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WWZ… WTF?

Though I studied film in college, and wrote film criticism for three of my university newspapers, I don’t do movie reviews here. However, I do use movies as reference. Often. Personally and professionally, they are a constant source of inspiration. They are for a lot of people. Perhaps more than any other medium, movies shape our popular culture. And in doing so the advertising that permeates it. Like ads, films are accessible to just about everyone. Indeed, when they first came into being movies were made primarily as entertainment for the lower classes. Not as art, per se but so working people could escape from the dreariness of factories and the weariness of farms. The upper classes went to museums and the opera. Until they realized movies were a lot more fun.

Fade to black.

Yesterday, I took in a matinee of Brad Pitt’s apocalyptic thriller, World War Z. Having read the book several years ago and being a major fan of horror (in particular zombie horror), there was zero chance of me not seeing this film. If I didn’t have family responsibilities I would have likely been among the very first.

I’m sure Mr. Pitt and his many nervous backers hope there are plenty more just like me. Reasonable assumption -at least when the film scoped at south of 100 million dollars. After all, zombies have been the new it girls of horror for some time now. From no-budget snarlers to A&E’s The Walking Dead, reanimated corpses have been animating popular culture in frightening proportions.

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The book.

Alas, the troubled film cost over 200 million bones to make. There are not enough fan boys on earth to cover that spread. Which is how I fear this film got into trouble. Trying to capitalize on Pitt’s fame. Trying to capture female viewers. Trying to be all things to all people so as to get box office, World War Z comes off as a middling thriller and a mediocre zombie movie.

One need only look at the PG-13 rating to know WWZ was doomed. With VERY FEW exceptions you just can’t make good undead horror for less than an “R.” For one thing, you can’t show the carnage, which I feel is absolutely necessary to the genre. This film doesn’t. To put it bluntly no one gets eaten in this film. Hell, I don’t recall even seeing blood. On behalf of fan boys everywhere: WTF?

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It ain’t undead if you don’t show some leg (pic from The Walking Dead)

Yet, the film is just intense enough to keep a shit-ton of normies out of it as well. Granted, films like Zombieland and Warm Bodies and shows like The Walking Dead have opened doors to the genre few had thought possible: women, children and happy people.

But not 200 million dollars worth. Case in point, the matinee I saw was less than one third full. And it was raining out! Not a good sign for an aspiring blockbuster in its first week let alone a good horror movie.

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The Indie Gathering. You can’t win ’em all!

As some of you undoubtedly are aware, my summer away from advertising has found me on the film festival circuit, where my horror script Belzec: The Made Undead is actually winning awards. Last month it received two first place trophies (best horror & sci/fi feature) at the Action on Film Festival in Pasadena and in June a second place (horror/feature) at The Waterfront Film Festival in Saugatuck, Michigan.


Kristina Michelle & Ray Szuch present me the trophy for Belzec: The Made Undead.

This week I write from Westlake, Ohio, where Belzec took first place (horror/feature) at The Indie Gathering. The Indie Gathering celebrates independent film and in particular those made in the Ohio valley. I’ve never been to Ohio before but my zombie script would not be denied! I wasn’t the only out-of-towner. Other winners came from as far way as England, South America and even New Zealand to receive awards in various categories.


TV show, “Reel Cleveland” interviews an award winner

While The Indie Gathering isn’t the Academy Awards and we aren’t at the Four Seasons, I’m humbled to have won here. TIG takes film very seriously and are devoted to helping unknown and aspiring film makers in their quest for the big time or, frankly, just to get work. At each festival I’ve visited the founders and producers were, to a man, conspicuously un-selfish in this regard.

Ray Szuch and Kristina Michelle (pictured above) of The Indie Gathering were no exception. These two individuals wanted nothing more than for everyone at the festival to network and find connections. (So unlike most advertising award shows, where winning and losing often feels like something out of Schindler’s List.) Kristina is also an actress; no surprise given her looks. Ray has spent decades on the other side of the camera in one form or another. He’s also a seventh degree black belt in karate. And yet here they were, putting on a 3-day show for other filmmakers…for Cleveland… for fun. There’s little chance they made any money.

You have to feel for such fierce independents. These folks bust their ass to make movies, regardless of miniscule budgets and no-name talent. Take Twisted Spine for example. Their motto: “Your Premiere Micro-Budget Experience!” Their film, Murder Machine won the People’s Choice award. I didn’t get to see it but I did view Brian Lawler’s mondo-bizarre Aquarius Rising. His Shock Star Studios also produced Legend of the Melon Heads, apparently their magnum opus.


“Your Premier Micro-Budget Experience!”

Are these films flawed? Hell yes! But there’s something weirdly wonderful about sitting in a hotel basement screening them. For Aquarius Rising I sat directly in front of Mr. Lawlor. A big fucker, you can bet I clapped when the film was over.

Do I want to see my scripts get produced? Of course I do. That’s why I enter them into these festivals. Like my novels, I spent months, even years, writing Belzec: The Made Undead and The Happy Soul Industry. Seeing them on the Silver Screen (hell, even straight to DVD) is tops on my bucket list. Whether winning prizes at all these festivals leads to that is hard to say. But it can’t hurt. And it’s a ripping good time!


Look Ma, first place!

If anyone is interested in my books the links are to the right. If you want to read one of the screenplays, just ask. Next up The The Chicago Horror Film Festival and The So-Cal Film Fest, where Belzec is an official selection!

Other pics from The Indie Gathering…


Director, Traylor Trimarchi and his two trophies


Internet TV: Cleveland’s “Blurry Dude”


The lovely Kristan Michelle (right) interviewing a nominee


“Nice Cans!”

Last night it was good being me. My screenplay, Belzec: The Made Undead won first place in both categories it was nominated (Horror and Science Fiction) at the Action on Film awards ceremony in Pasadena. I was stunned. Awarded two top prizes far exceeded my expectations. I would have been thrilled receiving an honorable mention…once. But hot damn, running the table is all right with me! I guess those boyhood days at the grind house finally paid off.

Seriously, even I forget how many hours, weeks and months we writers put into a single project. And with work and family obligations, much of the writing has to be done late at night, when everyone’s asleep. (Perfect time to pen a zombie thriller, yes?) My point is though a labor of love, it’s still labor. So, it’s nice being validated.

A bit about the AOF… What started as a festival to show the work of artists who might otherwise be marginalized is growing into what founder, Del Westin calls a “mentor festival” producing projects for filmmakers and giving them greater access to the Hollywood machine. As Del put it at the awards ceremony, he literally wants to “push” new filmmakers and writers forward. He likened it to cramming us onto a subway in China!

I don’t doubt he’d do it. Del is a force of nature.


Del and unknown starlet

He and the entire AOF team are to be commended for building and fostering such a passionate community. I’ve been to my share of advertising award shows and film festivals. The esprit de corps at AOF trumped them all. At the writer’s ceremony, everyone cheered for everyone and those winning honorable mentions were encouraged to make speeches. Losers were told to keep on writing. Fellowship like that is rarer than you think, especially at award shows.


AOF passes, tickets, program…

At my table was a screenwriter from Amsterdam, an east coast scribe, a writer from Ireland and a student author, as well as their spouses and partners. Very cool. I normally cringe at award shows (win or lose) but this was as fun as a good dinner party.

And then I won. Twice. Look- I don’t know if Belzec will ever get made. For any screenwriter that mountain is high, let alone a fabulous nobody like me. But my confidence grows with each prize that it garners. In any event, there are worse ways to spend an evening.

By the way, if anyone out there wants to make a zombie move with gravitas, find me. Horror, as I’m finding out, can be pretty damn lucrative.


Co-Founder, Waterfront Film festival: Hopwood DePree

So my script, Belzec The Made Undead won 2nd or 3rd prize (they don’t tell you which) at the Waterfront Film Festival in Saugatuck, Michigan last week. Don’t make fun. This is the same festival that premiered March of the Penguins a few years back. The WFF has been going 13 years now and is considered a top tier festival.

Elated, I made the 2 ½-hour drive in significantly less time than that. To add to my good fortune I was invited to stay at the household of Lesa Werme and her delightful family. They made me feel very welcome, even leaving out a piece of her daughter’s homemade carrot cake for when I came in late from seeing the film, Ashes, which was pretty damn good by the way (the cake and the film).

Once ensconced in the quaint resort town of Saugatuck I hightailed it to the screenplay winner’s reception downtown. There I met several of the other finalists, including the Grand Prize Winner, E. M. Spairow. A native of Michigan, she now resides in California. Fittingly, her script, Manifest is an LA Noir thriller.


Some of the winners, screenplay reception

Winning here has already generated interest in the script by several interested parties. That’s the big prize, really. It’s damn hard breaking into Hollywood (let alone advertising), you not only have to do a tremendous amount of work on spec but you need to work all the angles as well. Even then is no guarantee. The WFF was the first festival I entered. So I am one for one.

Make that two for two! Last night I received notice that Belzec: The Made Undead got first place at another festival, The Indie Gathering. I am over the proverbial moon. I guess all those years in the grind house are finally paying off!

Belzec: The Made Undead imagines an undead plague in a Nazi concentration camp. A group of American POW’s attempt to escape, even harder now, when they ‘can’t tell the living from the dead.’

In addition to Belzec, I’ve also written a screenplay for my second novel, The Happy Soul Industry. While not entered into any festivals (yet), it is in the hands of some very good people.


Impatience or forward thinking?

As some of you know, I am a connoisseur of horror. It is a popular genre (and one of Hollywood’s biggest moneymakers) but, of course, much of it is gut fill –if you pardon the expression. For every quality productions like The Walking Dead there are ten like Saw 3D.

Below the mainstream, literally hundreds of new films and books come out every year. I troll these depths looking for gems. The French, for example, are making some exquisite horror: Mutants and The Horde come to mind. From the UK, there’s Colin, a compassionate film about a young zombie, reportedly made for $75 dollars. It’s quite good.

Unfortunately (but not unexpectedly), the vast majority of what lurks below is crap. Stuff like Brain Dead, from Breaking Glass Pictures and Vicious Films. Don’t worry, Gentle Reader, I’m not going to review or discuss the film. This isn’t the blog for that. And that isn’t the film.


Easy to digest quickly…

I want to talk about Brain Dead in the context of the way I watched it, speaking to how we process content in the age of new media and streaming video. Once I established the film was going to suck (which usually takes less than 2 minutes), I watched the rest of it entirely in fast-forward, only stopping for the over-the-top gore and the occasional naked lady. Basically, I watched an hour and a half film in less than eight minutes.

Here’s the kicker. I got the narrative and actually could write a balanced review of the movie if I had to. Obviously, I have a better than average working knowledge of the genre so I could fill in the blanks. Once my brain got the formula for Brain Dead, I was then able to absorb the plot in hyper speed. This is more than rushing through to get to the good parts.

I really could watch the movie.

I believe many of you could do the same thing, providing the variables were right. For example, if you dig chick flicks (no comment) I bet you could FF Maid to Order and get it completely.

This ability is more than just a function of rote filmmaking, although no question that’s a factor. I think as a species we’ve adapted to a world of streaming content and chew through it faster and faster. More channels. More screens. More friends. More, more, more!

Some of the reasons are as follows and I think fascinating from an anthropological perspective:

1. Highlight reels. ESPN and others condense content like crazy. 4- hour ball games are shortened into 45 seconds of big plays and scores.
2. Pornography. Zooming to the money shots. If you don’t know what I’m talking about you’re a better man than I am, or lying.
3. The Internet. So much. So little time.
4. Twitter. 140 characters. ‘Nuff said.
5. Email and text. Who needs to beat around the bush? We get to the point. Do you really need (or ever read) anyone’s email after the first paragraph?
6. Globalization. The world does not go to bed when we do. Things are happening around the world around the clock. You snooze you lose.


More of a road runner?

Ironically, advertising was a major precursors to all this. Having to manage narrative and selling strategy in 30 seconds or less, we all became conditioned to making and receiving short-form content.

Implied in all this is the notion that we are no longer doing a good job at listening and learning. On the other hand, maybe we’re doing a terrific job. Remember the Evelyn Wood School of Speed-Reading. Zipping through pages was considered a great gift, almost magical.

I’ve written about “content zombies” several times. Judging from the amount of views and comments, it’s a popular topic: Content Zombies! Endless Choices/No Time