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Producers to Watch: Brett Leonard and New Technology

by Sydney Levine
September 17, 2010 8:43 AM
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By guest blogger Peter Belsito


Brett Leonard

I recently met Brett Leonard and immediately liked him and his philosophy of work in life and the biz – a questioning and somewhat radical, experimental outlook which I just think is so relevant these days. As an accomplished filmmaker, his passion for helping young filmmakers find their voice is an inspiration and I also like his far reaching vision into ‘new technology’. Too often today our colleagues in the movie business fear and resist the trends we must learn to follow in our technological medium (i.e. cinema). Technology has no morality, nor feelings, it is impassive and ever changing, developing. I like it that Brett looks at it objectively, as an artist and teacher, and seeks to utilize it and expand the medium.

Brett has been making films for over 25 years. He describes his career arc as that of ‘an indie filmmaker who has also made studio films.’
Brett’s philosophy, born out in all his current interactive work, is to empower people to create story, character, and emotion in any new media experience, no matter what the technology being used to create it.


Some of his early successes are as follows:

Brett directed and co-wrote the hit motion picture The Lawnmower Man, starring Pierce Brosnan and Jeff Fahey. The film is considered a cult classic, way ahead of its time in the use of groundbreaking computer graphics and the portrayal of a networked data culture. The Lawnmower Man is one of the true progenitors of the "cyber genre" and was the number one commercially successful independent film of 1992, costing under $6 million and earning over $200 million worldwide. In 1993 Brett was a key participant of the Sony 2000 think tank, a small group of media visionaries assembled to discuss the future of media.

He also directed Peter Gabriel's KissThat Frog, the first all computer graphic music video/ride film. Kiss That Frog toured the world as a wildly popular theme park attraction, and won Brett a 1994 MTV Music Video Award.

In the ensuing years, Brett stepped into the third dimension with his IMAX 3D work, and directed T-Rex in IMAX 3D, which was the No.#1 hit 3D movie in history for over ten years, having grossed over $100 million worldwide on IMAX screens alone.

Brett also has a keen eye for new talent. He was instrumental in bringing Russell Crowe to American film audiences, giving Russell his first lead in a Hollywood film, Virtuosity, starring Denzel Washington, directed by Brett.

He did the same for Alicia Silverstone in his film for Tri-Star, Hideaway.

While continually directing feature films over the last twenty years, Brett also produced numerous interactive projects that were well ahead of their time – many at the forefront of defining what is now called “user-created interactive entertainment.”

He created a buzz when he took his “Swarm Cam-Fusion Station” onto the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Billy Idol, and implemented one of the first live webcasts ever, from the House of Blues, LA.

Subsequently, Brett was approached by CAA / the Creative Artists Agency and Intel Corporation to direct a state-of-the-art "interactive show" for the CAA/Intel Media Lab, with his team at L-Squared Entertainment doing the technical implementation. The "show," IS?TV®: The Virtual Studio Tour, was to introduce the Hollywood community to the "future of entertainment."

As Director of this ambitious and pioneering project, Brett digitized his star Danny DeVito, creating an interactive animated character named "Mr. Head", who guided the audience/participants through the interactive experience.

Looking at this presentation now, over ten years later, the constantly evolving media landscape we inhabit today is not so different from what Brett and his team predicted back then. He, and they, were among the first to envision the “YouTube”, “Facebook” cyber-world of our new millennium, and his company and colleagues today continue to develop ground-breaking projects for enabling truly interactive user-created media experiences, for both the internet, small digital defgices and location based immersive media venues.

His current endeavor, MegaTrend Media, founded by Brett and music industry veteran Michael Rosen, is a next-generation content creation company which specializes in achieving extremely high HD production values for the new cost models of internet-era content production.

Company motto: “High creative at reasonable cost”.

Believing that new content distribution platforms need their own creative “genres”, the team at MegaTrend has focused on creating projects in a style designed specifically for “personal screens” (iPhone, iPad, etc.) .

PB – So describe what you are doing ‘that’s new.’

BL - We call this new genre PopFictionLife – an Internet movie concept where a music-driven story is told in 5min “Frags” that connect together to form a full-length feature film. A FragFilm is not a typical web series – it delivers the “movie” experience in a form parsed for the short attention spans of the YouTube generation, designed for easy viewing and downloading on the Internet and mobile platforms.

FragFilms of the PopFictionLife genre revolve around the actual lives of developing or established music artists, fictionalized in fun and creative ways to have the dramatic impact of a Hollywood movie. This presents the artist and their music in an entertaining and compelling context beyond “reality”, with the style and high production values audiences expect from feature films and television.

PB – describe a bit ‘who you are’ in vision and your place in this business world of ours.

BL – I’ve been making films for 25 years. I’ve always been interested in our business with ‘what’s next?’ And I like to follow that, to explore a trend, and go by my gut – which has proved me right most of the time. I’m currently involved with digital filmmaking. I like film stock, I mean I’ve done IMAX 3D. The IMAX image has huge information potential and digital, until now, has not been as good. But NOW digital has the potential to become as quality a medium as film stock has been. Sure they are and will always be different. The way I’d describe it is that ‘film can capture a dream state’, while digital / HD is ‘a window to reality.’

PB – So where are we going? Problems in the biz that you can see?

BL – Digital, experimentation with narrative formats has made me realize that a lot of traditional business models for filmmaking have radically changed. We need new ways to create works and leveraging new technology in the creation process is essential. The ‘new cost’ models have little to do with historical models. The truth is that an industry (movies, film) that is so relentlessly driven by technology and change is mired in old business formulas. I like to think I ‘leap into’ (for better or worse) new process experimentation for compelling work within a contained cost structure.

PB – Tell me about your mentoring work.

BL – The youth today see things and experience the world very differently from us. I like to work with younger filmmakers who focus on new processes for content production that is based on new technology. The youth are trained on new tools covering all aspects of production.

PB – Where are they going?

BL – Various new trends. Mumblecore, for example, is improvisational story or cinema process. The 20 somethings (or younger) are making it up as they go along, no rules, everything is new. Their work is viewable on the internet.

PB – Talk about new business models if you can.

BL – Sure. Net distribution is becoming more professional. Financing is different now. There’s all kinds of potential corporate sponsorship deals, fully funding certain projects. They want ‘attitude’, even product placement. Some other ways to go are direct distribution, subscriptions, VOD. Hey, Netflix is streaming now. They are looking to these new ways, the young filmmakers are, because they frankly are frustrated with ‘Hollywood gatekeepers’, the old mentality.

PB – So what’s the biggest problem with filmmaking today?

BL – That’s easy. Too much crookery. Also, too often the atmosphere is rarified A list … and new artists are exempt. Lots of big product that is produced is vandalized. And then even very successful films today have a hard time recouping production costs. Look this stuff is obvious and it makes the young today very cynical about traditional distribution. This has pushed them ‘outside’ the mainstream.

PB – So…? What’s the future?

BL – I think we need new marketing modalities linked to the internet. 15 year olds (like my son) relate to ‘their generation’s medium’. They all grew up with a ‘personal screen’ in front of them. My content today is aimed at ‘them.’ I came into the business at a time when technology was changing everything. So the basic question then becomes what business model can connect us to new technologies and innovations we can use in the creative process. What’s the same as always in what we do is ‘story,’ that basic hasn’t changed at all.

*******

BRETT LEONARD FILMOGRAPHY:
Feel (Hollywood Records/Disney, 2010)
Hole in the Head: A Life Revealed (2009)
Truth? (2008)
Highlander: The Source (2007)
Feed (2005)
Man-Thing (2005)
Peter Gabriel: Play (2004) (V)
Texas: DVD w/ Russell Crowe (2002) (as Producer)
The Magic Box: IMAX 3D (1999)
T-Rex: IMAX 3D (1998)
Virtuosity (1995)
Hideaway (1995)
Shock To The System: Billy Idol (1993) (V)
The Lawnmower Man (1993)
The Dead Pit (1989)

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