Let’s talk about a film called Cannibal Holocaust.
The gory 1980 Italian horror film was the first narrative feature to imitate a documentary style in order to market itself as “real.” We now know the technique as “found footage,” and it’s become a genre in its own right, but Cannibal Holocaust was revolutionary to a fault. It was made in a time when film production could maintain an air of mystery, before blog posts and set photos could reveal details months in advance of a film’s release. In fact, the technique was so successful that the filmmakers were brought to trial over it. Director Ruggero Deodato was charged with murder, under suspicion that the grisly murders depicted in the film had actually occurred (the actors were under contract to essentially go off the grid for a year after the release in order to maintain the illusion). And why shouldn’t they have suspected it? The film was presented as real, and without a precedent for this kind of fakery (and the film’s remote, foreign setting), it was only natural to assume that the marketing was completely honest.
Now let’s talk about a film called The Blair Witch Project.
Released in 1999, this non-gory horror film was the first to pick up the baton of Cannibal Holocaust and run with it. There were a small handful of found footage films released in the meantime (Man Bites Dog and The Last Broadcast being notable examples) but Blair Witch was the first since Cannibal Holocaust to use the same marketing strategy. It took a distinctly more modern approach, however, incorporating a unique marketing strategy involving the internet. This “viral” marketing introduced the film as the actual footage recorded by three filmmakers before they mysteriously went missing. Even the film’s actors were somewhat in the dark, having been told by the filmmakers that the Blair Witch was a real urban legend. The amateur production fed into the illusion, and the film was a massive success.
Much like 3D, found footage was invented as a gimmick to ostensibly create the illusion of reality. Shoddy production values form the basis of the technique, borrowing a bit from the Dogme-95 movement; both Cannibal Holocaust and Blair Witch use hand-held camerawork, shot on location, and used actors who were not stars at the time. Hand-in-hand with marketing that set up the films as compilations of real footage, these films crafted an ingenious cinematic gimmick. But like most gimmicks, it was best used with films that were designed for it from the ground up. In other words, stories that could really only be told through this technique, films whose best possible versions used the technique. Cannibal Holocaust doesn’t really meet this requirement, but Blair Witch certainly does. Found footage is integral to the horror of that film. It forces the audience into the same vulnerable position as the main characters, removing the safety that comes with watching a film that’s shot from a third-person perspective. Blair Witch’s sudden, ambiguous ending (which infuriates as many viewers as it delights) adds to this connection, not allowing audience members the satisfaction of knowing and seeing things that the characters never could.
Bizarrely, it took until the late 2000s for found footage to really take off (though, again, there were several found footage films after Blair Witch that were not nearly as successful) with the one-two punch of Cloverfield in 2008 and Paranormal Activity in 2009. Cloverfield’s special effects necessitated a large budget, meaning that even the film’s respectable box office take didn’t translate as a massive hit. Paranormal Activity,however, was made for a tiny amount of money. And much like Blair Witch before it, it made an insane amount of money. After this, studios finally got the picture. Since then, moviegoers have been hammered with a glut of found footage horror films (other genres to a much lesser extent) that all seem to miss the entire point of the style. Studios have very good reasons for liking them. They’re cheap to produce and there’s a history of them becoming very popular. The problem is that, by and large, these films don’t need found footage to tell their stories, and the conceit does nothing to improve the films. Consider Earth to Echo, the found footage sci-fi film released this week. The trailer is barely recognizable as found footage. For one thing, the improvement of consumer-grade cameras means that the “footage” looks remarkably like a normal film. It looks like what happens when an executive who’s never heard of found footage dictates the production of one. “Can’t we use better cameras? And why is everything so shaky?” Why is this a found footage film?
It’s not just that normal cameras look so good nowadays (how long before we get a 3D found footage film, do you think?); the ubiquitousness of viral marketing means that found footage is only useful now as a storytelling device. Every single major release has some form of viral marketing, which misses the entire point. Transformers: Age of Extinction doesn’t need viral marketing, but it had some. People can’t be tricked into thinking that Transformers is real, so what’s the point? Does it ground the film in reality as a way of heightening drama? When Cloverfield did it, the mystery surrounding the film meant that viral marketing was warranted. Pretending that big-budget franchise blockbusters are real isn’t going to sell more tickets. It’s a pointless, self-indulgent exercise.
Viral marketing for found footage films used to serve a purpose, that being to further the illusion of reality. The marketing for Blair Witch was so successful because it had a direct tie to the conceit of the film. They were tightly intertwined, symbiotic even. You couldn’t have one without the other. The “viral” has gone out of viral marketing, and it comes as a part of the general dilution of the most successful elements of Blair Witch and Cannibal Holocaust. At this point, neither viral marketing nor found footage are used purposefully, at least not in the majority of cases. They’re just used.
So, as I said, the only non-financial purpose for found footage is as a storytelling device. For example, Chronicle uses it as an extension of its main character’s loneliness and increasing detachment from the rest of humanity. Cloverfield uses it to ground its monster movie trappings in a human POV and to reference our cultural obsession with documentation (particularly regarding 9/11, which the film borrows an abundance of imagery from). Those films were designed with the found footage aesthetic in mind, and the use of found footage is strongly tied to overarching themes in both. Found footage is the reason to make these films. Earth to Echo has no good reason to use found footage, especially since its special effects budget surely negates any potential financial benefit. Found footage has become redundant.
“Well, Josh,” you say, “What’s the right way to make a found footage film?” Not that it matters to producers or studios, but it’s not exactly hard. Just ask yourself one simple question: Does found footage make this better? If the answer is no, don’t do it. Found footage is appealing because it’s cheap and easy. Rise above that. You can do better. Found footage is just like any other cinematic affectation; it should be used sparingly and only if it serves a purpose unto itself.
Where does it go from here, though? To be honest, probably not much further from where it is now. 3D is again a good comparison. After a while, it got to the point where it wasn’t worth mentioning that a film was in 3D at all, except for the few occasions when a film used it really effectively. We’re already pretty much at that point with found footage, and it’s not likely to change any time soon. The return-on-investment is simply too good for studios to pass up. There’s a possibility that studios will eventually realize that there’s no longer a financial benefit because of increasing budgets and the loss of uniqueness, and it’s never going to become the dominant cinematic form because big-budget blockbusters are always the more appealing option, but it’s probably going to be a permanent fixture in the cinematic landscape. There will always be diamonds in the rough. We just have to deal with the rough in order to get to them.