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by Mark Cheng
February 4, 2014 12:36 PM
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How An Indie Director Teamed With Comic Book Legend Larry Hama to Kickstart a Sci-Fi Film

Boy reads comic book. Boy falls in love with comic book. Boy grows up dreaming of comic book and makes fan film about it. Comic book creator sees the film and reaches out to that boy and says, "That was really cool. Let's make a movie together."

A couple years ago, I made a fan film about my childhood heroes. "Operation: Red Retrieval" was about a small team of GI Joe soldiers - characters from Hasbro's toy line - who band together on a rescue mission for their friend. Filmed with a digital SLR camera and made for $2500, the movie attempted to play these heroes as realistic human beings in a fantastical scenario that can only be compared to a six year old playing on the floor with his collection of toys.

The YouTube launch did gangbusters (it has nearly half a million views now) and there was a huge outpouring of fan support. The largest GI Joe online communities lit up with chatter and comic book blogs linked to it. Fans began to reach out to me directly and some encouraged me to send the movie to Larry Hama, the writer at Marvel Comics in the 1980s who is widely credited for making GI Joe the success that it is. He was the guy who created the mythology of these characters that had enchanted me and an entire generation of kids. He wrote all the comic book issues I read as a kid and helped create the characters that I love to this day. He even wrote the little biographies on each action figure's cardboard packaging. Legend has it (and he verified as much) that Larry based each character on a real life friend.

I found Larry on Facebook, introduced myself, and sent him my film. A week later, we spoke again. Larry told me that he loved the film, and had even shared the film on his Facebook wall to all his fans. We chatted about the film, about GI Joe, and started to hit it off. We decided to meet for lunch so we could chat more. Over burgers, we talked excitedly about action movies we both loved- both popular and even obscure Hong Kong flicks we had both seen. Larry also shared his experiences working for Hollywood as a script doctor ("Development Hell" as he described it).

After an hour of just talking film and storytelling, Larry asked how I made "Red Retrieval," and specifically, how I made the production value look so good. So I told him about the micro budget approach I used, the costumes I made by hand, the digital effects I did myself. So after talking nonstop through lunch and realizing that we obviously had the same tastes, I asked him, "What would it be like if we made a movie together? We should make a movie." "Yeah, let's make a movie together," Larry agreed. I quickly excused myself to the restroom where I punched myself in the face several times to make sure I wasn't dreaming. Then I washed my hands and returned to the table. Larry told me he knew all about licensing and how expensive it was and that the legal stuff was all so complicated. "It should be creator-owned work," he said.

Larry Hama and Mark Cheng

Creator-owned work is a BIG deal. You see Larry and his comic book buddies did great work in their careers. They created beloved franchises that made tons of money...for other people. Creator-owned was the way to go. You create your own intellectual property and that's that.

I had a screenplay or two. Larry also had unpublished projects. So we agreed to a swap. On a handshake. I'd read his, he'd read mine. Over emails we exchanged documents and I burned through Larry's work enjoying it all and periodically stopping to geek out at how cool this all was. Likewise, I gave Larry my screenplay for Ghost Source Zero. The story is about a military police unit in the future that busts rogue hackers and renegade androids for cyber-crimes. The team's investigation of high tech assassinations leads them down a path to the ultimate in artificial intelligence conspiracies. It's a classic whodunnit wrapped in a cyberpunk action movie.

Meanwhile Larry was traveling going to comic book conventions all over the place. We were scheduled to meet again when he returned but I got an email from over the weekend. He was writing from his hotel. He had finished reading my script, Ghost Source Zero, and was excited about it. "I think it's brilliant," he wrote. I quickly punched myself in the face again and made a mental note to get that phrase tattooed on my back with his citation. He agreed that there was some room for improvement- character re-working, second act work, dialogue - and was confident he could do it. And that's how we got started.

In the past year and half, we've reworked the script, and then started re-adapting it into episodic shorts, similar to how Larry writes the GI Joe comics. In parallel, we started to shoot experimental films with the goal of honing our visual storytelling style and tone. It was also a good way to feel each other out creatively and learn how to work collaboratively. One great result of our experiments was stumbling upon the "reality TV style" of telling our story. Organically, we imagined what it would be like if a COPS-style camera crew was embedded with our military unit. What if they were following our unit around when the first hints of conspiracy were found? Liking what we stumbled upon a lot, we edited and completed the visual effects for a 4 minute short. "Protocol Deviation" was submitted to The Machinima Network, the uber entertainment YouTube channel, for their consideration.

Now while all this creative work was going on we were talking to investors and shopping around our idea. The challenge there was what a lot of filmmakers face. First, our micro budget approach was too small for them to jump in. "We can't even justify the legal fees to draft paperwork at such a small amount, bring that budget up higher! I want to see something in the millions!" And then it was too high! "You need to have a body of work for us to take on that risk!" Eventually, we got frustrated with the process and didn't like the idea anyway of giving up ownership of our idea. That's when the idea of crowdfunding entered the picture.

With crowdfunding we get to go straight to the viewer, the fan of sci-fi cyberpunk action movies, the GI Joe loyalists who have followed Larry's work over the years, and fans of "Operation: Red Retrieval." With Kickstarter, we got to tell our back story, present the cinematic story we want to tell, and pitch directly to our viewers why we think we can pull it off. Larry's a storyteller with 30+ years experience. He's a concept artist, a novelist, and screenwriter. I've won awards for my science-fiction shorts. I'm a visual effects artist, and have built a career around creative execution in large teams. And the list goes on and on with partnerships and passion.

Our campaign started on Monday, January 27th. It raised $31,000 in its first week and has 27 days to go! Go check it out! Oh yeah and remember, "Protocol Deviation" our experimental, reality TV short? That launched on Machinima last week! Check out the Kickstarter page for "Ghost Source Zero" here and watch the Kickstarter video below:



Mark Cheng studied Film at Cornell University and earned his MBA in High Tech Growth from Rutgers University. He currently works at Nickelodeon as the Director of Product Development for Games.

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