EXCLUSIVE: After a highly profitable collaboration with Bazalevs principal Timur Bekmambetov on the Screenlife film Unfriended ($1 million budget, $65 million worldwide gross), Universal and Bekmambetov have made a deal to partner on five more films shot in the format.
Screenlife is a disruptive form of storytelling that eschews traditional cameras for methods that visually drive the narrative through stories that unfold from the POV of smartphones and computer screens, where most of us now spent the bulk of our waking hours.
The relationship between studio and filmmaker began on Bekmambetov’s 2008 U.S. directorial debut, Wanted. After grossing $342M WW with stars James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman, that film long has been bruited about for a sequel, and Bekmambetov floated the idea of doing it in this new cinematic language he so believes in.
“Maybe do the sequel in Screenlife,” Bekmambetov told Deadline. “I cannot imagine an assassin in today’s world would run with a gun. Why? He will use drones, he will use computer technology, probably. You don’t need to bend bullets anymore. You need to bend ideas.”
Bekmambetov has certainly been doing that with Screenlife, a format that coincidentally has proven very conducive to a pandemic. While Hollywood productions have been shuttered since March, he has been producing five movies during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“During this crazy time, we have been living in Screenlife mode, and it is very organic to produce movies because they can be done while people are home in their safe place,” he told Deadline. “We are all in different cities, and we can record screens without meeting each other. It’s the nature of this language, this Screenlife format, to work like this.
“It is a very organic production process, and what we learned in the past few months is we are the only production technology allowing us to work during the restrictions,” he said. “My actor is in London and I can record his screen from Los Angeles, and he can act and communicate with another actor who is in Sydney, in front of the screen. I am recording their conversation and it’s the same as filming them. There is a story, a drama, love story and they can interact with each other and I record the interaction. It’s not only about faces, in Skype and Windows, or a conference system, it’s also the screen of the character. What I’ve learned is, it’s most important to see your character’s behavior. For example, you are typing something, like the opening shot of one movie where the guy is typing, searching Google for, ‘How to commit suicide.’ Through that one line, you know everything about him, because we never lie to our screens. We think the screens are part of our inner-hood. If you see my screen, you know exactly what I feel, what I do, what I’m dreaming about.
“We just decided, why do we need a camera? We need to record our screens,” he said. “We still need a production designer. Instead of a set, we’re building the virtual set. My desktop is different from yours; we’re all unique. In this case, production designer is shooting an event and creating the character’s world. The casting director could cast actors for me all in one day around the world. I wrote the script with my partner and co-writer, it was all done online, we shared screens and were all together. If I need a composer, I can Skype and develop ideas, not being in the same space. The editor is in a different city, and the visual effects company too, and we all work together, without being in the same space. It’s no longer about our lives in physical space, it’s about behavior and the stories in how we live and interact on screens. How we lose relationships and find new ones, in today’s world. I believe to observe and understand the human community today, you need to see the screen of the device of that person. We live on screens, we express ourselves on them and create relationships with them. If thieves are robbing banks, it’s not about masks and guns anymore, it’s about computer codes.”
Even though his other Screenlife hit Searching posted a $75M WW gross on an $880,000 budget for Screen Gems, Bekmambetov said this hasn’t been an easy sell to Hollywood. It was Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chairman Donna Langley who really got the potential.
Said Bekmambetov: “Just two months ago we were too abstract, and nobody could understand what I mean when I explain Screenlife, but after two months of isolation, we are all learning to live in a digital universe. We have a long relationship with Universal; I made Wanted with them, we had an interesting project in Russia called Black Lightning, the first Russian superhero movie. And then Unfriended. Donna was the first studio executive to say, ‘OK, we will take a risk and release this movie, which will bring a computer screen to the big screen in the theater.’ It was successful, with Donna and Jason Blum supporting us. And now, they are supporting me as I create my own film language.”
Said Langley: “Timur brings a fresh perspective and distinct voice to all his work. As the industry further shifts, he finds new ways to connect with audiences across the globe. Timur and the team at Bazelevs blend a unique brand of storytelling with technological creativity that makes these films feel current and relevant. We look forward to continued shared success as we expand our partnership.”
Bekmambetov told Deadline he has about 50 Screenlife projects in development, as his team progresses on R#J (a Gen Z adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) and a sequel to Searching. He said he and Universal haven’t focused on which five films will come under the deal.
“It’s a slate deal. I know; they don’t yet,” he said. “We agreed it will be five Screenlife movies in different genres, and of course I will discuss with them the cast and the directors, but they trust me. Because every Screenlife movie we’ve made was successful in different ways, some creatively and some commercially, and because it’s a new language. We know there will be romantic comedies, sci-fi, horror, fantasy and detective stories like Searching. These will be very relatable to audiences that absolutely understand this language, because it’s how we live.”
Bekmambetov is repped by WME.