THE LONG READ
Monetising Memories: How we finally lost World War Twoᵀᴹ
Branded history and chronicalized real estate have radically changed what it means to be British. But a different future is still possible, believes @truepanks.
For most of us, life during the coronavirus pandemic is getting hard to remember. In the years since most reminders of restrictions have all but disappeared — save for the rare fossils from the first lockdown of 2020; scratched perspex shields at an off license counter or a dogged Only 3 Customers Inside sign at the door. Interesting too is the odd piece of surviving street art, like the jaded Captain Tom mural on the corner of Tibb Street, Manchester, which two years ago had to install protective screenings of its own to prevent removal from opportunist collectors dressed in balaclavas.
It would be hard for those born since to imagine the effect Captain Sir Tom Moore had on us. A nation in lockdown overrun with the virus, clung to the spirited effort of a World War Two veteran hunched over a zimmer frame, completing 100 laps of his garden to raise money for the NHS. There were tribute Captain Toms made of balloons, cake, and even sausages from one patriotic butcher in Lancashire. What did Captain Tom tap into? Perhaps a lifelong burning desire from Baby Boomers to finally show their dormant Blitz spirit; drawing inspiration from a time they don’t remember when the country was tested to the brink.
Does the cinema of the Brexit years, Dunkirk (2017), Darkest Hour (2018), foreshadow an anxiety about national self-confidence slipping out of living memory? News that the last British serviceman who saw action in World War Two, Seaman George Brown, had died aged 111 in a Hampshire care home, drew vigils, shrines and acrobatic drone displays not seen since Captain Tom. They both seemed to speak to a country finally losing its wartime generation already almost wiped out by the flu pandemic of the early 21st century.
With anyone who actually fought it no longer around, who would still tell their story? Whoever it was faced a backdrop of struggling cinema attendances reliant on exhausted comic book universes, perhaps best exemplified when the second Batman versus Lois film, the beleaguered franchise’s tenth phase, was put permanently on hiatus. For anyone commuting today past the giant WWII electronic billboard at Old Street roundabout, branded history, movie slates and merchandise are everywhere, but the story behind the conflict’s original trademark is surprisingly little known.
‘There were multiple different D-Day projects in production in one year,’ explains Rupert Gibson, former screenwriter, now horse farrier, who back then had a big project in production at Rurik Films. ‘Ours, Warner Bros’ Sword (2024), and something for BritBox about inflatable tanks that had Larry Lamb attached to it. And fittingly, war broke out in Normandy.’
There were, it turned out, only so many skilled production staff with the expertise to safely operate the hulking IMAX cameras on the 1940s-era landing crafts, and French seaside towns became permanent, log-jammed battlefields for the various production companies. It was Rurik Film’s production that overran the most, and the company folded. ‘That’s when we sued,’ explains Rupert.
What the court was initially trying to establish was how Rurik Films could sue Warner Bros for catastrophic loss of earnings — initially, it had to go after intellectual property. They had to satisfy the jury that Warner Bros had copied, or indeed stolen the plot of the screenplay, and they pointed to ‘striking similarities’ in the rival project’s story.
What Rurik had in fact calculated was that there was no room for two D-Day films in a squeezed marketplace, and sought to recover from a much larger film production company. A summary judgement stated that the plot of Sword, did in fact, hold a number of aggressive duplications to Rupert’s work. ‘An artillery gunner from Woolwich loses his hearing, and falls in love with a deaf German girl through sign language,’ he tells me, ‘both characters even follow Arsenal F.C.’ But the judge ruled them both as coincidences, or scènes à faire — tropes that could be considered mandatory for the genre. It looked liked Rurik had little evidence that any actual copying was performed.
They were however, able to force a trial, by drawing a new, expert witness with access to decades-worth of World War Two newsreel footage. Rurik Films had started out as one man’s stock footage resource run from a shed in Kent, acquiring mountains of old World War II documentaries, newsreels and military-made films, and grew the business by uploading it all to YouTube. They had began to commission original documentaries, and the D-Day project was their first scripted feature. What’s more, they could prove the ‘hard-of-hearing gunner’ character was based on a real soldier from the 7th Field Regiment on Sword beach, courtesy of Rurik’s exhaustive archive, and the specific black and white interview, recorded with his wife in Hamburg in 1948, was played to the court.
Rurik Films still needed to prove their work had been directly copied. An unearthed email chain detailed how Rupert’s script agent shared clients in Los Angeles, where a third party might have seen his work amongst a pile of early options. At this point, Warner Bros opted to settle, substantially. Although they had lost the battle on Sword beach — the film went on to outperform Dunkirk’s $526 million at the box office — Rurik Films certainly won the Second World War. They trademarked the name World War Twoᵀᴹ and verified their social media accounts with a blue stamp and the same name. They left court, in practice, with the commercial, branding and merchandising privileges to an entire conflict. So why then, did Rupert Gibson — a screenwriter Warner Bros was forced to accredit to their highest-grossing film of the year, leave Rurik with the world at his feet, for a solitary life shoeing horses?
To understand first how the serious business of our past was optimised, I need to look a lot closer to home, and on the Old Kent Road. I’m meeting Mark French, 39, who like a number of other entrepreneurs of his generation, made their fortune in the chronicalized real estate boom.
Mark now lives in a large pile in Chislehurst, South East London, but still visits his original HQ for some meetings, and offers me a bottle of carbonated water from the neon-lit office fridge. He’s well turned out in a crisply-pressed suit, charming and a local boy, albeit from a local independent school. You might recognise him from his minor internet celebdom as nocontextfrenchie — an account he does not run but has his guarded blessing.
‘Dad was a bit of a ducker and diver,’ he tells me in a slightly potted, though not altogether inauthentic music hall cockney. ‘I’ve been lucky, but I like to think some of that rubbed off.’
His father, he continues, was self-made in Bermondsey and made it big in the 1990s designer label craze, making near-sounding replicas that looked the part but cost a fraction.
‘We were always taught the value of things,’ he tells me. ‘I had my first job when I was twelve.’
He shows me around the office, and tells me about some of his latest clients, including the Premier League and a global festival brand, until we find a more comfortable meeting room.
‘So I essentially started out flyering door to door, working for the old man,’ he continues. ‘That grew into my own leisurewear business. Then someone I knew in sports media told me about AGTs.’
AGTs — or Augmented Geo-stamped Tokens, are the bedrock of the chronicalized real estate industry, and what made street-smart early adopters like Mark rich — quickly.
‘If you’ve been living under a rock, AGTs are minted blockchain data that means you can effectively trademark a memorable occasion, like a wedding, bar mitzvah — even a f*****g funeral. The technology is a bit like the original Google Street View: it time-stamps the date and location so that anyone recording any footage or taking pictures on their phone, you can strike a claim to that event, including running ads across it when they want to watch that content back privately, even offline.’
The AGT community say it’s a way for everyday people to take ownership of the precious moments in their life. ‘It’s the same thing as a celebrity selling their wedding photos to OK Magazine in the 90s, but for the likes of you and me,’ Mark explains. Critics argue that the technology is invasive.
Mark dealt with his customers on a one-to-one basis, before developing an app that he could roll out with a subscription. As soon as big business got involved, any gauche associations with the product disappeared, and the producers of large scale events invested heavily in chronicalization.
‘After fan footage came about, they had to give away all the highlights,’ Mark says, referring to the Premier League. ‘Now YouTube’s just for taking the piss out of blokes like me.’
Some content Mark filmed with The Banter Tap on YouTube, where he watches back nocontextfrenchie memes, has over 2 million views. He’s a reaction GIF, an oven-ready geezer’s wisecrack to the latest internet outrage. A football result cannot be posted on Twitter without Mark’s notorious You’ve had your pants pulled down meme being posted in the replies.
Mark is, ironically, the adopted face of the working class hero, perhaps to the last decade what Del Boy was to the 1980s. But there have been growing pressure for chronicalization to be better regulated. Small claims courts are overwhelmed, and a photographer at a baptism was successfully sued for £1.2m after taking a picture of the baby. Away from the more sensational headlines, last year over 20,000 private events were timestamped in London, and adverts served across chronicalized footage made nearly 21 million unique impressions in the UK. Having sold our precious moments to the highest bidder via a digital ad auctions, there is evidence some are being left behind and priced out of their own memories.
‘Chronicalized CPMs are so low, since people are running ad auctions on any old bit of phone footage,’ Nadra Farid explains, a Commercial Partnership Manager for a UK-wide care home trust. ‘So, many people are uploading their more premium memories behind paywalls who charge a monthly subscription for an Over-the-top content gallery.’
Nadra negotiates licences with branded history studios and gallery platforms like Pastward for her chain of retirement homes, so her residents can enjoy reminiscing their own personal as well as shared history. But she’s aware they are amongst the lucky ones. ‘I’ve heard stories of hard up families who have sold off their entire family collections,’ she says, ‘a lot of older people can’t even access their old photo albums anymore because of their increased value.’
The World War Twoᵀᴹ brand, managed by the Rurik holding company, is one of Nadra’s subscriptions. As potentially one of the most valuable new brands in the world, Rurik attracted serious investors, from BlackRock to Morgan Stanley, and relocated from suburban Kent to Shepperton. Key production talent was poached, including a Vice President of Content from Netflix, and a slate of prequels and sequels were planned in a brand new universe that looked to move into the busted superhero marketplace. It also funded deep R&D too, and so, tech, as the company sought to guarantee claims to other key historical or even future events, as attention would inevitably look back to the next great franchise.
Nadra’s residents have streaming access to the major cinema releases such as D-Day, D-Day Plus One, Stalingrad, and the slated Nuremberg: Endgame, as well as the supporting docs and exclusive social content with The Banter Tap — another one of Rurik’s brands. The international market and crucially, gaming, are where the studios sees future growth.
‘We’ve headhunted a team of star players with expertise in every entertainment genre,’ revealed Malcolm Baines, co-CEO of World War Twoᵀᴹ in a podcast with The Economist last year. ‘Our goal is to open up each key moment of the event to a complete 360° experience; film, TV, gaming and social.’ A creation of a single Second World War house universe and content eco-system was a major attraction to investors, which they said would provide some insolation from previous ‘unofficial’ box office flops covering the same conflict, from Midway (2019) going back to Pearl Harbour (2001), in an ever-growing hostile climate for cinemas.
Having blown a hole in the first generation streamers’ marketplace, where can Baines expect his competition to come from? Naturally, deeper into the past. His user-generated built rival Pastward recently bought a Stockholm-based visual effects and post-production house for over $1 billion. They had been responsible for restoring hours of World War I footage for an 8K resolution remembrance film, and are rumoured to be launching the next great conflict brand. The FTSE 250 business has seen its share price balloon by over 160 per cent in the last six months. Is there a scramble afoot to claim the rights for other lucrative historical events?
‘The further you go back, naturally it gets messier,’ explains Rupert Gibson. ‘But it’s a massive growth business, and it’s heavily contested — driven by tech and multinational investment.’
He tells me he knows other English screenwriters who have been lured over to the US for a major reboot of the American Revolution. What’s more, the Revolutionary War’s heritage industry, from digitally-augmented battlefield sites, documentary content and branding rights, are majority-owned by overseas shareholders — significantly, UK-based investors. ‘Turns out, the Brits own all of it,’ Rupert says.
‘The JFK thing does my head in, even now,’ he goes on. ‘The rights to the assassination were bought up by a conservative movie producer who had previously made pro-life features, and campaigned for Trump.’ The official history of who shot John F. Kennedy was now owned by someone who essentially didn’t believe it had happened.
‘Well, someone who thought it was a piece of CIA-directed political theatre, and that the 25th President of the United States lived until the 1990s. He’s made a series about it, it’s part of the Universe.’
The trend of history now being written by the owners, left a sour taste for Rupert. The Kennedy estate is in constant legal quarrels with its own official history, and the commercialisation of Remembrance has created division and headlines in this country, tracing back to the end of public broadcasting, and a privatised BBC losing the coverage rights to the new studios. Co-CEO Baines insists that remembrance is a key part of his company mission, even though the annual service at the Cenotaph is now behind a paywall. They are focused on being active in the community; behind schemes such as shirt sponsoring football teams, and adding donation portals for registered charities across the platform. The recent Shepperton disturbances were led by veterans associations and members of the Royal British Legion, angry at being locked out of their regimental heritage.
‘There were a fair few of us who did Afghan or Iraq, knackered middle-aged blokes organising a break in,’ says Jarred Buckley, an activist from Northumberland and former corporal in the Second Fusiliers who served in Helmand province. ‘They battered us back with World War Twoᵀᴹ’s private security, one of our guys got choked out, another had a bleed on the brain — it got pretty ugly. It was a mess.’
The disruption was sparked by grieving families who had their personal content, featuring deceased loved ones, removed from Remembrance platforms for copyright reasons. One war widow was even sued, and they began to organise. ‘This stuff just doesn’t belong to them,’ Jarred says.
Jarred campaigns across social media for veterans’ digital rights, and has led a number of demonstrations outside the Shepperton studios. He produces podcasts and guerrilla content via a dark web mirror that disputes the Official history, where it can’t be struck with a copyright claim.
‘The studio puts out a narrative about the war that is commercially viable, not always necessarily what happened.’ He argues that the brand’s Time for Heroes manifesto precludes uncomfortable colonial truths about the Allies being made public, as well as military disasters and forgotten POW experiences that may sit outside revenue KPIs and commissioning briefs.
Another front opening up in the so-called ‘War on History’ is the university. ‘Newspaper stories of professors being sued for playing Band of Brothers DVDs make good copy, but don’t explain a deeper issue of a corporatisation of tertiary education by stealth,’ says Dr Ian Steele, senior lecturer in History at The University of Manchester. His institution partnering with branded history studios to create learning materials resulted in a School of Arts, Languages and Cultures staff walkout last year, whilst undergraduates, faced with already staggering loans to repay, resent being lectured to by brands.
Elsewhere on campus, some have embraced chronicalized real estate as a means of exploiting their cultural capital. Students are realising that minting their halcyon university memories can not only fund their education but can them set them up for life. Twentysomething entrepreneurs are using AGTs to register ownership of what they consider iconic student experiences; and expanding themselves as million-pound brands. Hard up undergraduates can mint their memories on a blockchain: a graduation, a first kiss, the party of the year — and sell it to the highest bidder in a marketplace where increased scarcity means higher value returns.
‘A nineteen-year-old in Withington trademarked his unplanned Sunday morning party as The Aftersᵀᴹ, a throwaway in-joke that completely took off,’ a partygoer who does not want to be named, told me. ‘Everyone you see filmed there is high as f**k, saying meaningless shit that people have now written books about.’ Ad revenue, merch and commercial partnerships chased the millions of eyeballs, and in a world where a historical event’s significance is now weighed by its social following, it became a bigger event than an election result. Suddenly bestseller non-fiction charts usually dominated by Sir Antony Beevor and Max Hastings were being blown out of the water by an interloping cohort of ‘stunt history’ influencers.
Fashion and drinks brands want access — a major vodka label recently launched a campaign across a series of house parties in Leeds that might have potentially historical significance. The more hard up are selling their most personal moments to overseas students for a proxy university experience. An undergraduate couple in Bristol who had their sex tape leaked built their own brand by minting it as a moment of digital record, and subsequently sold it to group of experience investors in Singapore.
Rupert Gibson, the screenwriter of Rurik Films’ original D-Day project, is showing me how to fit a horseshoe.
‘The trick is quiet confidence,’ he tells me. ‘Horses are sensitive and they can tell if you’re nervous.’
Farriering is an endangered art form, and Rupert complains about a declining amount of competence checks he’s experienced. He was blacklisted, he claims, from the film industry after whistleblowing about unaccountable money’s influence on major history brands, including World War Twoᵀᴹ.
‘Overseas wealth funds see history as a prestigious entertainment product they can own whilst also laundering their own reputation,’ he says. ‘The trouble is, they always want to influence the story.’
The studio faced a backlash after appearing to retrospectively airbrush the experiences of homosexuals in a recent Holocaust memorial, and faced accusations of bowing to pressure from Middle Eastern investors. A digital exhibition on Japanese POW camps was dropped, allegedly due to ‘external market pressures’, and a recent shareholder survey about the factual certainty of the Allied Victory revealed a majority believed ‘branded content should be inclusive of a diverse range of stakeholder views regarding the outcome of the War.’
As for his craft of filmmaking, Rupert has no regrets. ‘A horseshoe is either a good or bad fit, it’s not open to interpretation,’ he says, ‘the horse will let you know.’ He is sure he has left his old life behind. ‘I’m not sure what the value of fiction is anymore.’
Attempts to regulate chronicalization and branded history at a national level have so far been unsuccessful: the blockchain technology has, perhaps permanently, taken the ownership of history away from national governments. An effort to update the 2017 Digital Economy Act failed in a parliamentary vote, whilst a separate Augmented History Bill is struggling to pass through the House of Commons, where some Government members themselves have been accused of having financial interests vested in a current commercial exploration of the Troubles: Former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Chips Clifford, resigned after he was discovered to have investments in a collection of sectarian non-fungible murals worth over $30 million. Opposition members say it makes the argument for a redrafted National Memory Service and an outright ban on privatised history.
Over the past decade it is hard to see a healthier outcome than where history is neither potted by corporate or government actors but left to vegetate by its own accord through the incremental oxygen of hindsight. For some like Rupert, it’s perhaps created a desire to return to a world of meaningful work, and a tangible identity, whilst our equally powerful urge to escape to the past only gets increasingly more lucrative. Our own national heritage remains on the market — a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund is in advanced negotiations to purchase the World War Twoᵀᴹ brand outright, seen as the permanent solution to the conflicts of interest within the organisation. The next generation of heavily augmented history aim to recreate the past in ever greater realism: next year’s YOU:kraine project at London’s O2 is marketed as the world’s first truly immersive ‘Live History’ park. But ultimately, does that sound like an attraction bereaved families would want to visit? Perhaps they are forgetting commercial history’s longest-standing proverb so far; quietly wait until anyone who actually experienced it is no longer here.