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Viewers get in on the plot

`Final Destination 3' Leaves Its Narrative (and Blood) Partly In The Audience's Hands.

April 09, 2006|Elaine Dutka | Special to The Times

"THE real fear of roller-coaster rides is the fear of no control," observes a character in New Line Cinema's "Final Destination 3." But control was key when filmmakers wanted to amp up the entertainment factor in the DVD version of the movie -- the most recent installment in the hit horror franchise about a group of teens who are at the top of Death's list, having survived a plane crash, a highway accident and, now, an amusement park catastrophe.

"Final Destination 3: Thrill Ride Edition," due out July 25, pushes the boundaries of interactivity and digital technology, letting viewers determine how six characters will die. They also can decide whether sleazy Frankie Cheeks will survive his big-screen perils. Those who spare Frankie see him resurface in a later scene, and a bonus feature shows how their choice affected his life.

"Movies, usually a passive experience, now put the viewer in the director's chair," says Mike Mulvihill, senior vice president of content development for New Line Home Entertainment. "Some independent films used remotes as interactive tools to affect the narrative of the story. But this is the first time that has been done on a DVD from a major motion picture studio."

Viewer-driven film narratives are an idea whose time has come, says Ralph Tribbey, editor-publisher of the DVD Release Report. The 2006 version of the idea is a far cry from Paramount's 1985 "Clue," for which consumers went from theater to theater to view one of three alternative endings.

"Movies have traditionally been linear stories, like reading a book from cover to cover," says Tribbey. "But digital technology, with chapter markers and the ability to branch out, is changing all that. This is probably the first of many because form follows function, so to speak."

The alternatives were programmed into the initial shoot -- reflecting the ongoing clout of home video. DVDs bring in more money than box office, cable and airlines combined, Tribbey says. When "Final Destination" (2000) and "Final Destination 2" (2003) emerged, annual double-digit DVD growth was a given. But now that soaring sales have leveled off, studios have to work harder for the dollar.

Without the extensive library of a Warner Bros. or a Columbia, his company must rely on ingenuity, suggests New Line Home Entertainment President Stephen Einhorn. Just as it introduced animated menus ("The Player," in 1997), deleted scenes and DVD director's commentaries (both in 1997's edition of "The Mask"), New Line wanted to explore interactivity. This film's tech-savvy 18- to 24-year-old target demographic was tailor-made for the task.

"We always had this fantasy lurking in our minds," Einhorn says. "But without the right kind of material, interactivity would seem like a gimmick. 'Final Destination 3' is perfect not only because of the plot twists but because thriller audiences are big gamers -- comfortable with this kind of programming. While the approach added a total of five days and $750,000 to the $25-million budget, formats get tired quickly and you have stay ahead of the curve."

Two years ago, Einhorn asked Mulvihill to run the idea by "Final Destination 3" writer-director-producer James Wong and writer-producer Glen Morgan. That fall, they met with producer Craig Perry and studio executives, giving their blessing to the project.

But interactivity hasn't been easy to get his mind around, Wong says, taking a break on the Vancouver set last spring.

On this day, a runaway truck is to smash into vehicles parked at a car dealership refashioned to resemble a drive-in restaurant. Even before the main stunt, the action has been problematic. The special effects team rigged up models of Frankie's head, sheared off by a dislodged engine in the theatrical version of the film. One of the mock-ups, spinning around, has malfunctioned. And shooting an alternative scene for the DVD only adds to the director's load.

"I would never have gone along with interactivity on a personal film -- only on a popcorn movie," says Wong. "My mind doesn't work like that. I'm a passenger on this trip."

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INTERACTIVITY IN MIND

IN the alternate version of the scene, when the protagonists (played by Ryan Merriman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) are rear-ended in the truck crash, they pull Frankie out of the convertible in front of them. And his head remains unscathed. In another scene, the original had two high school girls getting stuck in a tanning bed and burning to death -- one of the more gruesome scenes in the film. The DVD, though, allows viewers to reset the thermostat, triggering a chain of events that leads to electrocution.

This is a only a beginning, Morgan points out -- the new concepts were "crowbarred" into an existing script. The next step, he suggests, is developing a movie with interactivity in mind -- inserting a coin flip, perhaps, into the big-screen roller-coaster scene to determine who sat where. Different versions could be shot, for theatrical or straight-to-video release.

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