When the film Catfish premiered at the Sundance Film Festival two years ago you couldn't get people to stop raving about it. Nothing was known about this documentary from newbie filmmakers except that it tracked the relationship between a New York artist in his twenties and the little girl/aspiring painter who he was Facebook pals with. Eventually their online relationship blossomed into a strong friendship, while our NY artist (named Nev) began a separate online romance with the girl's older sister.
From there the film began to explore the true ups and downs of any online relationship, while we followed Nev (and his filmmaker friends, co-directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost) and their attempts to meet the real people behind their online identities in order to figure out, once and for all, whether they were one in the same.
The film was a big hit at Sundance, partly because it's a fascinating roller-coaster ride for audiences that don't expect it. Following its festival run, however, folks became skeptical as to what was real, and what (if anything) was staged. The themes within the documentary suddenly became the themes outside the documentary, which was sort of fitting in a way, but not all that flattering for the filmmakers, in terms of maintaining their artistic credibility.
Now, almost a year after Catfish premiered in theaters and on VOD to very little fanfare, reports from Variety and Bloody Disgusting indicate that Catfish filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost have come onboard to direct Paranormal Activity 3, which will apparently be a prequel that takes place in the 1980s. Hey, good for them, right? Two newbie directors make a film that causes a bit of a stir at Sundance, and it gets them a gig directing the next highly-anticipated sequel of a growing horror franchise. Sounds like the Hollywood dream coming true.
And it may be, for them, but it's also yet another reminder of a disturbing trend in Hollywood: The art of chasing the next big thing. In the past, we've seen Hollywood chasing a hot genre (comic book movies), characters (vampires, zombies), or a specific audience (tween lit adaptations), but now they're also chasing hot filmmakers. I don't have a problem with talented filmmakers getting recognition (and more money) from the Hollywood system, but I do take issue with it if those filmmakers haven't had a chance to mature yet.
Marc Webb's first feature was the festival hit 500 Days of Summer, and then Sony gave him the Spider-Man franchise. Duncan Jones attracted a nice fanbase after his quiet, moody sci-fi flick Moon debuted at Sundance, and Summit turned around and gave him more money for the more commercial Source Code. Sure these guys had experience directing commercials -- and, traditionally, many directors need to prove themselves in the Hollywood system before given a chance to do what they want on their own terms -- but part of me wishes these hot, buzzy up-and-coming directors would continue honing their craft making smaller films before selling out commercially.
As a fan of Catfish, I would've loved to see Schulman and Joost tackle another small, fascinating project. It's almost like they fought one round and were then advanced to the championship match. Stuffing them inside an already established franchise and asking them to fit the mold won't do anything to build their own brand awareness. And then where do they go after that? Do they direct Paranormal Activity 4? Do they become those guys? Will anyone remember them, or even care? If they go back to direct a smaller movie, will they now be known as the guys who directed Paranormal Activity 3 instead of the minds behind Catfish?
I've always respected filmmakers like Morgan Spurlock and Darren Aronofsky and Martin Scorsese (and there are countless others) who've somehow managed to continue making films that they want to make. Not only that, but each film is also an extension of their own personal brand they helped build by continually taking on projects that are infused with their style of filmmaking.
Obviously not everyone is ballsy enough to take those sort of chances and risks with their career, and it's hard to turn away a studio paycheck. I don't blame Schulman and Joost for taking on Paranormal Activity 3 ... I just wish they didn't have to.