Twelve hundred dollars. In L.A., that’s not enough to get a decent seaweed wrap. George Lucas probably spends more keeping his lightsabers shined. But $1,200 is all it cost aspiring filmmaker Kevin Rubio to create Troops, a 10-minute Star Wars-meets-Cops parody that’s turned into the hottest of Hollywood commodities: a buzz-generating short that has producers and agents salivating at the prospect of discovering the next South Park.
Using Cops‘ shaky camera-verite treatment — as well as its trademark ”Bad Boys” theme song — Troops follows a squad of Imperial Stormtroopers as they zip around Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine. Along the way, they talk about their jobs (in a lackadaisical Fargo-like drawl), investigate domestic disputes, and rough up some Jawas (”I got a wife and kids too, but you don’t see me out here stealing Imperial droids, now, do ya?”). Rubio, 30, an animation-cel archivist for the Fox Kids Network, spent six months creating the film, which was inspired by the special edition rerelease of the Star Wars trilogy last year. ”I did it to have fun,” says Rubio. ”And I wanted people to see what I could do.”
With its deadpan delivery and eye-popping special effects — created by two friends on high-end home computers with a commercially available graphics program — Troops has developed a cult following in Hollywood, with videos quickly making the rounds. George Lucas, the Jedi Master himself, is a fan. Mark Hamill called to set up a personal screening with Rubio (”I’m sitting in a trailer with Luke Skywalker and he’s digging my film,” recalls a starstruck Rubio). After Troops was posted to the Star Wars fan page http://www.theforce.net, traffic to the site increased by 500 percent. All of which explains why three talent agencies and six production companies, including DreamWorks, have called to set up meetings with Rubio. ”It’s brilliant for the money,” says Roy Lee, director of development for the production house Alphaville (Michael). ”If he could do this with $1,200, what could he do for a million?”
Such big attention for a short film is understandable, given the potential stakes. Three years ago, a five-minute spoof called The Spirit of Christmas, done by up-and-comers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, created a similar flurry of interest. Today, Parker and Stone preside over that pop-culture juggernaut known as South Park — and shorts have become the calling card of choice in Hollywood. Last year, Art Brown and Tracy Fraim’s 40-minute, $25,000 Eating Las Vegas, which substituted tapioca for tequila, earned them deals to write two feature scripts, including Surrender Dorothy, a Warner Bros. Wizard of Oz update for Drew Barrymore. Similarly, last year’s 3 1/2-minute Swing Blade, a cross between Swingers and Sling Blade, got writer-actors Chris Cox and Matt Sloan an agent, meetings with Disney and Brillstein-Grey, and discussions with NBC, ABC, and Fox about sitcom-writing jobs next fall.
One reason short films have become so popular is that they appeal to the short attention spans of studio execs. You know you’re on to something, says Emile Gladstone, Brown and Fraim’s agent, ”if you can tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end that keeps their attention for 10 minutes.” And in a weird, only-in-Hollywood twist, shorts are starting to carry more clout than feature-length credits. ”If you have three minutes of greatness, you’re willing to give a person a shot to make a whole movie, with the hope that it’ll be great,” says MTV Films’ Elysa Koplovitz, who immediately asked for Rubio’s number after being called for this story. ”But if you’ve got 90 minutes of just-average stuff, then there’s no leap to make. You’ve already seen what they’re going to do with a feature.”