The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

May 1998

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 4 May 98 Copyright ©1998 alt.screenwriters

The atmosphere was surreal: smoky aisles reminiscent of a late night bar scene in an obscure European black-and-white movie. Liqueurs and champagne flowing so freely that it was hard to get through those aisles come mid-afternoon. Easy to imagine Alain Delon suddenly emerging from behind a curtain, smoking a Gauloise, too cool for words.

Now, throw all this into an exhibit hall, add some conference sessions, and populate it with an eclectic international array of new media types. Some call it a good excuse to go to the south of France. Others call it Milia. We call having to go there a tough job, but hey, we’re willing to suffer for our art. (Terry’s note: this is an editorial “we”; one of us was slaving away on a script in little old Silverlake.)

Milia: think of it as the American Film Market for New Media, with a few pretensions that this might actually be art as well as commerce. The theme this year was “Towards Convergence.” Some would argue that “convergence” has already become a meaningless media cliche, but Milia ’98 suggests that, incrementally, convergence is already happening in the world of entertainment. Best of all for Guild members, it was apparent that writers are an integral part in making convergence a reality.

Two sessions had WGA members playing leading roles in defining what this new entertainment convergence might look like. Matt Costello (WGA East) headed up a panel entitled “Game of the Film – Film of the Game: The Economic and Creative Realities of Transforming Hot Properties from One World to Another.” With The X-Files soon to be simultaneous film, series, and CD-ROM; with Wing Commander (the highly commercial CD-ROM franchise) now in production as a feature film; with the children’s title Sam and Max having made the jump from CD-ROM to television; with several Humongous Entertainment titles (Putt-Putt, Freddi Fish, Pajama Sam) now in various stages of TV pilot development, the cross-fertilization of content is becoming ever more of a reality.

Another panel, “Towards the Convergence of Cartoon Animation and Interactive Entertainment,” spanned two days and included several WGA members. One of the more unique panels ever presented at a conference, these sessions brought television animation producers into a forum where they could pitch their animation properties to a panel of interactive experts and get instant feedback on their viability as interactive games.

A 3D computer-generated animated feature called The Raptoms was probably the most exciting property to emerge from those 7 hours of pitch sessions. The reason? Writers (and producers) please take note: During the entire development process, no decision was made about characters or story in the film without considering the impact that those decisions would have on the interactive game and on the licensing of ancillary products. Let’s face it: in an era of fewer and fewer media companies, the chances for a property being produced are far greater if it offers the potential for a cross-platform franchise.

Further proof that the Europeans are a step ahead of us in the convergence concept came on the smoky floors of the exhibit halls. There, with champagne in hand, we found several examples of convergence that relied heavily upon writers.

Tommy and Oscar, a children’s property that comes out of Italy, started life as a CR-ROM, but with characters and story so strong that a segue into TV was a natural extension. An alien landing on Earth befriends some kids and meets their nutty uncle, who discovers that the food the alien needs to survive is music. Entertaining, educational, and a reinforcement of family values and the value of art.

A similar project comes out of Holland, where a children’s CD-ROM and television series live happily together. Children can play their game on the computer, and when the show is on the air, they can call into the station and play a game, live, during the show.

European producers have discovered that by broadening the genre expectations of gaming (i.e., focusing more on character, story, and world-building), the possibilities for creating a more enduring franchise that can move across platforms (i.e., into television and film) increase. American game companies aren’t as confident of this yet, and frequently bypass narrative texture to concentrate on the core gaming audience (young males), which makes them a quicker buck but excludes the longer-term dividends of a franchise. It’s instructive that arguably the most successful game franchise to date, Tomb Raider (almost guaranteed to migrate into film and/or TV), was developed by an English company…

As this is published, the annual Computer Game Developers Conference will be taking place in Long Beach, California. The WGA has had a strong presence at this conference the past several years, and it will be interesting to see if the notes sounded at Milia will also play here…

Writers’ Note: in case you’re wondering who paid for the WGA members to go to Cannes, absolutely NO Guild funds were harmed in the making of this article.

Written by tborst

May 4, 1998 at 11:36 pm

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