It's official: Home movies are taking over the multiplexes. Last weekend, Project X, a high school party comedy told through the eyes and camcorders of its lusty protagonists, grossed an impressive $21 million. Produced by The Hangover's Todd Phillips, the R-rated bacchanal joined the superhero saga Chronicle and the thriller The Devil Inside to become the third ''found-footage'' film of 2012 to hit it big. The genre kick-started more than a decade ago by The Blair Witch Project is thriving.
The three new films all affect to be shot on shaky, handheld video cameras by their main characters and boast zero stars. The combined budget of the movies is only around $25 million or, in Hollywood units, nearly one Julia Roberts but together they have already taken in more than five times that. ''As the economics of our industry are being challenged, we're really enjoying the opportunity to try to do more with less,'' says Paramount Film Group president Adam Goodman. ''It's possible to make big, giant event movies but on smaller budgets.''
Why are audiences so drawn to films that look like they were shot by a dad at a bar mitzvah? In an age of blockbuster excess and sequelitis, they're refreshingly lo-fi, for one thing a sort of anti-3-D. Plus, it's an aesthetic audiences have been primed for. ''Shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation have helped a lot,'' says Phillips. ''So has reality TV. People are used to point-of-view storytelling now.'' The advent of YouTube also marked a sea change: Where the footage for Blair Witch had to actually be found, these films could have simply been uploaded.
The genre's renaissance can be traced to the J.J. Abrams-produced handheld monster mash Cloverfield, which grossed a tidy $80 million, but it took the $108 million smash that was 2009's Paranormal Activity for Hollywood execs to fire up their own efforts. ''I was actually surprised it took so long for this to catch on,'' says Paranormal director Oren Peli, who has since worked on other found-footage projects like the upcoming Area 51 and ABC's The River. ''I honestly think it can work for any type of film, if done right.''
If 3-D has taught us anything, it's that Hollywood has a toddler's mentality when it comes to new toys: Keep hitting until it breaks. Indeed, more found-footage films like horror omnibus V/H/S, Barry Levinson's eco-thriller The Bay, and Paranormal Activity 4 are on the horizon. Will Hollywood kill its new golden goose by demanding too many eggs? ''As for a studio inundation, yeah, it's going to happen,'' says Chronicle director Josh Trank. ''But just like with any movie, it's the story, not the genre, that's going to determine if it's any good.''