Every few years, we seem to decide that the found-footage genre is dead and every few years, it continues to surprise us with its resilience. The phenomenon that began with The Blair Witch Project back in 1999 has had its various ups and downs in the past decade or so, but it keeps on keeping on, spurred by the occasional great movie (the hidden gem that is The Conspiracy) and devalued by frequent cash-ins (The Devil Inside, anyone?). But it's not going anywhere. After all, genre legends like Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft used to write stories in the form of "discovered" journals and documents, proof that this seemingly young genre isn't actually young at all.
Found footage may be wounded, chronically sick, even, but it's not dying. It's here to stay. However, it certainly could use a little maintenance. Inspired by the opening of The Last Exorcism Part II (which, to be fair, seems to have abandoned the found-footage nature of the first film altogether), it's time to lay down some rules for the found-footage genre -- if you want to make one, you've got follow this five steps.
Figure Out How Many Cameras You Have and Stick to It
Considering that this is a genre based entirely on the idea that the film you're watching was shot by the (probably now deceased) characters on-screen, you'd think that the first thing the filmmakers would figure out is how many cameras are involved and who is operating them. But many films seem to fail at this. Too many. Take the otherwise pretty terrific The Last Exorcism, for instance. Despite the fact that film clearly establishes a potential film crew of three people max (two of whom always tend to be on camera), the movie's editing frequently cheats, cutting into close-ups that could never be captured under the circumstances of the scene or switching between a half dozen different angles covering the same event. When shot properly, found-footage movies bring a great sense of reality to completely unreal premises -- cheating like this shatters that reality completely.
Why Are the Characters Even Filming This?
More than the number of cameras, this is a question that has plagued the found-footage genre for years. If the characters are facing mortal danger, why don't they just drop the camera and run? There's a pretty great gag in the early moments of REC 3: Genesis where the character shooting the footage tells the survivors of a horrible supernatural attack that he's filming because "the world has to see what happened here"... and someone else promptly knocks the camera out of his hand, signaling the film's shift from found footage to a traditional horror film. If a film is going to go the found-footage route, it needs some kind of foundation for why the characters will hold onto their cameras and, if not that, why the footage should exist.
The first Paranormal Activity film gets away with this because the stationary cameras positioned all over the house capture horrifying moments that would have otherwise made a character drop a camera in terror (although the later sequels go more handheld and suffer some pretty major "Drop the camera and run, you moron!" moments). A particularly smart found-footage movie will not only have a solid reason for the characters to keep filming, but actually have a reason for why you're viewing the footage of these doomed souls in the first place (see: The Conspiracy).
Don't Be Afraid to Experiment
Practically every found-footage movie coming out these days seems to be about demonic possession and it's starting to get old. The Paranormal Activity series, The Last Exorcism, The Devil Inside and countless other direct-to-DVD pieces of junk have wrung the concept dry. It's time to move on! There are countless other playgrounds to experiment in with found footage!
Look at the wonderful Norwegian film Trollhunter, which uses found footage to craft a genuinely fun adventure romp with just enough scares to please those who go to found footage exclusively looking for horror. If you want to get higher profile, look at Cloverfield, a found-footage take on the giant-monster movie that's so audacious and clever that you can easily forgive it's frequent breaking of the "Why Are the Characters Even Filming This?" rule. Festival favorite King Kelly took found footage in its sharpest left turn yet by telling a story about "YouTube generation" teens shot entirely on cell phone cameras. Heck, Chronicle is a found-footage superhero movie that actually works! It's time: let's separate the horror genre from found-footage genre. With so many possibilities out there, the two have no right to be seemingly linked at the waist.
Remember That You're Making an Actual Movie
Your found-footage movie may be a re-creation of a loose and amateurishly shot ragtag video, but have some self-respect and make sure it's a professionally made re-creation of a loose and amateurishly shot ragtag video! There is no reason for a found-footage movie to not function like an actual movie! All of usual rules apply: you need great characters, an interesting conflict and a beginning, a middle and an end (more on endings in a moment). Too many found-footage filmmakers misunderstand the slow, quietly intense pacing of Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project and spend the first half of their movies BS-ing around and doing absolutely nothing interesting, thinking that they're building suspense when all they're doing is wasting time.
At the same time, found-footage movies rarely take the time to build interesting characters, often mistaking "realistic" (i.e., unrealistic) improvisational chatter for character development. When a found-footage film actually takes the time to create three-dimensional characters and tell a proper story, the results can be astounding, with the faux-documentary style lending everything a sheen of true-to-life realism (see: Patrick Fabian's truly remarkable work in The Last Exorcism). Found footage has become the refuge for lazy filmmaking and lazy filmmakers who think that it's a style that will simply be easier and cheaper to make, not a creative choice. We can be better than that, people.
Do Yourself a Favor and Have an Ending
You know how virtually every found-footage movie ever ends with something horrible jumping out at and/or surrounding our cameraman before the image cuts to black? Yeah, that's old hat now. Let's think up a new way to end these things, okay? How about something that helps the audience not feel like they've been robbed of a third act.