What most interests me about the soon-to-be released Evidence is not the movie itself. It will receive a standard select-theater run, while it’s true life will be on DVD, VOD, and cable, which feels about right given its subject matter and execution. Evidence tells the story of an investigative team tasked with solving the gruesome massacre of several people in a ghost town between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. They piece together the clues via video recorders left behind at the scene, which capture the lives of the characters up to and throughout the slayings. It is a classic in the found footage genre, and it’s the genre (and Evidence’s place in it) I find most worth writing about.
For those not in the know, a found footage movie is, generally, one where anything from video to voice to text recordings and messages are discovered and replayed during the course of the movie to piece together an incident or series of events. A story within a story oftentimes.
Found footage leapt onto the cinema scene in 1998 when The Blair Witch Project was released. It probably was not the first of its kind in cinema history, but it seemed like a fresh, verite-style approach to filmmaking and storytelling, and it remains the most successful found footage film ever. Shortly after Blair Witch, there were a few knock offs but then the genre seemed to fade. About ten years later, however, found footage came roaring back with the release of Cloverfield and the Paranormal Activity series.
Suddenly, the marketplace was flooded with found footage movies and scripts. In an era when funds for film development were shrinking, found footage projects were all the rage. Their budgets were small, could be filmed anywhere, and cast with unknowns. Everyone wanted the next Paranormal Activity: a budget of $15,000 with box office receipts of over $100,000,000.
By 2012, the market was glutted. What once was fresh started to seem cliché. When you see yet another movie where the characters are running for their lives but somehow manage to keep filming their own demise it becomes tiresome.
Unfortunately for Evidence, it came toward the end of the found footage frenzy. I have not read the original screenplay and I don’t know much about any behind the scenes stories, but my feeling is that by 2012, when Evidence was in production, there was less enthusiasm for this kind of material. As a result, it feels like the film itself has little passion. It has an interesting hook and does a nice job putting a small, new spin on the genre, but it just seems stock. It’s no better or worse than other films of its kind that received large theatrical releases, but I think it ended up being a secondary market movie for a pretty good reason: by 2012-13 the appetite for found footage was all but gone, so rather than make a major theatrical and marketing push it got bumped down a notch on the exhibition ladder.
What’s more instructive to me is the splash these kinds of scripts can make for the writers. If you are a young screenwriter, pay attention to the careers of writers such as John Swetnam, who wrote Evidence. Much like Chris Sparling, who penned Buried (a contained thriller) and F Scott Frazier who scripted The Numbers Station (another contained thriller, with espionage elements) Swetnam was cleverly able to put a new twist on a hot trend to produce something agents wanted to read and producers wanted to buy.
These writers chose to work in genres (and scripted stories that could be made on short money) that had a robust marketplace and executed sexy concepts with very castable characters. In the scriptwriting game, nothing draws more heat than these factors. The story of the sales of these scripts and the resulting launch of the writers’ careers oftentimes feels more memorable than the actual movies they wrote.
What will be the next hot genre? Found footage had an incredible run but looks done for now (though that’s probably what people said in the early 2000s). Whatever the next trend may be, you can bet there are some smart, hungry writers who will be ready to pounce when the time comes.