Paramount Insurge’s niche: Cheap films that promote themselves

LOS ANGELES — The weekend before last, Paramount Insurge released the No. 1 movie in America. This past weekend it was shooting test footage of a talking dog.

Formed in the wake of 2009’s ultra-low-budget surprise hit “Paranormal Activity,” Insurge is an experimental label within movie giant Paramount Pictures that aims to make youth-oriented films developed outside the traditional Hollywood system on a fast schedule and at low cost.

Paramount is hardly the first studio to try to turn a surprise moneymaker into a regular business, but Insurge has had a particularly impressive run out of the gate. Its first movie, “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never,” a concert-documentary that went from concept to big screen in just six months, grossed almost $100 million worldwide. And “The Devil Inside,” a documentary-style horror film the studio paid $1 million to acquire, earned $34 million in its first weekend.

Among its projects in development is a big-screen adaptation of “Ultimate Dog Tease,” a YouTube hit — featuring a talking dog named Clark — with more than 86 million views. Demonstrating just how far outside the mainstream Insurge looks for material, the label made a deal with the producer of “Dog Tease” and over the weekend conducted a short test to see whether the minute-long viral video can be turned into a feature film.

“The plan for Insurge is never to have a business plan because it’s an incubator and is always evolving,” said Paramount Film Group President Adam Goodman, who oversees the unit run by Insurge President Amy Powell. “Hopefully we’ll be so nimble that we can stay ahead of whatever trends are out there as opposed to being reactive.”

Powell, who also serves as Paramount’s president of interactive marketing, says her goal is to pick movies that take advantage of social networks to become must-see phenomena — especially for moviegoers who rush out on opening weekend.

“You want movies that are going to be able to find an audience who are so excited they’ll be sharing it with each other online and then lining up to see it at 1 a.m.,” she explained.

Although Insurge has yet to experience failure, many cheaply made films come and go from theaters without drawing much of an audience, even if they’re backed by a big studio. Sony Pictures in 2010 put out the micro-budgeted comedy “The Virginity Hit,” produced by Will Ferrell, and took in just $637,000 at the box office.

Powell has only two employees officially working for Insurge: a “creative executive” who searches for material and develops projects, and an assistant. But Goodman says he and Powell are trying to create a “little think tank” rather than a self-contained unit. “We open Insurge meetings up to assistants or whoever has the free time to come,” he said.

The idea to make a Bieber movie came from such a meeting, but “Devil Inside” took a more traditional path. Shot by a group of independent filmmakers for about $800,000, it came to the attention of Lorenzo di Bonaventura, a veteran producer and former production executive who worked on the “Transformers” films.

As part of Di Bonaventura’s deal to show all his projects first to Paramount, “Devil Inside” was screened for executives and a group of invited horror fans at the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood last February. A week later, 45 minutes before a screening open to other studios, Paramount decided to buy the movie for $1 million plus a cut of the profits.

“Our last movie was at Disney and we only saw the top executives there once in passing,” writer-director William Brent Bell said, contrasting his experiences on “Devil Inside” and 2006’s “Stay Alive.” “We must have had a hundred meetings with the team at Paramount, and Adam (Goodman) spent hours with us in the editing room.”

Goodman also authorized the filmmakers to go back to Romania, where the movie was filmed, to shoot additional footage for a few hundred thousand dollars. Many of the new images were used in advertisements, which kicked off with a trailer accompanying the release of “Paranormal Activity 3” and accelerated on Christmas Eve with an explicit “red band” trailer released online.

Paramount’s marketing department even held a December screening at a church in Pasadena.

“It really heightened the experience, so we filmed the audience’s reactions and used them in ads on air and online,” said the studio’s chief marketing officer, Josh Greenstein.

The film was promoted with television ads on cable programs such as “The Walking Dead” at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, but it generated most of its heat online. Although traditional pre-release surveys indicated the movie would open to about $15 million, it was regularly one of the most talked-about topics on Twitter from Christmas until it opened Jan. 6.

With the surprise success of “Devil Inside,” Insurge executives will soon decide whether to use sequel rights that came with the acquisition to try to build a horror franchise, as Paramount did with “Paranormal Activity.”

They’ll also be busy figuring out a release strategy for “The Loved Ones,” an Australian horror movie that played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009 and was scooped up by Paramount Insurge late last year for less than $1 million.

“We were at a screening in Burbank and three girls left to vomit,” Powell said. “I knew we had to buy it.”

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