There are times when you feel like you've just glimpsed the future. A small audience has gathered in London's Apple Store to watch a sneak preview of Bananaz, Ceri Levy's riotous behind-the-scenes documentary about Gorillaz, the Grammy-winning "virtual band" that's the brainchild of Blur's Damon Albarn and Tank Girl co-creator Jamie Hewlett.
Scattered throughout, some multitasking viewers are sitting with their laptops open, presumably blogging about what they've watching. Gone, it seems, are the days when going to the cinema was a purely passive experience. Indeed, if Babelgum has its way, the days of sitting down munching popcorn in a dirty multiplex are over. A Flash-driven website that provides a sophisticated platform for artists, comedians, musicians and film-makers to showcase their content, Babelgum launched Bananaz on April 20th, delivering what it called the first global online premiere.
Viewers are able to watch Levy's film for free, either on their computer or by downloading an application onto their phone, long before EMI releases the film in June on DVD.
Already, fans of the band have been able to access the Babelgum website and witness a "blog-off" between Levy and Murdoc, the (fictional) self-proclaimed leader of Gorillaz, who appears to have inundated the director's answer-phone with abusive messages about the documentary. Certainly, getting into an argument with a 2-D character marks a suitable end to a long chapter in Levy's life. Between 2000 and 2006, he shot hours of footage capturing the Gorillaz phenomenon.
Charting the evolution of the band, from concept to creation and the subsequent platinum-selling success, his fly-on-the-wall film gives new meaning to the phrase "access all areas" – showing everything from tantrums to moments of inspiration. Still, after all that work, is releasing it on the web the right way to go? "For us, in some ways it's a gamble," he admits.
Arguably, it makes total sense for a film like Bananaz to debut online, not least because Albarn and Hewlett's creation is tailor-made for the virtual world. After all, the very concept of Gorillaz, which spawned the 2001 self-titled debut album and the 2005 follow-up Demon Days, sees the band fronted by Murdoc and his fellow animated band members, an idea that works perfectly in cyberspace. It's why, according to Levy, Gorillaz has become a specifically internet-based phenomenon. "If you look on the internet, they have the most popular MySpace site – something like 600,000 friends."
Naturally, Bananaz has a presence on MySpace too, as well as other social networking sites Facebook and Twitter. "We're trying to embrace the modern age," says Levy.
"Too many films that are really good get out there and are gone within moments, and then you find that they're struggling to even get a DVD release." While gaining a web presence is now very common for films, most movie websites are little more than glorified adverts that do little to fire the imagination – and certainly aren't integrated with a distribution platform in the way Bananaz is.
Unsurprisingly, though, this innovative approach to distribution and marketing was born out of a feeling of frustration familiar to most independent film-makers. While Bananaz first screened at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival, despite its warm reception there, Levy struggled to find a deal with which he was happy.
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"We were trying to do something a little bit more unconventional, mainly because the conventional way wasn't working for us," he explains. "It was a very difficult year, last year, trying to get anything out that didn't have huge explosions and famous superstars."
For Levy, Babelgum provided the perfect platform for a film like Bananaz. "I hope we're doing everything completely in the Gorillaz spirit with Bananaz. To us, if it doesn't have a premiere at Leicester Square, it doesn't matter," he says. So what do Albarn and co. make of this approach? "They're fine with it. Damon is very much a person who moves on to what he's doing next. He's not precious like that. He's happy that it's getting out there and will live a life."
Admittedly, there have been other attempts to break the conventional distribution model – notably Steven Soderbergh's Bubble, which was simultaneously released in the US in theatres, on DVD and on cable television. But this is different.
"It really is what it says on the tin," says Levy, "a global premiere." As Jason Lamont, head of music at Babelgum explains, previous attempts to unveil stuff online have been localised because distributors only had rights to certain geographical regions. "Unless it's a studio, it's very rare for a company to have worldwide rights and, of course, the studios are dead scared of doing something like this."
The question is, what does this mean for conventional film distribution? Unlike the free-for-all site that is YouTube, where individuals can upload home videos at will, Babelgum actually provides film-makers like Levy with a share of advertising revenue. According to Levy, this gives hope to all aspiring directors who want a career in film.
Little wonder the suits at EMI, the music giant behind Gorillaz, are delighted by the Bananaz experiment. "What they're seeing is a pretty well integrated marketing campaign for their DVD," says Lamont, "which we're happy about, because we have one of the world's most innovative bands and one of the coolest documentaries showcasing on Babelgum. It's win-win."
Bananaz is the perfect test case, given Gorillaz has an in-built fanbase who will lap the film up. But Babelgum has already struck deals with other companies to showcase films that have appeared at major film festivals but failed to find theatrical distribution. Top of the list is The Linguists, which screened in the Documentary Spotlight Program at the Sundance film festival.
In addition, established film-makers have jumped on board to support the site, in particular Spike Lee, who judged the first Babelgum Online Film Festival last year and hosted the glitzy award ceremony in Cannes. At the time, I asked him whether, if he were starting out now, he'd use Babelgum. "As a film-maker, you've got to get your work seen anyway you can," he replied. "And Babelgum is a great vehicle." With the festival offering budding directors the chance to submit films in four categories – animation, documentary, short film and mini-masterpiece – you can bet Hollywood looked over 2008's winners with keen interest.
But while those in their teens are probably already at ease with viewing music videos and the like on their phones, are we really ready to abandon cinemas for the comfort of our PCs and other more portable technology?
"Where it's easy and ubiquitous, it will catch on – and people are not afraid to embrace it at any age," continues Lamont. "I mean, you probably couldn't have imagined a time eight years ago when your nan would buy you an iTunes gift voucher."
'Bananaz' premieres on www.babelgum. com/gorillazgobananaz. The DVD will be released in June
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