By Eric Kohn | Indiewire January 18, 2011 at 7:40AM
With the Sundance Film Festival set to begin Thursday, filmmakers must decide the best approach for standing out in the crowd. A strategy worth considering is found in "Zenith," a film that has had virtually no festival exposure but begins its theatrical release Jan. 19.
Directed by Serbian-American filmmaker Vladan Nikolic, science-fiction thriller "Zenith" alternately takes place in the year 2044 and the present day. Nikolic imagines a bleak future in which science's attempt to genetically modify the human race and make everyone feel eternally happy instead turns people into cold, alienated creatures in search of physical stimuli — mainly in the form of drugs. Ed (Jason Robards III), a young dealer, discovers a series of 10 tapes recorded by his missing father, Jack (Peter Scanavino). Seen as a crazed conspiracy theorist in his own time, Jack's ramblings about a vast scheme by unseen forces to unravel the foundations of society strike Ed as eerily prescient. Under constant scrutiny, he embarks on an ominous mission to unearth more of his father's research.
Starting with the initial production work in late 2008, Nikolic hired a small team of web designers to expand the story world of "Zenith" across a variety of fictional websites and cryptic videos featuring Jack's dark prophesies. "The initial idea started with my obsession with the human mind and how we react to things," Nikolic said. "That led to this whole idea of using conspiracy theories as an anchor of the story."
Nikolic's high concept for the "Zenith" experience brought him a palpable amount of early attention: Real conspiracy sites took note and became involved in the release plan, while special midnight screenings of the film began in the fall of last year, building up anticipation for the limited theatrical release at New York's Kraine Theater. Eventually, "Zenith" will expand to several theaters around the country, followed by a VOD release on select cable providers, iTunes and Amazon that coincide with the film's February DVD release. CinemaPurgatorio.com will also sell limited online viewings of the film.
Nikolic is not the only filmmaker to explore the prospects of transmedia. In the New Frontiers section at Sundance this year, "Head Trauma" director Lance Weiler will unveil "Pandemic 1.0," a detailed transmedia project revolving around the story of a massive disease sweeping the United States. (Incidentally, Nikolic and Weiler met in the late 1990's, when both were early adapters of digital video.) Sundance will also feature a panel called "Transmedia: Beyond the Buzzword" on January 24.
The director said filmmakers need to move beyond the assumption that a well-publicized Sundance screening will provide all the exposure they need. "I'm not against festivals, but I think it's a mistake to think that the festival is the only way to get a film out there," said Nikolic. "We're in a different environment. It's still not clear to people what it all means, but we're not just watching movies and TV anymore."
The film's distribution consultant, Cinema Purgatorio's Ray Privett, said festival exposure for "Zenith" has been limited to Phoenix's Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, but it may have special screenings at a few upcoming festivals.
It's an approach that has its roots in the faux documentary "The Blair Witch Project," which convinced audiences that it told a true story in the weeks leading up to its 1999 premiere at Sundance. Since then, "transmedia" has become a buzzword to describe storytelling that stretches across multiple platforms; done well, few consumers know when they experience it.
Nikolic said he originally envisioned "Zenith" as a transmedia experience when he first wrote the script around 2002. However, initial attempts to make the movie on a large scale fell flat. When he finally decided to use a relatively tame budget of $120,000 in winter 2008, he found modern technology had caught up with his imagination. "By that time, what we could do was more exciting," he said. "Social media was taking off. It was much more accessible for people who didn't have the budget, money or time to do the things we wanted to do."
Nikolic's team included Kenneth Anderson, a web designer and short filmmaker who's responsible for around 70 sites (such as http://priestoftruth.com/) riffing on the movie's plot. Nikolic also formed a relationship with the popular conspiracy site Above Top Secret, creating a competition for its thousands of members in which they were asked to figure out the true meaning of the Zenith Conspiracy. In total, Nikolic estimates that the transmedia components cost no more than "a couple thousand dollars."
With anticipation for "Zenith" mounting through its Internet presence, Nikolic wanted to bypass a DVD release altogether and focus his energies on getting people to watch the movie online. Privett convinced the filmmaker to change his mind. "Although everybody says VOD is the future, it's not entirely the present," Privett said. "I saw physical goods as something that would benefit all of us, financially speaking." Although less vocally enthusiastic about the prospects of transmedia, Privett found a relevant hook: "The film is a lost object from the future, so I said, 'Let's have the DVD be an object.'"
For Privett, the former programmer of New York's now-defunct Pioneer Theater, the gradual cross-platform distribution plan for "Zenith" fits a larger trend that he said is often incorrectly described as day-and-date distribution. "You don't see a company like Magnolia Pictures doing DVD, theatrical and VOD simultaneously," he said. "It's adjusted windowing. That's kind of what we're doing, too."
He pointed out the chain reaction of publicity instigated by this approach. "The press that coincides with the theatrical release is kicking in during the DVD solicitation period," he said. "Then the VOD happens at the same time."
In the meantime, Nikolic continues to advance his movie's transmedia presence, developing a fictional blog written by Jack's character in the year 2044. "We need people to realize the film is out there," he said. "With indies these days, people have an attention span of one day and once they see a movie, it's gone. This way, we can grow interest until the film comes out."
Despite the increasing appreciation for transmedia storytelling, Nikolic cautions against blindly implementing it for any given project. "It's important that it fits the story," he said. "It has to make some kind of sense with what the film is about. Otherwise, it's just another marketing strategy."