The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

October 1998

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 30 September 98 Copyright ©1998 alt.screenwriters

We admit it. We have a Left Coast bias. One of us lives in the orbit of Silicon Valley; the other prowls the streets that Raymond Chandler once wrote about. It’s easy to think civilization stops at the eastern outskirts of Tahoe and Las Vegas.

But it’s a big world out there, and in the realm of New Media, a good chunk of the energy and focus has shifted to — or at least been generated on — the East Coast, where much of the content we find on the Web is developed and delivered. Part of New York has been dubbed Silicon Alley, and as on the West Coast, we find professional screenwriters testing the waters of New Media opportunities and exploring the converging worlds of new and traditional media.

Big Apple screenwriter and novelist Matt Costello wrote screenplays for two blockbuster (and ground-breaking) CD-ROM titles: The 7th Guest and its sequel, The 11th Hour. Many would argue that The 7th Guest began a brand new chapter in interactive entertainment, incorporating full-motion video and true dramatic scenes into a game, and beginning to blur the lines between “game” and “movie”. Costello has continued writing and developing interactive CD-ROM entertainments, but is now, with Executive Producer Fred Graver, the writer and co-creator of ZoogDisney (weekends at 5pm on The Disney Channel), an ambitious cross-media experiment combining delivery on both the Web and broadcast television.

The mantra of ZoogDisney is: “Don’t just watch TV; DO TV.” According to Costello, ZoogDisney “is hosted by the Zoogs, creatures who live in the ‘zeether’ where the TV and computer meet. Kids watch on Sunday, go on-line during the week, and then see their scores, chat and questions on TV the next Saturday.” The show unites a block of live-action programming (which includes an MTV/Real World type show, a comedy/game show and a nature adventure/wildlife show, all slanted for pre-teens) with animated interstitial programming contained in frames and scrolling banners. ZoogDisney may be the first real hint of tomorrow’s Interactive Television Programming, though as Costello notes: “This is definitely ‘stage one’ it what will be a learning process for the whole industry.”

The assumption made about the audience is that they are already so comfortable moving back and forth between TV-watching and Websurfing (often doing both simultaneously) that both media can be integrated into one seamless delivery system (and audience experience): just as we have long taken for granted that both sound and pictures go together (when, once upon a time, sound meant radio and pictures meant movies: two separate media).

Costello is convinced that “Interactivity in a variety of forms will invade the living room TV: from chat and message boards to POV cameras and impulse buying (that cool frock you just saw on Ally McBeal).” He adds: “How fiction, interactive fiction, will play out in that arena is still to be determined. But it will happen.”

Another New York screenwriter who has worked in the independent film arena has now turned her thesis project in interactive fiction titled The Lizzys into, first, an award-winning CD-ROM “prototype” and, now, an evolving website. According to writer-creator Susan Finley, “The Lizzys is an animated, interactive musical about an observant young girl whose world is turned upside down when ordinary events cause her to realize the scary truth: that everything is changing, nothing lasts, bad things can happen for no apparent reason and sometimes no authority figure can do anything about it.”

Sounds great, but why not write this as a feature screenplay or television pilot? Finley notes that “While it’s almost impossible to get a movie made, it’s damn near miraculous if the creative vision that generated the movie is still in evidence by that time. I was drawn to the idea of using the computer as a new and less expensive way to tell a story and put on a show.”

Fortunately for Finley: “My background in theater and music proved useful. Along with writing the stories and song lyrics, I did the narration and sang some of the songs.” Finley used much of the state-of-the-art software available to deliver sound and animation on the Web, another example of pushing the Web ever closer towards television.

And what has the interactivity added to the project? “Since Lizzy’s stories deal with emotional issues that are difficult to articulate, I realized that I could use the computer’s interactive capacity to create a safe haven–a place where viewers could articulate the thoughts and feelings the stories evoke while remaining anonymous if they chose to.”

The Lizzys is, in a sense, an “independent” website — with no current sponsor. In the case of ZoogDisney and Lifesavers Candystand, which soap opera and CD-ROM writer Kate Rogin writes for, we see the “big studio” version of the Web: branded entertainment sites. Rogin compares these to “the early days of television, when brands sponsored entire programs.” Candystand is a sort of game arcade, primarily for kids. But “whether it’s conceptualizing the game, writing content for gameplay, or writing serialized stories, that’s where a screenwriter can really use his/her skills,” Rogin says. “There’s always a story to be told, even in games, and writers must claim that turf because they are better storytellers than programmers are.”

None of these East Coast screenwriters wants to give the impression that it’s easy to take the New Media plunge. “Screenwriters have to sell themselves … because there seems to be a distinct distaste in certain East Coast new media circles for those of us who have worked in the ‘corrupt’ world of TV and film,” Rogin finds. But she concludes: “There are challenging projects out there … and once you’re on the right project, you could find yourself telling a story you didn’t think you had in you in a format and medium that were invented just the day before. And if that’s not one of the cool perks of being a writer, then what is?”

The Lizzys and ZoogDisney offer a couple of glimpses of those shimmering possibilities, and as Costello wryly notes: “When computer meets TV, it won’t just be for teenage boys anymore…”

Written by tborst

September 30, 1998 at 2:30 am

%d bloggers like this: