‘AbracaDeborah’: An Oral History From the Minds Behind the Illusory Sundance Hit

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“The much-buzzed-about AbracaDeborah did not receive any Festival awards, as it’s not an actual film,” announced the Sundance Institute in an official press release on Saturday, naming the winners of the 2016 Feature Film Awards. Yes, that is Sundance acknowledging — amid accolades for actual films like The Birth of a Nation and Swiss Army Man — a fake film whose very emptiness turned it into something of a presence at this year’s festival. But in a world where a film about a farting-corpse catamaran can win the US Dramatic Directing Award, does this scenario really seem so farfetched?

In case you’re coming to the phenomenon of AbracaDeborah with absolutely no context, you needn’t feel too left out. This non-film is more of an impeccable exercise in mining the semiotic vacancy of Sundance hype than it is the next rough-around-the-edges-yet-undeniably-heartful, Kristen Wiig-starring indie that it ultimately — fictionally — became. And really, more than it was any type of conceptual gesture, it was a mere drunken joke being passed around at a party — in fact, at first, it was nothing more than a single tweet.

Indeed, with Uproxx writer Mike Ryan’s casual dropping of the name of a nonexistent Kristen Wiig film at a time when the greater, film-aficionado public looks to critics to dictate what is and isn’t good about films no one besides said critics will see for a while, one can imagine how easy it might be for Twitter to morph fiction into a reality.

AbracaDeborah wasn’t the longest lived of jokes — it wasn’t particularly calculated or labyrinthine, and it never manifested in the startlingly concrete ways that, say, a Nathan for You scheme might. In the scheme of human, and film, and even Sundance history, it is superlatively insignificant. But even in its own short life, AbracaDeborah-as-concept recalls, with (perhaps) less artistry, the likes of Seinfeld and The Bald Soprano — the seminal absurdist play that expresses how words can orbit and, in their density and frequency, mask a void.

In The Bald Soprano, Eugene Ionesco skewered bourgeois conversation through the emptiness of two couples’ endless critiques and staunch assertions. At the end of the play, the two main couples simply switch roles and start again, proving every one of their polar ideals interchangeable. And AbracaDeborah seems an impeccable, low-budget, semi-accidental parody of a new form of critical conversation — a miasma of assertions that seem bold and concrete due to their forced pithiness. This is, of course, the tweet. If it does anything, AbracaDeborah — in its effortless imitation of hype surrounding actual films that, for the general public, are vacant unknowns — shows the hilarious interchangeability of critiques that try desperately to sound static and absolute.

Particularly since it was a potent enough phenomenon to make its way into Sundance’s awards press release, it seemed deserving of its own documentation, its own historicizing. And so, Flavorwire brings you the official AbracaDeborah oral history.

“Official” ‘AbracaDeborah’ poster. Image credit: Josiah Hughes/Exclaim.ca

Unfortunately, when I emailed Mike Ryan, AbracaDeborah instigator of sorts, he wasn’t interested in orally historicizing it. Rather, by the time I contacted him, he just “kind of want[ed] it to go away.” However, critic Eric D. Snider, The Film Stage co-founder Dan Mecca and Editor-in-Chief Jordan Raup, Criticwire editor Sam Adams, and Flavorwire’s own film editor Jason Bailey were quite willing to commit AbracaDeborah to film history with this detailed rundown of just how Deborah and her melancholy existence came to (never really) be.

Part 1: AbracaDeborah germinates

Eric Snider: My first exposure to AbracaDeborah was a tweet from Mike Ryan on the afternoon of Jan. 26:

I could tell the reaction was a joke because of “still processing… but wow” (that’s one of our go-to parodies of how we sometimes sound at film festivals), but that didn’t mean he hadn’t really seen a movie called AbracaDeborah. A quick search revealed it was made up.

Dan Mecca: I honestly first came across the joke at [a party for film writers] on Tuesday night.

Snider: My condo-mates and I started this tradition in 2011, hosting a gathering at our place for our colleagues to hang out and mingle.

Jason Bailey: The name of the game in Park City, Utah is shared condos; the week-or-so rental rates for short-term rentals there skyrockets, so film scribes tend to triple-and quadruple-up in ski condos, sharing bedrooms and crashing on couches and so on. Groups form and reunite yearly; the group that throws the party is pretty much the same each year. When I arrived about an hour in, the joint was pretty full, and full mostly of dudes. (Film criticism, as you’ve probably heard, is a bit of a sausage party). It was a lot of people in a pretty small condo, so the temperature was high and the windows were already steamed up, though nobody was doing anything hotter than discussing White Girl.

Jordan Raup: The party was an annual one we’ve done for the last five or six years. It’s one of the only times that all of these writers, who talk to each other all year long on social media, are all under one roof. Perhaps a mix of intoxication and festival burn-out, multiplied by the fact that we are all there, made it quite easy to start tweeting about [Abracadeborah].

Mecca: I did not see Mike Ryan’s tweet [earlier in the week], which I’m actually surprised about. He’s one of my favorite Twitter people. He showed me the tweet at the party, and I fell in love.

Raup: As I missed Mike Ryan’s initial tweet mentioning AbracaDeborah a few days prior, it was not until he came to our party that I learned about it.

Part 2: AbracaDeborah becomes a contagion

Bailey: One of the first people I saw [at this party] was Jordan Raup. And one of the first things he asked was: “Have you heard about AbracaDeborah?” I hadn’t. “So we made up a fake movie and people are tweeting about it,” he told me, as he pulled up the Twitter app on his phone. “New Kristen Wiig movie. See? So throw in, if you want.”

Snider: It’s a great title. It practically writes itself. [And] I liked the idea. I saw it as an improv game. Others had expressed their views on this nonexistent movie, inventing details about it as they did, and now it was my turn. I wanted to add something that would really confuse people, so I said it was a biopic and that was Kristen Wiig was in blackface. I maintain that as outrageous as that sounds, it is not beyond the realm of possibility for a Sundance movie.

Bailey: I didn’t contribute at the time, because I wasn’t sure what to add, but on the bus home I saw a couple of people taking the naysayer line — which always floats up to follow the initial praise — and so I, still fuming from my inability to make a screening of the praised-to-high-heavens Manchester by the Sea, decided to play the role of the guy who missed it, as I often do.

Raup: I recall Mike Ryan saying a brief logline for what it could be, and then we all went about tweeting it amongst ourselves. Part of the excitement was seeing these various reactions come in, perhaps pointing fun at the various clichés many people succumb to in instant festival reactions.

Snider: I really think [the joke] was more about us, the press who cover Sundance. In describing AbracaDeborah, we used the same verbiage we use in talking about real movies. It was an acknowledgement that there’s a certain sameness to film festival insta-reactions, certain words and phrases that we use often. We do the same thing sometimes when we “review” other things. Someone will tweet something like: “THE LINE AT STARBUCKS: overlong, a bit pretentious, but ultimately satisfying.” And it’s just a way of killing time and flexing our word muscles as we gently parody ourselves.

Part 3: AbracaDeborah extends beyond its initial bubble

Sam Adams: I wasn’t at the party. I keep a list of critics who are at the festival and check it semi-obsessively, so I saw the AbracaDeborah “reactions” right away. It didn’t seem likely that I’d overlooked a new Kristen Wiig movie in the lineup, and a quick check of the catalogue confirmed I was right. But the festival has been known to do secret screenings, so for about two minutes, I was pretty concerned there was a great new top-secret movie at Sundance that all my friends knew about and I didn’t, and I, well, “panicked” isn’t quite the right word, but it’ll do. Then I realized what was going on, and let the magic unfold.

Part 4: Favorites emerge

Mecca: My personal favorite AbracaDeborah tweet is from the incomparable Angie Han:

I just love it. I love the brevity of it, I love the positivity of it, and I love love the idea that the underrated James Marsden just crushes it in this fake movie.

Snider: I think my favorite was Steve Greene’s:

It was the first one (or the first one I saw, anyway) to suggest the film had a dark, unsettling side to it. Which is great for what sounds like a light and goofy movie called AbracaDeborah.

Raup: I think I liked Rob Hunter’s tweet the most: “Holy shit. AbracaDeborah. I don’t usually fall in line with festival buzz, but holy shit. #Sundance.” All too often we see completely non-descriptive reactions to a film, yet somehow one person’s surface-level reaction can have people going crazy with anticipation.

Part 5: One AbracaDeborah overachiever steals the show

The most elaborate AbracaDeborah-oriented effort undoubtedly came from Dan Mecca, who colluded with Jordan Raup to write and publicize an entire review of the film on Twitter:

Mecca: Any plot [detail] — the Abe Vigoda cameo, James Marsden’s involvement — came from this improv-like Twitter purge, thanks to everybody else. People put their own spin on this bare-bones idea of Wiig as a woman who has an encounter with a blind magician. That core part we can thank Mike Ryan for. I knew that the review of AbracaDeborah should be positive, because that was mostly the point of the joke. Everybody loves this movie you can’t see. So that was kind of predetermined. The review just seemed like the logical finale to this extended joke, and I was happy when my Editor-in-Chief at The Film Stage, Jordan Raup, agreed with me. I’m sure there were fun details in clever tweets that I missed in my review, but I wrote it delirious at midnight in the airport, so there you go.

Raup: I appreciated how he weaved most everyone’s tweets into the plot. I also think it was the ideal end capper to the joke, which was already getting stale 24 hours later.

Part 6: The first real news post about the joke is released

The AbracaDeborah phenomenon was first introduced to the greater public — everyone theretofore oblivious to or confused by Deborah/her magically drab life — by Criticwire’s Sam Adams.

Adams: Critics joking about criticism is squarely in Criticwire’s wheelhouse, so writing about it was a given. I thought it was a good enough joke that it deserved an audience beyond the small number of people who happened to be on Twitter that night, and given that I’d seen a few people tricked into thinking AbracaDeborah was a real movie, I thought it might help to have something, somewhere pointing out that it wasn’t. Several people — not many, but enough — felt they’d been lied to, or were maybe disappointed they weren’t going to be able to see it after all.

Meanwhile, Josiah Hughes debuted the “official” poster — which appears to draw from the “film’s” unsensational depictions of depression and unpolished depictions of hope — on Exclaim.

Part 7: A time of reflection, reverence, and even, for some, regret

Adams: As I wrote in my Criticwire post, there’s a well-established pattern of Sundance hype breaking over social media, with reactions proclaiming this or that movie a life-changing, cinema-altering Oscar lock starting to hit the web the second the credits roll. Sometimes that enthusiasm holds up to later scrutiny; sometimes… it doesn’t. By that point in the festival, I imagine the AbracaDeborah-ites had read, and written, enough of those reactions that coming up with ones for a fake movie must have been second nature.

Raup: It is interesting to see what the unexpected reach of a handful of reactions can be for a fake film with no synopsis, images, trailer, poster, etc. All too often we see a mountain of instant festival reactions on Twitter for films that perhaps need time to grow or be evaluated, yet those reactions can often make or break a film’s success. While that aspect was an afterthought for at least myself when it came to AbracaDeborah, I do think it’s significant to see what the hype machine can do and its pitfalls. One thing I do want to add is that, if this caused the hard-working, dedicated Sundance Film Festival team any headaches, I sincerely apologize. We hope they found it somewhat funny, but it was not our intention whatsoever to hamper this extremely busy time for them.

Bailey: There are only so many ways to say a movie blew you away, and the writers who were involved were coming up with some pretty clever variations and quotations of those festival clichés. I know some people got bent outta shape about this, or thought it was bad form or even cruel to readers. I don’t think that’s the case, or at least [that it] was the intention; it was a joke, one fueled mostly by festival exhaustion and a beer or brownie or two. (And if it was mean or deceptive, then man, I can’t imagine how those who feel that way would’ve responded to Wells’ War of the Worlds.) But I did see someone refer to the thing as “clique-bait,” and I think that’s pretty fair; if you’re on the outside looking in, or just a critic not at Sundance (which I’ve been, often!) or at the party (see previous parenthetical), it could stink of that. But jeez — and I say this as one — at the end of the day, who’s less cool than a bunch of film writers?

Mecca: At these things, a movie comes out that will most likely not come out for months and months for anyone else to see, and we all get on Twitter and, in 140 characters, proselytize and predict. And movie studios and distributors do the same thing, make big deals off of a handful of opinions and reactions. So many of these films are ultimately released to little fanfare, and the hype is forgotten. But then, at the start of every year, the hype is there waiting all over again. This is the type of thing I find fascinating. A group of people together create this scenario on social media, and for a moment it controls this hyped-out film world that’s fueled on instant reactions. It made me laugh.