Universal inks five-film deal with Unfriended’s Timur Bekmambetov
Timur Bekmambetov became one of the most high-profile producers in Hollywood with the release of the first installment in the Unfriended horror franchise and after continuing that success in Screenlife storytelling with the 2018 follow-up, he has inked a five-film deal with studio Universal Pictures for more films in this genre, according to Deadline.
The Screenlife genre is one in which the entire film is set from the point of view of smartphones and computer screens as characters utilize webcams and phone cameras for conversations that help drive the narrative forward. Unfriended‘s success saw other films attempt to achieve that same level of financial and critical reception, with the standout being the John Cho-starring Searching at Sony, which became the best-reviewed and highest-grossing effort produced by Bekmambetov.
The 58-year-old writer/director first partnered with Universal on his English-language directorial debut Wanted led by James McAvoy (Dark Phoenix) and Angelina Jolie (Maleficent), which received generally positive reviews and grossed over $342 million at the global box office. Talks of a sequel have been floated in the decade since and now he believes this new hit format could finally help get it off the ground.
“Maybe do the sequel in Screenlife,” Bekmambetov told Deadline. “I cannot imagine an assassin in today’s world would run with a gun. Why? He will use drones, he will use computer technology, probably. You don’t need to bend bullets anymore. You need to bend ideas.”
Bekmambetov previously announced prior to Searching‘s release that he had 14 different films in this format in development and now it’s been revealed that with traditional Hollywood productions shut down since March, he has been producing five movies during this lockdown.
“During this crazy time, we have been living in Screenlife mode, and it is very organic to produce movies because they can be done while people are home in their safe place,” he said. “We are all in different cities and we can record screens without meeting each other. It’s the nature of this language, this Screenlife format, to work like this.”
Even as he has actors and writers in different parts of the world, Bekmambetov has described working on these films as “a very organic production process” and that more important than simply seeing the faces of characters throughout the film is seeing what they’re looking at and doing on their screens they find their eyes glued to, as “you know exactly what I feel, what I do, what I’m dreaming about.”
“We just decided, why do we need a camera? We need to record our screens,” he said. “We still need a production designer. Instead of a set, we’re building the virtual set. My desktop is different from yours; we’re all unique. In this case, production designer is shooting an event and creating the character’s world. The casting director could cast actors for me all in one day around the world. I wrote the script with my partner and co-writer, it was all done online, we shared screens and were all together. If I need a composer, I can Skype and develop ideas, not being in the same space. The editor is in a different city, and the visual effects company too, and we all work together, without being in the same space. It’s no longer about our lives in physical space, it’s about behavior and the stories in how we live and interact on screens. How we lose relationships and find new ones, in today’s world. I believe to observe and understand the human community today, you need to see the screen of the device of that person. We live on screens, we express ourselves on them and create relationships with them. If thieves are robbing banks, it’s not about masks and guns anymore, it’s about computer codes.”
Despite the large financial success of the Unfriended films, which have grossed a combined $80 million on a combined $2 million budget, and Searching, which hauled in over $75 million worldwide on an $880,000 budget, Bekmambetov revealed that the concept of Screenlife is still a tough sell for major Hollywood studios, with Universal’s Donna Langley being the only one who saw its true potential.
“Timur brings a fresh perspective and distinct voice to all his work,” Langley said. “As the industry further shifts, he finds new ways to connect with audiences across the globe. Timur and the team at Bazelevs blend a unique brand of storytelling with technological creativity that makes these films feel current and relevant. We look forward to continued shared success as we expand our partnership.”
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)