Home     Courses     Enroll     FAQ     About

Secrets to Success

The success of the film Paranormal Activity (2007) shows that it is still possible to make a low budget movie that can achieve theatrical distribution and propel the filmmaker to fame and fortune. It also demonstrates that despite home theaters and the growing problem of film piracy, audiences will still flock to the cinema if a movie is worth seeing and not just another remake or timeworn sequel.

This is great news for aspiring filmmakers, but don't run out to buy a DV camera just yet. Such success is rare in the film industry.

Low budget hits like She's Gotta Have It (Spike Lee, 1986), El Mariachi (Robert Rodriguez, 1992), The Blair Witch Project (1999), and a few others are but a fraction of the thousands of indie films that have been made since the infamous Ed Wood tried his hand at it in the 1950s. The majority of low budget movies simply go down in flames despite the personal fortunes and years of effort invested in them.

Rather than jump headlong into the fray, aspiring filmmakers are advised to first learn the art and craft of filmmaking, and then approach their productions in a realistic levelheaded way. The high burnout "guerilla" style of filmmaking and the dreamy film festival approach are not recommended if you intend to build a career. The best strategy to adopt is that of successful producers, discussed in our free sample lesson, The Secrets of Film Financing.

With that said, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity are two of those special films that defy the typical path to success. Specifically, they are self-financed, have an unknown cast, and had no distribution deal prior to production.

The Blair Witch Project grossed over $300,000,000 worldwide and Paranormal Activity is expected to break that record. The original production budget was $35,000 for The Blair Witch Project and a paltry $15,000 for Paranormal Activity.

Analysts like attribute the success of these low budget movies to their respective marketing campaigns. The truth is that marketing only influences the initial rollout of a film. After that, word of mouth takes over. So, clearly something else is going on here. What is it about these low budget horror movies that propelled them to the top of the heap, above most Hollywood productions?

The two films share certain common denominators for success, which are, in fact, present in all successful films, budget notwithstanding. It may surprise you, but these factors have nothing to do with marketing or production values or the myriad of technical issues that filmmakers get caught up in.

The secrets to success lie in the simple rules of good screen storytelling, which cannot be overemphasized. Many filmmakers seem to forget this or miss it entirely. Great acting, great directing, and great camerawork cannot compensate for a boring script. The old-time studio bosses may have been tyrants, but they had one thing right: "story is king."

Interestingly, Oren Peli, the writer/director of Paranormal Activity, had no film training prior to making the movie. Despite this, he had a strong sense of storytelling, no doubt honed in his profession as a video game designer.

Okay, so what are the factors that turn low budget productions into box office gold? Let's take a closer look.


One of the first things student screenwriters are taught (or should be taught) is that there are no new story ideas.  Every story concept has been used in one form or another. After all, storytelling has been a form of entertainment for thousands of years. The goal is to come up with a unique slant on a proven idea.

There are several ways to do this, which involve manipulation of genre, plot, and/or characters. Both Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project have unique slants, hooks, and twists, not only in the overall story concept but also in the beats along the way.  

Keep in mind that "unique" is relative to the time that a movie is made. What was unique a few years ago might be a cliché today.

In Psycho (1960), the main character is murdered halfway through the movie. That never happened before and it shocked the hell out of audiences. The movie was also the first "slasher flick." Remember The Sixth Sense (1999)? It turns out that the main character is a ghost, which the audience doesn't realize until the very end. Neither does he! Pretty cool.

That's your goal. Make it "cool" enough that one person tells the next. Again, word of mouth is still the primary way a movie becomes a hit. It was so strong for Paranormal Activity that audiences began requesting the film at their local theaters, prompting a broader release than planned.

In terms of a unique slant, The Blair Witch Project has a great backstory. So good, in fact, that it was copied countless times and soon became a cliché. That's what normally happens to a great slant--it becomes a cliché. Never use a story element that has reached the end of its life cycle.

Paranormal Activity has an equally intriguing backstory. It too has an interesting slant and it's very simple, to boot. Not much screen time is spent on it, but it sets up the main storyline nicely.

The creators of The Blair Witch Project were not afraid to let the screen go totally black, and did so for many seconds in several scenes. This was unheard of at the time and made audiences cringe with fear.

The idea of the characters setting up a video camera in Paranormal Activity a la Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) is a great hook for a ghost story. Okay, it was done in Poltergeist (1982) as well, but there is something really scary about the clock churning away in the lower right corner of the frame during Paranormal Activity (see the movie if you don't understand why). Now that's a cool slant on an old idea!

Are you starting to understand the concept? Not only must the overall story have a unique slant, but so should as many story beats as possible.

Plot Points

One of the killers of a good screen story is when plot points (aka story beats) flatten out in intensity. The second act is prone to this. The only thing worse is when plot points decrease in intensity--the death knoll for any film.

It's amazing how many Hollywood movies suffer from this and fall flat on their celluloid faces. The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, like the Energizer Bunny, keep on moving on. They keep audiences on the edge of their seats, or at least curious, from beginning to end.

Paranormal Activity is particularly good in this regard. Plot points are intriguing, carefully paced, and escalate from a simple creak in the rafters early on to a huge crescendo ending, which is quite shocking in its effect on audiences. Each story beat is more intense than the one before it.

The job was so well done that the movie's trailers feature audience reactions rather than actual footage from the movie! And isn't that the ultimate goal of any movie, to inspire an emotional reaction in the audience? The Blair Witch project had a similar effect during its run.

The Blair Witch Project may seem like old hat now, but at the time of its release it was fresh and unique. Audiences didn't know what to expect and were truly frightened. You had to see it during this period to appreciate the impact it had. Unfortunately, by the end of its initial run, word of mouth was so overblown that it couldn't possibly satisfy audience expectation.


In addition to a taut story, a film must have believable, well defined characters to drive it home. Both movies accomplish this, not only in the way the characters are written but also in their casting, which is equally important. While we are not talking Jack Nicholson caliber, the lead actors in both movies are attractive and charismatic, fitting their roles perfectly.

The male and female characters in both films do not have a classic romance, but their interpersonal storylines contain the conventions of a romance. Specifically, they care about each other but are at cross-purposes in terms of the main storyline. This adds considerably more conflict to the mix.

In The Blair Witch project, Heather wants to keep shooting the documentary, while Joshua wants to call it off. The roles are reversed in Paranormal Activity. Micah wants to continue investigating the entity, while Katie wants to stop. The instigating characters are motivated by ambition, while their partners are motivated by fear.

Despite the role reversal, the dynamics are the same in both movies, with the same results. It creates a lot of dramatic tension, particularly towards the end of the movie when the main storyline is climaxing. Acting abilities are sometimes pushed to the limit in both films, but the characters are so well-defined and likeable that this doesn't become a problem. 

The audience will become emotionally involved in a movie when they identify with the main characters in some way. Early in Paranormal Activity, humor is used to accomplish this. It also served the dual purpose of disarming the audience right before a frightening scene. While this technique is used less in The Blair Witch project, the characters' skill and determination to pull off the documentary make you care about them.

Notice how we keep coming back to the classic rules and conventions of good screen storytelling. Hopefully, this is a relief to you as there is nothing mystical or magical about making a movie audiences will want to see.

Horror movies have traditionally been a favorite with audiences and low budget filmmakers, providing a huge payoff for both when the film hits all the right marks. Comedies are also viable as we've seen with She Gotta Have It. There's no reason why the principles discussed here cannot be applied to low budget dramas and other popular genres as well.

Whether you intend to pitch your script to Hollywood or finance it yourself, we hope these pointers are helpful. As The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity demonstrate, success has less to do with the size of your budget than with the script itself.

In fact, success doesn't hinge on the popularity of actors, technical wizardry, or your personal passion. While all of these variables contribute, the real springboard is a solid script. This comment by Peli makes the point and pretty much sums up what we've discussed here:

"When I think about the movies that were most effective on me as a viewer I think of the original Haunting and the Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, the Sixth Sense...they are movies that rely on good story telling, good acting, good premise, good exposition." -Oren Peli

As simple as it may seem, there are basic rules and conventions that must be addressed in your screenplay for it to resonate with audiences. Otherwise, everything that follows is for naught.  -

Copyright © Film School Online!