What really happened with the Phoenix Lights?
For nearly four years, some 60 websites, Facebook and Google+ pages, Twitter accounts, WordPress blogs, and YouTube channels have been cropping up hinting at a vast military cover-up over the disappearance of four friends off-roading in the mountains near Phoenix after witnessing the U.S. military shoot down a UFO.
Collectively, they’ve garnered millions of views and comments that cried foul or joined in, and even some press coverage from outlets such as The Mirror, Yahoo News, and Business Standard, which reported them as real incidents.
The digital breadcrumbs have been part of an elaborate viral marketing campaign for a transmedia project, Phoenix Incident, a UFO conspiracy docudrama and first feature from veteran game director Keith Arem and his PCB Productions (Call of Duty, Titanfall, Sleeping Dogs).
However, the overall effort incorporates a novel combination of viral marketing, an interactive app version of the film, gamification elements that reward more active app users, and corporate partnerships that extend the film’s modest $1.3 million budget. The strategy, particularly the app, has caught the attention of veteran producers such as The X-Files' Chris Carter and Star Wars' J.J. Abrams, who Arem says are now talking to him about ways to incorporate this strategy into their projects.
At the tip of the iceberg is the 82-minute feature film, which releases April 8 in theaters and across digital platforms, including Apple TV, which will feature the motion picture as part of an interactive app.
Leading up to that event are appearances and screenings at Boston SciFi Film Festival on February 11, International UFO Congress in Phoenix on February 19, Ice Film Festival in Ohio on February 20, Hollywood Reel Independent Festival on February 26, and Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose on March 5.
Then on March 10, Fathom Events will present a live simulcast in as many as 600 AMC, Regal, and Cinemark theaters (which co-own Fathom) around the U.S. The Fathom presentation will also include exclusive footage of a UFO experts' roundtable discussion conducted at the UFO Congress and tied into the March 13, 1997 anniversary of the Phoenix Lights, the alleged UFO sighting that inspired the film.
"We’re trying to bring the Blair Witch concept to a new generation," says Arem, referring to the 1999 paranormal film’s viral marketing campaign that roused audience curiosity. "What we did not do was make fun. We walked a fine line with the UFO believers. Characters in the film had their own Twitter feeds and websites, and users interacted with them as if they were real people. But we didn’t want them to feel that we pranked them. Instead, we enlisted them as partners in a much bigger cause of disclosure that we’re hoping the movie to spark. We want to promote the idea that if there is something going on, the government should disclose it. We’ve incorporated the #DiscloseNow hastag into our social media."
Arem used his background to his advantage, employing game-themed filming conceits—rapid edits, 360-degree pans, first-person views, multiple formats, and a cast of mo-cap video game stars—to appeal to a core constituency of gamers, as well as related sci-fi and horror fans.
"We treated a lot of the shoot like a mo-cap scene, blocking it in a similar sense, with multiple cameras, shooting in tight spaces, and a customized viewing system that allowed me to move through the set alongside actors and see each shot in real time," says Arem.
To create an authentic look for the film’s late '90s setting, the film (which shot over three weeks in 2014) used a combination of eye-witness recordings, actual military footage, news reports, and recreated footage via several methods and formats: Red One, GoPro, and SI-2K cameras, 2K and 4K video, 8mm film, and VHS.
The most novel element of the project is an interactive version of the film launching on Apple TV. The app incorporates nearly four hours of the viral marketing footage in a way that enables viewers to dig deeper into the story and the actual events. The cost for the film and the app will be the same, with the app offering bonus content and additional micro-transactions.
The additional footage is organized into themed "threads," each pertaining to different aspects of the plot, characters, and timeline all hinting at the largest UFO military cover-up in U.S. history. Viewers will be able to pause the film and click on supporting media that delves deeper into the backstory, character histories, and scene-relevant topics discussing different UFO and missing persons cases, cult involvements, and exposés on government cover-ups.
"All of the material from the viral campaign, bonus footage, and alternate scenes is incorporated into the app," says Arem. "We’re basically gamifying the movie. You can watch the film passively, or at any time, swipe the screen and get meta info, and share it with other people. The movie is segmented and each scene is given a point value. The more you watch, the more points you earn, which allow you to unlock new footage and immerse yourself into the investigation.
"Every scene of the movie is incorporated socially, so people can comment on it, add to it, make their own playlists, share it with other people, upload their own materials to the app, and expand the story," Arem adds. "You can customize the experience by organizing playlists of, say, all the sightings from the movie, expert commentary, or action scenes to make your own edit of the film."
Arem independently raised the $1.3 million for the film, plus another few hundred thousand dollars through private investors for the extra material for the viral campaign and interactive app.
Arem and his sales agents, Concourse Film Trade, initially planned a traditional distribution route with Relativity Media. But when Relativity filed for bankruptcy last year, they began rethinking their strategy, eventually signing a deal with Freestyle Releasing for the digital platforms release, and approached theatrical and corporate partnerships directly.
"We became much more entrepreneurial," says Arem. "Smaller distributors were offering no better than what we could do ourselves. We were receiving offers from companies that wanted over a third of our income, with no cap on fees or expenses. As an independent film, we couldn’t see how we would recoup our money."
On April 8, the film will open in 10 to 13 targeted cities and expand to more theaters depending on its performance. Combined with the digital platforms, the film doesn’t have to be a box office smash for Arem and his investors to recoup their investment. A theatrical release is important, because it affords better placement in digital platforms, reserved for projects concurrently in theatrical release.
Arem and his promotional partners at Entertainment Marketing Group solicited unique partnerships to boost distribution and awareness of the film.
Ticket broker Fandango launched the official Phoenix Incident trailer February 5 in conjunction with Movieclips.com. Users who buy tickets from Fandango will earn codes that unlock bonus features in the app.
Also in the works are deals with Steam, a digital game distribution platform with 100 million subscribers that just opened a video-on-demand division, and Loot Crate, a subscription fulfillment center of curated gaming and geek-themed merchandise.
"With companies like Steam and Apple, the idea is to move away from traditional distribution, and turn the model around to get creators involved in changing the way people experience entertainment," says Arem.
For the better part of a decade, Arem has been slowly pivoting his 17-year-old studio and gaming facility into a transmedia production house that interweaves traditional gaming production with graphic novel publishing, apps, feature films, and episodic TV.
Arem made a splash at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con with his first transmedia iPad app, Infex iOS, and has another 30 projects in the pipeline, some of which have been optioned and all involving transmedia elements.
Arem is planning Phoenix Incident spin-offs, including a virtual reality experience, a television series, and prequel films inspired by other unexplained incidents. He’s currently casting his next film, Frost Road, based on a graphic novel to be published this year about a person who wakes up with amnesia to discover that he has triggered the apocalypse. Eventually, Arem hopes to direct his angel-themed epic, Ascend, based on the 2009 special edition version of his bestselling graphic novel.
"Phoenix has become my film school," says Arem. "After contributing to over 600 games, I am growing my skills as a director and utilizing my background as an asset."