Q&A: Horror filmmaker spooks Xbox Live

While working on James Cameron's forthcoming sci-fi epic Avatar, John Clisham directed the first narrative short film distributed exclusively via Microsoft's online marketplace.

In November 2006, one year after the Xbox 360 debuted, Microsoft launched the video store for Xbox Live Marketplace. Since then, the service has been a hit, delivering tens of millions of pieces of video content to millions of subscribers. More than 35 television channels and film studios offer a range of shows for sale and films for rent on the service. There's also a lot of video content covering the game industry produced by Microsoft and external partners, including GameSpot.

However, it wasn't until this month that the first original narrative short film made for XBLM debuted just in time for Halloween. Titled Janitor, the 9.5-minute horror-thriller is a throwback to the gore-spattered slasher films of the 1980s. It profiles a young student who finds her very soul in peril after the custodial engineer at her school undergoes a "paranormal transformation." It stars Jenna Dewan, who was the lead in the dance film Step Up and a supporting player in the horror movie The Grudge 2.

Janitor is the first of six confirmed Xbox Live original shorts. The other five will go live the week of November 19 to help show off the HD video capabilities of the New Xbox Experience. Though most of the shorts are darkly comic, their directors include some big names in horror, including James Wan and Leigh Whannell (Saw), Andrew Douglas (the Amityville Horror remake), James Gunn (Slither), and David Slade (Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night).

John Clisham

Janitor, however, was directed by a relative unknown, John Clisham. Like James Silva, the amateur developer whose DIY XNA project Dishwasher was the toast of Microsoft's 2008 Game Developers Conference presentation, Clisham worked in relative obscurity until he caught the game giant's eye.

"I started off at a small production company in Santa Monica, which has done a lot of business with [Microsoft]," the filmmaker told GameSpot. "They saw me working late at night and on weekends making these little horror movies and asked to pitch to them, which I did."

Besides being attracted by the opportunity to have his film seen by 14 million Xbox Live subscribers, Clisham was drawn to the online service's technical flourishes. "The infrastructure they have is really great," he explained. "Even though it's a lot of data, it starts playing in HD pretty quickly. I used to put my movies on Web sites in Flash, but it never really looked cinematic. The best thing about XBL is it goes right to people's houses through the Web, but it's still going to look really good."

According to Clisham, Microsoft's motivation for making the original content was to toy with the idea of turning Xbox Live into a "television network of sorts." Indeed, the software colossus refers to Janitor and other shorts as "pilots" and intends to expand them into outright series if they prove popular enough. "They're testing the waters," explained Clisham, who is confident of success. "They told us that if even a few thousand people watch this, we will be back for round two."

The XBL original shorts are also like television shows insofar as they are free to watch--or in this case, download--and create revenue via ads. The US Air Force is running a spot with Janitor, with advertisers for the other shorts to be named later. To placate advertisers, the default versions of the shorts will be cut to a PG-13 level of violence and gore, with an R-rated cut also being available.

However, just because the US Defense Department is paying to advertise with the Xbox Live shorts doesn't mean they're big budget. "Microsoft didn't want to spend a lot of money," said Clisham, "and they told us that up front. 'That way,' they said, 'If nobody likes these things, we didn't lose a lot of money.'"

The result was ironic: A guerrilla digital video shoot for a corporation with tens of billions of dollars in cash reserves in the bank. "I think the total budget was about $15,000, with a crew of about 40 people," said the filmmaker. Obviously, like many shoestring productions, Janitor relied on many volunteers on its set. "The film I'm working on now is sort of big budget," he explained. "So there are just a lot of people around willing to help. It's a family atmosphere, since we've all been on this shoot for so freaking long."

Well, at least he'll clean up after himself.

"Sort of low budget" is sort of an understatement. Currently, Clisham is working on Avatar, the first film helmed by Terminator director James Cameron since 1997's Titanic. Due out next year, the science-fiction epic reportedly has a budget north of $200 million and will also be shot in 3D. It also has an upcoming game adaptation from Ubisoft, which was, at one point, purported to be a massively multiplayer project.

Speaking from the soundstage where the film is being shot, Clisham said that the Avatar film crew is working in close conjunction with developers of Ubisoft's game, which is reportedly already running on the Xbox 360 and will, like the film, require 3D glasses to view.

"We know there have been meetings," said Clisham, "From what I've heard on the set, the integration [of the game and the film] is getting a lot tighter" than previous projects. He thinks that this is indicative of a greater trend in the film and game industries, since the two are increasingly using the same tools and software, such as Autodesk's Maya.

"At one point, I think they'll be one in the same," he predicted. "You have all your visual effects shots and [game] art assets taken from the same elements. ... I think it'll help with the consistency of the look at feel."

Indeed, Clisham believes that soon games and film will be held in the same artistic regard as films by the public at large. "It's just a few years away," he said. "I mean just look at the Resident Evil series--just look at its visual style. I think in 20 years people look will back and reference those and quote those just like films."

No, he doesn't do windows.

But just because he is a filmmaker who enjoys the Resident Evil games doesn't mean he likes the Resident Evil films. "I think I just tuned out after the second one--all they have in common with the game is a title," he rued. "Overall, the state of game-based films is pretty weak. I can't think of any movie based on a game that's totally awesome."

Why the dearth of classic game-based films? "I don't know if they're not gamers, but I think the filmmakers don't respect the property in the same way that the [game] creator does," explained Clisham. "It's like when a book is turned into a film. If the director really understands the story or he has a hand in adapting the screenplay, it makes a so much better product. However, I think if you had someone who was involved in a key part of the game, either as a designer or a writer, as a key part of the movie, that would definitely help."

The indefinite postponement of the Peter Jackson-produced Halo film hit Clisham especially hard, since he was an admirer of director Neil Blomkamp's live-action Halo shorts. "It could have been another Star Wars--I can't believe they messed that up," he complained. He does, however, have hope in one project. "I think they did the right thing by getting Cliff [Bleszinski] involved in the Gears of War film," declared Clisham. "I think that's a great example of how it should be done."

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Discussion

41 comments
Ardontious
Ardontious

I agree, Hydrolix. Grudgingly though. :/

Hydrolix
Hydrolix

@otanikun. I completely disagree. Television is going to be entirely web based in the near future. This is the first step towards that.

otanikun
otanikun

Is it just me or is this little gimmick just gonna die out quickly? I mean it sounds like a solid idea but, I dunno, I'm still skeptical on it.

Vegeta-sama
Vegeta-sama

Janitor is pretty fun short... it'll scare the kids for sure... and maybe your gf/girly bf

Pseudoart
Pseudoart

probably posted before, but I think your editor missed this: ""Sort of low budget" is sort of an understatement." - shoulda been "sort of big budget"

necronaux
necronaux

Hey, if they're free for now, why not check them out. Great that he squashed the ratings debate (releasing multiple versions right at the start).

chimairawr
chimairawr

truenextgen please shut up. Your incoherent fanboyish ramblings are unnecessary. In truth, I won't complain about anything free. Might give this a download later on, see if it's any good.

Dreski83
Dreski83

I'm pretty happy I finally got a bigger HD, now I can really go wild and download anything and everything 8)

kurnlklank
kurnlklank

OMG imagine sitting at home playing some bad a33 game in 3D!!!! that would be so f**king cool

moose_knuckler
moose_knuckler

lol Ryan71889 Why would you question if there's actually millions of xbox live subscribers and then say the number of xbox live subscribers would be down by "not that much"? Hate to reign on your parade Ryan, but IT DOESN'T count the amount of multiple accounts unless they have multiple GOLD accounts

ff7cloudking
ff7cloudking

Star77241- 14 million subscribers is ONLY live, Netflix has way more than 14 million subscribers.

truenextgen
truenextgen

what a joke. Hay what ever happened to the new Xbox live Wii characters also. In all serious thow, I just cant believe the US buys into their poverty all the more. By buying big business that dont help their middle and trade like micro, epically when their such a joke. And what I mean by joke is "just a few" a 360 that looks like a ps2 kinda. Everything is brought in, even Halo was a mac game once. Wii characters on live, just so stale. And now the movie thing because sony is huge in Hollywood. Ill have to watch my underwear closet, thats next probably.

azn_invazion
azn_invazion

@fnkymnk people do make mistakes when they type. just chill. i just want to see more movies

FNKYMNK
FNKYMNK

Haha ryan spelled rain wrong. Moron.

Scienceray
Scienceray

wow ryan71889 do i hear sony fanboyism or is it just my imagination?

ryan71889
ryan71889

ok the millions of subcribers? does that included the people who have mulitple accounts? it probably does and not to reign on the parade but then that number would be down. maybe not by much but it would still be down.

maddog2575
maddog2575

good idea but really bad movie xD srry but it is. it was really terrible and cheesy lol. but i am hoping they will do more

leafdj
leafdj

"Overall, the state of game-based films is pretty weak. I can't think of any movie based on a game that's totally awesome." Obviously he's never seen the Super Mario Bros. Movie.

dynomitemasta
dynomitemasta

no, Live has over 14 million star77241. more and more are now getting gold in record numbers, and expect that to skyrocket with the addition of Netflix.

star77241
star77241

14 million Live subscribers. That's a big audience. But is that number the number of people who have Live and NetFlix or just Live? Because if it's just Live, you have to cut that down a bit.

SteveTwo
SteveTwo

There is one movie. Mortal Kombat was actually a great video-game-movie imho.

myslyalibi
myslyalibi

Definitely worth checking out Janitor - the dude works under James Cameron and looks like he knows his game well.

DataDream
DataDream

I like how someone in the film industry recognizes and flat out states what needs to be done to make good movies based on games. Quite simply - the people involved in developing the game SHOULD be involved in the production of the corresponding movie as well. Hopefully people in Hollywood listen to that - because that's all that needs to happen for some good game based movies to be made instead of all the "Boll" style crap that has made it painful to watch movies based on games.

GoddBless
GoddBless

Well he talks a pretty good game. Time to go watch this thing...

druggyjoe3000
druggyjoe3000

Good idea like everyone else is saying it could help small movie makers get thier ideas out

grigjd3
grigjd3

Um, John Grisham what?

snakes3425
snakes3425

Sounds like a pretty good idea, as long as they don't take away from XBL's gaming aspect.

newb16
newb16

LOL that dude needs to stop chewing tobaco.

maverick_76
maverick_76

I believe that is what you call plugging your material, people do this all the time on talk shows. I think it is smart business.

JJpenguin
JJpenguin

kind of defeats the object of a pilot if GS covers it, now a few thousand people WILL take a look just because GS says it's interesting