The New York Film Academy welcomed Paramount Television President Amy Powell to its esteemed roster of Q&A guests this week. Director of the Q&A Series at NYFA Tova Laiter hosted the evening.
Powell began her career as an intern for Ted Turner. She went on to create the marketing campaign for Paranormal Activity and produce the 3D Justin Bieber film Never Say Never. Now, she’s the president of Paramount Television, the one who has brought 13 Reasons Why, Grease Live for Fox, and The Alienist to screens everywhere.
Based on a Caleb Carr novel of the same name, Paramount Television bought the rights for The Alienist 20 years ago. Yet when they acquired the rights, they were only in the filmmaking business, and the project proved too ambitious for a two-hour film.
“The Alienist was a perfect book for us to conceptualize for television,” Powell explained. “In fact, nine out of 10 of the shows we produce are based on literature.”
Books play a huge role in Powell’s life. Even with two kids, a full-time job, and all the globetrotting she does for her shows, she still reads two books a week. Recently she bought the right to the Margaret Atwood trilogy Madd Addam as well as George David-Roberts’ Shantaram, a book she’s obsessed over for years.
Laiter asked Powell why novels make such great television.
“Books create the roadmap for depth of character,” Powell began. “They create set pieces and story arcs that are robust in nature. The ability for a screenwriter to come into a world that a novelist has envisioned allows them to create a visual patina on top of the depth of character that already exists.”
Powell is an innovator. She created a marketing campaign for Paranormal Activity called “demand it.” At the time, Paranormal Activity was a small budget horror film. After its successful screening at Slamdance, the studio knew they had a potential hit on their hand.
The “demand it” strategy began with a website. Powell would call up movie bloggers from all across the country and send them screeners of the film, they would write a review, and the fans would get excited about the movie. Fans were then directed to a link where they could demand the movie come to their city.
Powell then personally called movie theaters and asked, “If we sell out your theater will you screen this film?” No one turns down free money. Once the theater agreed, local fans rushed to get their friends and families to buy a ticket so the theater would sell out.
The final touch to “demand it” was Powell’s; she arranged it so that the film only screened at midnight, making it feel more like a special event. The timing also meant that moviegoers left the theatre terrified at 1:30 a.m. — greeted not by the sun, but by pitch-black night. Fans leapt onto social media to tell everyone about the experience.
Paranormal Activity went on to make $107 million.
During the Q&A, one student wanted to know what Powell thought the future of television looked like, considering new tech like neural networks and quantum computing.
Powell answered, “The shared experience of enjoying the paranormal and the scare and the thrill of being in a packed audience, that community sense of fandom is going to come to an end.” Instead, Powell projects that the experience will be more personalized. Exactly how that will come to be is unknown, but she encouraged students to study and explore VR and AR storytelling formats.
The New York Film Academy would like to thank Powell for taking the time to speak with our students.
Be sure to watch the last episode of The Alienist on Monday 3/26, or 13 Reasons Why, originated by Selena Gomez; Maniac directed by Carrie Fukunaga and starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill; Catch 22 directed by and starring George Clooney; Jack Ryan starring John Krasinski; and Shooter produced by Mark Wahlberg and starring Ryan Phillippe and Omar Epps.