Wednesday, November 4, 2009


I finally saw Paranormal Activity last week and, much to my surprise, I was not as frightened as I thought I’d be.

Don’t get me wrong. There were scary moments, but it wasn’t The Exorcist or The Shining. Of course, at $15,000 we shouldn’t expect it to be.

In trying to figure out why, I decided it all comes down to “expectations”. It is amazing to me how much “expectations” have to do with our movie-watching experience.

To me, the “expectations” factor works in two ways. First, there are the “expectations” that we bring into the theater based upon genre. If we know a movie is a comedy, we expect to laugh. If it’s a thriller, we expect surprises and twists. Horror? We expect that we will be scared. From the screenwriter’s perspective, the trick is to give the audience what it “expects”, while at the same time delivering something different. No small task. And to a large extent, Paranormal Activity delivers in that regard.

The second way “expectations” come into play has more to do with word-of-mouth and how long after you hear about a film and when you see it. Have you ever heard about how great a film is and, for whatever reason, you don’t get to see it in its initial run? Later, on DVD or pay cable, you see it and feel let down. For reasons you can’t quite articulate, the film doesn’t live up to your - you guessed it - “expectations”. For me, my Paranormal Activity experience was a victim of this phenomenon. I had seen the trailers and heard all the buzz for weeks and expected that after seeing it I would need to sleep in the lobby of a busy hotel for several nights. Instead, I have nestled comfortably in my bed and not once have I seen a woman standing next to it, staring at me for three hours.

On the other side of that coin, there are those films that you hear aren’t so good, and so you skip them at the theater only to stumble onto them later and, much to your surprise, find them not to be so bad after all. How can that be? Again, “expectations”. If everyone says the movie sucks, you expect very little. Anything even remotely entertaining is greeted with positive vibes.

So what to make of all this? Nothing other than the fact that public opinion can shape what we think of a film, be it negative or positive. As a screenwriter, there is little you can do about that. The only way “expectations” can play a part in your writing is with respect to genre. In which case, give the audience what it expects, but in a way that hasn’t been done before. Much like Paranormal Activity. Then hope they make your film and that your audience goes to see it right away. Before those dreaded “expectations” can set in.

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