The Blair Witch Project (1999) gave young filmmakers the blueprint for making a successful low-budget film. This blueprint has gifted us quality films like Project X (2012) and Chronicle (2012), but it has also given us one hundred and one variations of Paranormal Activity. The found-footage format (format, not genre) works best when a writer is given the space and time for character interactions and dialogue, even if they’re seemingly mundane.
Blair Witch works so well because our three main characters have at least ten different “regular conversations” before anything supernatural actually occurs. The audience begins to believe that these are actual clips of behind-the-scenes footage, that’s what makes the pay off worth it.
My two positive examples, Project X and Chronicle, belong in separate genres (party and superhero, respectively) but they both follow teenagers. Teenage conversations are fascinating to moviegoers, especially teenagers themselves. Dazed and Confused (1993) is a great example of monotonous conversation revealing a character and helping even the smallest plot point mean so much more, because the audience actually gives a shit.
In today’s big-money film business, a studio sees every minute on the screen in dollars and cents. The Paranormal Activity people thought that every “baby-cam” or “nanny-cam” shot should have a jump scare. Otherwise, “the audience would get bored.” Smart audiences are smarter than that. No matter the format or genre, smart audiences can see right through a bad story, no matter how many jump scares you throw in there.