Thursday, October 18, 2012

Paranormal Activity 4 vs Alex Cross: John Gosling previews the week's new movies (10-19-12)

The Paranormal Activity franchise is a multi-million dollar global phenomenon and shows little sign of stopping. The origins of the series stretch back to 2007 when director Oren Peli gathered a group of unknown actors together and shot a very small scale scare flick utilizing the 'found footage' technique (to keep costs costs down he even converted his house into a shooting location and set just seven days aside for filming). The story followed a young couple who encounter strange goings-on in their house. Katie claims an evil presence has always been with her, while her partner Micah is skeptical Setting up a video camera in their bedroom, they soon discover unexplained events, which escalate in the space of a few days. Made for just $15K, Paranormal Activity began gaining strong word of mouth thanks to an impressive showing at the ScreamFest Horror festival. This screening ended up securing Peli an agent but attempts to get the film a distribution deal stumbled even after the director (and Miramax's Jason Blum) re-edited the feature for its Sundance debut. A number of DVDs were sent out to any potentially interested party and one managed to catch the attention of Dreamworks execs Stacey Snider and Adam Goodman, who brought the film to Steven Spielberg's notice. The studio quickly cut a deal with Peli, on the proviso that he re-shoot the picture with an increased budget and higher production values. He agreed, on the condition that he could screen his original version for an audience first. When people walked out not long into the screening, Goodman figured they'd backed a failure. However, when he realized that the people had left due to being frightened by what they'd seen, his opinion changed. The remake idea was scrapped and the studio quickly moved to purchase the domestic rights to distribute (via their deal with Paramount) and the international rights to any sequels. Peli then re-edited the film, and altered the ending from the one seen at Screamfest. But, due to ongoing talks between Paramount and Dreamworks regarding their partnership, all of the latter's productions were delayed for the foreseeable future. Only when Adam Goodman became head of Paramount in summer 2009 did Paranormal Activity gain a release date.

In the September of 2009, Paranormal Activity received a 13 location roll-out, with the director urging people who wanted to see the feature to lobby their local theatres via the Eventful website (according to sources, this marked the first time a major motion picture was virally marketed in this way). Expansion to 33 locations came a week later and saw a large number of sell-out screenings resulting in a stunning $532K return. From that point, things snowballed to a practically unheard of degree. In its third weekend (at just 160 locations) it made a staggering $7.9M, followed a week later with further expansion and a $19M weekend total. Paranormal Activity was a smash hit - almost everyone wanted to see it and the 82% positive review score managed to convince many of those that didn't, to take a chance on it. All told, the first film in the series made $107M domestically (a series best, new release aside) with a further $85M abroad. With the initial layout and huge return, Paranormal Activity became one of the most profitable films ever released. It didn't take long for a sequel to be greenlit, with an October 2010 release date set. Peli would hand over directing reigns to Tod Williams due to beginning work on the still as yet unreleased Area 51Paranormal Activity 2 saw a budget increase (to $3M), but continued to use the found footage device and a largely unknown cast. Events in the sequel ran concurrently with its predecessor and featured Katie, her sister Kristi and her family, including her young son, Hunter.

The studio did away with the limited roll-out this time around, opting to put Paranormal Activity 2into 3,200+ theatres straight off the bat. Comparisons are therefore difficult to make with the first film's box office performance, but the sequel opened strong, making $40M over its first three days. By the end of its thirteen week run, PA2 had grossed almost $85M in North America, with a further $92M overseas. What was interesting in terms of box office for this sequel was the speed of the drop off in takings. That first weekend saw the film make almost half of its entire box office total, and was witness to large drops in the next six weekends. While the series was attempting something different, it had fallen back to acting like a typical (but very successful) horror feature. All that side, the studio had a $177M global hit from a budget of only $3M. Around the same time a different sequel, Paranormal Activity: Tokyo Nights, was produced in Japan. While it bears little in common with its US counterpart, it was still a success in its native homeland.

For Paranormal Activity 3, Oren Peli recruited Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost to direct, the duo having previously seen some success with their documentary-style picture, Catfish. Perhaps sensing that they couldn't use the same story for a third time, this second sequel was set primarily in 1988 and would feature Katie and Kristi as young girls, documenting their first encounters with the spirit that would return to haunt them later in life. Paranormal Activity 3 was received slightly better by critics than part 2 (62% versus 59%) and would go on to become the best opener of the series so far. With $52.6M made over the first three days (including $8M from midnight sneak peaks) it broke the October weekend record, something that not even Liam Neeson and Taken 2 could smash a few weekends ago. PA3 became the second picture of the series to make more than $100M in both North America and overseas (It finished up with $104M domestically and $101M internationally). The budget was again only slightly increased, this time to $5M so this was yet another exceptionally profitable picture for all concerned. At the time of writing, the series taken as a whole, has made $577M, from a combined budget of just over $8M. Even with marketing and film print costs factored in, the Paranormal Activity series is one of the most profitable in cinematic history. In January 2012, Paramount made the obvious announcement that a fourth Paranormal Activity picture was in the works. Little information other than a release date (October 19th 2012) was forthcoming, though it did emerge that Katie Featherston would be reprising her role as Katie (who had vanished at the end of the second film and had only a minor role in the third). Also returning would be directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, with Oren Peli producing once again. Due to the low budget nature of the movies and the tight shooting schedule, filming didn't actually begin until the end of June, with the first teaser showing up attached to the August release, Total Recall

The plot this time around centers on Katie, and Kristi's abducted son, Hunter (taken by Katie at the close of PA2 and now renamed Robbie) and is set a few years after the events of the second film. It also features a new group of people including Alice, her mother, brother Wyatt and Alice's boyfriend, Alex. When Katie and Robbie move into the neighborhood  strange thing begin to occur in Alice's family home. After Katie has to go to the hospital, Alice's mother takes in Robbie which triggers an escalation in the supernatural events. While budget details weren't available at the time of writing, it's unlikely this new film cost much more to produce than its predecessor. Even if Paranormal Activity 4 doesn't break any records this weekend, it will still end up as another incredibly profitable venture, though the well received Sinister, which opened to $18M last weekend (and shares a producer with PA4) may prove to be a thorn in its side. One further stumbling block could be the growing audience apathy to the found footage genre - there have already been nine pictures that utilize the device released in 2012 (another, Barry Levinson's The Bay, is due November). But with work already commencing on a Latino-themed spin off, and a fifth film an almost foregone conclusion, one assumes we haven't seen the last of Peli and his found footage pictures. Paranormal Activity 4 opens in over 3,000 theatres this weekend. 

Our only other wide release this frame is Alex Cross, a film based on the popular character created by author James Patterson. Cross has appeared in more than fifteen books and was previously portrayed on the screen by Morgan Freeman, first in 1997's Kiss The Girls and again in 2001's Along Came A Spider. Talk of a reboot began in 2010 with the announcement that Rob Cohen would direct Idris Elba in an adaptation of Patterson's 12th novel, Cross. At that point the picture was titled I, Alex Cross, but by early 2011 Elba had left the project to be replaced by the one-man media empire Tyler Perry. Perry would be stepping out of his comfort zone, with the film marking the first time he had not been involved in the creation of a picture in which he would star. He'd be joined by Ed Burns, playing Cross' partner Tommy Kane, and Lost's Matthew Fox as Michael 'The Butcher' Sullivan. Fox undertook an extensive training programme to build up muscle and reduce his body fat to virtually nil to portray the former military operative turned cage fighter (and sadistic killer). This marks director Rob Cohen's first film since 2008's The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. He, along with Vin Diesel, had originally been set to return to the XXX franchise this year, but the proposed sequel didn't come to fruition and the star opted to resurrect his Riddick character instead. With a $40M budget in place, shooting on the now renamed Alex Cross took place in September and October of 2011, the picture counting Cleveland and Detroit among its locations. The story would see Cross coming up against 'The Butcher', whose training and knowledge of police procedure allows him to keep one step ahead of the authorities. Drawn into a deadly game, Cross must risk everything to apprehend the killer who appears to predict and counter his every move. The first trailer debuted in June, with its content (brutal torture and murder) seemingly at odds with its PG-13 rating. While the picture opens against only one other new release, last weekend's ArgoSinister and the three-week old Taken 2 will all offer it various levels of competition. Summit might find its chances at a new franchise scuppered before they've barely got going, especially if the poor early word on the project is to be believed.

Finally this weekend is limited release The Sessions, a drama based on the life of Mark O'Brien, a man paralysed from the neck down by Polio, who hires a surrogate in order to lose his virginity. John Hawkes plays O'Brien, while Helen Hunt is Cheryl Cohen-Greene, a professional sex surrogate. The picture was directed by Ben Lewin, a polio survivor himself, and made its debut at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival (known as The Surrogate at that point). After its premiere, star John Hawkes received two standing ovations, with critics full of praise for the film and his performance. It would go on to win the Audience Award and the Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting at the festival.The Sessions was quickly snapped up by Fox Searchlight for $6M and set for limited release this weekend. It will debut at four theatres.

John Gosling

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