SkyVu Entertainment Pushes ‘Battle Bears’ Brand to Sky’s-the-Limit Vision of Mobile Games, TV, Film, Toys, Etc.
Omaha’s young creatives community is the subject of much press and buzz, as this blog is in part a testament to, and SkyVu Entertainment is one of the more interesting stories on this burgeoning scene. The self-desccribed transmedia company that does animation and designs mobile games is led by a visionary named Ben Vu who is completely serious when he says he views SkyVu as the Pixar of mobile games and as a mini-Disney. The following profile of Ben and his company will be appearing in an upcoming issue of B2B Magazine. I am sure to be revisiting his story and his company’s story again in the near future.
SkyVu Entertainment Pushes ‘Battle Bears’ Brand to Sky’s-the-Limit Vision of Mobile Games, TV, Film, Toys, Etc.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in B2B Magazine
With Battle Bears reaching 14 million downloads and counting, maker SkyVu Entertainment is a Player in the mobile games world.
“We created an entertainment distribution platform through not something like Facebook or Twitter but something like a brand. We like to see ourselves as the Pixar of mobile games. A mini-Disney,” says Ben Vu, co-founder of SkyVu with his brother Hoa.
The transmedia company, which launched here rather than Asia thanks to Nebraska Angels support, has designs on making a feature-length Battle Bears film and is negotiating a television series and toy line. SkyVu began as an animation shop before entering the games field.
A graduate of Disney-founded Cal Arts, Ben worked on the stop-motion feature Coraline and has made a study of the Walt Disney Company. He notes parallels between the Brothers Vu and Midwesterners Walt and Roy Disney.
“I see a lot of how myself and my brother are in how Walt and Roy Disney played off of each other,” says Ben. “Roy was the money guy and Walt more the creative visionary, and a lot of times the creative visionary wanted all the resources he needed to fulfill that vision while the other one watched out for the road ahead.”
Ben’s the creative mastermind. Hoa, who heads up the Singapore office, is the tight-fisted numbers wonk. This yin-yang finds them often butting heads. Their conflicting personalities are the models for two Bears characters, Oliver (Ben) and Riggs (Hoa). “They’re always at odds but somehow every episode of every game they find a way to work together to accomplish the mission,” says Vu. “This is how Ben and Hoa work.”
The only children of Vietmanese refugee parents, the Vus grew up in Norfolk, Neb. and graduated from Omaha Creighton Prep. Both were fascinated with movies, games and drawing. Their skill sets meshed with the new digital age.
“We’re an entertainment company and we use technology to entertain, but boy do we love technology,” says Ben, “because it allows us to compete at a high level, reaching millions of people within a short amount of time at a fraction of what it used to cost. With the advent of the iPhone followed by the iPad and the growth of Android we could not be in a better place right now.”
He says their signature game “combines cute with a bit of violence in a compelling story about a family of robotic bears trying to save the world but learning from each other in the process.” Its put SkyVu in elite company with EA, THQ, Sony, Nintendo, even Microsoft. “They all want a piece of the mobile pie.”
He says big companies have more resources but SkyVu has its own advantages.
“Because of our careful attention to character and story, first and foremost, we build engaging games. Something we’ve learned in a short amount of time and that we’re good at is providing a snack bite size quality experience coupled with a very appealing character and story. The magic is those two things coming together.
“We’re one of the unique studios in the world that has an animation and a games studio all under the same roof driven by the same creative force.”
Fans keep coming back for more at the App Store.
“We don’t talk about users or players, we deal in building loyal fans and taking care of them.”
Bigger audiences await.
“The (film) studios and networks are now looking at mobile games as a rich source of content,” says Vu, who feels SkyVuis well-poised to seize the day. “As the mobile game experience becomes more rich, as these phones get faster, as tablets start to invade the living room more, the production quality rises and SkyVu needs to scale itself up appropriately to be ahead of the curve.”
Getting there requires more capital, perhaps a partner, and he says SkyVu is attracting serious offers. The team’s multi-skilled animators and coders allow flexibility.
“We’re in mobile right now but there’s no doubt in my mind you’ll be experiencing our brands in the living room, possibly in the airplane and the car, certainly in theaters.”
He keeps a shoebox full of story-character concepts in his office, which doubles as the war room. White boards display a calligraphy of brainstorms. “There’s no shortage of ideas.”
SkyVu’s 14-person team is all local and Vu’s confident Nebraska will continue filling its needs. In January he strategically relocated SkyVu to Ak-Sar-Ben Village to be near the Scott Technology Center, Peter Kiewit Institute and UNO College of Business.
He says SkyVu offers a rare Midwest opportunity for “talented young people to create stuff seen and experienced by millions of people.” He’s committed to staying put. “The team we built here got us to where we are, so why would we abandon that? We can be competitive with any region in the country, with any country, as long as we maintain our innovation and creation.”
“It’s really daring what we’re trying to do here, but we’re actually doing good, we’re making traction. If the TV series becomes a reality things are going to go crazy. We’re just breaking even now and profitability is our number one priority because we have to grow.” ”
He anticipates adding 60-plus employees in two years to accommodate new ventures.
The next big thing may only be a shoebox away.
- Battle Bears Royale – SkyVu Pictures (itunes.apple.com)
- Tapjoy has 25m monthly active users (mobile-ent.biz)
Women feature filmmakers were fairly abundant at the start of motion pictures but by the time the sound era took off in the early 1930s they were pushed out of the male-centric industry’s directing ranks, save for Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino, and really didn’t return again, except for underground or art house filmmakers like Shirley Clark and Barbara Loden, until well into the 1970s. Elaine May made a big dent in the boys only network with her early 1970s films The Heartbreak Kid and A New Leaf. Joan Micklin Silver followed with her own breakthrough, courtesy her 1975 feature debut, Hester Street, whose unexpected success helped open doors to more women filmmakers the remainder of that decade and especially in the 1980s. Silver and Hester Street are of particular interest to me because she is a fellow Omaha native and her film stands as a landmark screen portrayal of the immigrant experience in early 20th century America alongside Elia Kazan‘s America, America and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather II. As the following story details, the film overcame all odds in just getting made and released and then defied all expectations by becoming a darling of critics and audiences, earning a then-astounding box office take for a small indie film – $5 million, plus a Best Actress Oscar nomination for star Carol Kane.
I have been following Silver for many years – you’ll find some of my other stories about her on this blog – and I recently had the pleasure of interviewing her again in the aftermath of Hester Street being included in the National Film Registry. I also interviewed Hester Street star Carol Kane, though I won’t have a chance to post anything from my conversation with her until a later date. Silver, by the way, is one of the most underrrated filmmakers of her or any time. Her body of work in the 1970s and ’80s, though quite small, can stand with nearly any director’s. I highly recommend Hester Street, the rarely screened Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter (also known as Head Over Heels), Loverboy, and Crossing Delancey, which for my tastes is one of the best romantic comedies ever made.
The grapevine tells me Silver may be coming back to Omaha (a rare occurrence) for a Film Streams program that Alexander Payne is arranging. After years of interviewing her by phone and writing about her, I hope to finally meet her. Stay tuned.
Joan Micklin Silver’s Classic ‘Hester Street’ Included in National Film Registry
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to be published in the Jewish Press
With her 1975 directorial debut Hester Street she joined a mere handful of women directors then. Just completing the film and getting it released was a major feat. The low budget, black-and-white independent told a period Jewish immigrant story partly in Yiddish with English subtitles.
“With great effort we made the film,” says Silver.
Her script adapted the Abraham Cahan novel Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto. As the eldest daughter of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, the story held deep reverberations for Silver, who says she gloried in her father’s tales “of what it was like in Russia and what it was like coming over and his first banana.” Hester Street allowed her to commemorate on screen the immigrant experience she sprang from. “I cared a lot about the ties I had to that world,” she once told a reporter.
That the film became a sensation was a small miracle.
“One thing I thought as I was making the movie, ‘Well, who knows if I’ll ever get to make another film,’ and I say that because things were pretty dire for women directors and I really wanted to make one that would count for my family. The immigrant experience was a very big part of my family’s experience.”
Silver feels the film strikes a chord with viewers because “it tells an immigrant story in an interesting, believable and honest way.”
Last November Hester Street’s impact was confirmed when the National Film Preservation Board included it among 25 new selections in the National Film Registry, a U.S. Library of Congress-curated archive of significant American movies. Its citation notes the film’s been “praised for its accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the challenges immigrants faced during their acculturation process.”
The honor took Silver by surprise.
“I was really pleased, I had no expectation, and I was delighted to be on the same list with a John Ford movie (The Iron Horse) and a Charlie Chaplain movie (The Kid). It’s pretty exciting,” the longtime Manhattan resident says.
The recognition is doubly satisfying given the difficulty of getting the movie made and released. She recalls one Hollywood executive who rejected the project suggested she change the story to Italians. When no studio would finance the story of early 20th century Eastern Jewish immigrants, her husband Ray Silver, who worked in real estate, raised the $350,000 to do it. He also produced the picture and made sure it got seen.
“Certainly he’s the hero of my story,” she says.
Much of the film was shot where the film is set on New York’s Lower East Side. The tight production schedule meant added pressure. “It was really scary” says Silver. “I remember one day when I went to shoot a scene and the location had not been secured and it took two hours to secure it, so I was two hours behind, and the whole time I was directing the scene I was thinking, How do I make up the two hours? It isn’t what you should be thinking about when you’re directing a scene.”
She’s forever grateful to her collaborators.
“I had a chance to work with such good people. I had a wonderful cameraman and production designing team and costumer, and that makes all the difference in the world to somebody just starting out. And I had such a good cast (Steven Keats, Paul Freedman, Doris Roberts, Mel Howard, Dorrie Kavanaugh) and I’m still really close and friendly with Carol (Kane).”
Silver first saw Kane in the Canadian drama Wedding in White and thought her perfect for Gitl, a naive new immigrant wife-mother whose painful assimilation leads to her emancipation. As Silver assumed Kane lived across the border she despaired her meager budget could not afford putting her up for the shoot until learning the actress resided in NYC.
The two felt a connection as Kane came from a Jewish immigrant family not unlike Silver’s and grew up in Cleveland, where Silver once lived. The filmmaker recalls Kane as “a very conscientious, serious, careful, lovely young woman” who went home to rehearse in the sheitel and period jewelry provided for the part.
After all the hard work to finance the film, meticulous research to ensure authenticity and stress to complete the project on time, no studio wanted to distribute it. Silver was heartbroken.
“I went through a bad period thinking, I’ve made this film nobody will distribute, what am I going to do? how are we going to pay the money back?”
On the advice of maverick filmmaker John Cassavetes, the couple distributed it themselves through their own Midwest Films company. And then a remarkable thing happened. Ray entered the film in the Cannes Film Festival and it was accepted. More prestigious festival showings followed. As the film proved a critical and popular darling more theaters screened it. Hester Street became a surprise hit, earning $5 million at the box office and gaining enough industry notice for Kane to be Oscar-nominated, both unheard of accomplishments for an indie pic then.
Silver had the thrill of informing the actress she’d been nominated.
The project established Silver’s reputation as a bankable director. Her subsequent theatrical films include Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter. Perhaps her crowning achievement was Crossing Delancey, when she revisited Lower East Side Jewish culture in a modern love story poised between Old and New World values. She later directed many made-for-television movies (Hunger Point).
The Central High graduate left Omaha in the early 1950s to pursue a love for writing, theater and film nurtured here. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College she settled in Cleveland, where plays she wrote were performed. In New York she wrote and directed educational films
Her dream of a Hollywood breakthrough was partly realized when her story about the wives of American POWs, Limbo, was optioned and she worked under veteran studio director Mark Robson adapting it to the screen.
“In the end I was replaced as the writer (sharing screenplay credit with James Bridges) on the film. Not knowing very much, I disagreed with the director in meetings and he said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and replaced me, which is the privilege of the director.
“But he then invited me – because he knew what I really wanted to do was direct as well as write – to come to the shoot and stay as long as I wanted to avail myself of anything I wanted to learn about. Of course, I felt very upset I had been let go but I got past it and I said, ‘OK, I’m coming,’ and that was a tremendous learning experience for me.”
Robson’s largess was rare in the misogynist, male-dominated movie field. Besides, Silver notes, “Who wants a disgruntled screenwriter around? So that was very generous of him. He let me look through the camera, he let me review the film’s budget, he let me talk with any of the actors, and I did. It was marvelous. I gained a real understanding of how one sets up a budget for a feature film.”
For Silver, who never formally studied filmmaking, it was her film school. Confident in her abilities, she vowed her work would never be compromised again.
“I think almost everybody who gets along in film seems to have experiences like that because it’s a pretty tough field and you need guidance and you need friendship and generosity, and I was very lucky to have it myself.”
In a sense Silver prepped all her life to make Hester Street. The stories she absorbed from her father previously led her to make The Immigrant Experience for the Learning Corporation of America. For her first feature she again fixed on subject matter close to her heart.
“My father was ill during my teenage years and he was home a great deal, so I spent a lot of time with him. He was looking for somebody to talk to and believe me I was there and I was really happy to talk to him. I’ve always thought immigrants fall into two experiences: those who don’t want to talk about it at all and those who want to talk about it all the time and that was my father – he loved reminiscing about it. As a very bright, questioning man, he was also interested in the world, politics, current events and books. I was so lucky to have talk after talk with such a wonderful father at a time when it was unusual for fathers to talk to their daughters.”
He father died before she became a filmmaker, but her mother lived to revel in her Hester Street triumph. “One of the first things she did when Hester Street came out was make the cover of what would be a scrapbook. Yeah, she loved it and she was thrilled for my success.”
Silver’s interest in immigrant tales continues with her in-progress documentary The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story. She has a feature script in development. Meanwhile, she’s struck up a friendship with fellow Omaha native filmmaker Alexander Payne. The two are discussing a possible Film Streams program with her and her work.
- Alexander Payne and Kaui Hart Hemmings on the Symbiosis Behind His Film and Her Novel ‘The Descendants’ and Her Role in Helping Him Get Hawaii Right (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Vincent Alston’s Indie Film Debut, ‘For Love of Amy,’ is Black and White and Love All Over (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Cut Man: Oscar-Winning Film Editor Mike Hill (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)