Found footage film making first came to mainstream attention with The Blair Witch Project in 1999, even if it wasn't technically the first film to do so. After that, despite the phenomenon that Blair Witch was, that type of low budget, shaky-cam type film making did not become commonplace in the industry at large until Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity hit screens worldwide. Paranormal Activity, with its $15,000 budget, made just under $200,000,000 worldwide. The world, both audiences and studios, took notice.
From there, it all began to snowball. Studios knew now that they could create films with a shoestring budget, and make oodles and oodles of cash; especially in horror. From there, we got some pretty great films like REC, Trollhunter, and Chronicle. But we also started to get some real stinkers, too, like The Devil Inside, Project X, and V/H/S. The film that started it all, Paranormal Activity, became a multimillion dollar franchise, with each one now costing about $5 million to make, which compared to most films that make as much money as they do, is still very, very cheap. (For perspective, the 2005 film Sahara had a budget of $160 million, and only made $120 million at the box office. That's $80 million less than Paranormal Activity made.)
All that being said, where did the found footage movement bring us? For awhile, it certainly seemed to be doing a lot more hurt than good, at least as far as the quality of the films is concerned. The Paranormal Activity films began to fluctuate wildly in quality, and seemingly every other horror movie now seems to try to replicate their style, despite that fact. This over saturation of found footage horror, in recent years, has finally begun to take its toll on moviegoers. The last two big releases in found footage horror, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (a spinoff from the main series) and Devil's Due, while still making back their budgets several times over, did not draw in the crowds like the same types of movies did before.
There have been lights in the darkness, though. Some filmmakers have decided to go different routes with found footage. Director Josh Trank's Chronicle for instance; Chronicle used found-footage to tell what was essentially a superhero/super villain origin story. The film, despite having very little buzz and marketing, was a surprise hit, and it's masterful mixture of lighthearted fun and tense drama captured audiences. It propelled actors like Dane DeHaan and Michael B. Jordan to full blown stardom. Even director Josh Trank is now directing the new Fantastic Four film.
A more recent film to be released, and one that is definitely worth checking out, is Afflicted. In a way, this film mixed elements of Chronicle and typical found footage horror into a brilliantly displayed package. It's not a film that will be playing in your local multiplex, but it's the kind of great film that will really blow up through VOD and word of mouth. It's one of the best films I've watched this year. It was written, directed, and acted in by the same two men, Derek Lee and Clif Prowse.
In the end, isn't that what found footage is all about? Independent filmmakers using the resources at hand to try to tell the stories they want to tell, without having to crowdfund or be at the mercy of the studio system? I think so. Anyone with a camera can make a found footage film, and that's a beautiful thing. And, with general audiences now being so open to this type of film, your tiny homemade movie might have a larger audience interested in seeing it than you might have ever dreamed. The question presented at the start of this article was "Is found footage harming the industry?" and I think we have found the answer. If we get just one Chronicle or Afflicted for every 5 Paranormal Activities, that's still a really great thing.