Repo Men vs. Repo! The Genetic Opera : Behind The Controversy

Name the movie with the following plot...

In a dystopian future, organ transplants have become a commodity and the giant corporation that sells them sends out repo men to take back hearts, kidneys and other innards from customers who aren't paying their bills.

Actually, that summary describes two completely unrelated film projects with two completely different creative teams from two different movie studios. Striking similarity in both the premise and in aspects of the marketing campaigns for the two films has caused confusion, bad feelings and an uproar on the Internet. One of the films is the Jude Law / Forest Whitaker sci-fi action film Repo Men, which opens this weekend on 2600 screens. The other is Repo! The Genetic Opera, which opened in November 2008 in 11 theaters.

Let's start by discussing the smaller film -- Repo! The Genetic Opera. That film had its origins as a stage play by Darren Smith & Terrance Zdunich that they performed in small theater spaces around Los Angeles starting in 2000. And it is a opera -- a rock opera where all the dialogue is sung. In 2002, Smith and Zdunich met director Darren Lynn Bousman, who loved the stage piece and helped take the piece to bigger venues. It played Off-Broadway in 2005.

Bousman began a very successful horror film directing career. His first three films opened at number one at the box office -- part of the massively popular franchise Saw II, Saw III and Saw IV. And since, Bousman made the fairly unusual step for a working director of wanting to do something less commercial. Bousman said, "My dream growing up wasn't to make sequels. My favorite film as a kid was The Who's Tommy, a film that's pretty hard doesn't really fit into any category easily."

So in 2006 Bousman, Smith and Zdunich began work on Repo! The Genetic Opera, first as a short film and then in 2007 as feature. A horror rock opera about organ repossession isn't exactly the world's most commercial premise and the cast included Zdunich, Sarah Brightman, Paul Sorvino and Paris Hilton.

The inclusion of Hilton turned out to be a mixed blessing. She's actually well cast in the film, is only in it for about ten minutes but when the film was released, maybe reviewers took it as a opportunity to ignore the film and savage Paris Hilton. Bousman went from films that grossed hundreds of millions of dollars to a opening gross of less than $55,000. Bousman says, "The phone stopped ringing."

But then something happened -- the film found its audience. Bousman started doing midnight screenings, sometimes literally driving to the theater with film reels in the trunk of his car. Bousman and Repo!'s creators Smith and Zdunich believed in the film, and after a nationwide roadshow a devoted following begin to build, calling themselves "The Repo! Army."

There are over 36,000 Repo! fans on Facebook currently and there's a real sense of community. As Bousman says, "People come to a Repo! show, and they can look different and act different without being made fun of or picked on. I was at the airport once and a guy came up to me, pulled up his sleeve and his arm was covered in Repo! tattoos."

So when The Repo! Army began hearing about Universal's big-budget Repo Men, their outsider community immediately begin to suspect the worst - that a big studio had stolen the central premise from the film they loved and turned it into a more mainstream, commercial film.

Then something else strange happened...The Repo! Army, which largely consists of the people who were the victim of bullies, started to become bullies themselves. They assumed that Repo Men -- a film none of them had seen, remember - was what they suspected to be; a sleazy Hollywood ripoff. Many of them begin to take it out primarily on Eric Garcia, co-author of the Repo Men screenplay and author of the book Repossession Mambo that the screenplay was based on. The Repo! Army went to war, and began posting negative reviews of Garcia's work on Amazon, started letter writing campaigns against journalists writing about Repo Men! and threatened protests. A blog posting showing similarities between the two projects fanned the flames even further.

The facts are important here and I've conducted extensive interviews with a number of people including Bousman, Zdunich and Garcia. The bottom line; nobody ripped off anybody's concept. Period. The two pieces were developed independently and even the implication that Garcia may have plagiarized any aspect of Repo Men from Repo! The Genetic Opera are not only false but to an author like Eric Garcia, personally and potentially professionally devastating.

Eric Garcia didn't come out of nowhere to write Repo Men -- he was already a successful author, whose novel Matchstick Men was made into a 2003 Ridley Scott film. Garcia wrote the story that contains the premise of repossessing body parts in 1997. I've read the original 13 page story and I interviewed Robert Kurtzman, a well known special effects artist and filmmaker who read the original story in 1997 / 1998. Further, Garcia mentioned the novel Repossession Mambo in an interview in 2001. He and Garrett Lerner, an established writer from projects such as House M.D. and Smallville, wrote the screenplay based on Garcia's then unpublished novel, released last year.

Smith, Zdunich, Bousman, Lerner and Garcia all met together for the first time at a Los Angeles diner a few weeks ago to discuss the controversy but since that meeting, the attacks from fans have continued and feelings of the creators of the two films are still raw.

We live in a world where there are still people protesting about Barack Obama's birth certificate. People like conspiracy theories and sometimes they hold onto them tightly, long past the point where they make any sense. And just because our brains can process something doesn't mean that the emotions that have been stirred up settle as easily.

This was a depressing piece to write. There were really no bad guys here. There are artists like Bousman Zdunich and Garcia -- all really nice, creative, passionate smart people and there are fans who have found a community. All good people, none of whom started out with bad intent and all of whom would probably be friends under different circumstances -- and they are all varying degrees of suspicious, upset and angry. In the end, they all won and got their films made and they all know this intellectually, but the feelings remain.

Given all that, there might be some hope here. I'll end with this quote from Repo! The Genetic Opera's director, Darren Lynn Bousman.

"I consider myself lucky to have such a rabid fanbase as the REPO ARMY. I hope, and urge them all to support REPO MEN, as it helps bring awareness to our movie as well. In the end -- we are all artists here, in love with our art. Bashing REPO MEN is the exact opposite thing that I want fans to do... Repo! The Genetic opera is about acceptance, not alienation."

Repo Men opens this weekend at a theater near you.

Repo! Revolution is a screening of Repo! The Genetic Opera at 20 theaters on March 19th.

What are you going do? Go watch that film with Jennifer Aniston and the dude from 300? C'mon. Organ repossession!