X-Striking a Blow for the Fans

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The cops were a bit unexpected.

After several years of guerilla filmmaking, Tim Ekkebus and the rest of the X-Strike crew were used to a certain amount of police involvement, but they weren’t anticipating any difficulties here on the University of Buffalo campus. The shoot this day was for X-Strike’s production based on the Metal Gear Solid franchise, and the scene being filmed was a relatively simple one featuring the movie’s villain and a pair of genome soldiers capturing our hero, Snake. The crew was running through yet another take when they were suddenly surrounded by several UoB police cruisers, complete with shotgun-toting, Kevlar-wearing officers.

Looking back on the situation, Ekkebus realizes that perhaps some prior warning to law enforcement might have been a good idea. “A genome soldier to us is just a part of the movie, but a guy in a black ski mask holding a fake machine gun looks like a terrorist to the rest of the world. Albeit a terrorist who has a camera guy with him and keeps doing the same thing over and over again, but a vile terrorist nonetheless,” he sagely observes.

My first encounter with X-Strike Studios was at a videogame convention last October. Although most of the other booths had piles of games and systems for sale, all that X-Strike seemed to be offering was two young men sitting quietly behind a folding table, the typical underfed, sleep-deprived 20-somethings you expect to see roaming a videogame convention. The men were rapt in conversation and paid me no mind as I lingered around the booth. When neither of them made an introduction, I began to walk away, but a stack of obnoxiously orange T-shirts caught my eye and raised my eyebrow. Proudly declaring “I Hate Uwe Boll,” they lured me back to X-Strike’s booth, where I finally noticed the tiny portable DVD player perched somewhat precariously on the edge of the table.

That they had a movie playing wasn’t a huge surprise; many booths at gaming conventions use them as a gimmick to attract passersby. What was surprising was that it wasn’t the typical gamer bait of Street Fighter or Resident Evil or some hacked to ribbons anime, but rather a homebrew homage to Metal Gear Solid. More surprising still was that it was actually quite good; well acted and sharply written, it suffered from none of the self-indulgence and in-jokes that typically plague fan-made films. When I looked up from the DVD, the man who I would later learn was X-Strike’s founder was grinning broadly at me. Though he looked exhausted, Tim Ekkebus’ enthusiasm for X-Strike’s movies radiated out of him in waves that, if properly harnessed, could end our country’s dependence on foreign oil.

Ekkebus started X-Strike with Juese Cutler, Ben Lathan and Chad Williams a few years ago, after he parted ways with another company called Low Budget Pictures. “Deciding to go into videogame movies was a pretty natural decision for me,” he explains. “I like making movies. I like videogames. Hollywood videogame movies sucked. It just made sense.” Since then, much like a rolling Katamari, X-Strike has collected more and more people who just sort of end up sticking around, including Darrin DeMarco, who joined after penning a script of his own, and Rich Durham, who signed on after Ekkebus asked him to play a role in X-Strike’s first feature. Rory O’Boyle, who was helping Ekkebus man the booth that day in October ostensibly handles the art department and costuming needs, though everyone on staff typically ends up doing a little bit of everything.

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As with most fan-based organizations, everyone involved with an X-Strike project is a volunteer, donating time, money, transportation, talent or just plain good will. The lack of financing is a running theme in X-Strike’s work; the source material for X-Strike’s first movie, River City Rumble, was chosen because it had a simple story, location and costumes. Low Budget Espionage: Project Snake, the movie that attracted the attention of the University of Buffalo’s finest, ironically has the honor of being X-Strike’s highest budget film, topping out at around $2,000, not counting the price of printing the DVDs.

The need to keep the bills paid and the electricity running does create some problems with production schedules, though. Filming has to be squeezed in when day jobs and real life schedules permit, so it can take as long as two years for a project to make the journey from script to finished DVD. A labor of love is one thing, but after a certain point, one has to wonder why the X-Strikers go to all the trouble. Why spend so much time, effort and money on something that so few people will ever see? After all, even if one of X-Strike’s DVDs sold a million copies, a goal from which they are still very, very far, that’s a mere fraction of the audience that big-budget titles like Doom and Tomb Raider enjoy, so why keep up the fight?

According to Ekkebus, it’s quite simple and boils down to their love of games. “One: It’s fun. Two: For the fans. Big studios are [so] preoccupied with trying to make the videogame property appeal to a mass market that they forget to cater to the fans almost at all, so what ends up happening is that the mass market doesn’t go because they hear it’s a ‘videogame movie,’ and they don’t care. … The gamers end up going and hating it because it makes a mockery of what they love.”

Durham’s stance is more of an irate preemptive strike aimed at the Uwe Bolls of the world: A “videogame movie can only be made once before it’s … defined as ‘bad.’ If we don’t do it first, then the bigger studios will worry so much about making a return on their investment that they’ll butcher it. That’s what happens when you go into surgery with shaky hands, and that’s what happens when you cast big names for no reason and neuter a story for a general audience.”

As for DeMarco, his reasoning is perhaps the most pure of all. “I’ll offer a list as my answer: Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon, Wing Commander, House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, BloodRayne.” Not the sort of rationale that easily opens itself up to counterargument.

Despite how it may sound, X-Strike doesn’t hate all of Hollywood’s attempts at marrying videogames and cinema. Says Durham, “Silent Hill worked, I believe, because [director Christophe] Gans knew which elements of the game would translate to a more passive story, and which ones would need to stay part of a game rather than a movie.” DeMarco agrees, saying, “Silent Hill has come the closest in terms of capturing the essence of the source material. They captured the world of Silent Hill very well visually in the film.” He still sees plenty of room for improvement, however, observing that the movie had “a very watered-down script, with some lame dialogue and storytelling. It is a step in the right direction, but there is still some ways to go.”

X-Strike will keep doing its best to keep videogame movies pointed in the right direction with its next project, Sidequest, which parodies “all things RPG, from Final Fantasy to Earthbound,” as DeMarco puts it. Production had been shut down for a while due to severe scheduling (those darn day jobs again) and costuming issues, but everything is back on track now, to the point that Ekkebus hopes to start X-Strike’s very first sequel this summer. “Resident Horror picks up some time after Silent Horror ends and has much more of a basis in the Resident Evil world,” he explains.

So long as Hollywood keeps getting it wrong, the team at X-Strike will keep working around uncooperative schedules and squeezing every last dime until it screams in order to do right by gamers, but what if they didn’t have to? If time and money were no object, what would their dream game movie be? Ekkebus taps some all-time favorites, saying “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Chrono Trigger and Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. All absolutely amazing games from the past that would … need to be done perfectly to satisfy the fans.” DeMarco also would like to do a Belmont tale, but in a slightly different, vaguely terrifying sort of way: “Personally, I am still in love with the idea of doing a Castlevania rock opera.” Eek.

X-Strike features may not have big budgets, eye-popping visuals or even particularly good lighting, but they do treat their subjects with genuine respect and affection, something yet to be accomplished by any videogame movie that’s ever made it to the metroplex. Let’s just hope they give the cops a heads up next time, or their next DVD might have to be based on The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay.

When Susan Arendt isn’t writing news at 1up.com or her weekly gaming
column, Token Female, she’s training her cat to play DDR.

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