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‘CSI’ creator unveils the thriller ‘Cybergeddon’ online in a fresh way of storytelling

By Dawn C. Chmielewski, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — “CSI” creator Anthony E. Zuiker’s latest crime thriller opens with a bad guy threatening his victim — with a laptop. Computer screens reveal how an international cyber crime ring has obtained the victim’s bank account, his wife’s driver’s license and even photographs of his two children.

“I know everything about you. I own your life,” declares the crime boss, played by Olivier Martinez. “I can take it away with the push of a button.”

Hackers and cyber crime are at the heart of “Cybergeddon,” a nine-part Web series that premiered last week exclusively on Yahoo. The drama follows “Rookie Blue’s” Missy Peregrym as Chloe Jocelyn, an FBI agent on the trail of seemingly unrelated cyber attacks, who finds herself falsely accused of treason. She enlists the help of a master hacker to track down the person who framed her and prevent the global computer calamity of the title. The 90-minute movie unfolds in 10-minute Web-only installments.

Zuiker said he chose to release “Cybergeddon” digitally because he believes the format represents the future of storytelling.

“The relationship between Silicon Valley and Hollywood needs to be figured out — and figured out fast,” Zuiker said. “And I want to be the one to do this.”

“Cybergeddon,” which cost about $6 million to make and promote, premiered simultaneously Tuesday in 25 countries and 10 languages.

A red-carpet premiere Monday at the Pacific Design Center lent the film a mainstream Hollywood sheen. A-lister (and Martinez’s fiancee) Halle Berry and actress Aimee Teegarden of “Friday Night Lights” fame joined the party, along with series co-stars Manny Montana (“Breakout Kings”) and Kick Gurry (“Speed Racer”).

Ever since the success of the “CSI” television franchise, Zuiker has been dabbling in cross-platform storytelling, recounting a single narrative across multiple devices. His book series “Level 26,” which chronicles the exploits of a former FBI agent pulled out of retirement to hunt down the world’s worst serial killers, contains Web-based “cyber-bridges” that enable the reader to unlock cinematic scenes that delve into the minds of the murderers.

Zuiker adopted a similar approach with “Cybergeddon.”

A microsite on Yahoo features character biographies, behind-the-scenes videos that offer glimpses into Peregrym’s wardrobe room, explanations of special effects shots and chase scenes, and news articles about cyber crimes. Zuiker also developed what he calls “zips,” one-minute clips that explore the characters’ back stories in ways that inform the narrative.

“You can watch these zips, binge and binge and binge on narrative stories that are shot at the same level as the movie,” said Zuiker, adding that these snack-size videos serve another purpose. “It’ll draw you into the movie, back to ‘Cybergeddon.’ These are little PR soldiers. They can live all over cyberspace.”

Erin McPherson, head of original video at Yahoo Inc., said, “We’re really stretching out, spreading our wings and starting to provide other experiences, premium experiences, for our users.”

One facet of the old-media world that Zuiker has brought to the new is brand integration that goes beyond product placement.

Norton anti-virus software shares title credits with Zuiker’s production company, Dare to Pass, and Dolphin Digital Media, which helped finance the production. The software company provided technical advice to lend credibility to the series, much as it has with other movie projects such as the 2002 spy thriller “The Bourne Identity.”

In “Cybergeddon,” one scene re-creates the Norton Security Operations Center and its “Pandora’s Box,” a security room where viruses are analyzed in isolation. One of the movie’s main characters, Winston Chang, is inspired by Norton’s expert on cyber crime and digital security issues, Kevin Haley.

“We gave (Zuiker) true stories of how, as an example, there can be spyware on your phone and you won’t even know it. It’s taking pictures. It’s listening in,” said Rhonda Shantz, Norton brand marketing vice president. “We just gave him the facts and let that inspire what you see.”

Norton also participated in the marketing push, displaying a promotion for “Cybergeddon” on boxes of its software and using its desktop application to inform consumers of the movie’s launch — employing the alerts typically reserved to warn a user that his or her computer has contracted a virus.

“Never have I seen a brand step up and be so aggressive and be such a part of our process,” Zuiker said at the film’s premiere.

That kind of branding might make creative types uneasy. But Zuiker said in a phone interview from Paris, where he was promoting “Cybergeddon,” that he enjoyed ultimate creative control over the project — including which brands were chosen as sponsors.

“Freedom to an artist is a great, great thing,” Zuiker said. “We are in the golden age of entertainment in a technological revolution and we have to champion the artist. That’s how this is going to survive.”

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