So, what was Ultra Culture?

Thursday July 18th 2019

Hello! My name’s Charlie Lyne and from 2008 to 2014, I was the sole author — despite my use of an affected editorial ‘we’ for much of that time — of Ultra Culture, a moderately popular British film blog. It was originally intended to cover multiple art forms, hence the awful name (which, for what it’s worth, I refer to in emails from the time as ‘partially ironic’).

I was 16 when I started the blog, and 23 when it finally petered out, so it’s perhaps not surprising that some of the posts read as though they were written by a child. You have to remember though: the bar for online film criticism was considerably lower in the late 2000s. This was the era of RSS feeds, gif walls, the irritatingly small font size you’re reading now, infographics, Flash embeds, liveblogsHTML frames, and tweets sent via text because I didn’t have a smartphone. The blog was literally half a decade old by the time I reviewed a cool new service called Netflix, which allowed you to watch ‘flicks’ right here on the ‘net’.

I can almost precisely pinpoint the moment when the quality of the writing became passable, which happened to coincide with a minor existential crisis I had in December 2011, so if you decide to dig back into the archives, please go no further than that. At its best, the blog had a breezily mischievous tone; at worst, that tendency tipped over into either apathy or spite. This was a genuinely good post, I think.

In a time before Film Twitter, Ultra Culture wallowed in the minutiae of being a film critic, and the indignities of doing so online. I posted matter-of-fact accounts of unremarkable press screenings, and immortalised the closest thing the 2010s London film scene ever had to a Haight-Ashbury-style love-in. Over several years I peppered the blog with hyperbolic references to the then-Artistic Director of the London Film Festival, Sandra Hebron — allusions that were so ill-defined I later had to clarify that they were intended as affectionate.

^^ Me, disguised as Sandra Hebron, on the cover of the blog’s 2010 end-of-year zine.
Inside was an interview with Hebron herself, alongside contributions from Garth Jennings (Sing), Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) and Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers)

There were countless other running jokes, and just as many lame gags I repeated by accident. On two separate occasions I referred to Ivan Reitman as ‘Beethoven producer Ivan Reitman’. And for a while after the movie Unstoppable came out, I kept describing things as ‘the size of the Chrysler Building’, including the grief I felt following the death of Tony Scott, which some people felt was inappropriate.

Over the course of six years, I came out with about three (3) decent turns of phrase, for instance when noting that my readership ‘couldn’t give half a pair of shorts‘ about the blog’s film festival coverage. Meanwhile, I made gifs like this one and built entire posts around them:

From the beginning, the blog railed against the laziness of film marketing: against the cynical exploitation of fandom, the tyranny of the ‘first official still’, the meaninglessness of 14-second-long teaser trailers, and the clichés of movie poster design. God, the list of movie posters I spent altogether too much time thinking about is as long as it is forgettable, from The Iron Lady to She’s Out of My League, and On the Road to Zookeeper. Perhaps my greatest marketing-related achievement was figuring out a vulnerability in the QR code on the poster for Martha Marcy May Marlene, which one of my readers was subsequently able to point towards the ‘human faeces’ Wikipedia entry.

As time went on, I became more and more concerned with putting out stuff that wouldn’t make sense in any other publication, for better or worse. There were posts that played with the scrolling format of the blog, posts that put my limited web design skills to the test, posts that existed solely to manipulate the Rotten Tomatoes algorithm, and posts I decorated with surprisingly artsy little illustrations like this one of Ridley Scott:

Looking back, I don’t seem to have spent much time covering the biggest movies of the era, or the best. Instead, I fully committed myself to the humdrum middle, spending god knows how long on a breakdown of the trailer for Joyful Noise, a supercut of the best moments from Derek Jacobi’s lacklustre Charles Dickens documentary, and Flight drinking game. Some of the movies covered have been so thoroughly lost to time that entire posts make little to no sense now. And I have no memory whatsoever of watching Letters to Juliet, J. Edgar, Playing for KeepsKeith Lemon: The Film or the Lincoln assassination movie The Conspirator, which for some reason I reviewed entirely in the form of sarcastic cartoons:

At times, Ultra Culture resembled a actual, factual movie blog. There were competitions — including one for Expendables premiere tickets that required readers find physical objects hidden around London, and another for five pairs of tickets to see the Nightmare on Elm Street remake which received just one (shit) entry — as well as charity eBay auctions and even a bloody Blue Peter make! I didn’t do many interviews, but when I did, they were with the robot mime from EuroTrip and Derek Jacobi’s tramp double.

Also out in the wider world, there were eleven editions of Ultra Culture Cinema, the blog’s not-so-regular screening series at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, as well as numerous zines and a one-off charity walking tour, which does seem like a slightly odd choice now that you ask.

Over the years, the blog established a small but robust following (robust enough that Studio Canal’s marketing department felt it was worth quoting from my post about Roman Polanski’s child rape conviction on the poster for his film Carnage). The loyalty of that readership allowed me to develop (or if you prefer, wallow in) such personal obsessions as the nuances of title treatment fonts, the activities of Britain’s archaic film censor board, and Xavier Dolan’s many, many screen credits.

On the flip side, the blog had its villains, from the Daily Mail’s former film critic Christopher Tookey — with whom I maintained a long-running but low-level feud — to Kevin Spacey, who I disliked the right amount but for the wrong reasons. I even ended one particularly restless BAFTA liveblog by burning a picture of Spacey on Vine (remember Vine?) which I recall getting a mixed reaction at the time:

Believe it or not, there was some small amount of money to be made from a blog like this in the early years of the new millennium (my records show that the blog’s highest grossing month was November 2011 when an extraordinary £983.82 in advertising revenue came in). Even more remarkably, this scrappy old thing helped shepherd me into the glorious world of film criticism, and later, filmmaking. To everyone who ever read Ultra Culture, through thick prose and thin arguments, I thank you.

Distributors hate him! Learn these 10 weird tricks to self-releasing a film in the UK.

Friday January 30th 2015

You may have noticed I haven’t been around ‘these parts’ much lately. That’s because for the past few months I’ve been working with a small team to self-distribute Beyond Clueless — an essay film about teen movies — across the UK and Ireland.

Last week, after two weeks of touring the film around the country (isn’t Newcastle pretty?) the film finally arrived on general release, where it was met by a four-star Guardian write-up and a brilliantly furious Daily Mail indictment. The film is still screening in London, Cardiff and a couple of other places.

Here are ten things I learned on the long and winding road of self-distribution:

It’s much easier than you think. In fact, any idiot with £80 in the bank can do it.

Want to know the greatest secret of releasing a film theatrically in the UK? Anyone can do it. And I don’t mean ‘anyone can do it’ in the after-school-special, I-love-you-just-the-way-you-are sense. I mean literally anyone can do it. All that stands between you and an official UK theatrical release is an £80 administrative fee paid to the FDA, the organisation that logs the UK’s release schedule and timetables each week’s National Press Show (NPS) screenings — the ones where British newspaper critics gather together to watch Pudsey The Dog: The Movie and The Purge: Anarchy back to back.

There is, however, one big, archaic-as-all-get-out barrier standing in your way.

The single biggest cost of releasing a film in the UK — and the thing ensuring that millions of brilliant indie and arthouse movies will never be legally available in this country — is our government mandated certification system. Unlike in America, where certification is optional and therefore non-censorial, anyone wishing to screen a film in UK cinemas must first secure the approval of the BBFC. In our case, that meant spending £867.60 (a figure that many films our size would struggle to earn back) before we’d even begun. To be clear, this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered, but the fact that these services are mandatory means that more and more films will find themselves only available to UK audiences via The Pirate Bay.

So well done for that, British government.

The death of 35mm has made things pretty cheap, and you can make them even cheaper.

This year’s Sundance Film Festival is the first in history to be screening entirely from digital sources — and really, it’s a wonder it didn’t happen sooner. Today, creating a 35mm print is a luxury available only to those with the wealth to be precious about the whole thing (stand up, Quentin Tarantino) and not your average first-time filmmaker. On the other hand, even the most expensive Soho post house will make you an industry-standard Digital Cinema Package (DCP) for less than a grand, or — and this is where things get really interesting — you can make one yourself using open source software like OpenDCP. Given that the result is likely to fit on a 64GB USB key, your largest expense may wind up being the first class stamp it takes to post the film to the cinema.

Getting in touch with cinema programmers is not as difficult as the programmers themselves probably wish it was.

When the first Mission: Impossible film came out, audiences chuckled at the idea that Ethan Hunt could simply guess a terrorist’s e-mail address in order to contact him. Nowadays, in the age of standardised e-mail addresses and widespread Google literacy, that notion doesn’t seem so outlandish, which means that communicating with cinema programmers — an act that once separated the distribution men from the self-releasing boys — is relatively easy. I’d hazard that almost anyone in the British film industry can be reached in under thirty seconds with a few carefully selected search terms. Just don’t tell them you heard it from me.

Trailers are a good opportunity to stray from the mainstream (just don’t stray too far).

The art of Hollywood trailer-making has evolved beyond recognition over the last two decades (how massively out of touch does anyone doing an impression of that ‘in a world…’ voice seem now?) but it’s still a discipline ruled by formulas. The biggest mistake any low-level filmmaker can make is try to ape these formulas and wind up with a trailer that looks like it was made for a sixth-form media studies class. Instead, wear your indie credentials on your sleeve and make something that looks as little like the trailer for Battleship as possible. The promo for Beyond Clueless is nothing but a bunch of inanimate objects rotating on an MS DOS-operated turntable, shot in somebody’s front room.

The aim of a poster is totally different for a small film than for a big one.

When it comes to designing movie posters, most studios are aiming for ubiquity and little more. If you know you have £500,000 to spend on plastering adverts for Taken 3 up and down the country, the only thing you need to ensure is that the title is fucking massive and Liam Neeson’s face is suitably stern and grizzled. Chances are, a self-released film won’t have that luxury, so focus instead on stopping power — the likelihood that people will want to dwell on your artwork should they see it online or displayed outside a cinema in Norwich. For Beyond Clueless, we designed dozens of hand-drawn VHS covers for classic teen movies and lined them all up on their sides so people really had to work to take them in. Craned necks = ticket sales, amirite?

Social media is your friend, albeit an irritating friend who fucks off whenever it’s their round.

There’s no getting around the value of social media in promoting a movie on a shoestring. Sites like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest effectively allow you to target your niche audience in a place where they already congregate, which is obviously a thousand times more effective than making them come to you. Just ask any of those dodgy blokes who sell unpackaged cigarettes outside secondary schools. However, as social networks seek out more and more dastardly ways of profiting from their users, obstacles are increasingly being placed between films and their audiences. And the money spent removing these obstacles doesn’t always represent great value.

Journalists just want to be treated like beautiful, unique snowflakes in a world of toil and strife.

If there’s one thing I learned in half a decade of film blogging, it’s precisely the kind of e-mail a film journalist dreams of receiving, and that is as follows: four sentences long, with no attachments, detailing the relevance of the film to their publication, and the best address to contact in case of any further interest. These are super easy to write and way, way more appealing than whatever epic tone poem (or worse, a cunning attempt at ‘spin’) you had in mind.

Fortune favours those willing to sit on trains and deal with Virgin’s overpriced WiFi.

Until recently, I had assumed that most people hate watching Q&As as much as I do. As it turns out, this is not remotely the case. A screening of a film accompanied by a Q&A — even a Q&A with a nobody like me — is almost guaranteed to sell out ten times faster than a regular showing. People love cinema events with ‘added value’ (industry-speak for ‘people on a stage’) because it’s about the only thing separating the big-screen experience from Netflix these days. So if you’re willing to cover 600 miles in 10 days, as I did earlier this month, you’ll find audiences are far more willing to come along and give up their hard-earned £8.50.

Sell tickets through any channel available to you, including the movie blog you haven’t updated in almost a year.

As I mentioned before, BBFC certificates cost a fortune and cinemas only let you keep 35-50% of your box office, so if you plan on getting anywhere whatsoever with self-distribution, you will have to ditch your sense of modesty. Speaking of which, Beyond Clueless is in cinemas now, and I desperately need your help to make the £8 worth of Facebook ads I bought last week not seem like such a catastrophic waste of money.

Here’s a clip from Charlie the Abusive Teddy Bear, the alleged inspiration for Ted

Wednesday July 16th 2014

Can you imagine suing Seth MacFarlane for stealing one of your ideas? That’s like punching someone in the face for copping to your murder charge.

Well, that’s exactly what Bengal Mangle Productions did this morning, alleging that MacFarlane’s 2012 box office smash Ted infringed upon the copyright of their 2009 webseries Charlie the Abusive Teddy Bear. And, in their defence, the webseries in question (you can see a clip from it above) does bear a striking resemblance to MacFarlane’s film — like Ted, it’s a grossly misogynistic, badly written, odiously conceived pile of old toss.

Hopefully the courts can sort this one out quickly, and then we’ll know who to blame when the Nuremberg gross-out comedy trials begin in 2025.

Has it really been 20 years since the release of Forrest Gump?

Sunday July 6th 2014

In his 1905 paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, Albert Einstein posited the theory of special relativity, which sought to explain the relationship between space and time. Three years later, one of Einstein’s teachers, the mathematician Hermann Minkowski, put forward the notion that space and time were in fact two aspects of a unified whole, and thus the concept of spacetime was born. Minkowski suggested that, as spacetime is not flat, but instead warped by the existence of matter and energy, time could appear to move slower near massive objects such as the centre of the Earth. This explains why astronauts on the International Space Station age at a marginally slower rate than people on the surface of our planet. And yet, both for the 214 men and women who’ve set foot upon the ISS since its launch in 1998, and the 7 billion human beings on Earth, it has been twenty years since the theatrical release of Forrest Gump.

The high-precision time standard International Atomic Time is calculated from a weighted average of the time kept by over 200 atomic clocks in over 50 national laboratories worldwide. It differs from Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is used for civil timekeeping all over the Earth’s surface, by 35 seconds. This is due to the addition of leap seconds, which prevent UTC from drifting away from atomic time because of irregularities in the Earth’s rate of rotation. Leap seconds are irregularly spaced and unpredictable, having occurred only 25 times since this system of correction was implemented in 1972. The most recent leap second happened on June 30th 2012 at the entirely unorthodox time of 23:59:60 UTC. Of course, whether you take into account the 7 leap seconds added to UTC since 1994 or not, twenty years have indeed elapsed since audiences the world over were first introduced to Tom Hanks’s endearingly slow-witted Alabama everyman.

Philosophers continue to disagree on the nature of time, with some arguing that it constitutes a key component of the fundamental structure of the universe — a framework through which events and objects must pass — while others see it as an intellectual construct, created by humans to aid in the processing of their environment. What’s beyond any doubt is that temporal matters are at the very heart of human existence, playing a key role in societies, industries and religions of all kinds. Since the dawn of mankind, efforts have been made to record time, and today we can do so with previously unimaginable precision. Our modern calendars, clocks and operational definitions of time — which use observable events such as the passage of a free-swinging pendulum to measure time with an incredibly high degree of accuracy — mean our lives are now unavoidably defined by the days, weeks, months and years over which they unfold. And whichever way you look at it, twenty such years have passed since we first opened our hearts to Robert Zemeckis’s Oscar-winning tale of life, death and the little moments that touch us in between.

Roger Ebert deemed too grumpy for ‘Life Itself’ movie poster

Thursday July 3rd 2014

Here’s an archive photograph of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, taken to promote their long-running TV show At The Movies.

And here’s the new poster for Life Itself, a documentary about Ebert from Hoop Dreams director Steve James.

No prizes for spotting that those last two images are in fact the same photograph, albeit with Siskel cropped out of the movie poster to shift the focus onto Ebert.

There is, however, a more subtle difference between the two…

Can you spot it yet?

Cheer up Roger, you’re a movie star now.

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