District 9, the sci-fi action drama from director Neill Blomkamp, spun an alien invasion tale that managed to entertain while delivering a message about how horribly we can sometimes treat each other—and anyone or anything that's different.
But that wasn't the only message the film delivered. Its box-office and (for the most part) critical success delivered a message all its own, one that Hollywood heard loud and clear.
And since the movie business sometimes seems to live and die by the rule that everyone wants to be the first to be second, it means that D9's success will forever change the way films are made and marketed.
Some of the changes will be huge, while others will be relatively small, but still, that massive spaceship hovering over downtown Johannesburg in South Africa heralds a shift in sci-fi moviemaking.
Here's how we think future sci-fi films will try to copy this surprise hit (warning: spoilers ahead):
1. It will force the studios to come up with viral marketing campaigns that are actually intriguing. You saw the buses, you saw the billboards, you saw the benches that said "For Humans Only." (And you saw how some of the people sitting in those benches didn't look quite human after all.) The viral sites and the ubiquitous signage all helped set up the buzz that launched District 9. Marketers will get the hint that being viral isn't enough--campaigns will also have to be interesting.
2. It will cause Hollywood to start looking outside the system for creators. Before Neill Blomkamp was plucked from relative obscurity to work with Peter Jackson on that aborted movie adaptation of the video game Halo for a few hundred million dollars, he was known primarily for his alien invasion mock-umentary short Alive in Joburg. The success of District 9 sends a message that money can be made when you look beyond the usual suspects for talent.
3. It will result in more films with no-name casts. Starring Sharlto Copley? Who? Before District 9, Copley's biggest credits were the acting and directing he did in his own shorts from age 12. He also had a cameo in Alive in Joburg, the inspiration for District 9. This movie proves that you don't need Tom Cruise, Will Smith or Keanu Reeves to make money with an SF film, and this summer's box office—during which Johnny Depp failed to make Public Enemies a hit, and Julia Roberts couldn't save Duplicity—has handed Hollywood yet another lesson.
4. It will lead to more storytelling that's original and not based on a comic book, pop novel, children's toy, video game, TV show or a previous movie. Imagine that! This movie could encourage more risk-taking in terms of story, and it proves that a good, original idea can succeed. Now if only someone could come up with one. (And yes, we know that technically the feature film is based on a short film, but to us D9 seems like the fully realized version of Alive in Joburg, rather than an expanded adaptation of some other piece of content.)
5. It will lead to more multiracial and multicultural casting. Most of the cast and crew were non-American, and a lot of the cast was non-Caucasian. It's nice to know that this time the aliens were color-blind when they landed. (The upcoming Clash of the Titans remake, with its international cast that has only a couple of Americans, and none in major roles, is joining in this trend.)
6. It proves that accents aren't a bad thing, which is especially useful in sci-fi. South Africans, Nigerians, prawns and multinational business executives from a mysterious conglomerate—all of them are characters in this movie. Some of them may have needed subtitles, even when they spoke English, but it certainly added to the authenticity. It will give the studios license to allow more multicultural casting.
7. It will encourage lower-budget filmmaking. District 9 cost about $30 million to make, but the realistic lasers, alien weaponry and alien creatures look much better than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which cost more than $200 million
8. It proves that getting the fans excited about the film is more important than getting critics excited. When District 9 screened at last month's San Diego Comic-Con, press seating was cut way back to make sure that more fans could get in to see the film, a move which helped generate even more fan buzz. In the future, more marketing campaigns will target the core audiences who actually shell out for tickets rather than the professional journalists.
9. It will lead to more location filming. What? Aliens land somewhere besides New York, Tokyo or Washington, D.C.? This story needed to take place in the Johannesburg of Blomkamp's youth. The crew used remnants of an actual township near Soweto, so they didn't have to spend extra bucks to make things look old artificially. That suggests more real locations, less green screen. And it's better for the environment.
10. It will result in more main characters that are morally complex and conflicted, extremely unusual in a sci-fi blockbuster. No one could be more conflicted than D9 hero Wikus Van De Merwe, who in one scene is trying to get the insect-like aliens to sign their own eviction notices, and in other scenes is growing a bug arm and helping a "prawn" make it to his spacecraft. Maybe we'll see more nuance and less bravado in sci-fi.