03 Jul, 2010

Tron: one day will all films be made this way?

Posted by: admin In: Creative Review

Why the forthcoming Tron Legacy is not a film but an ‘entertainment property’ that has ‘repurposed assets’ to create its own highly lucrative ‘storyworld’

This is not a trailer. Instead it is a ‘prototype’. At least it is according to Ed Ulbrich of Digital Domain whose company developed it in collaboration with Disney and director Joseph Kosinksi.

Ulbrich was speaking at last week’s PromaxBDA conference in Los Angeles. Tron Legacy, he seemed to be suggesting, was a blueprint for a new way of creating entertainment that would bring together film, games, theme park rides and brands. This is already happening of course, but the making of Tron reveals how the processes and thinking of Hollywood have changed.

Most films start with a script, a story someone wanted to tell. The Tron sequel, it seems, started with a business problem. The screenwriters’ strike of 2007 had left studios with no new product. To fill the gap, Disney started examining its archives to see what it could remake and Tron seemed to fit the bill.

But instead of writing a script, it was decided that the first thing needed was a ‘prototype’ – a short film that would give potential investors and partners an idea of what the film would look like. This is what Digital Domain and its partners made (shown above).

Ulbrich described its purpose as to ‘mitigate investor risk’. With a traditional screenplay you are asking potential investors to imagine what the final thing will look like based on words on a page and trust that it all turns out fine. With Tron, they could show people what they were going to get or, in Ulbrich’s words, they could “assess content opportunities by viewing sample material”.

The prototype was thus used to raise money, get brands involved, sign up distributors and so on. It was also the starting point for the other properties to be developed around Tron – the game and so on. No more will the game be developed in response to the film – the two can now be developed side by side.

Ulbrich sees this as a future model for Digital Domain, even creating a spin-off company, Mothership, to do handle this kind of project. Which is where things get interesting for CR readers, because this is exactly the kind of thing that ad agencies have been talking about for years – creating some kind of IP which can then be sold to investors and partners that would combine entertainment with brand messages.

Which is all very clever but is it really any way to create great films? At the risk of sounding hopelessly old fashioned, surely great films come from great stories, great direction, great acting and great editing – in that order. Yes, Hollywood has always been about making money but popular and populist films still (usually) had great stories at their heart.

After the vacuous nonsense of Transformers, the film of the toy, Tron feels like yet another step toward the hollowing out of filmmaking into a totally empty shell. Ulbrich showed a slide to illustrate the potential of this way of working on ‘entertainment properties’ in which an armada of brands circled a central creative concept like so many alien spaceships waiting to attack planet Earth. It all makes a lot of sense from a marketing point of view and will no doubt make a lot of people a lot of money (and bringing game designers into the process earlier will probably result in better games)…

… but I left Ulbrich’s session feeling profoundly depressed.


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