By Lynn Venhaus
After decades in the entertainment business, Alex Winter has become a multi-hyphenated mainstay, renowned for his work in front of and behind the camera.
Now 57, he remains the face of Bill S. Preston, Esq., in pop culture, but has directed notably high-profile documentaries “Zappa,” “Showbiz Kids” and his tech trilogy, “Downloaded,” “Deep Web” and his latest, “The YouTube Effect.”
“The YouTube Effect” will be one of the opening night films of the 31st annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival. It will be shown at 6:45 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 3, at the Galleria 6 Cinemas.
This cautionary tale is meant to be a nuanced look at the tech revolution, how it has evolved, good and bad.
Produced with Gale Anne Hurd, the film examines the impact of YouTube on society, how it has made our lives easier and more enriched, while also presenting dangers that make the world a more perilous place.
“The growth of the online community since I made ‘Downloaded’ and ‘Deep Web’ has made a big impact on society, and Gale and I were looking to tell a story about the changes occurring, and where do we go from here,” he said during a phone interview.
The film had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in June and is currently on the festival circuit, most recently at the Montclair Film Festival.
“It’s been going great,” he said. “We’re bringing it to a lot of festivals, and really happy with the reception.”
Winter is pleased that it’s included in this year’s fest in St. Louis, where his previous films “Downloaded,” “Deep Web” and “Zappa” were also screened.
“I love the festival. It’s my third time in it. I’m always really happy to be part of it and I’m grateful for the film to be shown there so that people in St. Louis can see it,” he said. “I’m not able to be there, things didn’t work out with my schedule, but I’m long overdue for a visit back. I have family and friends there.”
Winter lived in St. Louis as a child, and his first acting gig, a commercial for Kentucky Fried Chicken, was filmed under the Arch, while his first stage role was at the Muny, when he was 10, as one of the orphans in “Oliver!” that starred Vincent Price as Fagin.
His father co-founded Mid-America Dance Company (MADCO) and his mother worked in the dance department at Washington University.
In a previous interview, he spoke about his bond with St. Louis.
“I have a special place in my heart for the city. I’ve always considered myself a Midwesterner. The Midwest has a strong cultural identity, and I have an affinity for it, those core values. I still have a lot of friends there. I spent my formative years there, from 5 to 12, and my dad and brother stayed there, so I was back a lot. It’s always been a second home to me. I feel anchored there,” he said during a phone interview in 2015.
Looking at YouTube
Self-described as a research fanatic dove into this expansive subject.
While he thinks YouTube has been “very equitable in its business model,” for people being able to monetize it as a platform, there needs to be safeguards.
“So that people can have the full spectrum of experiences. There needs to be accountability. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s good for people to be aware about it,” he said.
Winter thinks the public needs to take more responsibility about the input and influence, and push for more regulations, not be passive about it.
Winter said he is concerned about “the misinformation apocalypse” and the negative fallout from political ideologies, especially conspiracy theories.
“There is a lot of power in that,” he said, noting how social media gave voice to marginalized people.
YouTube has been singled out as how the Christ Church mass shooter in New Zealand in 2020 (51 people in two mosques) became radicalized.
The movie seeks to find a balance, he said.
“There are a lot of good things going on on You Tube. I’m not wagging a finger at them,” he said. “I respect technology. It’s here to stay. We need to figure out safeguards, changes need to be made.”
Here’s the trailer: https://www.facebook.com/YouTubeEffect/videos/1137513703766536/
Winter said he is in negotiations for the film to become available on streaming services.
“I can’t talk about it, but we’re hoping to have it wide in early January-February,” he said.
For more information, visit: https://www.cinemastlouis.org/sliff/festival-home
Winter appeared at the festival in 2015, when he received the prestigious Charles Guggenheim Cinema St. Louis Award after his documentary, “Deep Web,” kicked off that year’s St. Louis International Film Festival.
“Deep Web” is the inside story of a digital crime saga that caught his attention. With access to the Ulbricht family, he told the story of Ross William Ulbricht, the 30-year-old entrepreneur who was accused of being “Dread Pirate Roberts” as the creator and operator of the online black market Silk Road. He looked at the thought leaders behind the so-called Deep Web and its future.
A finalist for a distinguished Cinema Eye Honors Award, “Deep Web” was produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves, Winter’s good friend since they portrayed Bill and Ted.
He was also in attendance to present the 1989 cult classic that catapulted him into pop culture history, “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” recounting anecdotes about the making of the movie prior to its late-night showing at the Tivoli.
The fest also showed acclaimed 2013 documentary, “Downloaded,” about the rise and fall of Napster and a look at the digital revolution.
“I was fascinated by the online communities that started in the late 1980s. It was clear that this was a major shift in communication. Bitcoin, Silk Road and other anonymous digital sites were the first on a large scale,” he said in 2015.
In 2020, when the fest went virtual, his documentary, “Zappa,” was in the line-up.
His look at the complex and visionary iconoclast Frank Zappa took six years to make, and he received cooperation from the family.
“Getting the family’s support was vital to the project,” he said. “There has never been a definitive biography about him. I am extremely happy to do it. He was a great artist at a turbulent time in history.”
It is available to watch on Hulu and can be rented or purchased on several platforms.
The year “Zappa” came out, during the global coronavirus pandemic, was also the year his very personal documentary, “Showbiz Kids,” premiered on HBO, and the third installment of “Bill and Ted,” “Face the Music” was one of the most anticipated films in 2020.
“That was a very strange year,” he said. “Things I had been working on all popped out at once.”
“Face the Music” shot to no. 1 in U.S.
“It came out at the right time, and a lot of people got to see it. I’m glad it gave fans some fun then,” he said.
Winter said he and Keanu had a great time making the film and won’t shut the door on another one.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “We’re always playing around with ideas on where the story could go, what are the possibilities. I always say never say never.”
Other Career Highlights
His movie career took off with “The Lost Boys” in 1987, then came the juggernaut of Bill & Ted, and they reunited for a sequel in 1991.
His 1993 science fiction-horror-comedy “Freaked,” which he co-wrote and co-directed with his college pal-collaborator Tom Stern, is revered as another cult classic.
Another feature he wrote and directed, “Fever,” a 1998 dark tale starring Henry Thomas and Teri Hatcher, was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival.
His work on Cartoon Network, where he voiced the Adult Swim character the King Mole Man and on “Robot Chicken,” and MTV’s “The Idiot Box,” a sketch comedy series he developed with Stern, was also highly regarded.
He is a graduate of New York University’s film school. Today, his production company is behind commercials for Ford, Peugeot, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Nickelodeon and 1800 Tequila.
He’s directed music videos for Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ice Cube, Extreme and Helmet.
He was on Broadway in productions of “The King & I” with Yul Brynner, and “Peter Pan” with Sandy Duncan.
With Stern, Winter starred in, co-directed and co-wrote the hit MTV comedy series, “The Idiot Box” and starred in their theatrical co-directing debut, “Freaked,” released by Twentieth Century Fox.
Another documentary was “The Panama Papers,” about the corruption scandal and the journalists who broke the story.
Next up is a cameo role as a cab driver in “Blue’s Big City Adventure,” to be streamed on Paramount Plus on Nov. 18. He’ll be seen in “Absolute Dominion” on Netflix next year, and a film “Destroy All Neighbors” on Shudder.
For the 2015 BND feature: https://www.bnd.com/living/magazine/article42065412.html
Cover Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for AwesomenessTV/AP Images
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.