If you think you know what a movie is, get ready to have your assumptions dashed to pieces.
Equal parts cinema, alternate-reality game (ARG), dance club, and social network, Breathe is Expanding Universe's attempt at both redefining existing entertainment genres and inventing entirely new ones.
At its most basic level, the project is a multistage, interactive murder mystery with a time line, said Yomi Ayeni, Expanding Universe's creative director.
But Breathe, which the company hopes will see the light of day some time in 2009, is expected to be much more.
To begin with, Ayeni explained by phone from London, the project opens as a traditional ARG that will be promoted by a series of dance club-oriented Web sites. The idea is that the sites will pull people in who are interested in finding out what's behind a series of mysterious and unusual deaths.
The sites will lead people to watching a 15-minute film which will delve into the police's murder investigation, introducing Breathe participants to the lead detective and letting viewers in, to some extent, on his crime-solving methods.
Where things take a turn for the innovative is what happens next.
What happens next
After watching the film installment and reading more about what's going on with the murders on the club music Web sites, some will begin to get invitations to exclusive nightclubs in the London area.
The idea with this, said Ayeni, is to remove people from their passive positions at their computers and bring them close to the action.
For those who avail themselves of the invites, they'll find themselves at nightclubs where they may end up mingling with various characters from the developing drama.
Some who attend will then find themselves offered further real-life experiences--and what happens after that leads to the second installment of the film.
What's interesting about Expanding Universe's technique is that they expect to turn the second film installment around in a week and incorporate footage shot in the nightclubs, meaning that participants may find themselves ensnared in the drama.
Then, as Breathe continues to evolve, as some people have become directly involved, and as more people spend time online reading about the drama, looking for clues to the developments and at the same time, enjoying what they're finding on the various dance club community Web sites, as well as a host of other online destinations, select participants will be presented with invitations to delve further in.
"And that is how we then move people on to the next stage," Ayeni said. "They become actual parts of the narrative itself, with interactions with people in the (fictional) drama."
"Set over a four-week period, viewers watch (four 15) minute shorts, and try to help Detective (John) Franks solve the case by working through puzzles, infiltrating the underground club scene, trying to locate the venue, and save the next victim from running out of air," an official Breathe summary explains. Using blogs, YouTube, GPS, telephone, secret meetings, IM, auditions, immersive role-play, cinema, and music, Breathe stands to be one of the most audacious multi-media experiences to leap from a cinema screen--'all you have to do is breathe...'"
How big can it get?
While the carrying out of the drama depends on the real-life participation of individuals, Ayeni said he thinks Breathe can scale to fairly large size.
That's in part because Expanding Universe is hoping to partner with nightclubs that can hold thousands of people, and also because the company hopes to carry out different versions of the project in different cities--each of which would be based on local DJs, local actors and other regional talent that could make each version similar, but would also vary enough to attract a new audience that would be kept in suspense, waiting for a unique cliffhanger ending.
Further, Ayeni said that at the conclusion of each city's edition, Expanding Universe could put out complete versions, perhaps on DVD, or online, that could both let everyone see how it played out, and also raise money.
It's not totally clear yet what the business model for Breathe is, though Ayeni suggested that it would bring in revenue through a series of sponsorships and partnerships, product placement deals and direct financing.
But with some time before Breathe becomes a reality, Expanding Universe still has time to work out the financial details.
In the interim, Ayeni and his partners are working on the structure of the project and hoping they can create something that turns entertainment--and the concept of how audiences interact with entertainment--on its head.
The murder mystery "has to become wrapped up in what is the alternate reality existence of the drama," Ayeni said. "We want the viewers and the people following this to step into the (installments), to be the bridge between what they're watching online and what they're watching in the cinema. We want people to step in and embody these experiences."
Creating new audiences
One person who thinks Expanding Universe could well succeed in its mission is Liz Rosenthal, the director of Power to the Pixel, a spin-off of the London Film Festival that focused on digital advances and resources in film.
Recently, Rosenthal invited Expanding Universe to make a presentation about Breathe to a gathering at Power of the Pixel and she said that the crowd of a couple of hundred movers and shakers in the media industry were impressed by what they saw.
"It created new audiences," she said of Breathe, "people watching things in new ways and in new places, and (it's) a way to reach audiences in more direct ways online."
Rosenthal said she thinks that Breathe utilizes one of the most impressive story-telling mechanisms she's seen, largely because the film itself isn't the starting point, but rather the story is the starting point.
"The way he's involving audiences is very extreme," she said of Ayeni. "He's involving audiences by getting them involved in a game (and that's) a totally new concept. (He's) one of the people at the forefront of this" new methodology.
In particular, Rosenthal said she appreciates the way Breathe is likely to get participants involved in shaping the media itself.
"They don't just sit back, they get involved," she said. "I think (Ayeni) is taking them a step further...They're kind of the protagonist."