero, cop drama, high school comedy and scary movie each making money and, for the most part, each being well-received in the found footage genre so why not go for a science fiction action thriller with the added value of time travel (another trend in 2012 with Safety Not Guaranteed, Looper, Sound of My Voice and Men In Black III all using the device in some capacity)? It made sense, but when it was delayed from the somewhat cursed 2014 to the beginning of 2015 it felt more like the final breath in the life of the genre than anything close to a rejuvenation.

From left: Sam Lerner, Jonny Weston, Allen Evangelista and Virginia Gardner in Project Almanac.
In all actuality, Project Almanac isn't horrible, but is more a completely average film that follows the beats of a more streamlined PG-13 action film than anything akin to the found footage genre to which it belongs. This brings me around to the chief question I had before watching the film and the sole reason I really had any interest to begin with: Would Project Almanac have been better if any different at all were it made more traditionally rather than through the lens of the found footage approach? As the found footage trend continued the films grew and grew becoming closer and closer to what we have become accustomed to in any average-budget thriller or action film. For reference, Blair Witch was made for $60,000 while both Chronicle and Almanac were granted $12m budgets, Paranormal ballooning from its humble $15,000 beginnings to $5m by its third, fourth and fifth installments with last years Into the Storm taking the cake at $50m. Would it be so much more to make this film in the traditional sense and more importantly what does the found footage aspect add to how the narrative is conveyed? The horror genre is primed for the technique as it naturally limits the scope of your picture and what you can get away with showing the audience, inherently upping the tension, but with Project Almanac I couldn't help but feel having one of the characters consistently find a reason to film everything was pointless. There is fine enough reason given once our protagonists begin experimenting with their time machine, but prior to this that the film has the most popular member of the core group acting as the one who feels the need to document everything and it feels forced to say the least.

With a more, for lack of a better word, generic approach the film not only would have been able to better capture the dynamics between the friends and siblings that make up its core group, but it wouldn't be forced to waste time on unnecessary exposition dialogue and would be free to show rather than tell some of the character development that is shoe-horned in through big stretches because of limitations set upon it by its classification. Time travel is always an interesting hook that will naturally grab a fair amount of viewers and were Almanac to be handled with a certain tone that complimented the heartfelt/teen mentality of the story it might have worked as a more substantial piece of "life's too short" homily that would have the potential to really hit home with its target audience, but that it is instead presented in such a way that the intended audience is meant more to relate than learn something the film doesn't earn the statement it is trying to make. In fact, the glaring cliches of the film that include the catalyst coming when the protagonist goes further than he said he would over his feelings for a girl feel so generic that no one, not even the vulnerable teen target audience, will take it seriously. This is the least of its worries though as the main problem with the film in general and what the found footage aspect hinders the most is the broad aspect of the story. We are introduced to David Raskin (Jonny Weston) as an intelligent, high school kid submitting scholarship applications to M.I.T. with the seeming conflict of the piece being how he will raise the money to go to school when things don't go as planned. Instead, the film switches its focus so often between the financial issues, to daddy issues, to girlfriend issues not to mention the whole time machine deal that there is no sense of throughline as to what we as an audience should really invest in.

From left: Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, Michael Stahl-David and T.J. Miller in Cloverfield
These concerns all seem beside the point of what might have been better creatively for the fact it's cheaper to not show as many special effects moments in camera as well as being able to get away with casting no-name actors rather than (at the very least) semi-popular names so as to really sell the part of the gimmick that helps audiences believe what we're seeing is in some way authentic. Has the found footage genre really evolved then as a technique to be utilized to tell a specific story in a unique way or has it simply been exploited to take advantage of the little effort it takes to throw these things together while generally receiving a modest to handsome reward? The answer has to be a depressing "no" as the films continue to flounder in quality but, for now at least, the returns remain steady enough to continue justifying investments in such excursions.

Before we wrap things up though, we must talk about Cloverfield as I haven't mentioned it so far for a very specific reason. It is this J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: the Force Awakens) produced, Drew Goddard (head of the Netflix Daredevil series for Marvel) written and Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) directed take on the monster movie that both utilized the found footage technique for the first time since Blair Witch, seemingly recognizing the potential, while paving the way for Paranormal with the kind of marketing campaign it conducted that pulled people in by keeping them largely in the dark. It is hard to imagine a current cinematic landscape without the sub genre that the Paranormal Activity movies are seen as the standard for, but before them it was Abrams and his viral marketing strategy that pushed the found footage idea into the mainstream. Just before the premiere of Michael Bay's first Transformers in 2007 a teaser was released with no title, no actor names, no explanations with only a mention of the release date and the film's producer, J.J. Abrams. It was all we needed to be hooked. Barely three years after the creation of Facebook and arguably one year after it really began to take off Abrams used the Internet and viral marketing to take his mystery box to more and more people faster than any passive advertising campaign could have ever managed. Viral marketing is active advertising, persuading audience members to get involved and that is why when the title was released in November of 2007, barely two months before the films release, many people were already hooked without the over exposure or barrage of promotional material we see for most blockbusters today. Granted, this strategy wouldn't work for every film and would get old if it were indeed used to market everything, but some version of it could certainly be used to entice audience members to big budget original properties that tend to be drowning these days though Tomorrowland pretty much failed with this line of thought, so what do I know?      

The thing with Cloverfield though was that it felt fresh. There were moments in the film, even after all the anticipation had built up and it seemed the actual movie would never be able to match those expectations, where I was wowed with the theater-going experience and the handheld approach had a lot to do with that effect. I remember thinking how real it felt, as if I were watching a newscast rolling footage that had been sent in. The mystery surrounding the events we watched unfold only added to the intensity with the best part being that it felt as if you really were in the middle of it all. There was no all-knowing omniscient perspective from which we were seeing things play out and so we were in the thick of it with these characters with no certainty that all would be okay. I won't pretend that Cloverfield is some groundbreaking piece of cinema, it's not, but it felt fresh at the time and the current crop of handheld features couldn't feel more disconnected from that word. All of that said, while we may see the frequency of these kinds of films lessen, I doubt the trend will ever completely die as there is always more footage to be found.