How to make a South African sci-fi blockbuster

American audiences might be quite surprised by District 9, and will probably learn a thing or two. Yes, films can be made cheaply, and look really good despite it (no need for lo-fi cool). Yes, that really IS how we talk (I’m looking at you, Leonardo).
But we can only speculate.

Local audiences will have to wait another week to see the film that has been a top topic on Twitter since it opened in the US, and has proved that, if you follow all the rules, topping the box office charts is not necessarily a surprise.

This is how it’s done.

1. Start with a good story.
District 9‘s basic premise comes from a short film, Alive in Joburg, that was directed by Neill Blomkamp.

2 Get Peter Jackson on board.
Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson produced the film, giving it instant big-name clout, as well as providing much-needed big-budget experience. He discovered commercial director Blomkamp through a series of short films (including Alive in Joburg), and had asked him to direct Halo, a project that has been stalled indefinitely. Jackson has a background in directing alien schlock, with the aptly named Bad Taste (1987)

3. Get the geeks excited
Right from the start, the film’s producers looked to find innovative ways to promote it. One of the first stunts was an “anti-MNU” protest at Comic Con 2008 (MNU standing for Multi-National United, the organisation that “deals with” the aliens in the film). At the same convention, certain lavatories were branded with “Humans Only” signs.

4. Be everywhere (in the US, anyway)
The most important aspect of the film’s promotion was the use of the internet, and viral marketing. This included creating a cryptic official site, as well as an official site for Multi-National United and one opposed to it, MNU Spreads Lies. In the US, “Humans Only” signs started appearing on bus stops, with links to the various sites. Not much of this made it to South Africa, for some reason.

5. Get the geeks excited (again)
In July this year, District 9 cast members joined Jackson and Blomkamp at Comic Con 2009 for a panel discussion about the making of the film.

6. Look like a billion dollars, even if you only cost 30-million to make
For such a small budget (by Hollywood standards), District 9‘s special effects are pretty impressive.

Audiences got the first taste of what to expect with the official trailers.

7. Get the critics on your side ...
So far critics have been very complimentary of District 9, with Rotten Tomatoes giving it an overall rating of 88%. The New York Times described it as “a smart, swift new film” while Empire Magazine called it “an explosive and exciting sci-fi that heralds the arrival of a major new talent”.

8. ... But not all of them
Some critics have had a problem with the fact that District 9 is, in a sense, an apartheid allegory, and have piled all sorts of expectations on to it as a result. The New York Press went so far as to say that the film “makes trash of that country’s apartheid history”. South Africans will, no doubt, have their own thoughts about this when it is released here. But the fact that such concerns have been raised could make the film more intriguing to those who would not otherwise be interested in alien skop, skiet en donder, even if it does take place right here at home.

Lisa Van Wyk

Lisa Van Wyk

Lisa van Wyk is the arts editor, which somehow justifies her looking at pretty pictures all day, reading cool art and culture blogs and having the messiest desk in the office. She likes people who share her passion for art, music, food, wine, travel and all things Turkish. She can't ride a bike, but she can read ancient languages and totally understands the offside rule. Read more from Lisa Van Wyk

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