Social media has gotten a lot of credit in the last year for the success and failure of films at the box office. In the case of the Paramount film Paranormal Activity, an active approach to social media was due to circumstance: the film had no marketing budget.

But by leveraging audience reaction to the film (and quiet periods on Twitter), Paramount was able to drum up more excitement for the film than would likely have been possible in a pre-social media world.

With a production budget of $10,000, Paranormal Activity may never have made it into American theaters. Amy Powelll, EVP of interactive marketing strategies and film production at Paramount Pictures, thought audiences would respond to the film, if they could see it. 

So Paramount set about getting audiences involved in promoting the film. They got horror fans in front of of the film and taped their reactions. The resulting videos went viral, and did much of the marketing work for the studio.

Speaking at CMSummit in New York, Powell explained:

“Our whole philosophy was to create a marketing experience that let people associate with the film in an organic way.”

To do that, they used non-traditional sources to spread their message. Everything was very low budget, by necessity. Says Powell:

“The website for the film had more users and more time spent than any website I’ve ever worked on. It was free.”

Paramount quoted horror movie fans for review blurbs rather than professional critics. They flooded college campuses with their messages rather than newspaper advertising. They also made sure that each piece of content had a social sharing
element. And most importantly, they were smart about when they shared information. Says Powell:

“Everyone wants to know how to trend on Twitter. Well, you have to be
strategic about when you’re releasing content.”

Twitter activity trails off late at night. But that is exactly when Paranormal Activity could most get into viewers’ psyche. If film viewers had trouble sleeping after seeing Paranormal Activity, that is when new info on the film went on social networks. Subsequently, Paranormal Activity was the longest trending topic on Twitter for any of Paramount’s films.

Paramount rollout strategy also took a queue from Tickle Me Elmo. Powell fell into the Elmo craze one Christmas looking for a present for her nephew. She actually ended up in a bidding war for the toy and realized:

“The only
reason I wanted it so bad was because I couldn’t have it.”

Similarly, Paranormal Activity’s release schedule used the premise of “building hype around scarcity.”

The studio started with a limited release at unusual places — 13 theaters on or near college campuses. They then let fans decide where the film would roll out next, through a site on Eventful where fans could “demand” a screening and prove their interest in seeing the film.

The result? Paranormal Activity had a much wider release than it would have otherwise. Powell insists the movie rollout wasn’t predetermined:

“The only science we used was listening to people online — and being humble enough to realize we should listen to them.”

They put the movie’s distribution strategy in the hands of the people. Eventually their demand took it nationwide.

Powell says the film never had a premiere “because no one thought it would work.” After the consumer generated marketing campaign, the studio held celebratory premiere parties for the areas that demanded the film most. They also allowed fans who had worked to promote the film to add their names to the film’s credits. About 150,000 of those names now appear at the end of the film.

The campaign also translated to box office success. Paranormal Activity had more viewers than Saw on that film’s opening weekend, and the sequel is much anticipated this fall.

Says Powell:

“The power of community is so much more impactful than the power of a few select people.”