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Fanning the Fear of Zombies, Pursuing User-Generated Storylines via the Internet

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire October 16, 2008 at 5:52AM

Zombies have invaded the internet. Earlier this year, two separate attempts to create user-generated narratives about outbreaks of cannibalistic living dead launched into cyberspace, but each one approached the concept from a vastly different angle. "Lost Zombies," which started in May, asks users to submit footage with "proof" of zombie outbreaks, which will be compiled into some semblance of a documentary feature. "Nation Undead," a more streamlined project that gives people specific guidelines but more options for the material they can submit, went live earlier this year.
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Zombies have invaded the internet. Earlier this year, two separate attempts to create user-generated narratives about outbreaks of cannibalistic living dead launched into cyberspace, but each one approached the concept from a vastly different angle. "Lost Zombies," which started in May, asks users to submit footage with "proof" of zombie outbreaks, which will be compiled into some semblance of a documentary feature. "Nation Undead," a more streamlined project that gives people specific guidelines but more options for the material they can submit, went live earlier this year.

Despite coming late to the game, "Nation Undead" creator Patrick Pierson claims innocence. "We had no idea about the stuff they were doing," he said. Thankfully, "Lost Zombies" creator Skot Leach doesn't mind the company. "I don't have any ill-will towards them at all," he said. "It's great that people are involved. When we first conceived of this idea, we thought, 'There's no way we're the first to try this."

Whether or not the sites have to compete for attention, their co-existence clearly demonstrates how collaborative filmmaking over the internet has become much more than a theoretical concept. All across the web, filmmakers have begun applying a variety of "crowdsourcing" methods for generating fan interest so that audiences can become active participants in the final products. The open source method is a close cousin of artificial reality games (ARGs), which allow audiences to interact with film stories that extend beyond the actual films.

Independent filmmakers started using ARGs over the last ten years, but the strategy first became famous as a marketing technique when "The Blair Witch Project" came out in 1999 and used fictional sites to convince audiences that its horrific subject was authentic. "Today, there are so many more options for using content and so many more places for conversations to take place, but it's a double-edged sword from a marketing or a distribution standpoint," said Gregg Hale, one of the film's producers. "There are more opportunities, but there's also more clutter your film has to rise above." Nevertheless, he adds, "the projects and communities using the internet as a collaborative tool for filmmaking are really cool, and they open up a whole new realm of production."

According to some practitioners, however, the larger process at work emerges from a tradition that predates "Blair Witch." The notion of collaborative filmmaking can be seen in numerous projects stretching back through the decades. In Kent McKenzie's "The Exhiles," a long-lost 1961 independent achievement that was recently revived at New York's IFC Center, the director worked closely with Native Americans living in Los Angeles so that they could play characters that closely resembled themselves. GMD Studios' Brian Clark, an executive producer of Brian Fleming's "Nothing So Strange," noted that that production filmed real world professionals acting in their regular environments, which was then edited into a narrative.

To describe this general process -- which is essentially illustrative of how open source filmmaking can exist in a variety of media -- Clark coined the phrase "swarm filmmaking," due to the input of various participants in the end result. "It forces you to stop defining audiences as a passive receptor," he said. "It's more personalized." The other key factor, of course, involves economics. "The general trend of the internet is to drive the production costs to zero," Clark said. "You can think of [Jonathan Couette's] 'Tarnation' as being the height of the phase when everyone was shocked that one semi-professional could make a film. Now, how many millions of viewers can one YouTube video get?"

Since viral popularity on the internet leads to constantly expanding fan bases, many filmmakers experimenting with these methods have found that it isn't in their best interests to reach a conclusion. "Our ultimate goal isn't to make some movie and send it to a festival," said Scot Leach, although he admitted that was the original plan. "We want to make a film with the community in a way that benefits all parties. It may be that the best way to do it is for free, online." Other filmmakers engaged in similar endeavors strike the same tone. Brett Gaylor, a Canadian-based filmmaker and early video-blogger, has implemented his "open source cinema" technique for a documentary about piracy called "Rip: A Remix Manifesto" by uploading raw footage and allowing users to edit it together so they can contribute their own versions of the film.

Although he plans to complete a cut of the film for festivals and a theatrical release next year, Gaylor has frequently expressed a hope that the production will never truly end. "I'm most excited about how the audience interact," he said. "People can actually edit the final film and 'wikify' the process, so that next year we'll be able to show a 'Rip: A Remix Manifesto 2.0.'" Gaylor's open source cinema site also has another key ingredient in this emerging method: Message boards where users can throw in their two cents about creative and technical decisions. Another popular site applying this strategy is "A Swarm of Angels," where filmmaker Matt Hanson has put out two feature film concepts and allowed members (who pay a fee in exchange for various membership perks) to choose the stronger idea, contributing to its formulation. With over a thousand members, Hanson is well on his way to getting a movie made.

The viability of this approach has lead to the birth of various sites that provide services for filmmakers interested in engaging with specific audiences. TubeMogul helps independent filmmakers track the popularity of their content throughout the web, allowing them to isolate their online audiences. The social networking site IndieGoGo makes it possible for filmmakers to raise money for their projects by setting goals and turning to the public for pre-determined windows.

The prospects of audiences interacting with the filmmaking process raises questions about rights. "We know enough to know we can't just gather the footage, legally submit it to a festival and get release forms from all these people," Leach said. "We've found that the more involved we are with the community, the better off we are." That uncertain terrain obviously explains why collaborative filmmaking hasn't quite transitioned into the commercial arena. "These are models that only independents can pursue," Clark said. "The fear and risk of liability will keep traditional Hollywood away."

As for those dueling zombie narratives, neither side expects a violent showdown. "Hopefully, there will be a point where we might be able to piggyback off each other," Pierson said. Leach emphasized the importance of making both projects have lasting value. "This notion of community filmmaking only has legs," he said, "if we can produce something of quality."