Most geeks, or at least most comic-book geeks, remember exactly where they were the first time they saw Batman: Dead End. Personally, I was walking down one of the aisles at the very first Wizard World Texas. It was the first decent convention to come around in a long time, and this beautifully-crafted short film was playing it seemed on every corner, and then some. Bootleg DVD copies were available for purchase from nearly every vendor, and few people had the short film which featured Batman squaring off against the Aliens and Predators from the respective franchises (a year before the two creatures would square off in their own licensed feature film AVP: Alien vs. Predator) very far from their minds. Its taken another seven years for the revolution that began that day (or rather, several months earlier, when it debuted at the San Diego ComiCon) to bear the fruit it so tantalizingly promised, but now that it has done so with unprecedented results, I'm taking a moment to sit down and reflect on how we as a culture made it to this point.
The idea of the fan film has been around almost as long as film itself. As early as the 1920s, con-men would make illicit Little Rascals films to show to unsuspecting moviegoers, although the idea didn't really take off as a popular or quasi-legitimate branch of filmmaking until Ernie Fosselius' oft-lauded mock-trailer for the Star Wars spoof Hardware Wars in 1978. Star Wars spoofs and tributes have remained the most common form of fan film ever since then, although they've remained somewhat curiously absent from the heights of the current generation.
Batman: Dead End, though, still marks arguably the most important place in the history of fan films, because it was the first time that audiences stopped and wondered if what they were seeing was truly a fan film, or if the powers-that-be in Hollywood had somehow delivered unto them this delicious morsel that they never even knew they so desperately hungered for. While Sandy Collora's short did have a budget of $30000, it was still a far cry from any kind of official feature, and the results he achieved with such limited means, whilst seeming average today in light of the films successor's, was a truly gargantuan feat at the time. In my personal opinion, there was a series of five films, all of which began production some time after the release of Dead End, and all of which have released some time within the past year (give or take a month) that have built us to the arrival point promised seven years ago by Sandy Collora, where a fan film can stand proudly on its own right next to its progenitorial media, and no longer use its no-budget status as a crutch or an excuse for bad acting and sub-par effects work. We have now entered a time where, due to the increasing availability of the materials and equipment needed for such productions, anything is truly possible.
The Hunt For Gollum: On May 3rd, 2009, geek culture was once again asked to reassess what they perceived to be possible within the constraints of a fan film when a 38-minute interquel to The Fellowship of the Ring made in the style of Peter Jackson's film adaptations, was released, detailing the quest of Aragorn to find and capture Gollum before the servants of the dark lord Sauron did, as mentioned briefly in J.R.R. Tolkien's original appendices to his Lord of the Rings novels. This marked the beginning of the new wave in fan films - a direct descendent of Batman: Dead End, and yet now the concept of a serious fan film truly on par with the best of hollywood rises to a level where it becomes almost a reality.
Metal Gear Solid: Philanthropy: It was at this point that the new breed of fan film turned its eye toward an area of film-making which, since its inception with 1993's Super Mario Bros., has produced nigh-universally unsatisfactory results for its target audience: Video Game Movies. Began in 2005, Philanthropy released on September 27, 2009, to the delight of Metal Gear fans across the globe. Many shared the sentiment that a hollywood adaptation of the series was no longer necessary, as it could scarcely hope to reach the heights achieved by Giaccomo Talamini's hour-long production.
Aliens vs. Predator: Redemption: After two critically and commercially disappointing features pitting H.R. Giger's Alien creature against Stan Winston's Predator were released (2004's AVP: Alien vs. Predator and 2007's Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem), Alex Popov turned his creative energies towards doing justice to the creative mashup of his two favorite film monsters. On an extremely low budget, Popov's mostly-CG film outshines both of its Hollywood predecessors, and shows just how much can be done with less than a thousand dollars.
MegaMan: Eddie Lebron's recently-released 90-minute MegaMan film is a testament to what can be accomplished with ingenuity, resourcefulness, and true geekiness. Taking the plot of the original NES game and adapting it to the feature-film format in a way that works as a film and yet stays absolutely true to the source is a feat that should not be overlooked. Add to this Lebron's excellent cast, including Dave Maulbeck as villain Albert Wily, who steals virtually every scene he's in, makes for a truly enjoyable experience.
Born of Hope: And now we reach the arrival point. Born of Hope is a prequel to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it stands shoulder to shoulder with those cinematic giants as both their tribute, and frankly as their equal. With production quality matching anything Hollywood has to offer, and surpassing some, Kate Madison's Born of Hope is a true cinematic accomplishment, and a milestone by which all future fan films will be measured. I look forward to the new era.