Timur Bekmambetov is leaning in heavily on what he calls ScreenLife storytelling, a disruptive format which eschews traditional cameras for methods that visually drive the narrative through stories that unfold from the POV of smartphone and computer screens, where most of us now spend the bulk of our waking hours.
Microsoft and Bekmambetov’s Russia-based Bazelevs have 50 projects percolating in ScreenLife format. It just set a deal to establish a ScreenLife-platform based on Microsoft technologies and will create a joint laboratory for the production of films in Russia. Bazelevs will switch to the Microsoft Azure cloud to make the tools for creating ScreenLife content “as accessible as possible,” the companies said. One of the programs that will run on Microsoft technology is Clickorder, which allows for the recording of interactive videos. The companies will also create a joint R&D laboratory in which they intend to develop products and services using artificial intelligence and other technologies.
This follows the release of a third ScreenLife format project, Dead of Night, a 10-episode series on Snapchat that cleverly shows the mounting fear as a viral outbreak turns people into murderous zombies in Houston. It will be the first of numerous Studio Bazalevs short-form subjects Bekmambetov tells Deadline will include The Bible, filtering the story of creation through the array of apps and imagery one would see on their smartphones; there are other projects, most movies that include Cyrano de Bergerac and Romeo & Juliet; as well as an array of horror films and comedies. Bekmambetov’s obsession with ScreenLife as a storytelling platform has already paid dividends: the Universal/Blumhouse pic Unfriended was a huge hit that spawned a sequel. The original cost under $1 million and grossed $65 million. A second feature in the format, Searching, came out of Sundance as a sleeper that did even better financially. On an $880,000 budget, the film grossed $75 million worldwide.
Now, Bekmambetov — best known in directing circles for helming the inventive action blockbuster Wanted (Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman and James McAvoy starred) — has made a point of producing films that try disruptive storytelling techniques. Some, like the first-person POV Ilya Naishuller-directed action film Hardcore Henry, seemed a bit too frantic and unrelenting to become a breakout hit, though it still grossed $16 million on a $2 million budget. He firmly believes that ScreenLife storytelling is here to stay, and he has dedicated much of company to smoothing out the bumps. Bekmambetov told Deadline he first got the idea several years ago when he and a colleague had a storytelling session on Skype, and the other person forgot to un-share.
“For the next few minutes, we continued a business conversation, but I could see everything she was doing,” Bekmambetov said. “She was buying stuff, sending messages to her friends, during the conversation. Of course I told her I could see her and what she was doing on screen, but I realized it was like I was inside this other person. We do not hide things from our screens, it’s who we are. My mobile phone tells me I spend every day seven or eight hours in screen life. It means half the events in my life are happening online, telling someone I love you, making business and moral choices, it’s all happening online. I thought, there is no way to tell a story about today’s world without showing a computer screen. Because it is where we live today.”
When Bekmambetov took this revelation to studios and producers, they got caught up with the limitations, and felt it was a gimmick that might work in one movie, but certainly wouldn’t sustain a whole new genre of film.
“Five years ago I was trying to convince studios and other producers that we need to make movies about our screen lives, that it wasn’t a format as much as a reality that could be captured, that could make people feel something,” he said. “I told them all I had learned, and that with screen life, the only way to humanize this world is to tell stories about it, and make people feel something. Nobody believed it but then we made Unfriended, thanks to Donna Langley and Universal and Jason Blum. They really helped us release the first screen life movie and it became an event. I read it was one of the 20 most successful investments in a film in history. It was very cheap, and it made $65 million in box office and cost less than $1 million.”
Still, when Bekmambetov tried to enlist others to jump into ScreenLife storytelling, he was still met by mostly frosty stares.
“I was trying to convince people we should make more movies like that, because it’s how we live today and it’s very relatable for audiences, and producers said it would be gimmicky, and who would watch the same trick again? I kept trying to explain it wasn’t a trick,” he said. “Since then we’ve made seven movies. We have 50 projects in pipeline, all about how we live online, how we behave. There are different genres; I’m producing Romeo and Juliet for mobile phones, horror movies, comedies, the Cyrano de Bergerac story. It’s every aspect of our lives, interpreted from screen life. We just released Dead of Night on Snapchat, and I think it will break all the records though I cannot announce the numbers, but it’s millions and millions of people watching this web series. We’re producing a show for Vice and many other partners. I’m trying to teach people and share what I’ve learned making screen life films. While our movies like Searching aren’t winning the jury prizes, they are winning audience awards, because these films are what people want to see.”
I watched a sample of The Bible. While that book seems to beg for the old-style Cecil B. DeMille Ten Commandments treatment, this is a clever rendering of the Creation story, as filtered through the visuals to which smartphone users have grown accustomed. Dead of Night uses to a strong degree the limits of social media sharing and smartphone POVs to show an increasingly devastating zombie swarm. What isn’t shown because of the limited smartphone POV actually makes the narrative scarier as viewers fill in the gaps in real time, just as the protagonists do.
Asked how he will monetize the short film productions, Bekmambetov said those details are part of working out a new way of storytelling. “The platform is different, and evolving,” he said. “We released the first 10 episodes but now we can continue developing the property. We have an audience that is very important and significant and now we can take it and make movies and television shows. For me it’s not project by project business, I’m trying to explore this new language. To make movies without cameras, telling powerful stories by showing peoples’ screens. I understand it’s radical, more like a statement. But I’m not allowing myself to use cameras, to move faster and to learn how to tell stories better in ScreenLife. I must do this, because it’s so challenging to figure out how to tell stories without closeups, without Dolby, and cranes and Steadicams. How you can tell a story by following the mouse as it clicks and types words. It’s a new language and now we have a dozen filmmakers who’ve made screen life movies with us. Every one of them has their own style and sense. I just need more.”
As for Hardcore Henry, whose first-person POV was so frantic it seemed capable of invoking vertigo or at least inducing headaches?
“That was a different experiment in a different language,” he said. “The next movie by the same director will be more conservative, deeper and smarter. It’s very important for young filmmakers to invent something, and to play. It’s what keeps us young and brave. I understand this sounds provocative and more like a statement, but it’s a form of art. It has been like Picasso, trying to explain why he is making paintings some called stupid, and not doing more classical and traditional work. It’s about experimenting and learning and expressing yourself.
“I’m supporting any new filmmaker who has ideas here. Hardcore Henry was one of these, and so was Unfriended and Searching. There’s a movie called Profile, it was in Berlin, and that’s another version of the ScreenLife movie. I’m enjoying the attempt to make something new, and I’m doing it not as much for the audience as for myself.”