Film Fund-amentals: Metaphor from Outer Space

The YouTube movie is coming, sort of. Actually, the YouTube movie is already here, with the most recent proof coming in August. The impending release of District 9 by Neill Blomkamp is, in part, a tribute to the increasingly pivotal role played by online media access.

Blomkamp is a 3D Animator who has worked primarily in TV and advertising and was able to focus his striking, if gritty, sense of fantasy by directing two of the most expensive-looking short films (Yellow and Alive in Joburg) ever to hit the web. The surprisingly strong cult popularity of these two films caught the attention of Peter Jackson, who produced District 9, a feature-length extrapolation of Alive in Joburg. Truth be told, Jackson liked Blomkamp’s hard-edged vision in Alive in Joburg and wants to throw him into the pre-production grinder called Halo. District 9 is a modestly budgeted ($30 million) work designed to “establish” Blomkamp as a filmmaker.

Not that District 9 is likely to be a huge success. A pseudo-documentary that uses a science-fiction metaphor as a means of analyzing the legacy of apartheid in Blomkamp’s native South Africa is going to have a slight problem with an American audience that is more geographically challenged than the average beauty contestant. But the movie doesn’t have to do big. The budget and PR approach is similar to the Cloverfield model, with a reasonable shot (at the very least) of making around $80 million in US release (double that overseas). The mid-August release date will most likely be an advantage, since most of the summer’s mammoth productions will be resembling a debris field by then. District 9 may prove to be the closest thing to a surprise hit that the year currently has to offer.

And everybody saw it first on YouTube. Blomkamp found his perfect platform right next to dancing birds, ticked-off housewives in the middle of nasty divorces, amateur music videos, and phony UFO films. The YouTube madhouse bears proof to Ray Bradbury’s statement about the Internet (“It makes tyranny impossible and democracy unbearable.”). It is also one of the last screening rooms for short independent films, which in turn is a crucial space for young independent filmmakers.

Certainly it gives the filmmaker a chance to make the movie quick and cheap, get it available for viewing by the public while not having to take any crap from distributors. Of course, it also requires a truly fanatical belief that you can get any one to view the stuff. YouTube is loaded with enough amateurish garbage to wipe out every landfill in New Jersey. In fact, I’m pretty sure you can find videos about landfills in New Jersey (I just checked and yep, you sure can).

But between the cute kitty cats and right-wing political loons, a potential new approach to film is evolving. A French 3D animator has been trying to raise capital for a science fiction movie by posting CGI scenes from his script as a kind of portfolio. The result is a semi-narrative spread out in short sequences that can be viewed either in the suggested linear order or at the audience whim. The result is a bit like Independence Day as if directed by Chris Marker.

Some people are moving toward a type of cinema verite that has a bizarre resemblance to John Cassavetes (minus the strong acting and booze-fueled inspiration). Any day, Jean-Luc Godard will be on YouTube (presumably doing long experimental diatribes against YouTube — but he would do it on the system just to force the irony). If he had lived long enough, Fassbinder would have been a natural for the form (it would probably be called The 13 Bitter Minutes of Petra von Kant).

It is not simply that YouTube is an alternative distribution system. It is an alternative, period. In a sense, that was already demonstrated by Cloverfield, which took its Godzilla-movie-as-9/11-metaphor and packaged it for the online sensibility. District 9 is taking the old movie Alien Nation and reframing it as a PBS Frontline special in order to create a political metaphor.

Granted, there is no profit to be made working this way. At best, any current online media system is somewhere between a vanity press and a student film festival. Much like the student movie Electronic Labyrinth became the feature film THX 1138. It still took George Lucas a few more films before he became established, but I have heard that he made some sort of name for himself.

And I have a strange suspicion that Snowball (TM) the dancing Cockatoo may yet get his own TV show.

— Dennis Toth