The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

August 1998

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 28 July 98 Copyright ©1998 alt.screenwriters

If AT&T has its way, you’re going to be using a cable modem in 5 years, maybe a whole lot less. You’re likely to have a digital TV in your home by then, and between the two, the line between television and the Internet is going to get very blurry. If you’ve never used a cable modem, you’ve never experienced the true potential of the Web. Pages snap up instantly, as if you were turning the pages of a book — and 30fps video on demand becomes a reality. And with a digital set, it becomes possible — even desirable — to get simultaneous broadcast and Internet feeds.

How this affects entertainment distribution — and the opportunity for writers to work and create in both traditional and new genres — remains to be seen. In the meantime, professional screenwriters have already been testing the waters, developing entertainment for the Web. Is it shows they are creating? Broadcasts? Digital publishing? We really need a brand new terminology for even describing entertainment on the Web. But while this is getting sorted out, writers are out there on the bleeding edge of Internet technologies. If you think the Web is just text, tiny graphics, and wriggling banners, think again…

Michael Kaplan has long been at the forefront of new entertainment genres. He wrote the ground-breaking video Television Parts, which to this day enjoys cult status for its style and brand of humor. He moved on to break more barriers with Psychic Detective, an interactive CD-ROM that utilized hours of full-motion video in its non-linear storytelling and contained 14 possible endings. Kaplan describes it as “a film that’s 30 minutes long and 5 hours wide.” Now, he and his directing partner, John Sanborn, are unveiling Paul Is Dead on the Web — an ambitious, interactive “rock’n’roll murder mystery.”

“What we’ve done is create a serialized mystery/adventure with lots of cliffhangers,” Kaplan says. “Then, using the multimedia capability of the Web, we’ve mixed in an entire level of precise, utterly bogus, band mythology: songs, album covers, liner notes, old reviews and photos and archives.”

Paul Is Dead uses over 100 animated movies and an enormous amount of both background and foreground audio to complement textual and graphical archives. Think of this as a living collage of TV, radio, news tabloids, music CDs, and more — a format only possible on The Web (CD- ROMs could deliver the same thing, but their content is frozen: this can continue to be shaped during the life of the serial).

We should note that a couple of years ago, Web serials like The Spot enjoyed a blip of popularity. They vanished due to their unwieldy nature — miles of text, mainly, and the occasional 30 seconds of video which could take 15 minutes to download and view.

This, however, is different. The streaming video (known as Flash) and audio make possible an experience much closer to TV than a book, even with the typical 28.8K dial-up connection many of us have to the Internet.

This same new streaming technology has enabled a 7-episode animated serial, The Revenge of The Claw, written by Carolyn Miller (an award-winning afterschool special writer who has also written the “Toy Story” and “Pocahontas” Storybook CD-ROMS for Disney). Unlike the highly interactive Paul Is Dead (which pushes, but doesn’t force, its audience to explore every nook and cranny of the story — thus creating a non-linear narrative), Revenge… is a more traditional linear entertainment — 5-8 minute episodes doled out on a weekly basis, with no audience intervention or interactivity possible. Revenge… is something Warner Brothers Animation could have done in the Fifties — but now, the method of delivery is not film or video, but the Internet.

Like Paul Is Dead, Revenge… could only have found a home on the Web. Miller points out that “I had the latitude to experiment with a wacky kind of story that didn’t fit into any conventional genre, and to develop a story-telling style and a set of characters that never would have found a home on TV.”

How did these two projects come about? In the case of Paul Is Dead, Microsoft underwrote the development for its MSN entertainment channel (online), only to pull the plug on the project and place it in turnaround. Kaplan and Sanborn, under their production entity LaFong, are now “self-distributing” the serial and hoping to attract advertisers to the site. Revenge… was developed by Planet Hollywood Online (PHON) as the centerpiece for its website, but as we went to press, PHON shut its doors and Revenge… is now seeking another distribution site (though parts of it can currently be seen at ).

As these brief histories suggest, the Web is still shaky terrain when it comes to producing and distributing a project — though it shares much in common with film and TV, where shelved pilot episodes and unreleased movies are not so unusual.

While both Kaplan and Miller have worked on new media projects previously, neither lay claim to special technical skills. “I am living proof that you can be technically naive and still work in the field,” Kaplan notes. “I find the most important information for writing an interactive project is to know the limitations.” Echoes Miller: “I had to be aware that the technology of doing animation on the Web is still limited, and things like zooms and scenes with a great deal of action would be difficult to produce. ”

So is the Web brimming over with opportunities for professional entertainment writers? Not exactly…not yet, anyway. “There’s no proven business model for entertainment in the online arena,” Kaplan says. Miller agrees: “It is just not a stable enough field yet to offer a consistent amount of work.”

Nevertheless, these writers can see their forays into this new medium paying future dividends. Notes Kaplan: “My partner and I have begun to encounter TV shows that are very interested in developing or expanding a multimedia presence, so that makes us attractive to them.”

MediaOne is already rolling out cable modem service in West Los Angeles, and AT&T/TCI, Sprint, and others are plotting similar strategies. These writers are offering us brief glimpses of what the future might hold. Paul Is Dead, in particular, offers up tantalizing possibilities for inventing an entirely new entertainment genre — and what could be more exciting and liberating creatively than that?

Written by tborst

July 28, 1998 at 1:39 am

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