When director Michael Gallagher and his co-writer Glasgow Phillips chose the shadowy online groups 4chan and Anonymous as villains for their microbudget slasher pic “Smiley,” they were seeking authenticity — and the chance to shine a light on one of the darkest corners of the Internet.
But they didn’t foresee a pre-release backlash.
Gallagher has endured a torrent of voicemails, emails, texts, message-board posts and comments laced with death threats, insults and admonitions to spam and harass the filmmaker, his colleagues, his girlfriend and his family. Now the FBI is considering whether to investigate the bizarre, life-imitates-art situation.
“I make so much stuff online, so I try to have pretty thick skin,” said Gallagher, whose “Totally Sketch” YouTube comedy channel has 830,000 subscribers and more than 340 million video views. “I like to think that I’m impervious to this stuff, but when I have my family and my girlfriend and people who are working on the movie worried about this, it’s different.”
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Gallagher made “Smiley” on a shoestring and enlisted fellow YouTube and Internet stars for roles, mostly because they are friends, but in part because of their massive and active social-media followings. (One remarkable result: The “Smiley” trailer has 17.5 million YouTube views, just shy of the 18.3 million who’ve clicked on the first official trailer for “The Avengers” since it went up this spring.)
Gallagher’s ordeal began just hours after press screenings last week in New York and Los Angeles for “Smiley,” the story of a girl who goes to college and meets members of 4chan.org, the 9-year-old message board where users anonymously post photos and comments, and its loose affilliate Anonymous. In the film, a series of grisly murders committed by Smiley, an urban-legend Internet ghoul from the imagination of Gallagher and Phillips, is linked to the shadowy real-life groups.
Though many of 4chan.org’s threads are as harmless as “Animals & Nature,” its most popular is the “Random” (or “/b/”) board, mostly consisting of gore, twisted porn, young women (often nude) and just about anything with shock value, often resulting in sicko comments by the dozen.
The offspring of 4chan is the hacker group Anonymous, whose pranks have included shutting down websites of the Justice Dept., the FBI and the MPAA. Anonymous is perhaps best known for donning Guy Fawkes masks and staging protests against Scientology, but its chief beef is against Internet censorship and surveillance; its WikiLeaks-like efforts led Time magazine to name it one of the most influential groups in the world this year.
When the group got word that Gallagher’s movie painted it in a sinister light, the bombardment began. At a rate of roughly 40 per minute, Gallagher’s phone lit up with text messages and emails, all sent from different numbers. His voicemail filled up with slurs and threats against his life. And on 4chan.org/b/, users unleashed a flood of threats and hatred that were still coming in as of Sunday.
A few examples: “DIRECTOR AND WRITER OF THIS FILM MUST DIE.” … “We are considering killing his dog and reporting him for animal cruelty.” … “Where is the hero that wants to go out in style when you need him? Killing the cast/directors would be a great way to end this life.”
Users also published his home address, cellphone number and links to his various sites and accounts, as well as information about his girlfriend (who appears in the film), his parents — even a couple of his cousins.
“I know deep down that these are just kids who are trolling and spamming me, but you can’t take this stuff lightly,” said Gallagher, who contacted Los Angeles police first and was told only to change his numbers and delete his accounts.
Though it does not comment on or confirm investigations, the FBI and Gallagher have since been in contact. The agency’s cyber division is aware of 4chan and has prosecuted cases through the site, though most were related to child porn, which is otherwise discouraged there and largely self-monitored.
Gallagher said the story was always 4chan/Anonymous-based, as co-writer Phillips “has always had a fascination with evils online.” To that end, he anticipated some negative reaction — but nothing like the past few days would bring.
“I figured when we came out on homevideo, like, sure, I’m going to get some backlash,” he said. “I didn’t have any idea to what extent.”
“Smiley” preems Tuesday night and will get a run in 28 AMC theaters Oct. 12. Whether Guy Fawkes makes an appearance remains to be seen.