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the return of a bastard art form

2.6.00

"It's a book that used to be a movie, instead of the other way around!"
- Old slogan for Fotonovels

Browsing the movie-books section at Barnes & Noble lately, I wasn't surprised to see yet another BLAIR WITCH PROJECT tie-in book. What did surprise me, however, was the happy shock of a logo I'd long thought dead: FOTONOVEL. There it was, in bold block letters centered in a film strip, just like the old days: FOTONOVEL. I almost bought it just for old time's sake, but I'd already told my closest friends that if they ever caught me buying BLAIR WITCH products, they should terminate me with extreme prejudice.

Am I the only one who remembers Fotonovels? They were a uniquely '70s creation, and they seemed to come and go within about two years. Two movie-loving friends of mine who'd also lived through the '70s had only a dim recollection of Fotonovels, if that. Maybe they came and went so fast they didn't even have time to leave a footprint in the collective cultural memory.

For the uninitiated, Fotonovels were quickie paperbacks that told the story of a movie (generally a movie with youth appeal) almost entirely though full-color stills; the dialogue was rendered as printed text, with open speech balloons (as in, say, DOONESBURY) pointing to whoever was delivering the dialogue. Fotonovels were apparently never welcomed with open arms. They were fair game for ridicule. Stephen King, writing about INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (whose 1978 remake was Fotonovelized), went off on a tangent in his DANSE MACABRE: "If there is a lower, slimier, more anti-book concept than the Fotonovel, I don't know what it would be. I think I'd rather see my kids reading a stack of Beeline Books [porn paperbacks] than one of those photocomics."

"Photocomics" is a good name for them -- I always viewed them as a pricier version of your typical Marvel Comics movie adaptation, except that in Fotonovels you didn't have artists who couldn't draw a decent likeness of the actors. Like Sensurround and the 8-track, Fotonovels were one of those groovy '70s ideas that didn't pan out. But now, mysteriously, they're back. Did some marketing drone wake up and go, "Kids love books [Harry Potter, Animorphs, etc.] and kids love movies -- let's bring back the books that used to be movies instead of the other way around"?

Over on Fotonovel's charmingly shoddy new website -- half-finished and rife with grammatical goofs -- we are informed that some of the original "Fotonovel classics" now fetch a pretty penny, sometimes as much as $150. Well, I don't know about that. A quick check on eBay yields no such success stories, not even for Fotonovel's line of STAR TREK episode adaptations, which you'd figure would be hot. (On average, the TREK books -- there were 15 in all -- go for about $6-$10.) Of the recent completed auctions, the title that has commanded the highest sum -- though never much more than $20 -- is, oddly, the GREASE Fotonovel. I also see a lot of Fotonovel auctions that started at $4 and didn't move at all: ICE CASTLES, THE CHAMP, and so on.

I mean, if you're going to go through the eBay bidding process to snag a copy of the ICE CASTLES Fotonovel, you're either (A) an obsessive Fotonovel collector, (B) an obsessive connoisseur of '70s kitsch, or (C) an obsessive fan of Lynn-Holly Johnson. Where is Lynn-Holly now, anyway? Same place Fotonovels were, until recently. Could ICE CASTLES 2 be far behind?

Informally -- since the Fotonovel site gives no dates -- I'd place the original Fotonovel life span from 1977-1979. There may have been more after that, but I sure wasn't spotting them in drugstores. I was around 8 or 9 during the "peak" of Fotonovels, so I'd collected quite a few of them, most of which I eventually sold at yard sales for a quarter each. I remember having SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, ROCKY & ROCKY II (these were combined into one Fotonovel), the aforementioned INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY, and perhaps several others I'm forgetting. Only two Fotonovels survived the childhood purge: LOVE AT FIRST BITE (for some reason, I still have that around here somewhere) and LORD OF THE RINGS, which, if I wanted to sell it (I don't, because it's cool), would probably sell for a sweet price as excitement over the upcoming LOTR movies builds.

I'd love to know more about the process of creating a Fotonovel, especially back in the day. Someone had to sit down, pre-computers, and go through thousands of film frames to select two or three for each page. Then someone had to sit down and transcribe the film's dialogue. Today I'm sure it's much easier: just run the video through your computer, grab some screen caps, paste the dialogue onto it, and print it out. You could probably do your own MATRIX Fotonovel on a Mac if you wanted to.

Why is the Fotonovel making a comeback now? Perhaps someone noticed that the marriage of text and image on the Internet has been slightly successful. And for movies that don't lend themselves to straight text novelizations, like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, the format seems a good match. Though on the other hand, BLAIR WITCH depends almost entirely on its cinema-verite camera jiggling for its impact; as a Fotonovel, it looks like a collection of grainy photos, with text. It's the shittiest-looking $9 paperback I've ever seen. $9 may seem pretty steep, but the cover price on my copy of LOVE AT FIRST BITE is $2.75 -- a fairly high cost for a quarter-inch-thick paperback in 1979. That was probably one reason Fotonovels went under before: A book composed entirely of full-color photos is expensive to produce.

In addition to BLAIR WITCH -- the only one I've seen in stores so far -- there is also apparently a DAWSON'S CREEK line (it seems that two volumes have been completed), and future titles announced on the Fotonovel website include DINOSAUR, 102 DALMATIANS, CHARLIE'S ANGELS (the upcoming movie, one assumes), and BATTLEFIELD EARTH (which probably makes John Travolta the most-represented actor in the Fotonovel universe, if you factor in GREASE and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER). Clearly, Fotonovels are still targeted to kids. BLAIR WITCH, in case you wondered, has had its mouth washed out considerably for its Fotonovel treatment -- the occasional mild epithet you could expect to hear on TV, but none of the incessant overuse of the F-word. (Which leaves out 95% of the dialogue. Hee hee hee.) Fotonovel's other planned projects would seem to confirm that they're playing primarily to the teen and preteen demographic.

Personally, I think they're blowing it all over again. If they set their aim a little higher, both demographically and artistically, they'd clean up with uncensored Fotonovels of beloved Gen-X classics like CLERKS and RESERVOIR DOGS. (PULP FICTION would probably be too long to fit into a standard Fotonovel.) I would also go with primarily verbal movies -- they're making their old mistake (with BATTLEFIELD EARTH and DINOSAUR) of trying to convey a big-budget, big-screen experience within photos the size of a baseball card. A talky movie like CLERKS, which kinda looks shitty anyway, wouldn't lose much by being Fotonovelized. You could even do a flip-page cartoon of Silent Bob dancing to "Violent Mood Swings," the way they had Travolta doing flip-page disco in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER.

The first new Fotonovels are also way behind the curve. Who buys BLAIR WITCH shit any more? That craze is dead -- I saw BLAIR WITCH daily journals on the B&N remainder shelf for a dollar, and other BLAIR WITCH crapola is getting marked down as well. And DAWSON'S CREEK? "I'm over the Creek," said Grace on one recent episode of WILL AND GRACE, and so is most everybody else. The hot pop-culture youth tie-ins Fotonovel should be debuting with are BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (hell, I'd buy that) and THE MATRIX. Those are the kinds of franchises that stay fresh and cool for a long time, because they develop cult followings. Other popular items, like BLAIR WITCH, burn very hot and bright and then burn out very quickly; there's no BLAIR WITCH cult following right now, or if there is, they're sure as hell laying low.

It's all about synergy. Back in August, BLAIR WITCH Fotonovels would've flown off the shelves. Today, no. Keep in mind we're only talking about a difference of six months. That's how fast the turnover is these days. Back in the '70s, when a hit movie got re-released and sometimes stuck around in theaters and drive-ins for years, you could afford to put out a GREASE Fotonovel six months after the movie opened. Today, when even a monolith like TITANIC only stays in theaters for about six months and most movies come to video within a year or less, it has to be day and date or you miss the boat. Fotonovel may be aiming for day-and-date with DINOSAUR and BATTLEFIELD EARTH, movies they figure might be hits -- but if the movies tank, Fotonovel will have to eat a lot of $9 shelf-warmers.

I'll be curious to see whether Fotonovel 2000 sinks or swims. Either they just hit bookstores yesterday, or they've been around for a while and my random spotting of the BLAIR WITCH Fotonovel was the first I'd heard of them. Considering that half the pages on the Fotonovel site aren't up yet, I'd guess this is a fairly recent comeback. Either way, they're certainly not marketing aggressively.

Realistically, I have to agree with Stephen King. Fotonovels are cheesy, and they probably contribute to illiteracy -- but then, so does practically everything else these days. Yet I was still irrationally happy to see that old Fotonovel logo again. "Hey, this is something I remember from childhood! It sucked then, and now it sucks all over again!" But there's some comfort in that. At least it sucks in the same old way. Some things don't change, and thank God for that.


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