At the After Earth Press Junket
I’m in NYC today for the World Premier of After Earth, sharing the moment with Mike Friedman, Peter David, and our spouses. Now that the website is back and running, I can finally talk about the press junket.
The one thing a freelance writer lives for is the phone to ring and an amazing opportunity to be on the other end of the call. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you want that call to also bring with it a promise of payment. But that one other call is also an opportunity too good to pass up. Well, a little over two weeks ago, the folk at Overbrook called and asked if I was free to join them in New Mexico for the After Earth press junket. I’d be there, representing Mike and Peter, and being a part of a panel discussion on the worldbuilding aspects of the franchise.
Of course I said yes.
As with a similar panel in San Diego, Sony took care of all the travel arrangements and I loved the treatment with a detailed itinerary from door to door, so I had nothing to worry about.
I flew out on Thursday, arriving in El Paso, where I met up with screenwriter Gary Whitta. We rode together to Las Cruces, where we were staying. A few hours later, we were driven across the street to the mall where a theater in the multiplex was screening the film for the 55 members of the press. These were primarily television reporters and a few from the Internet, getting to see the film before interviewing Will Smith and Jaden Smith the next day. Gary and I grabbed our complimentary popcorn and sodas and snagged choice center seats.
The media had little idea what they were seeing beyond the trailers so we listened intently for their reactions and were pleased they chuckled in the rights places, gasped in the right places and applauded at the end. After that, few talked about it as we were whisked off to a restaurant for dinner. This was an interesting place where Billy the Kid once visited, had a haunted room, and boasted a chandelier that was used in one of The Godfather movies. We had an open bar and a seven piece mariachi band that was lively.
Friday was the work day. While the press was ferried by helicopter to the Virgin Spaceport in shifts, Gary, production designer Tom Sanders, and I had to be out there early to prep. We drove into New Mexico and then shifted to a rocky dirt road that gave us plenty of time to chat with our fellow passengers including astronaut Garrett Reisman, who regaled us with stories of his space shuttle trips.
The Spaceport is isolated and still being outfitted unlike the functional one in Nevada. The hangar, therefore, made for a fabulous place to host the press. Will and Jaden had just flown in from a Miami appearance and were upstairs on the second and third level where the press had their four minutes apiece. But first they could freshen up at the makeup station where two artists were on call all day for those who needed to look their best for the camera (sure enough, several brought on air outfits to change into).
While each journalist had their moment, the rest could wander the hangar which had an amazing catering section, a 26 foot rock climbing wall, a Spaceport kiosk where Reisman met with the press. There was also a section for the interactive demos so they could sample the Kitai’s Journal app which takes the young adult novelization and niftily tricks it out with graphics (including several 360 degree images) and voiceovers. The media could also sample the mobile and Facebook games that Sony’s interactive team created and are cool enough to tempt me to do a little gaming. A green screen set-up allowed people to pose for photos and be digitally inserted into a moment from the film, which was a great opportunity for play.
Then there was the centerpiece, a semi-circular area where over a dozen giant blowups ringed the space with images of Tom’s design work, scenes from the movie and the four interactive maps designed by Jonathan Roberts (who also did the maps for Game of Thrones). Bookending were mannequins in two of the lifesuits Jaden wears in the film, complete cutlass props, which we got to play with. Each of the four groups came over and were treated to a 2:47 sizzle reel to lay out the full scope of AE’s presence. Beyond the movie, comic, novels, website, etc., there are the After Earth Day and related ecological initiatives, a full science curriculum, the X Prize Challenge, and a full range of survival tips. Then, Variety Features editor David S. Cohen moderated a discussion with producer Caleeb Pinkett, Gary, Tom, and yours truly. Since we were doing this four times, David made certain to vary the questions to keep us fresh and there was some good give and take. One interesting thing that we talked a lot about is how this may be the only summer blockbuster without guns. The press asked questions and later admitted it was more informative than they expected and it helped frame the project and even help them come up with questions for the actors.
For me, this was an eye-opening glimpse into the press, where I have not actively toiled since my Starlog days. In fact, I got to reminisce with Drew McWeeny, now with Hitfix, since he grew up reading Starlog and Fangoria while I was there. They were a fun bunch but also a bit of a clique given how often they encounter one another at junkets and similar events throughout the year. They were constantly snapping pics and shooting videos of moments for preservation on Facebook and Instagram. All saw a camera and immediately started mugging.
The dirt roads caused seven flat tires so far on Friday so Gary, Tom, and I were offered a helicopter ride back to Las Cruces. We gratefully accepted so my day ended with my first chopper ride, enjoying a thirty minute tour of the New Mexico terrain as the sun began to set. A pretty spectacular view and terrific way to bring down the curtain. We were all worn by the full day so rather than go out as planned; Tom and I joined the press at the hotel bar for dinner and conversation which was a nice way to wind things up.
The movie opens on Friday and everyone at Overbrook and Sony has done their best to make sure people know it is coming and what it’s about. The waiting for reviews and word of mouth begins and I for one will be very curious to see how it is received. Personally, I hope there’s a future for the franchise so there’s more of an opportunity to tell stories in the universe Mike, Peter and I helped develop. Your comments will certainly be interesting to see.