Film could rewrite rules of comicbook movies

Success has many fathers. And blockbusters have many imitators.

But not all surprise hits are created equal. Some have more impact on pop culture than others. Much like such iconic movies as “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “Pulp Fiction” or “The Matrix,” director Zack Snyder and comicbook creator Frank Miller’s “300” looks to be a shapeshifter movie for the new millennium.

Beyond turning Gerard Butler into an action star and revitalizing the R rating, “300” is going to have a big impact, because it has proved the effectiveness of a moviemaking technique that blends stylized graphic and live-action elements seamlessly — and at $64 million, relatively inexpensively.

It’s the birth of a new hybrid cinema, says genre marketing consultant Jeff Conner (“The Animatrix”). “Call it live-action anime. It’s like doing a high school play on a stage with digital backdrops. It’s a new visual language with a different reality.”

“I don’t know what to call it,” Miller says. “I’m watching it, movie to movie. Something big is happening, and anyone who knows where it’s going is wrong. It’s the same process that happened with comics and movies: What used to be an abusive relationship has turned into a full-scale marriage.”

The technology behind “300” was pioneered by George Lucas with 1999’s “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” in which Lucas placed live actors inside partially dressed sets and finished the scenes inside the computer. Director Kerry Conran also pushed the envelope with the 2004 “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” but he failed to bring his actors to life within their fake digital environments. Only Angelina Jolie seemed able to capture the right superscale attitude.

Robert Rodriguez fared far better after he convinced the reluctant Miller, an unhappy refugee from Hollywood movies, that together they could bring his graphic novel “Sin City” to the screen with such technology. When commercials director Snyder (“Dawn of the Dead”) saw the highly stylized 2005 “Sin City,” he figured he could use the same technique to translate Miller’s graphic novel “300.” After he wowed Warner Bros. with a 90-second demo, he was able to seize the reins and make the epic movie about the Battle of Thermopylae on a modest scale.

Obviously, as the Hollywood studios complain about the rising costs of wowing audiences with the whiz-bang visual effects that powered such blockbusters as “The Lord of the Rings” and the “Harry Potter” series, anything that promises to lower costs while still knocking moviegoers’ eyes out is a good thing.

No one doubts that a host of similar movies will follow in the wake of “300.” Miller himself is going over the final script with Rodriguez for the Weinstein Co.’s “Sin City 2,” based on Miller’s story “A Dame to Kill For,” starring Jessica Alba in the title role. Miller is also prepping a follow-up to “300” based on another mythic tale from Greek history, but he won’t divulge details. And he’s planning to direct his adaptation of comic auteur Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” for Odd Lot Entertainment after he finishes “Sin City 2.”

Snyder meanwhile is tackling the complex challenge that has confounded many others before him: adapting Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel “Watchmen” for Warners.

But there will also be some not-so-pure knockoffs of “300” as Hollywood seeks to exploit something that obviously works.

“This will be great for heroic action movies,” says producer James Jacks (“The Mummy”), who is eager to give Conran another chance to prove himself with the technique. “‘300,’ which is the perfect combination of a story and a visual style, validates this approach. You’ll see a lot more of these kinds of movies that combine heavy CGI with human characters. ‘300’ feels huge. These movies are expanding what you can do. If you know what you’re doing, you can make these movies for air.”

“Transformers” producer Don Murphy thinks the technique also would work in a more contemporary setting.

“‘300′ shows that you can create a completely stylized world for less money than you ever could before,” he says. “As long as it’s the right project, you’ll see films taken to some dazzling places. I have several projects set in the ’60s. If done right, I could make the ’60s as relevant as ancient Greece.”

Few of the imitators are likely to be commercial. “There’s going to be some wacko knockoffs from subcontractors in India and South Korea,” says one studio producer. “The race is on.”

Miller quotes author Theodore Sturgeon’s law: “He said, ‘Ninety percent of everything is crud.’ You’ll find that applies to everything that comes down the pipeline.”

The danger is in thinking that a film that is the perfect match of style, story and technology can be easily imitated.

“Things can feel fresh only a few times,” says producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who supervised “The Matrix” at Warner Bros. as head of production. “Fresh is another word for originality. When you utilize the same method they used on ‘300,’ you’re already one generation less fresh. The technology is evolving and opening up in different ways. But it comes down to the same thing: Zack Snyder had an individual point of view as a director about what the audience would embrace. The time was right. Whether it’s ‘Matrix’ or ‘Pulp Fiction,’ it’s about the iconic nature of the movie. Knockoffs of ‘The Matrix’ weren’t iconic. That level of talent is a rare commodity.”

Conner believes that much like Japan’s 2004 sleeper hit “Casshern,” low-budget computer anime movies also could proliferate here, springing up like kudzu out of nowhere.

Jon Landau, who is producing James Cameron’s top-of-the-line “Avatar” with new performance-capture technology, agrees. “It’s great for the industry that the cost of doing all of this is coming down, opening things up for garage shops to realize this kind of filmmaking. It’s an enabler for filmmakers.”

The trick for the studios will be to chase after picky moviegoers with just the right hybrid mix of premium visuals and economies of scale.

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