The Curse of the Found Footage Gimmick

Horror and Sci-fi films have used gimmicks to win audiences over since the days of William Castle’s vibrating theater seats and floating skeletons. A gimmicky film to me is a film that manipulates an audience’s emotions by using an outside force to alter their theatrical experience. The Blair Witch Project is credited by most as the first found footage film. I believe the overwhelming success of the film has hurt the genre it created because The Blair Witch Project is so gimmicky.

The Blair Witch Project is one of the most profitable films of all time because of its genius marketing campaign. They aired ads talking about people having to leave screenings because they were too scared or about audience members having to be hospitalized.  I remember listening to people argue if the film was real or not while leaving the theater on opening night.  I knew it wasn’t real, but I bought into the hype. I walked out of the theater with my chin up high because I survived watching the film. I was manipulated by the marketing team. 

The Blair Witch Project was prosperous because it was an experience. It started a wave of horror and sci-fi films that start with 89 minutes of people chasing shadows and interviewing “locals” to set up the lore of the monster, only to end with a one minute payoff shot of the monster killing or dragging away the last survivor. No, I’m wrong about that, the last survivor isn’t the character getting dragged away, it’s the camera, it’s the audience.

The problem with the success of The Blair Witch Project is that it was a gimmick. It’s not about telling a story, it’s about challenging the audience to continue to watch.  It did a fantastic job creating and holding tension, but does anyone remember any of the characters names?  I don’t. The main character of the film was the camera and in essence the audience.

After watching the film I felt like I just got out of a haunted house instead of movie theater. I wasn’t talking about how interesting the characters and plot were, I was celebrating the fact that I finished the film and didn’t close my eyes once. I beat the challenge of the filmmaker and I did it without screaming like the group of teenage girls sitting two rows above me.

Since The Blair Witch Project, filmmakers around the world have tried to mirror its profitable success and most have failed because they’re copying a gimmick. They are building another haunted house experience with a slightly different scare here and there. The amazing thing is that filmmakers are still trying to pass the footage off as being real. Audiences are not going to buy that a found footage movie is real like they did with The Blair Witch Project.

The Paranormal Activity series has been the first profitable found footage movies since The Blair Witch Project. They used a similar marketing campaign as The Blair Witch Project suggesting that finishing the movie is a challenge in itself because of how scary it is.  I think the last few films have seen a huge drop in box office revenue because they stopped focusing on the storyline and concentrated more on the making people jump in their seats. What studios and filmmakers need to realize is that characterization is essential to making a film truly scary.

The good news for the young genre is some filmmakers are finding ways to use the found footage format as a way to compliment the story and help immerse the audience into a character or scene.  They are developing deeper characters and using the format to make the audience feel closer to the characters.  Then when the characters are threatened the audience actually cares.

My favorite found footage films to hit the big screen in the last decade are Chronicle and Trollhunter. Both films use the found footage format to enhance the story. I never questioned why the camera is still rolling in either of the films and both films spend time developing the characters.

Chronicle stands out because it’s a deep story about a troubled kid who wants attention. He hides behind his camera at school and home. Then he gets super powers and all the sudden he has the camera focused on himself. It’s a tragic character study that uses the found footage format to help drive the story.

Trollhunter amazed me the first time I saw it. I went in thinking I wasn’t going to see a troll until the last minute of the film because that is the norm in this genre. Then by the end of the first act, trolls are on the screen and not hidden by the shadows. This film goes deep into the lore of trolls and shows all of the different varieties of them. On top of that, the characters are interesting and funny.

I have a love/hate relationship with found footage films.  For every Chronicle or Trollhunter, there are fifty other films that just try to copy the gimmick and don’t try to put a new spin on the genre. The Blair Witch Project was an unforgettable experience, but it would have been even better if the film had deeper characters and a better payoff at the end. 

Other Worlds Austin’s first event is a screening of Dark Mountain, a found footage film that I think does a good job breaking clichés. Its lore is based on an actual true story, Jacob Waltz and the Lost Dutchman Mine, and the film was shot on location at the Superstition Mountains of Arizona.  The characters are developed well and the found footage format immerses the audience into the story. Come to the event on July 30th and let us know your opinion on the Found Footage genre.


About the Screening

Join the OTHER WORLDS AUSTIN programming team at our very first event - a screening of the Horror/SciFi film DARK MOUNTAIN.  The film evening will feature a  Q&A with Director Tara Anaïse afterwards.  Founder and Director of Programming Bears Fonté programmed the World Premiere of DARK MOUNTAIN last year at the Austin Film Festival.  The film is making a tour around the country with festival and TUGG screenings.  Help the OWA team make sure the Austin screening happens by purchasing your tickets before July 23rd. If the film doesn't get the required number of seats sold, the screening won't happen, so let's make sure we can get this frightening found footage film back on the big screen one last time in ATX.

Follow this link to reserve your tickets:



Somewhere deep within Arizona’s Superstition Mountains lies the most famous lost gold mine in North American history—the Lost Dutchman Mine.  Its estimated worth is around 200 million dollars.  Since the turn of the twentieth century, thousands of people have scoured the mountains in search of it, hundreds have lost their lives in the process, but not a one has returned with an ounce of gold.  Legend has it the mine is cursed.                

In March of 2011, three Los Angeles filmmakers set out to find the mine and document their entire process.  They never made it out of the Superstitions.  Eight months later, their camera and cell phones were recovered along the western edge of LaBarge Canyon.  No sign of the filmmakers themselves has been found to date.  Dark Mountain is the chilling reconstruction of their last days.  Inspired by actual events.