January 22, 2007
M dot Strange Finds a Way at Sundance
PARK CITY, Utah — In the daunting hierarchy of the Sundance Film Festival, with its hype machine, big stars and indie royalty, a young movie maker named M dot Strange would seem to have little chance of gaining much attention.
A 27-year-old guy from San Jose, he gave new meaning to the term “studio apartment” by jamming eight computers into his place and producing “We Are the Strange.” The movie has a wide visual vocabulary borrowed from the far reaches of the Web, anime, video games and children’s nursery rhymes. And dolls. Lots of dolls.
But his film received a premiere last Friday night at midnight at the Egyptian Theater, a coveted slot at Sundance, and quite a few members of the audience left midmovie.
But what would have been crushing for another young filmmaker was no big deal for M dot Strange, who arrived at Sundance with a huge audience in tow. During the last two years, he has been posting a video blog on YouTube letting people know how the movie was coming along. And then two months ago, he finally posted a trailer, and almost immediately it was downloaded hundreds of thousands of times.
While we were talking at the Kimball Art Center in Park City, he checked the site and showed me that over 648,000 people had already viewed the trailer for a film where he served as writer, director, animator and effects coordinator.
Kevin Donahue, vice president of content at YouTube, said M dot Strange has created an audience in part by talking to it. “The originality of the work is quite high, but he has also built a real rapport with his audience,” said Mr. Donahue. “He has an online film school and a very active community.”
And so what about his big fancy premiere?
“Well, it all felt very foreign to me, watching it in a room with strangers,” M dot Strange said Saturday. “Some YouTube kids came up from Salt Lake, which was cool, and they seemed to really enjoy it.”
Wearing a black stocking cap and sporting a wisp of hair under his lip, M dot Strange, whose actual name is Michael Belmont, looks more like a snowboarder who wandered over from the nearby chairlift than a big deal filmmaker (see for yourself at carpetbagger.blogs.nytimes.com), but he represents a new paradigm of filmmaking that could have a profound effect on the traditional models of film production, distribution and animation.
The money is not there yet — M dot Strange is doing a brisk business in T-shirts associated with the film — but the Web has proved that if you produce something the consumer wants, a business model might follow.
Another Sundance film, “Strange Culture,” premiered at the Egyptian on Friday, but will get a second premiere today on Second Life, the online virtual community, including a live Q. & A. with the director Lynn Hershman Leeson, and the stars Tilda Swinton and Peter Coyote, among others.
Ms. Hershman Leeson, an established filmmaker and artist, made “Strange Culture” to bring attention to the case of Steve Kurtz, an artist and professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, who called 911 when his wife died of heart failure in her sleep.
The medics who responded to the call became suspicious of his art materials — his work centers on germ warfare and genetically modified foods — and called the F.B.I. Agents in Hazmat suits showed up immediately and began impounding his computers, books, his cat and even his wife’s body. Mr. Kurtz was detained as a suspected bioterrorist, eventually accused of mail fraud and is now part of an ongoing federal trial.
Ms. Hershman Leeson, 65, felt that the film needed to get out quickly by all means, and after working with the Stanford Humanities Lab to create a digital archive of her work on Second Life, building a theater there and premiering the film seemed like a natural step. Admission is by invitation only so that demand does not swamp the servers.
“These are important social networks that we could not have had before,” she said over coffee in Park City last week. “By having the film both here at Sundance and on Second Life, we have two streams that we hope will eventually become many. And that’s really exciting.”
In the past, a filmmaker had to throw a Hail Mary pass at a place like Sundance, hope for attention amid the clutter, and then against all odds, get a film picked up for distribution. For every “Little Miss Sunshine,” a breakout Sundance film that has been a critical and commercial success, there are hundreds of films that never found an audience.
But a number of digital commercial initiatives, including The Daily Reel, an online video site (www.thedailyreel.com), allow audiences and filmmakers to meet in new ways. Jamie Patricof, the producer of “Half Nelson” and one of the people behind The Daily Reel, said he wanted to create “a breeding ground for new filmmakers and a place to find them. It’s hard enough navigating a film festival like this one, let along finding the people who are doing great work online.”
Because of the limits of bandwidth and attention span, most of the film content online is short-form, but that will change. M dot Strange, who has a series of 10 films planned, already has members of his active, vocal community around “We are the Strange” weighing in on a proposed ending after he put up 18 minutes of the film. “It’s like a real-time focus group,” he suggested.
There have been talks about traditional distribution, but M dot Strange said he didn’t really care one way or the other. Other than attending his own premiere, he hasn’t been in a movie theater in six months.
“I’m already part of a big campfire,” he said. “We talk to each other all the time about what we are seeing and thinking. It’s a personal experience without anybody in between.”
The playing field between audience and filmmaker is shrinking as well. When M dot Strange blogged about his rather awkward pursuit of buzz at Sundance on Thursday, one of his fans made an animation overnight with a hilarious bee motif in response. M dot Strange laughed and called his colleagues over to look at it on YouTube. “This guy is amazing. He’s faster than I am,” he said.