I wrote this for Boxoffice.com but due to a bit of confusion, there were two Fourth Kind pieces, and the other one was already up before they figured it out. Since it's still a perfectly good piece, I figure I'll run it here instead.
In late September, the long-delayed independent horror film Paranormal Activity opened in 12 theaters with a low level of buzz among genre fans. Now, in the final days before Halloween weekend, the film is riding a massive wave of fan-generated hype that's earned the $15,000 film $65.1 million in the US so far and helped it shut out the long-standing Saw series at the box office last weekend. This week, Paramount announced that international releases are currently on the horizon, and extremely tentative plans for a sequel are being kicked around the studio.
However, at Universal, it's not the film's demonic possession plot that's sending chills down people's spines, it's the striking similarities between Activity and their upcoming thriller The Fourth Kind, which opens on November 5th. Both films play with the implication that the events depicted in the movies are either real or based on real events, both dabble in the characters' disbelief before building to some seriously scary phenomena (although Fourth Kind's creeps are aliens rather than demons), and it's possible that both even contain at least a little low-quality digital-camera tripod footage (a few chunks show up in The Fourth Kind's trailer, but it's unclear if it's actually in the movie).
It's also probably déjà vu for writer/director Olatunde Osunsanmi, whose 2005 feature directorial debut WIthIN (aka The Cavern) bears more than a few passing similarities to Neil Marshall's The Descent, which was making a stir in UK theaters just over a month before Osunsanmi's cave horror premiered in Los Angeles. In both cases, his competition was a similarly untested director, leaving Universal with very few marketing hooks to hang their hat on that Paranormal Activity hasn't already laid claim to. "I think The Fourth Kind marketing is top notch and they're selling the movie quite well, [but] now the audience will see right through their gimmick," says Bloody-Disgusting's Brad Miska (aka Mr. Disgusting). "[And] The Box also opens that weekend, which I expect to take a small piece of the cake."
Then again, despite movie star Milla Jovovich in the lead role, The Fourth Kind doesn't look like the kind of epic undertaking that would break Universal or producer Gold Circle's bank; even a flop could probably be counted on to earn $5 million on opening weekend and make the rest back in home video sales and rentals. However, Universal has struggled since the beginning of summer, releasing a string of box-office disappointments that, on paper, probably read like surefire blockbusters, including the Adam Sandler/Judd Apatow collaboration Funny People and the Borat follow-up Bruno. Given that Universal had a pretty good spring (bolstered by the hit reboot Fast & Furious) and started off fall on the right foot (thanks to their stake in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds), the studio is no doubt hoping for at least an even theatrical return on The Fourth Kind to make their overall 2009 performance sound merely disappointing rather than lackluster.
What that actual magic number is remains a mystery. On IMDb, The Fourth Kind's production budget isn't listed -- perhaps a PR move on Universal's part -- but the film is being heavily advertised on The Discovery Channel between various ghost hunting and alien abduction programs, so it's clear that the studio has already sunk some money into the film. Had they not already pulled the trigger, it might not be a stretch to think Universal would have considered moving the film to January, where the extremely similar White Noise (based on the real-life phenomenon of E.V.P.) did very well back in 2005, racking up $55.8 million against a $10 million budget, and where the studio successfully released the $16 million PG-13 horror The Unborn earlier this year, to tune of $42.6 million.
Meanwhile, the Paranormal Activity hype train rolls on. Ain't It Cool News founder Harry Knowles Twitters a rumor that a 17-year-old girl had a heart attack at an Activity screening in Lowell, Massachussets, while Universal remains trapped between a rock and a hard place, unable to make a move. Even if Paranormal's box office peters out after Halloween, Universal can only hope that audiences are still looking to be scared. Miska is optimistic. "Fans of Paranormal will probably hate Fourth Kind, while Paranormal haters will find what they're looking for in Fourth Kind," he says. "Our readers are even sick of hearing about it. All of the people who have already seen Paranormal are excited for Fourth Kind. I almost think it's helped them. I'm sure Universal is pissed, but I think they should be thanking the Gods of movies."