Why It’s an Alien Nation

Peter Jackson’s low-budget indie prod District 9 opened big — a $37M weekend, yet the sci-fi pic, about alien apartheid, had a negative cost of only $30M. It showed how moviegoers crave storytelling that’s original and meaningful even if packaged with spaceships and all that crapola.

The pic also had a great pedigree: The Lord of the Rings trilogy-meister’s name means a lot to moviegoers aged 18 to 49. Comic-Con geeks and movie-critic geezers loved it. It was the No. 1 most Tweeted topic. And Marc Weinstock’s viral marketing campaign left off the Sony/TriStar logo on purpose so it wouldn’t have a big studio’s P.R.-machine feel to it.

(As if the audience had organically discovered the pic themselves.) There are several Web sites tied to the film’s plot and characters, and an outdoor creative campaign plastered on bus benches, bus sides and billboards encouraged people to call a toll-free number to report nonhuman activity.

All fine, but how the hell did this movie get made?

This was a $25 million Sony pickup for North America and the English-speaking world, and a number of international territories, like Italy, Russia, Portugal, Korea, China and Hong Kong, also including much of Africa. But it was a circuitous pickup, to be sure.

District 9 director Neill Blomkamp was supposed to be Peter Jackson’s helmer on Halo, that movie based on the hot video game, which went down in flames as a joint venture between Fox and Universal. But Jackson and his work/life partner, Fran Walsh, kept Blomkamp in New Zealand to develop his short film, Alive In Joburg, which had alien apartheid as its theme. Jackson then turned it into a hardcover faux graphic novel, all the rage this year.

That book went to Jackson’s longtime manager, Ken Kamins, to arrange financing and set it up as a film. Kamins made the far-sighted decision to go indie, and contacted his former colleague and current office-space roomie Bill Block, who runs QED Intl. (which backed Oliver Stone’s W.). Block got the first shot to finance foreign presales.

Being the wily coyote he is as a former agent, Block had to commit to fully financing the movie even before American Film Market was under way with its annual peddling of thousands of indie projects. What a risk — because there was no star, no budget, no script. Block felt none of that mattered, since Peter Jackson’s name would sell it.

When the deal went down that November 2007 and hit Variety, Sony exec Peter Schlessel was on the phone to Block two hours later, asking for a meeting the next morning at AFM. So Schlessel looked at the graphic novel, then got on the phone with Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton, who both insisted on a confab with Block that afternoon. Over at AFM, other studios kicked the tires but didn’t buy. Finally Sony picked up the domestic (but through TriStar, not Columbia).

The result is not just another Amy Pascal–greenlit Sony pic starring Adam Sandler or Will Smith, but, according to the 88 percent positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, an imaginative, creative, cutting-edge pic made outside the studio system. Who’da thunk it.


Bitch-Slapping Summit Over Bandslam
The very same weekend of August 14, Bandslam opened with a disastrous $2.3 million despite Summit Entertainment pairing it with the New Moon theatrical-trailer teaser from its Twilight franchise. (“Ooooh, that Taylor Lautner is so hunky.” Start gag reflex.)

So a Bandslam insider who’s also a prominent filmmaker (and asked to remain anonymous) e-mailed me, explaining why the Walden Media/Summit pic bombed despite great reviews. That’s a very ugly story, starring marketing so stupid that moviegoers were led to believe the film was High School Musical, when it was closer to School of Rock. Trust me, it’s rare to have anyone in Hollywood talk so frankly about a fuckup. But it’s a heartfelt insight behind the looking glass of the packaging of studio product:

“Isn’t there a story here? Death by marketing? A movie that gets 80 percent positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes — 90 percent from top critics — won’t see the light of day because Summit consistently made some of the worst choices, and their core audience summarily dismissed the movie without seeing it, on the basis of their sale.

“Start off with the fact that they chose Bandslam for a title instead of Will. They thought Will was too indie. But that’s what made this movie special. It was an indie voice wrapped up in a high concept. So, instead of selling it quirky and cool (à la Juno) they sold it on the Disney Channel’s Vanessa Hudgens and Aly Michalka.

“Instead of selling the concept, band of outcasts like The Commitments, they Disney-fied this movie with glitter paint. So what is an ironic, smart script with a killer soundtrack was sold like High School Musical meets Phil of the Future. Instead of embracing it for its quirkiness, for its unique voice (Will, the lead, calls high school ‘Guantánamo Bay with a lunch period’), they flattened it out so it looked like everything else.

“There have been literally dozens and dozens of calls and e-mails from heads of marketing at different studios, saying this may be singly the worst job they’ve ever seen on a movie whose unique voice deserved to be heard through positioning, title, marketing tie-ins and knowing your audience. But Rob [Friedman] and Summit infantilized their audience. They presumed that since HSM was a hit, and the same star was in their movie singing, they should just sell it the same way.

“Rob had this idea in his head to sell it with the Disney slant, and no one could sway him. People tried, trust me. They knew the movie tested through the roof, but the materials didn’t. And still he was bullish. He’s just so fucking arrogant. The real problem was that this was [Walden Media] Cary Granat’s baby and when he was let go, and Alex Schwartz was let go, the project got taken over by Summit [where] Erik Feig was in the middle of Twilight, so it became Rob’s baby.

“He saw Vanessa singing, and he could only think of one way to sell it. The only problem is, she’s not playing Gabriella from HSM. She’s playing a dark, monotone goth character. And she’s really pretty good. But you wouldn’t know it by the ads. They should have let the audience rediscover her as this [Ally] Sheedy, Breakfast Club freak, but instead, they found shots of her smiling, and sold it on that. And even though the movie was so NOT Disney. You’ve got lines like “a Nuremberg rally produced by MTV,” and a whole section that takes place in an abandoned CBGB’s talking about the Killers, the Sex Pistols, Black Flag, the Police and U2. You’ve got a kid obsessed with David Bowie, writing him letters throughout the movie.

“The movie deserved to be seen. Todd Graff wrote and directed a beautiful, lyrical film with a killer soundtrack that the Hollywood Reporter critic compared to a cross between Cameron Crowe and John Hughes. Read the Washington Post review. It’s crazy-making.

“For what it’s worth, Rob is very contrite now. He’s apologizing to everyone. Tail between his legs, that kind of thing. But as the reality hits, it’s too little, way too late. Heartbreaking.”

LA Weekly