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.
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.
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.