Screenlife movies have exploded in popularity in recent years. But what is screenlife? And what are screenlife movies? We’re going to answer those questions by examining the defining characteristics of screenlife, then we’ll look at some screenlife movies to see how they’re put into action. By the end, you’ll know what screenlife is, why it’s important, and how to make a screenlife movie of your own.
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Computer Screen Films Explained
Behind the development of screenlife
Perhaps it’s natural to reason that movies that take place on screens have taken off in the years since the mass development of portable screen technology. American kids spend on average 7.5 hours a day in front of a screen for entertainment, per the CDC.
Screens are an important part of our lives; and it seems that, if anything, their presence is growing every day. Many filmmakers have capitalized on this development, offering a new filmic language called “screenlife.”
What is screenlife?
Screenlife is a style of media (usually movie) that takes place entirely on “screens,” typically phone screens or computer screens. Screenlife movies have developed a media aesthetic that mirrors society’s growingly intimate relationship with screen technology.
Screen Life Movies:
- Takes Place on Screens
- Popularized in the 2010s
- Commercial Aims: Low-Risk, High-Yield
In this next video, Timur Bekmambetov, producer of screenlife films such as Unfriended, Searching, and Profile, explains the development of the style, and how it uniquely addresses concerns of the modern age.
In many ways, screenlife is a style of filmmaking that probably wouldn’t have worked prior to the mass commercialization of portable screen technology. Not that long ago, people associated screens with a much narrower set of capabilities; screens showed television… then home video… then video games… but before you knew it, the internet was accessible in the palm of your hand.
Smartphone technology popularized social media/interpersonal communication and made it a presence so omnipresent it’s hard to conceive of a world without it. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated our reliance on screens to communicate with others. Nowadays, it seems like much of society couldn’t function without screen communication.
“So many important events of our life [are] happening in the digital space. This becomes the only way to understand who we are and where we go and what we are working for… it’s why screenlife is very, very contemporary – and necessary.”
– Timur Bekmambetov
Screen Life Movies & Games
What are the best screenlife movies?
Aneesh Chaganty’s 2018 screenlife film Searching is perhaps the most famous film of the style to date. Searching grossed an enormous 76$ million at the global box-office against a budget of $880,000. That’s the type of profit that Hollywood execs dream about.
The commercial success of Searching may very well be the number one reason for the influx of screenlife movies. A spiritual successor titled Missing was released in 2023. Although not as successful as the original, Missing still grossed more than 6x its budget at the global box-office.
We imported the Searching script into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software to take a closer look at how screen life movies are written. Check out the image link below to read how these films get written on the page!
It’s clear from the outset that the Searching screenplay moves at a rapid pace; in fact, “rapid pace” is a defining characteristic for most screenlife screenplays.
Screenlife movies mirror our relationship with digital technology… short attention span and all. We constantly move between tabs, websites, applications, etc. – and the movies of the genre should reflect that.
Of course, there are parts of the script where the pace slows and writers Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian work in dialogue. But even many of those more “conventional” moments take a different structural form.
For example, in the scene above, the writers chose to slugline the “text message app,” and communicate the text messages themselves through V.O.; alternatively, they could have chosen to superimpose the texts, or zoom in on them instead.
Oftentimes, directors/editors decide on how text messages are depicted. But it’s arguably a bit more important to the structure of the story itself in a screenlife movie; thus granting screenwriters more cache at the conceptual level.
Few movies have been released at as perfect of a time as Rob Savage’s Host. As the people of the world retreated into their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, many looked to media to explain the feeling of cabin-fever dread. Enter Host: a screenlife film about a video call that ends in heinous horror.
Host may not have been as commercially successful as Chaganty’s Searching (grossing just north of 4x its minuscule budget), but it was just as, if not more critically-lauded, earning a 99% approval rating with critics on Rotten Tomatoes.
Her Story (2015) & Telling Lies (2018)
Video game developer Sam Barlow is regarded by many game studies scholars as one of the great auteurs of the medium. In the mid-2010s, Barlow wrote and directed two projects that could best be described as screenlife games.
In Her Story, the player is tasked with working through a collection of police investigation tapes.
Her Story received enormous critical acclaim and numerous “game of the year” awards, cementing Barlow as a singular voice in the industry. Four years later, Barlow released a spiritual successor: Telling Lies.
Telling Lies utilizes the screenlife style by using smartphone and computer screen perspectives. The game was not as well-regarded as its predecessor, but still received strong reviews from critics.
How to Make a Movie on iPhone
There’s no doubt about it: screenlife movies are here to stay. If you want to become a screenlife filmmaker, you probably should be proficient with an iPhone camera. In our next article, we’ll show you how to make a movie on iPhone, with examples from Steven Soderbergh, Damian Chazelle, and more. By the end, you’ll know all the basics of iPhone filmmaking.