"Screen Life" Films May Be the Next (Cheap) Genre Craze

Debra Messing - Jon Cho - Searching International Trailer Still - H 2018

Projects set on iPhones or computers are inexpensive to produce and can offer a "powerful storytelling tool."

About five years ago, Timur Bekmambetov was on a Skype call with a colleague who used the app’s Screen Share feature, allowing the director-producer to quickly view a social media post on her desktop. But the colleague forgot to un-share the screen.

“For a moment, I witnessed all of her internal world, what she feels, what she is doing,” he recalls as he saw different tabs open and close and typed words flew by. “I said to her, ‘Sorry, I see your screen.’ And we laughed, but then we understood that if I see the screen, I’m kind of inside the character. It’s a very, very powerful storytelling tool.”

That moment spawned a new, cheap film technique – not unlike The Blair Witch Project launched the cost-effective found-footage craze nearly two decades ago – where movies are told entirely from the vantage of a computer and iPhone screen. Since then, Bekmambetov has produced several so-called “screen life” films including 2015’s Unfriended, which cost $1 million and earned $64 million worldwide.

His latest, Searching, opens Aug. 24 in nine theaters before expanding wide. The John Cho starrer has been generating buzz since January, when it bowed at Sundance and quickly landed one of the biggest deals of the festival (Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions paid $5 million for global rights to the Aneesh Chaganty-directed thriller).

At the upcoming Toronto market, Bekmambetov will begin shopping Profile, a thriller he also directed that centers on an undercover British journalist who infiltrates the online propaganda channels of ISIS.

Through his Moscow- and L.A.-based Bazelevs production and finance company, the Wanted helmer is experimenting with less-obvious genres like comedy with Liked (a modern version of Cyrano story directed by Marja Lewis-Ryan) as well as returning to horror (Followed, which was directed by Bryce McGuire and unfolds on the phone of a teenage girl who live streams from an abandoned asylum that turns out to be haunted). Over the next 18 months, he’ll begin production on 14 new screen life projects including a Snapchat version of Romeo and Juliet.

“It’s a new language. There’s no cameras. There’s no traditional editing,” he explains. “But any storyteller can tell stories [this way], and it will cost from nothing to — the most expensive movie we made is [Profile] for like $2.3 million. It’s what I’m doing for last five years, trying to prove that this is not gimmicky, you know?”

This story first appeared in the August 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.