Chronicle_foundfootage-224x157With Chronicle recently topping its opening weekend, the debut of The River on ABC, and various found footage concepts in development, it's no surprise many folks are asking - what's behind the popularity of found footage?  So I was particularly interested to read what screenwriter John Swetnam, who sold two found footage (FF) spec scripts in 2011, had to say on the question - while pondering the larger lessons that could be drawn from it.

First, if you're not already familiar with the film, here's the Chronicle trailer for reference:

Swetnam admits part of the reason the genre's popular in Hollywood is because the financials make sense:

JS:  I think studios and financiers would be stupid not to want a part of the FF business. It’s about risk/reward and with FF right now, there’s just a lot of upside. If I was using my own money, would I make one $10 million indie-dramedy or ten $1 million dollar FF horror films? I like money. I want more of it. So I go with option number two, and that’s the way studios think… and to be honest, can you blame them?"

Of course, the reward part of that equation comes from audiences actually going out to see the movies and liking them.  Swetnam attributes their appeal, in part, to the immersiveness of the genre:

JS:  You get to experience those scares in a more visceral and direct way. I used to love those choose your own adventure books, and FF has that sort of feeling at its core. It’s like 3D in that it’s another way to get the audience closer to your story; to immerse them in the world you’ve created.

Ultimately though, as with all movies -

JS: It always comes back to the story/concept and characters. I mean, any kid in the country can make a FF movie and that’s a good thing. But just because the technology allows anyone to make a movie doesn’t mean that the percentage of good movies will go up. Cause at the end of the day, whether or not it’s FF, if it sucks, it sucks. A handheld camera can’t hide suck.

Well put.

Now, these qualities - low budget, story immersiveness, strong concept/story - aren't exclusive to the found footage genre, but because of the genre's mechanics they work well in tandem within FF stories.  Can these qualities be translated to non-FF stories?  I think so, but with certain caveats.  Let's use the hypothetical indie-dramedy mentioned by Swetnam as an example, and assume we were trying to shoot a non-FF version of it (although I'd certainly find it interesting to watch a FF indie-dramedy).

Low Budget

The audience will often excuse the "rough" image and modest production value of a FF movie if it's an inherent part of the story, lending the footage an "authenticity" that allows the viewer to suspend disbelief.  This might be tough to pull off in a non-FF indie dramedy, but there are other ways a lot of FF movies keep their budgets down.  For example:

  • Keep your cast small - just look at Blair Witch's cast, it's a grand total of 10, including the minor characters.  Paranormal Activity shaved that number down to 8.  Small casts are not only cheaper, but they tend to make logistics easier over the long run - you're more likely to get two lead actors to commit to months worth of weekend shoots than six.
  • Minimal locations - ideally one.  It might be as small as an apartment, or as big as a forest, it's about the access you have to the location and how easy it is for you set up shop and shoot.
  • Own the grunge - Who knows, perhaps the low budget grunge could be used to your advantage.  Make it an inherent stylistic choice for the story being told, make it part of the film's overall aesthetic/theme/story just as it is for FF films - for example, think of how Dogme 95 turned what are common budgetary constraints into artistic statements.

Story Immersion

The immersive quality of FF movies is built into the concept - the cameraperson/P.O.V isn't trying to be invisible, but instead is a character within the story, often interacting and reacting to what's going on.  With our non-FF indie dramedy, I'd take a page from transmedia projects and start emphasizing all the different narrative strings that lead in and out of the movie.  Maybe it's original poetry written by the film's characters, or music by the character's band -- start building up every compelling aspect of the story world so that when audiences step into your movie, or step out of it, they can feel they are a part of a larger experience.

High Concept

Finally, most FF movies that have seen success (Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield) have been high concept - you only need to see a few seconds of the trailer to immediately understand the concept and its appeal (which also keeps the budget down since the concept helps sell the movie, sidestepping the need for expensive name actors).  In terms of our indie dramedy, I think this one is the toughest, and it's where "genre" films get a big leg up.

One approach may be to think of how found footage concepts play on that "would you watch this on YouTube?" question - they have an irresistible "click on me, you know you're curious" quality.  You can just see the YouTube titles for these movies: "Real life witch?" "Is there a demon in my house?" "Does this kid have telekinetic powers?".  Can you think of a YouTube video title that would make you want to click on a dramedy moment?  To me the first thing that comes to mind is that sub-genre of YouTube videos where some earnest would-be groom makes the big marriage proposal at a large public venue (sports arena, stadium, mall food court) and proposes to some girl - only to get shot down.  It's simultaneously touching, horrible, and hilarious, and I click on them every time.  Can you think of others?

These qualities aren't a surefire recipe for success or popularity, but taking them into account will surely help improve any story idea you're knocking around.

What other lessons/thoughts come to mind for you?  Let us know in the comments!

Link Screenrant Interview with John Swetnam

[via Go Into the Story]