Deceptively formulaic, “They’re Watching” is a Trojan horse with the potential to subvert Hollywood in a time when African American celebrities have identified themselves as the spurned community deserving of greater accolades. At the 88th Academy Awards show on February 28, 2016, a joke by host Chris Rock using Asian kids revived the stereotype of Asians as child laborers and bean counters. Meanwhile Native Americans remained frozen in the margins since “Dances with Wolves” of 1990.
If “They’re Watching” becomes the sleeper hit of 2016, the Hollywood establishment will be forced to grapple with the hidden demons of Best Served Cold Productions led by Rico Jeffrey Garcia, executive producer and member of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, and Mark Lagrimas, Filipino American producer.
Lagrimas, age 35, held analyst jobs with CBS Television, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, ABC Studios and The Disney Channel before teaming with Garcia, 35, to form Best Served Cold.
“I was a numbers guy coming up in the studios. The moment I started asserting myself, they tried to shut me down. I left because I wanted to assert myself.” Lagrimas learned, “We have to not just go around people but through them.”
Taking High Tech to Found Footage Horror
Writing and directing team, Micah Wright and Jay Lender, comes from a cartoon background that includes “Phineas and Ferb” and “Spongebob Square Pants.” They have been involved in helping write video games, such as “Call of Duty” and “Transformers” and “Looney Tunes.” Micah Wright chairs the American Indian Writers Committee.
Under Wright and Lender, “They’re Watching” uses the found footage concept, a subgenre of horror movies made famous by the “Paranormal Activity” series and “The Blair Witch Project.” Found footage has the economic advantage of requiring only one camera.
The story starts out with a crew from a home improvement-type reality show called “Home Hunters” that comes to a village in Moldova (filmed in neighboring Romania) where women still dress as Soviet-era peasants. The local men spend their days in the pub oblivious to the modern world and suspicious of Westerners. The American film crew soon clashes with the villagers when they disrespectfully sneak a camera into an Eastern rite funeral service for three children.
The movie takes a slow pace contrasting the backwardness of the villagers with the internal squabbling of the film crew and general bewilderment over what could possess Becky Westlake (played by Brigid Brannagh formerly of the “Army Wives” television series), owner of the renovated house, to isolate herself in the dark forest. Ultra HD 4K pixel resolution keeps eyes glued to even the silliest conversations on the way to a final ten minutes of flashy carnage that may establish a new standard for heart palpitations from horror films.
Credit goes to Jonathan Wandag for the nimble music that steers the the story through fluid shifts from idyllic Eastern European countryside to claustrophobic paranoia locked inside a creepy house and finally to a frenetic ending. Wandag is a full-blooded son of the Philippines’ indigenous Igorots of Kalinga Province. He came to the “They’re Watching” after success in scoring video games. His biggest score to date is “Song of the Deep,” an Insomniac Games title to debut in mid-April. Wandag and Lagrimas met as students in the Samahang Pilipino organization at UCLA.
Even though Wandag only recently transitioned from video games to movies, he attributes his early success in games to his film sensibilities. He explained, “I bring a film score aesthetic to games. Film scores have emotional value and drama that can be translated into games.”
After “They’re Watching” Wandag will refocus on console games with an eye open to more film opportunities. “I’m here to put the Filipinos on the map,” he promised.
For the People or For the Money?
“They’re Watching” was made for $2 million and is the first production to originate from the multimillion-dollar WarSong Entertainment Fund. Garcia leads a group of investors associated with San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino.
“I’m more tame than my partner,” Lagrimas said of Garcia. “WarSong comes from a great indigenous people who sing about their past, and we’re declaring war on the status quo. Our battleground is Hollywood. We’re taking no prisoners.”
WarSong Entertainment was patterned after Legendary Pictures, LLC. Legendary has a strong profit orientation with the last Batman trilogy, “Jurassic World” and three “Hangover” movies on its Hollywood A list. Its main foray into critical acclaim was last year’s “Steve Jobs.”
In January 2016 the Wanda Group, based in China, purchased Legendary. It is too early to tell whether the Wanda Group will add Asian American films to its menu or stay in full money mode to recoup its $3.5 billion investment. Thus far, the title on the Legendary list with a somewhat Asian theme is “The King of the Iron Fist Tournament” based on the popular Tekken video game.
In the next five years, WarSong will produce several films and TV shows. “In our world it’s feast or famine. Investing in multiple films allows us to hedge our bets. With slate financing, one major movie success can fund more movies with modest box office receipts,” Lagrimas said.
“You have to risk leaving the studio to create a business, and you have to meet the right people,” Lagrimas defined his powerful yet precarious position in the entertainment industry. “It’s exciting and scary.”
Asians may wish to compare their invisibility in the movie industry to the difficulties faced by African Americans and Hispanics, but they cannot name any Asian American films comparable to “The Revenant” by Mexican American director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu or “Creed,” starring African American actor, Michael B. Jordan that were overlooked by the Academy this year.
WarSong has the leadership and resources to change the Hollywood landscape. If WarSong is truly committed to giving minority projects a break, one option recommended by Positively Filipino is “Cebu,” the script by Filipino American Peter Bacho based on his eponymous novel that won an American Book Award. The Lunaventure production has begun casting without funding to do much else.
One of the movies snubbed this year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was “Straight Outta Compton.” The biopic of the rap group NWA was directed by African American F. Gary Gray, with a predominantly African American cast. “Straight Outta Compton” made over $200 million at the box office. It was bankrolled by Legendary Pictures.
For more on "They're Watching," please visit: http://www.theyrewatchingmovie.com/
Anthony Maddela is the Southern California correspondent for Positively Filipino. He’s working on a novel and is a copywriter and editor in Los Angeles.
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