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.

The YouTube Effect

Looking at YouTube

Self-described as a research fanatic, he eagerly 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:

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:

Alex Winter (left) and Keanu Reeves in a promotional photo for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Fest Favorite

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, was on two episodes of “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:

Cover Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for AwesomenessTV/AP Images

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 30: Director Alex Winter speaks onstage at the TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2013 at The Manhattan Center on April 30, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

The 29th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF) wrapped on Nov. 22, 2020, but Cinema St. Louis is providing cinephiles another opportunity to view the event’s award winners in the Best of Fest, which is available virtually from Jan. 22-31, 2021.

A few of SLIFF’s honorees are already or imminently out in the world — “Transhood” is available on HBO Max, and “9to5: The Story of a Movement” premieres on PBS’s “Independent Lens” on Feb. 1 — but Best of Fest reprises the other 19 winners of the festival’s juried and audience-choice awards.

Like 2020’s SLIFF, the Best of Fest is an online-only event and is again presented with our virtual-festival partner, Eventive. Nine features and a program of 10 shorts will be available to stream during all 10 days of the event, and several of the films will once more include recorded Q&As with filmmakers and documentary subjects. Geographic restrictions will apply to some films. All programs will be available in Missouri and Illinois, but some will be accessible throughout the U.S. or world. This information is noted on each listing.

Individual tickets are $15 ($12 for Cinema St. Louis members). A 5-film pass is $65 ($55 for Cinema St. Louis members). Information on films, purchase of tickets/passes, and details on the virtual fest is available on the Cinema St. Louis website:

Film Programs


Ruthy Pribar, Israel, 2020, 85 min., Hebrew, Narrative

Audience Choice Award for Best Narrative Feature. In her debut feature film, Israeli filmmaker Ruthy Pribar focuses on a pair of Russian immigrants in Israel, candidly exploring the challenges of motherhood and the desires of the differently abled. Asia (Alena Yiv) and Vika (Shira Haas) are more like sisters than mother and daughter. Young mom Asia hides nothing about her work-hard, play-hard lifestyle and expects the same openness and honesty from teenage Vika. But Vika is at an age where privacy and independence are paramount, and she inevitably begins to rebel against her mom’s parenting style. When health issues confine Vika to a wheelchair and her need for romantic experiences and sexual exploration becomes more urgent, Asia realizes she must get out of the way so that her daughter can live her life.

Award-Winning Shorts Program

150 min.

  • Always Coming Back (Noah Readhead & Nate Townsend, U.S.,  2020, 9 min., English): Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary Short. Webster Groves rallies around a man with a mental disability to support his greatest passion.
  • Augustus (Jon Alston, U.S., 2020, 16 min., English): Essy Award for Best Narrative Short. Augustus, a literate carpenter and family man who is living free as a fugitive slave, is faced with a decision to speak or die when denied the wages he’s earned.
  • Black Goat (Yi Tang, Nepal/U.S., 2019, 12 min., Nepali): Best Live Action Short. A new girl at a nunnery has her first period after hearing a late-night ghost story and believes that she has been cursed, requiring her to sacrifice a black goat to avoid further misfortune.
  • Colette (Anthony Giacchino, France/Germany/U.S., 2019, 24 min., French & German): Best Documentary Short. Colette Catherine, now 90, revisits the terrors of her childhood, when she fought the Nazis as a member of the French Resistance.
  • The Cut (Chloé Cinq-Mars, Canada, 2019, 18 min., French): Best International Short. Emma, who had a C-section, didn’t see her son when he was born, and when she finally meets him, she doesn’t recognize her baby.
  • I Want to Make a Film about Women (Karen Pearlman, Australia, 2019, 12 min., English & Russian): Essy Award for Best Documentary Short. A speculative love letter to Russian constructivist women in the 1920s Soviet Union.
  • Josiah (Kyle Laursen, U.S., 2019, 20 min., English): Best of Fest Short. A Black actor auditions for a part in a period television series.
  • The Mirror (Joel Kohn, Australia, 2020, 22 min., English): Audience Choice Award for Best Narrative Short. When a young girl discovers a mysterious antique mirror in the basement of her ailing grandmother’s house, she opens a window between time that allows her to cross over into Nazi-occupied Poland.
  • R.A.S. (Lucas Durkheim, France, 2019, 5 min., French): Best Short Short. For months now, a group of five bored young soldiers have been stuck on a mission in the middle of the Afghan mountains, but the routine is finally broken during a support mission.
  • To the Dusty Sea (Héloïse Ferlay, France, 2020, 12 min., French): Best Animated Short. Left alone in the summer, Malo and Zoe try their best to catch their mother’s elusive eye.

Beasts Clawing at Straws

Kim Yong-Hoon, South Korea, 2020, 108 min., Korean, Narrative

Audience Choice TV5MONDE Award for Best International Feature and St. Louis Film Critics Joe Pollack Award for Best Narrative Feature. A wild, fast-paced crime thriller that deftly crosses the Coen Bros. with “The Grifters,” “Beasts Clawing at Straws” is a pitch-black neo-noir. When a cash-stuffed Louis Vuitton bag is left in a sauna, it sends a group of hard-luck lowlifes on a desperate chase for a fortune. Fish-mongering gangsters, a greasy cop, an “innocent” gym cleaner, and a prostitute and her trio of men (wife-beating husband, ruthless boss, and clueless boyfriend) all violently scheme to get their hands on the elusive bag. The film is a beautifully constructed puzzle whose pieces snap perfectly into place with each double-cross.

God Save the Wings

Adam Knapp & Kenneth Linn, Denmark/U.K./U.S., 2020, 102 min., English, Documentary

Audience Choice Leon Award for Best Documentary Feature. “God Save the Wings” offers a rousing, highly entertaining look at the brief history of Wichita’s MISL indoor-soccer franchise, narrated primarily by former Wings player Andy Chapman. The documentary features plenty of deliciously dated archival footage and appears to round up nearly every living person involved in the franchise for an appearance. Made with affection for its subject, with an enthusiastic vibe and penchant for oddball meta-movie flourishes, “God Save the Wings” chronicles the team’s journey through the ’80s, recounting the thrills, wackiness, and flagrant debauchery. St. Louis’ own beloved MISL club, the Steamers, plays a prominent role in the documentary’s narrative, with our boys serving as the thuggish American heavies to the Wings’ more elegant, European style of soccer.

I Am You

Sonia Nassery Cole, Afghanistan, 2020, 89 min., Dari, English & Turkish, Narrative

Interfaith Award for Best Narrative Feature. “I Am You” offers an insider’s look at the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan and the tragedy of its refugees. After the loss of his father at the hands of ISIS, young Masoud leaves the world he once knew to embark on a perilous journey to safety. Embarking on a perilous migration from Afghanistan into the unknown, he vows to honor his late father’s memory by securing a safe future for his mother and sister. As he and his family flee the country they once called home, he is accompanied by his best friend, an aged Muslim warrior, and a pregnant doctor. Inspired by the stories of the world’s many refugees, the film provides an evocative, empathetic study of our current refugee crisis.

A Place to Breathe

Michelle Grace Steinberg, U.S., 2020, 87 min., Central Khmer, English, French, Spanish & Swahili, Documentary

Interfaith Award for Best Documentary. A work of timely urgency, director Michelle Grace Steinberg’s “A Place to Breathe” toggles between immigrant and refugee communities in two cities — Lowell, Mass., and Oakland, Calif. — to illustrate their varied struggles to assimilate, preserve cultural identity, and, most prominently, heal from the traumas that sent them to the U.S., all assisted by determined healthcare and social workers. A series of small, intimate interactions illustrate how these challenges play out person to person, family to family, rather than in congressional shouting or mass protests. Interviews offer context, and animation is briefly used to portray past-life events in other lands that began in happiness before they turned horrific, but the film keeps the focus mostly narrowed on two families, with outside voices amplifying their experiences. At a time when some U.S. political leaders persist in demonizing the “other,” Steinberg provides a patient immersion in the quiet effort to revive lives whose dreams were momentarily extinguished and then are slowly brought back to life.

The Road Up

Greg Jacobs & Jon Siskel, U.S., 2020, 94 min., English, Documentary

Spotlight on Inspiration Documentary Competition Winner. “The Road Up” follows four Chicagoans on the daunting journey from rock bottom to stable employment. Their lifeline: Mr. Jesse, a charismatic mentor with Cara, a nonprofit that helps the chronically unemployed find long-term jobs. Mr. Jesse’s own troubled past — which is eventually revealed — compels him to help his “students” find hope in the face of homelessness, addiction, incarceration, and trauma. The participants in the program are required to go through a month-long “boot camp” called Transformations, and the film records lengthy stretches of these sessions, with Mr. Jesse putting his charges through some serious emotional changes, forcing them to acknowledge and examine their own self-sabotaging behaviors and learn ways to change them. Filmmakers Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs’ “Louder Than a Bomb” won SLIFF’s Audience Award as Best Documentary in 2010, and “The Road Up” proves a similarly powerful and inspirational work.

Small Time

Niav Conty, U.S., 2020, 104 min., English, Narrative

New Filmmakers Forum Emerging Director Award (The Bobbie). “Small Time” takes an empathetic and at times darkly humorous look at life, faith, and childhood. Though just a kid, Emma navigates a dysfunctional adult world of relentless addiction, stubborn patriotism, dogmatic faith, and the pervasive sexualization of young girls. Her challenge is to emerge with a sense of self. It can be brutal enough just growing up a girl, but when you add poverty, addiction, and God to the mix, it’s no wonder that Emma doesn’t know how to make friends. With a gun in her bag and fairy prayers on her tongue, she and her cat bravely go where too many girls have gone before. But are innocence and hope enough to save the day?

Test Pattern

Shatara Michelle Ford, U.S., 2020, 82 min., English, Narrative

Essy Award for Best Narrative Feature. “Test Pattern,” the gripping and powerful first feature by Shatara Michelle Ford, chronicles a young Black woman’s attempts to get help from an uncaring system after an assault. An interracial couple’s supportive relationship is put to the test after the woman (Brittany S. Hall, HBO’s “Ballers”) is sexually assaulted and her boyfriend (Will Brill, “The OA,” “Not Fade Away”) must drive her from hospital to hospital around Austin in search of a rape kit. Part psychological horror movie and part realistic drama, “Test Pattern” is set against the backdrop of our national discussions about an inequitable health system, #MeToo, and race relations. Director Ford was raised in St. Louis.


Alex Winter, U.S., 2020, 129 min., English, Documentary

Essy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Far from a typical music doc, “Zappa” is a multifaceted narrative that brings a complex artist to vibrant life, providing a nuanced look at visionary iconoclast Frank Zappa and the environment that formed him. A simultaneously intimate and expansive look into the iconic musician’s innovative career, the film had unfettered access to the Zappa family trust and its vast trove of archival footage. Exploring the private life behind a musical career that never shied away from the political turbulence of its time, “Zappa” features revealing interviews with Frank’s widow, the late Gail Zappa, and such collaborators as Mike Keneally, Ian Underwood, Steve Vai, Pamela Des Barres, Bunk Gardner, David Harrington, Scott Thunes, Ruth Underwood, and Ray White. “Zappa” is directed by former St. Louisan Alex Winter — a Cinema St. Louis Award honoree in 2015 — who recently returned to acting in “Bill and Ted Face the Music” but who has spent the last decade helming a string of impressive documentaries, including “Downloaded,” “Deep Web,” “The Panama Papers,” and “Showbiz Kids.”