'Screenlife' thrillers like Searching are here to stay; here are 9 on the horizon
Searching is just the start.
According to producer Timur Bekmambetov, the buzzy, screen-based thriller — focused on a desperate father (John Cho) combing his daughter’s digital footprint for clues as to her sudden disappearance — can be viewed not just as a nifty, self-contained mystery, but also as catalyzing proof of a concept he’s been shepherding toward the mainstream for several years. He calls it “Screenlife.”
Russian Kazakh director Bekmambetov broke out with Russian fantasy epic Night Watch in 2004 before emerging Stateside with big-budget blockbusters like 2008’s Wanted and 2012’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. But he believes the most important stories he could be telling in Hollywood are unfolding on a much smaller scale.
Screenlife movies, told entirely from the perspective of computer screens, are “the future of filmmaking,” according to Bekmambetov, who estimates he could one day be releasing 50 such films a year. “If you want to make a movie about my life, about today’s world, you cannot make it with a camera,” he explains to EW during an interview at his Bazelevs Productions office in Los Angeles. “Let’s say I spend 50 percent of my time staring at a screen, every day: That means 50 percent of the events in my life are happening online. So, if you want to tell stories about me and understand me, you need to show my screen.”
Bekmambetov gives an example: modern dating. Courtship in the digital era unfolds across myriad social media platforms. The hopeful curiosity of that initial Tinder alert. Text-cutes and flirtatious Instagram follows (how old is that photo they just liked?). The eventual “IRL” meet-up, followed by days of unpacking every word with friends over Facetime. The mind-games of that unmaterialized text bubble. A rom-com without access to those phone screens, argues Bekmambetov, omits critical parts of the story. “It’s impossible to tell stories about today’s world without screens,” he asserts, asking: So why not make movies that reflect that?
The result: “a new cinematic language” rooted in our addiction to and reliance on ubiquitous screen-based technologies.
In 2014, Bekmambetov produced Unfriended, a low-budget spooker set entirely on a teenager’s laptop over the course of one eventful Skype session. Grossing $64 million against a tiny $1 million budget, it demonstrated how lucrative the producer’s vision could be.
Through the Russian production company Bazelevs, he’s since produced seven additional features, including an Unfriended sequel, Searching (in theaters now), and his own directorial venture Profile, an unnerving thriller about a female journalist who forms an uneasy relationship with the ISIS recruiter she’s catfishing. The latter film earned plaudits including a SXSW Visions Award for “what’s next” in experimental cinema; Bekmambetov is still hammering out a domestic distribution deal.
With Searching in theaters, EW got Bekmambetov to outline the future of his Screenlife slate. Over the next 18 months, he plans to produce at least 14 new film and series projects. Here are nine of the highlights:
Marja Lewis-Ryan (6 Balloons) directed this teen comedy, a modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac about a friend who helps another friend catfish the girl of his dreams. Bekmambetov and Bazelevs envision premiering the film on a streaming platform, possibly even developing an interactive version viewers could participate in.
Bazelevs has already produced a Russian version of this Hangover-style comedy, about a young boy who gets blackout drunk before a birthday party with friends, only to wake up the next morning and discover that someone is leaking photos from the unfortunate night out onto the internet. An English-language remake is in the works.
Bryce McGuire helmed this horror-thriller, which takes place during a teenage girl’s livestream from a supposedly abandoned, most definitely haunted asylum.
Romeo + Juliet for the Snapchat generation, this 15-episode series unfolds entirely on mobile phones. Bekmambetov hopes to roll out a vertical series version that could roll out on a social media platform, then cut each episode together into a horizontally reframed feature that could see theatrical release. “It’ll be a new reading of the famous story,” says Bekmambetov. “Last time, it was Baz Luhrmann with a music-video/MTV version. This is the Facebook version.”
Bazelevs will head back to the thriller genre to tell the story of a detective racing to save the life of a young boy who’s become snared in the disturbing Blue Whale Challenge. The real-life social-media “game” — which first made headlines in Bekmambetov’s native Russia back in 2016 — involves mysterious administrators issuing a series of tasks to players over a 50-day period. The tasks are initially harmless but grow darker and more intense as the game proceeds, introducing elements of self-harm before reportedly ordering the player to kill themselves to complete the final challenge.
“No one really knows who runs it,” Bekmambetov explains of the game. “Every task brings you closer to the edge, so that you aren’t as scared of death anymore.” He says the Blue Whale craze is indicative of Screenlife’s ability to shed light on the moral malaise that can occur in the deeper reaches of the internet. “It’s like a Wild West online right now. We can do whatever we want. That’s why we think it’s important also to tell Screenlife movies, to help people understand what is moral and immoral, legal and illegal, in the internet era.”
Gambler (working title)
Bekmambetov sees Screenlife as an ideal platform for exploring fascinating true-life stories. This one follows a man addicted to online gambling, whose family and finances begin to splinter under the weight of this bad habit.
“He tries to win everything back but keeps losing more,” explains Bekmambetov. “Eventually, he learns that someone is playing against him online and winning all his money. When he’s lost everything, including his house, he learns that the person playing against him was his wife, playing against him to try to save family assets. True story.”
Aaron Swartz project
Aaron Swartz, a programmer and internet activist, fought for a free and open internet; he died by suicide at 26 after intense scrutiny by federal prosecutors who sought to jail him for hacking. Bekmambetov considers Swartz “a forgotten hero” and has optioned a book about his life.
“It’s almost like Braveheart,” says the producer. “He lost, but he wins today, because the Internet still has the ideas and freedoms he believed in.”
Bekmambetov is brewing both feature and documentary concepts surrounding Swartz, looking for a filmmaker to entrust with spearheading the project. “I understand it’s an important story,” he says, “and a perfect film for the language.”
In the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, internet users scrutinized every available scrap of evidence in search of the culprits’ identities. Ahead of the FBI, Reddit emerged with a suspect: Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who’d gone missing a month earlier. “It was a glorious moment of the internet coming together and winning,” says Bekmambetov. There’s just one problem: Tripathi wasn’t guilty. And as would soon become clear, he was already dead by suicide after a struggle with depression. “It’s not a happy ending,” says Bekmambetov but it felt like a really important moment.” Documentary filmmaker Greg Barker (The Final Year) penned a feature script and will direct.
The director’s 2004 hit could be remade in the Screenlife format, he says. “It will be a fantasy movie about good and evil fighting in the Internet,” he says. His original followed forces of light (represented by a militarized Night Watch) and dark (represented by the nefarious Others), each possessing supernatural powers, doing battle in the streets of Moscow. This remake would digitize the concept.
“The Night Watch is almost certainly fighting within the internet to keep the balance,” says Bekmambetov. “You can still curse people; there’s magic and mystery. There is a twilight when you go deep into the internet, a mode where you can see everything for how it really is. It’s about the hidden, mystical part of the internet.”