“The Phoenix Incident” is a 2016 docu-thriller blurring the lines between fiction and reality. Based on ‘The Phoenix Lights’ – a real-life 1997 UFO sighting in Phoenix, Arizona, “The Phoenix Incident” uses this event as a foundation, and extrapolates on both fact and fiction. I recently had the great opportunity to chat with writer-director Keith Arem about “The Phoenix Incident,” the evolution of media, and the intersection of sci-fi and science.
Lately there’s been no shortage of science fiction flourishing on both the big and small screen. Long running sci-fi franchise “The X-Files” returned for a 2016 six-episode event, “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” debuted in 2015, and both “Blade Runner” and “Alien” are receiving sequels in one form or another. Since Roswell, alien encounters have lent themselves to film. Arem explained over the phone that growing up in Arizona, the Phoenix lights are personal to him. “It’s a passionate event for me,” he elucidated. Over 30,000 people claim to have seen the lights, and while Arem was not among them, he appreciates its rich history.
“The Phoenix Incident” is unique in its genre meld of sci-fi, documentary, and found-footage. As such, there are several distinct audiences: the UFO/conspiracy theory community, sci-fi fans, and the gaming community. While the first two subsets are more readily apparent, gamers might not be as obvious. Arem has a wealth of experience working in the gaming industry, from the sound department to directing. Notable directorial projects include “Deadpool,” “Saints Row IV,” and “Metro 2033.” Accordingly, the cast of “The Phoenix Incident” is comprised largely of actors who have appeared in big budget games. “All of the cast are top talent from the gaming community hailing from projects like ‘Mad Max,’ ‘Halo,’ and ‘Call of Duty,’” he clarified. “Their acting and voices are known, though their faces might not be familiar.”
“The sci-fi thriller/found footage audience was an important pillar of our audience,” Arem revealed. “The way it was shot was a ‘Blair Witch’-style documentary. It starts as a documentary, but blends fact and fiction seamlessly. Yet with such a diverse audience, executing the film so as not to polarize one particular segment required careful planning. “Over the last few years, we met with a few hundred witnesses,” Arem elaborated. “We reached out to people like Nick Pope and Stan Friedmen, and consulted with them after the motion picture to let them know that we wanted the community to understand we were creating a fictional event to present this real-world event. The film has a message of promoting disclosure.”
It’s an amazing and timely story, coinciding neatly with a sci-fi boom within the pop culture realm with film and shows like “The X-Files” and “Independence Day” making a comeback. Chris Carter, “The X-Files” series creator even had the opportunity to view “The Phoenix Incident.” Carter met with Keith and shared his feedback, praising both substance and medium. Arem admitted that he’s in awe of what “The X-Files” has accomplished. It takes what’s relevant in science and the news, and views it from a procedural perspective. “Our society looks at conspiracy theories as this folklore that gets passed down not only through oral tradition, but events like the UFO congress, and the Internet,” Arem noted.
However, it’s not just the large audience appeal that’s revolutionary about “The Phoenix Incident.” The media campaign embraces recent technologies and trends in media consumption to offer an enhanced fan experience. Arem is championing social media engagement, and interactions outside of the film itself. He’s taken advantage of new opportunities to explore media in a different way, where the film is the foundation, but viewers may continue the investigation and interact with the movie by downloading onto their iOS device, or Apple TV. Essentially, it’s a gamefied movie. The more you watch, the more you unlock.
“Technology is allowing us to do this,” Arem commented. When he first moved into the game space, the process was so creatively liberating, but the distribution and audience engagement for film wasn’t the same. Thus he set about combining his video game experience with film production. “We developed the social media and viral content, and partnered with people like Steam and Fandango…and these are all opportunities that independent filmmakers typically don’t have access to because of traditional distribution.”
Arem predicts that this has opened new door for indie projects. “For the past two years, concurrently with the development of the movie, we shot over 2 hours of additional footage that expands character backstories. We developed a viral campaign that detailed what actually happened, as well as the fictional backstory of the characters.” This viral campaign blossomed into a scavenger hunt for the audience. Audience members seeking an entertaining experience need only view the movie. Those searching for a more in-depth exploration of the film and its narrative have a fun avenue to explore, however. “It’s no longer the linear medium of a motion picture, but a non-linear medium,” Arem explained excitedly.
Though the subject matter is rather personal for Arem, an Arizona native, its this groundbreaking union of tech and film that’s most exhilarating to Arem. One of the most interesting parts is the opportunity for the audience to explore the material and see the footage that’s outside the theater walls. “We wanted people to…embrace this new way of story-telling and…encourage people to directly interact with us,” Arem allowed. Currently, he’s making the festival and convention rounds with stops at the International UFO Congress, and Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival. With such success, Arem divulged that he hopes to do a sequel. “We’ll probably do a follow up,” albeit in more of a narrative form.
“The Phoenix Incident” will make its U.S. nationwide premiere with Fathom Events on March 10 with footage of a never-before-seen Q&A with Nick Pope, Stanton Friedman, Keith Arem, Lee Speigel, and Alejandro Rojas. Tickets are on sale now: http://fathomevents.com/event/phoenix-incident