Movie Story Types: Found Footage

July 26th, 2013 by

In Hollywood movie circles, there are genres like Horror or Science Fiction, cross genres like Action-Thriller or Drama-Comedy, and sub-genres like Romantic Comedy or Mystery Thriller.

Then there are story types, a shorthand way to describe a specific narrative conceit that is almost always tied directly to the movie’s central concept. They can be found in any genre, cross genre, or sub-genre.

In July for this series, we will explore over 20 of these movie story types, one each Monday through Friday. Knowledge about and awareness of these story types can be a boost not only to your understanding of film history and movie trends, but also as fodder for brainstorming new story concepts. Mix and match them. Invert them. Gender bend them. Genre bend them. Geo bend them.

Movie story types exist for a reason: Because they work. Hopefully this series will help you make them work for you.

Today: Found Footage. Per its Wikipedia page:

Found footage is a genre of filmmaking, especially horror, in which all or a substantial part of a film is presented as discovered film or video recordings, often left behind by missing or dead protagonists. The events onscreen are seen through the camera of one or more of the characters involved, who often speaks offscreen. Filming may be done by the actors themselves as they recite their lines, and shaky camerawork is often employed for realism.

Some examples of found footage movies:

Cannibal Holocaust (1980): A New York University professor returns from a rescue mission to the Amazon rainforest with the footage shot by a lost team of documentarians who were making a film about the area’s local cannibal tribes.

Man Bites Dog (1992): A camera crew follows a serial killer/thief around as he exercises his craft.

The Last Broadcast (1998): Bristling with equipment, two enthusiastic local access cable TV producers recruit an assistant and venture into a forest in search of the mythical and horrifying Jersey Devil.

The Blair Witch Project (1999): Three film students travel to Maryland to make a student film about a local urban legend: The Blair Witch.

Noroi: The Curse (2005): A documentary filmmaker explores seemingly unrelated paranormal incidents connected by the legend of an ancient demon called the “kagutaba.”

[Rec] (2007): “REC” turns on a young TV reporter and her cameraman who cover the night shift at the local fire station.

Diary of the Dead (2007): A group of young film students run into real-life zombies while filming a horror movie of their own.

Cloverfield (2008): Revolves around a monster attack in New York as told from the point of view of a small group of people.

Paranormal Activity (2009): After moving into a suburban home, a couple becomes increasingly disturbed by a nightly demonic presence.

The Last Exorcism (2010): A troubled evangelical minister agrees to let his last exorcism be filmed by a documentary crew.

Apollo 18 (2011): Decades-old found footage from NASA’s abandoned Apollo 18 mission, where two American astronauts were sent on a secret expedition, reveals the reason the U.S. has never returned to the moon.

If you visit the Wikipedia page linked above, you will be amazed to see how many found footage movies have been produced in the last decade. Why?

First the very idea of the central conceit — found footage — can translate into low budget filmmaking. If the audience is expecting to see raw footage, then filmmakers can embrace that and cut costs at the same time.

Second viewers seem to be drawn to found footage movies because they create a heightened sense of reality making the viewing experience that much more realistic and visceral.

Indeed Hollywood has seemed to swap out its obsession with contained thrillers in exchange for found footage movies. Witness these spec scripts that have sold in 2011: Evidence and Category Six, both by writer John Swetnam.

What other qualities and dynamics do you think are present in found footage movies? What other films of note belong in the list?

John Swetnam on found-footage movies

February 15th, 2012 by

Screenwriter John Swetnam sold two spec scripts in 2011, “Evidence” and “Category Six”, both of them “found footage” projects. ScreenRant did an interview with Swetnam about this particular sub-genre:

Screen Rant: Why are found footage movies so popular in Hollywood right now? Is it mostly related to their smaller budgets and stronger potential for a high return on investment?

John Swetnam: If you’re talking about the business of Hollywood, then yes, 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?

But the cool thing is that people really like these movies when they’re done right. They line up for midnight screenings. They tell their friends and plan viewing parties. They become a part of the process, like a volunteer street team. So you get the best of both worlds as far as I’m concerned. And that’s always been my dream: to make cool movies that people enjoy, while also making a lot of money. I know some people will think I’m a jerk for saying that, but it’s my truth and that’s just how I am. I love it when these movies make big box office. Fans love it. Studios love it. What’s not to love?

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The new action/drama film Chronicle is getting good reviews in part for the creative way that it’s using the found footage concept. Outside of horror films, what are some of the ways that writers and directors can be creative in the found footage genre?

I think FF is just in its beginning stages. With the advancement of technology and the Internet, this kind of storytelling is now a part of our culture and writers are experimenting with exciting ways to use it. For a lot of writers, it’s like this new toy that we’re getting to play with. It’s the Wild West and people are experimenting with cool new takes and ideas and I think there are gonna be some great movies that come out of it. I loved Chronicle and thought the FF was used brilliantly, really pushing the technique. It’s not Blair Witch anymore where people actually think this is real. They don’t. But they will suspend their disbelief and become part of the story like never before, so I think the potential is limitless.

But of course, when there’s a gold rush, a lot of people end up going broke and getting syphilis. So yes, a lot of the stuff I’m seeing is pure crap. But that’s how it always is. 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.

“A handheld camera can’t hid suck.” Awesome line! And true. It all comes down to the story concept, the story and the execution.

For more of the interview, go here. It’s a good read and since Swetnam is something of an expert in this area, if you’re interested in FF films, you’d be very wise to check it out.

For an interview I did with John last year, go here.

You can follow John on Twitter: @JohnSwetnam.

HT to @DFTVYP for the link.

UPDATE: You want found footage? I got your found footage! Rare snow leopards caught on camera in Bhutan!

Go here to make a donation to the World Wildlife Foundation.

Update: “Chronicle”

February 5th, 2012 by

So apparently there’s some sort of significant football game going on this weekend. And per conventional wisdom, the presence of said football game is supposed to squash the weekend box office. Someone didn’t tell that to one surprising key demographic. Per THR:

Fueled by younger moviegoers, who have been largely AWOL, 20th Century Fox’s high school superpower pic Chronicle and CBS Films’ horror-thriller The Woman in Black are doing far better than expected.

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For more than a year, movies have been skewing noticeably older, worrying the film business and contributing to diminished revenues. That trend reversed itself on Friday — 61 percent of those buying tickets for Chronicle were under the age of 25, while 57 percent of Woman in Black’s audience was under the age of 25.

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Fox only spent $12 million to produce Chronicle, about a group of high school friends who acquire superpowers and use them to make mischief until one of them begins using them for darker purposes. The film was direced by 25-year-old Josh Trank and stars Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan and Michael Kelly.

While I would very much like to discuss the question why young people flocked to see Chronice this weekend, I am distracted by the article as yet another example of the goddammed press mentioning the director and the actors, but neglecting to note the screenwriter.

HIS NAME IS MAX LANDIS!

Here is his IMDB page.

Here is his Twitter page [@Uptomyknees].

Here is his Wikipedia page.

Here is a photograph of Mr. Landis:

Dude’s script made the 2010 Black List, he has Hollywood DNA, and is one of the hottest scribes in town, so you’d think Mr. Landis would get a little respect from the press, but evidently it won’t be until the next millennium when members of the so-called ‘fourth estate’ find a cure for their persistent case of ‘screenwriter blindness.’

Moving on, here is the trailer for Chronicle:

As it turns out, the film did an estimated $22M its opening weekend, which means by next week at this time, it will probably be into profits [based on a $12M production budget].

Those of you who have not seen the movie may be interested to discover it’s yet another Found Footage film.

For some analysis about that narrative element and the overall movie, click through.

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Why found footage is here to stay

January 29th, 2012 by

Found footage found its way to this year’s Sundance Film Festival. From IndieWire:

No one would have guessed that, more than a decade after “The Blair Witch Project” broke box-office records to become one the highest grossing independent films of all time, audiences would still flock to found-footage flicks. From the ongoing success of the “Paranormal Activity” movies to the recent strong opening of “The Devil Inside” that caught many by surprise, one thing’s for sure — the style is here to stay.

“V/H/S,” a Sundance Midnight Madness entry premiering at Sundance Sunday, is one more in that vein. The buzzed-about film’s a collective horror effort featuring segments directed by Radio Silence, Adam Wingard, Glenn McQuaid, David Bruckner, Joe Swanberg and Ti West, much like the upcoming “The ABCs of Death.” To string all the parts together, “V/H/S” centers on a group of petty criminals hired to retrieve a rare piece of footage from a house filled with strange VHS tapes, which they must scan through individually.

One of the film’s producers is Brad Miska, founder of leading horror portal Bloody-Disgusting.com and entertainment management/production company The Collective. Over the last year, the Collective and Bloody Disgusting have been testing out a new marketing and distribution model for international horror films by partnering with AMC Theaters to acquire and distribute films from the festival circuit directly to theaters. Their most recent release together was the Sundance 2011 shocker “The Woman,” directed by Lucky McKee.

Some interview excerpts with Miska and why he thinks this sub-genre is here to stay:

You guys released controversial Sundance horror flick “The Woman” by partnering with AMC. Do you foresee a similar release pattern for this film?

We’re actually hoping to sell it to a big studio. We think that it’s perfect timing especially after “The Devil Inside”’s success. Found footage films — there’s kind of this whole debate over whether or not they’re going to last. They’re treating found footage as if it’s 3D – it’s not. And I’ll argue this to the death until I die. Found-footage films are the future if you do it right. The problem with a lot of found footage films is that they don’t tell the story with the camera in mind. They just go, “Oh I’ll make a vampire movie,” and they make the vampire movie with some dude holding a camera. Then when you step back and look at the movie you go, “Why the hell is that guy holding a camera? It makes absolutely no sense.” I think if you approach a found-footage movie the right way, you put them in organic situations where it’s clear why this person has a camera, why they’d be walking around with a camera. If done right, it works the same way that like “Jaws” works with the water. It creates immediate scares. And you can apply that to any genre, which is why it’s infinite — just figuring out the best way to implore cell phone usage or webcams or security cam footage without it coming off cheesy and dated.

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With that said, where do you see the future of horror going? It seemed to be on this torture porn trajectory, but that’s changed with the new found-footage thing that’s taken over the zeitgeist.

Yeah, I mean it changes every decade or so. Now that the economy has sort of tanked and everything’s been really shitty, no one wants to feel like shit when you go to see a movie. Found-footage movies scare you legitimately, but have a more fun feeling to them. You don’t walk out feeling sour. And I think it goes with the times.

In 2012, we’re shifting right now. Found-footage movies are just picking up steam. I think it’s got a good five years at least. I hope it stays around forever but I just don’t know how long until you’re out of ideas at some point. You think everything will be covered and then it’ll switch back to something else, like maybe it’ll be ’80s-type movies.

“I think it’s got a good five years at least.” Interesting. Contained thrillers seemed to have faded after a nice run of about 5 years or so. But maybe he’s right. If filmmakers approach the conceit right, providing viewers with a plausible reality as to why we’re watching a movie with found footage, there is something at work in how these type of movies can, as Miska suggests, create “immediate scares.”

What are your thoughts about found footage films?

For more of the interview, go here.

HT to Black List intern Chris for sourcing the link.

“The Devil Inside” and Found Footage movies

January 11th, 2012 by

This weekend saw a shocking box office success of The Devil Inside. Pre-release audience polling suggested the movie would hit $15M in opening weekend revenues, but instead the film raked in $34M. That sound you hear in Hollywood are heads exploding. The ROI on TDL, which cost $1M to produce, is in the same stratosphere like other uber-successful horror pics before it such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity.

LAT’s film folks Steve Zeitchik and Amy Kaufman wrote all about it yesterday:

“The Devil Inside” was a surprise hit at the box office this weekend — a micro-budget horror film with no stars and plenty of bad reviews, the film came out of nowhere to gross $33.7 million and become the third-highest January opening in Hollywood history.

But far from a novelty, “Devil Inside” is the first in a new wave of films that use the conceit of “found footage” — movies that blend fantastical plot lines with supposedly real video — due for release in the coming year. A found-footage high school comedy is on its way. So is a superhero tale, and more horror films.

In a time when expensive, effects-driven movies rule the roost, this inexpensive form of pseudo-verite is appealing both to Hollywood and, potentially, to filmgoers.

Ah, found footage movies. Where have we read about that before?

Oh, how about my post here looking at the sub-genre in the GITS Movie Story Type series.

Or here where we read and analyzed the found footage screenplay for Cloverfield.

Or here where I interviewed screenwriter John Swetnam who sold two found footage spec scripts last year: Evidence and Category Six.

So if you’ve been reading GITS, you are way ahead of the curve on the whole found footage front.

My question to you today is this: Why are found footage films so popular? More specifically, what about them appeals to you? There are lots of angles and theories about the subject, and I have plenty of my own ideas, but I’d like to hear from the GITS community to see if we can shed new light on the emergence in popularity of this sub-genre, and determine if it will continue to have legs after 2012, a year in which at least a half-dozen found footage films will be released.

For more of the LAT article, go here.

To see Amy Kaufman’s video report of the weekend’s box office results, focusing much of her analysis on The Devil Inside, you can go here.

Here is an article from TheWrap about the marketing of TDL.

Finally this funny rant between Matt Ryan and Matt Singer about their respective experiences watching TDL. An excerpt:

Mike: So here’s the question: Are demons stupid?

Matt: They are in this movie. But everyone in this movie is stupid. Like the priests, who explain how transference works and then can’t believe it when it happens. Or the doctor who lets them perform an illegal exorcism in his hospital right under his nose.
Mike: And are all demons homophobic, or is it just this one?

Matt: What did this demon do that was homophobic?

Mike: It used a homophobic slur. The same one that Brett Ratner used.

Matt: Ah, yes. Are you implying Brett Ratner might be possessed by a demon?

Mike: That would explain ‘Tower Heist.’

I haven’t seen TDL, but I must say it’s not often a movie gets an such low marks on Cinemascore [42% D or F], yet is such a resounding success at the box office.

Must be the found footage thing…

GITS Script Reading & Analysis: “Cloverfield” [Found Footage]

December 2nd, 2011 by

We recently completed Round 12 of our weekly GITS Script Reading & Analysis series:

#1: Gladiator (Action)

#2: Bridesmaids (Comedy)

#3: Good Will Hunting (Drama)

#4: The Silence of the Lambs (Thriller)

#5: Toy Story 3 (Family)

#6: Pan’s Labyrinth (Fantasy)

#7: Blade Runner (Science Fiction)

#8: The Thing (Horror)

#9: Shakespeare in Love (Romantic Comedy)

#10: Drag Me To Hell (Horror Comedy)

#11: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Charlie Kaufman)

#12: Panic Room (Action Thriller)

You may access all of the posts and comments per each script we analyze here.

Next on our list is Week 13 [December 5-9]: Cloverfield [2007-06-08] — Found Footage.

The last script for 2011: Buried [Contained Thriller] for December 12-16 [which you can download here].

NOTE: THIS SERIES AND THE USE OF SCRIPTS IS STRICTLY FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES!

Reading scripts is an essential part of screenwriting education, so I encourage you to read Cloverfield this weekend and join us on Monday when we start our analysis of the script.

The Next Crop of Found-Footage Movies

November 10th, 2011 by

From The Wire:

Now that Paranormal Activity 3 has broken box office records for October, Hollywood is green-lighting any thriller you can shake a handheld camera at.

The “found footage” horror movie is set to have a new lease on life, with a pipeline full of jump scares. Here is the next crop of “found footage” flicks you should get excited about.

Here are three of the many titles they surfaced:

The Bay

Synopsis: It’s being described as an eco-terror flick, and we’re excited to see what becomes of the movie formerly known as Isopods. “The quaint seaside town of Chesapeake Bay thrives on water it is the lifeblood of the community. When two biological researchers from France find a staggering level of toxicity in the water, they attempt to alert the mayor, but he refuses to create a panic in the docile town. As a result, a deadly plague is unleashed, turning the people of Chesapeake Bay into hosts for a mutant breed of parasites that take control of their minds, and eventually their bodies. A brutal and harrowing creature feature for the 21st century, The Bay chronicles the descent of a small town into absolute terror.”

Who: Director Barry Levinson, of Sphere and The Natural fame, is making this thriller with PA3 producer Blum, who said in the EW article that this was, “Definitely the most graphic horror movie I’ve ever been involved with.” Excellent!

Area 51

Synopsis: “Terror strikes when a group of reporters visit the secret base, Area 51.”

Who: This is Blum’s next producing project with original Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli, and it’s already been postponed several times. Due to obsessive secrecy, there’s hardly anything about this project other than the news that actor/writer Chris Denham was sent in for rewrites earlier this year, and rumors that Peli went back and did some more reshoots in 2011 as well. Blum told EW that they were “still tinkering with it,” which in producer-speak is near disaster. However, we’re eager for Peli to get back behind the camera again.

Evidence

Synopsis: “The movie begins with the police arriving at an abandoned gas station following a brutal massacre — with the only evidence at the crime scene the victims’ personal electronic devices, including a camcorder, flipcam and two cellphones. With nothing else to go on, a detective must analyze the bits of found footage to piece together the identity of the killer.”

Who: It’s being directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi of The Fourth Kind (which was admittedly not good, however you could argue there were some real scares tucked away in there). We’re not sure if this movie will be genre or not, but we love the idea of piecing together so many different jittery cameras into one film!

I should note that Evidence was a spec script by John Swetnam that sold in January of this year. The fact the transition from sale to production is so quick suggests a few things: It was a well-conceived and written script, and the filmmakers wanted to strike while the found-footage trend is hot. [By the way, Swetnam recently sold another found footage spec script Category Six. You can read an interview I did with John here.

The series I recently ran Movie Story Types included an entry about Found Footage movies, noting that it has seemingly supplanted Contained Thrillers… at least for the moment. Will it stay hot? That’s the gamble any screenwriter takes in writing a found footage project just now. Is the market saturated with them… or not?

For the rest of the Wired article, go here.

Movie Story Type: Found Footage

November 2nd, 2011 by

There are genres (e.g., Action, Comedy, Drama). Cross genres (e.g., Action-Thriller, Comedy-Science Fiction). Sub-genres (e.g., Romantic Comedy, Action Adventure). And then there are what we may call movie story types. In Hollywood development circles, people use them as shorthand. If you go here, you will see several that we’ve featured on GITS including Contained Thriller, Road Pictures, and The [Blank] From Hell.

There is significant value for a screenwriter to traffic in movie story types not the least of which is they can be hugely beneficial to the brainstorming process, everything from mix-and-match, genre-bending and gender-bending, switching Protagonists, and so on.

Today another in a continuing series of movie story types: Found Footage. (more…)