"In a good summer, there's usually a movie that will come out of nowhere and completely wow us. This is a good summer, and that movie is District 9." -- Betsey Sharkey, Film Critic, LA Times.
Sharkey's review of District 9 is typical of those that were published in newspapers around the country. Many film critics were taken almost totally by surprise by the commercial success of this low budget film, produced in South Africa, by a first time feature film director.
Make no mistake about it -- District 9 is almost certainly the most impressive film released this summer and one of the best science fiction films to be released in recent years. It raises a high bar for Avatar, The Surrogates, and some of the other SF films which we are anticipating for Fall release.
Yet the film did not come out of "nowhere" either in the sense that those of us who follow the genre closely didn't know it was coming or in the sense that it is a totally "original" work which shatters all of our expectations about what science fiction is. Some of the mainstream critics sound almost shocked that science fiction can be deployed as a genre for exploring serious and timely social issues, for example, overlooking more than a hundred years of such exploration in literary SF. As someone who has taught science fiction courses off and on for the past 20 years, I wanted to situate District 9 over the next two installments in two important conversations -- one about transmedia branding and the other about race and science fiction.
The reason why the film wouldn't have caught many who followed science fiction by surprise is that it has been the focus of a transmedia marketing campaign for well over a year in advance of the film's release. Signs prohibiting nonhuman use of restrooms surfaced at Comic-Con a year ago. By the start of the summer, such signs were appearing on park benches, the sides of buses, and in a variety of other contexts around major cities. Here, the producers and promoters no doubt took some inspiration from the campaign which Campfire Media developed for the launch of True Blood last summer.
If you want to learn more about that campaign, check out Greg Hale's presentation at Futures of Entertainment 3 at MIT last year. Hale shared a stunning video which traced the evolution of that promotion. You can see it here starting at 8:40. Hale, who worked on the campaign, was a veteran of the Blair Witch Project, the release that really has set the model for most subsequent efforts to use transmedia to expand cult audience awareness of forthcoming small budget films. (See Convergence Culture) Another example of this process would be the work that Lance Weiller did around his film, Head Trauma. Lance was also featured on this same session at Futures of Entertainment. (By the way, there will be a Futures of Entertainment conference this November and I will be sharing some details pretty soon. It is always the weekend before thanksgiving.)
Meanwhile, pseudo-documentary segments were surfacing on YouTube and across the web. Here are a few examples.
These films, and others like it, serve important expositional functionss. They situate the context of the film and establish some of its core premises. But they also suggest the debates sparked by the events of the film, showing us different sides of the story than are depicted on the screen. District 9, for example, constructed a site for supporters of the Prawn, MNU Spreads Lies. We see alien rights activists in the background in the feature film but here we get a better sense of what motivates them and how they are critiquing the MNU. We learn things about alien biology -- including about the "Prawn"'s sexual reproduction -- which put the film's depiction of parenthood in a different context. (I particularly love the way that the MNU Spreads Lies site repurposes a documentary from MNU on its blog, constructing its own alternative counter-reading, and thus creating space for ambiguity about how reliable the information it contains may be about the "Prawns.")
This amateur video sought to stitch together some of the scattered pieces, drawing explicit analogy to Cloverfield, another film which "snuck" into the theaters, thanks to saavy deployment of transmedia branding and promotion strategies.
Of course, it makes sense that this film and filmmaker would embrace digital platforms as a means of expanding the fictional world given that District 9 was based on Neill Blomkamp's short, Alive in Joberg, which has been widely available on YouTube for some time. It's worth watching to see how the ideas and images in the current film took shape and how much he was able to achieve with a microscopic budget some of the same emotional impact that people have commented upon in District 9.
District 9 adopts a hyper-mediated style, framing the opening segments as a series of news reports, though it becomes harder as the film progresses to have a rational explanation for who is holding the shakey camera which follows the protagonist around the rubble of an increasingly militarized refuge compound. And the use of these various videos, depicted as coming from different sources, contributes to that aesthetic.
Given the filmmaker's goal to blur the boundaries between our real world and the fictional world it depicts, creating a science fiction film that requires surprisingly little suspension of disbelief, it seems right that the film's world would extend physically into our reality even before we step into the cinema.
The information value of the park bench is limited: it evokes a powerful history of racial segregation in this country and extends it into our understanding of the relations between humans and alien visitors. Yet, the shock value of seeing what amount to "Jim Crow" signs in contemporary Los Angeles reminds us that the story could indeed take place in our world and that we may be poorly prepared to deal with interplanetary diversity given how badly we have dealt with the very human diversity in our own midst.
So, can a park bench be a transmedia extension? I would vote yes -- at least in this case. It may be a small piece of a larger system of information about the film but it moves beyond simple branding and already situates us emotionally and intellectually inside the fiction.