Apping It Up
In a media-saturated age and an attention-driven economy, here’s a bold truth: An artist’s best material is probably worth no more than five dollars to any given member of the audience.
It was true when Louis CK unveiled his Live At The Beacon Theater experiment last month, and it’s especially true for independent and less-established artists seeking a platform. If you want to do it yourself, five dollars is about the most you can charge.
Rafael Antonio Ruiz and Lowell Bartholomee, the director and writer behind the Austin film Holy Hell (which premiered at the Austin Film Festival in 2009), heard that declaration and have embraced it with the release of Holy Hell — the iPad app.
Filmmakers have struggled for years to find an audience for their work, but Holy Hell appears to be the first of its kind: a film released via app.
Ruiz and Bartholomee have gone back to the movie and re-edited it, imagining the 90-minute film as six serialized, 15-minute chapters. The first one comes pre-loaded into the app, and the viewer can purchase the subsequent chapter for a dollar a piece within the app, making the final cost that magical five-dollar price-point.
“There are lots of movies where, if they just let you come in for the first fifteen minutes, and were like, ‘Do you want to see some more and pay for it?’ Sometimes I’d say, ‘No, that’s okay, I’m out,’” Bartholomee says, explaining the options provided by the format.
It makes sense — with so much media available from lesser-known talent to the average consumer, getting to dip your toe into a movie a buck at a time lowers the commitment level.
In addition to the 15 minute segment of the film, each chapter comes loaded with bonus content. Ruiz, who divides his time between L.A. and Austin, spent years working in California as a producer on the “extras” features for DVDs, and he has a definite idea about how to make these unique, as well.
“For the six chapters, we made a rule that all of the supplements would exist as though they were really in the world [of the film],” he says. “So we’re not going to have a little writer’s journal — “this is what we meant by this!” — or an audio commentary, or something like that. You get to experience more of the universe in each chapter.”
For the first chapter, the effect is neat; after watching the section of the film, you get a blog written by one of the characters, the Amazon-style reviews page of another, and additional scenes that supplement what you saw in the main film.
It’s a new approach to storytelling takes advantage of the iPad as a device, and this is one of the more interesting possibilities presented by the app format, and one that Ruiz was excited to explore.
“All of those elements work together. They’re right there with it. The time in between the emotional experience of watching it — you go to the movie theater, you watch it, maybe later you’ll check the website and get bored by it, or listen to the music, or whatever. But it’s all together here, and that unity of it creates a story out of itself,” Ruiz explains.
The story of the film, meanwhile, is a fairly direct piece of what Ruiz calls “purple-state filmmaking”: A church in a Texas community, struggling to stay financially solvent, opts to make and sell a horror film to raise money. Church members are opposed to the horror, and non-churchgoers are turned off by the idea of a horror movie made by a bunch of Christians.
A wealth of Austin’s theater talent stars, including Kenneth Wayne Bradley and Liz Fisher. The recently-departed atheism spokesperson Christopher Hitchens makes an appearance, as well, ensuring that the “opposed to the churchgoers” side of the argument is made loudly and in an imperious tone.
The full cast totals over a hundred actors — most of them regulars of the Austin stage — and many of them appear in that first (free) chapter, so while you’re deciding if you want to invest, you can also check out your favorite local actors.
Ultimately, there are two artistic achievements on display with Holy Hell. There’s the film that Bartholomee and Ruiz made, and there’s the app that really gives a glimpse of what the future of storytelling could look like as people find more ways to make their worlds immersive.
That, surely, is worth five dollars to explore.