Last week we learned that Platinum Dunes and Paramount Pictures’ new Friday the 13th is opening in theaters on March 13, 2015. F13 is by far my favorite horror franchise, so to say I’m a huge fan would be something of an understatement. A few months ago I hosted an 8 hour marathon for free just so I could see 400 fans of the series in one place and feel their collective excitement for it. Yet, for the first time in my life I’m not looking forward to a new Jason outing. Why? Because the rumors of a potential found footage angle continue to persist. And I’ll continue to be nervous as long as they do.
Let’s get something out of the way upfront – this isn’t some purist plea coming from an idealistic blogger with a heart of gold. I’ve worked in various facets of the entertainment business for years, and I’ve seen plenty of bad ideas work themselves into reality (along with some good ones). That’s not to say I’m some kind of veteran – I’m not. Plenty of my friends know way more about the way things work in this town than I do and most of my experience has been from the bottom of the totem pole. Still, I’ve been a fly on the wall in enough situations to be immensely grateful for the sense of context it gives me when parsing through movie news on a daily basis. Strangely enough, while I’m naturally a bit cynical about the business side of things, I think all of this actually makes me more sensitive to it. More forgiving of the process. I almost never get angry about stuff being bad because it’s a godd*mn miracle anything ever gets made, let alone made well.
So I’m certainly not angry that some of the brass at Paramount seem to want a found footage take. I totally get it. The Paranormal Activity movies are huge moneymakers for them. Even better? They’re low risk (with reported budgets usually in the $3M-$5M range). That means that even when one underperforms like PA4, it’s really only underperforming relative to the other entries – not the amount of money spent on it. There’s still a profit. Even stuff like The Devil Inside, which audiences hated, was able to pull off a handsome gross courtesy of good marketing and a spectacularly front-loaded opening weekend. The 2009 Friday The 13th reboot (which I loved)*, was made for a reported $19M. It also likely had a P&A marketing budget in or above that area. Still, with a worldwide theatrical gross of $91M (and what seems like a successful release on Blu-ray and other ancillary income sources), I’m betting they made some money (New Line in this case, not Paramount). But I can understand why the new studio would want a bit lower risk this time out.
There’s even more incentive to keep the budget down when you look at the Blumhouse model. With each film maxing out at around $3M (except for Insidious 2), I can understand why a lot of producers and studios feel like they are running out of excuses to spend any more money on these things (aside from paying the filmmakers – with P&A budgets that rival more expensive films I doubt there’s much backend to be had off of some of the lower grossing stuff at this level). But the thing is, I’m not lobbying for Paramount to spend more money than they’re already likely planning on spending. They want to keep the budget low? I get it. No problem. It’s not like the rest of the franchise was particularly expensive to make (even when adjusted for inflation the budgets for most of the sequels probably only nudge up against what I imagine they have earmarked for this one).
I’m also not a found footage hater. I actually dig a lot of it. I loved Paranormal Activity 3. I loved Chronicle. And I’m certainly not shilling for Brad when I say that I think some of the stuff in V/H/S/2 made for truly exciting horror filmmaking. Thanks to The Blair Witch Project, the format has been viable in horror for at least 14 years but the recent surge in product on the studio level is giving fans fatigue in regard to its feature length theatrical prospects. I just think the format works better in the hands of indie filmmakers pushing the envelope than it does on a studio sequel level.
It’s also the exact wrong idea for Friday The 13th. There’s a lot of speculation out there regarding just how the conceit will be implemented, but I’m leaving all of that at the door because I don’t want to muddle the issue. I don’t think any of it will work. One of the charms of F13 is the formula. The familiarity. Even the worst entries in the series at the very least serve as some kind of comfort food. For all of the sex and violence in these films, there’s something sweetly upbeat and innocent about them. We want to feel like we’re at Camp Crystal Lake with these kids, and this is one franchise where indulging the nostalgia of the fan base (not only for the original installments, but for the 80’s in general) isn’t such a bad thing. We want Friday The 13th to transport us to a simpler time. That’s not to say there isn’t room for modernization and invention, the best installments have actively upended some component of the formula (switching from Mrs. Voorhees to Jason in Part 2, going right to the cops in Jason Lives, making him a zombie in general, even going to space in Jason X) but still left enough elements of it intact for it to work.
Found footage would upend that completely. I mentioned above that we want to “feel like we’re at Camp Crystal Lake with these kids.” I don’t see how that gets properly pulled off using this aesthetic. Found footage can occasionally make the audience feel like they’re “there” with the characters, particularly in suspense sequences. But, just as often (if not moreso) it can work to distance the audience – to build another wall between them and the characters. Particularly when it comes to establishing characters and documenting “fun stuff.” The kind of characters we want in a F13 film are often relatable but sometimes teeter on the edge of douchiness by virtue of their age and the fact that they’re out to party and get laid. That’s fine. We want that. Most of the prior installments have done a fine job of balancing things out so they don’t all play as offputting (except for the ones who really deserve to die). But recontextualizing them within the found footage format means that they’re now fighting against how the audience has been trained to view partying teenagers in recent years – as total assholes.
Moreover, why throw out the production value the setting has to offer? Again, part of Friday The 13th means that we almost want to be out there with these characters until everybody starts dying. It’s nearly impossible to use the found footage conceit in a way that makes the environment alluring at all. Even with some ambition and genuine invention when it comes to pulling this off you might end up with a cool exercise, it just won’t feel like a F13 installment. Going this route also sets up an insurmountable array of opportunities to rob whomever plays Jason (I still hope it’s Mears) of their performance. Jason is an unstoppable killing machine but there’s a humor in his stillness and the dispassionate manner in which he dispatches his victims. I’m not sure how you capture that using POV – maybe here and there, but not with the consistency and visual language the fans want.
Again, I’m fine with the urge to go low budget and low risk. So believe me I’m not feigning ignorance when I ask, “is it really that hard to shoot a ‘real’ Friday The 13th film on a reduced budget?” I’m not sure what kind of numbers they have in mind, so let’s look to recent Paramount found footage history (something they didn’t acquire, but were involved in making) and use PA4 as an example. That film had a reported budget of $5M. Sure, there might be challenges associated with shooting a traditional movie for that amount of money, especially on location, but it can most certainly be done (the real mystery here is why PA4 cost so much). There’s a whole crop of young, inventive horror directors out there who are incredibly budget savvy and I imagine many of them would like a crack at making a “real” Friday The 13th.
I haven’t met a single fan of the franchise who doesn’t feel the same way. While it’s possible that whatever ends up as the found footage F13 could be a good movie under any other name, it won’t feel like an official entry to the degree the fan base needs it to. I actually think it has the potential to kill the franchise for a while (at the very least beyond Paramount’s five-year window on the rights). They might nail the opening weekend, but I don’t see a lot of fans walking away satisfied and wanting another one right away like I did in 2009. They might get new people in the door, but I don’t see them sticking around for another if the movie doesn’t work. I’m afraid if this version of Friday The 13th fails, the studio will think the franchise is stale when it might actually the found footage reaction that kills it.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s a version of this that works. But if the found footage angle happens I hope whoever’s behind it asks themselves the genre’s most oft-repeated question… “why are you filming this?”
*I’ve spoken to someone inside New Line regarding Shannon/Swift draft for the 2009 film’s sequel. They say it’s the movie the fans have been clamoring for. The ideal sequel. That it’s better than the 2009 film and would be cheap to shoot. Paramount has the rights. Maybe they should go ahead with that since they’ve already paid for it?