The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

August 1999

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 1 July 99 Copyright ©1999 alt.screenwriters

Last month, we discussed the rapid rise and equally rapid demise of the PC CD-ROM as a significant delivery medium for entertainment. New genres of entertainment — edutainment, interactive movies, music and narrative hybrids — developed and opened new doors for professional screenwriters. Those willing to go where no writers had gone before rose to the occasion and pushed the envelope in this burgeoning field, contributing substantially to commercially appealing and award-winning projects.But with the emergence of new entertainment distribution systems like game consoles, the Web, and WebTV-type set-top devices, the playing field has once again altered substantially. While PC CD-ROMS are still around, their sales are dwarfed by Playstation/Nintendo 64 titles. And let’s not even talk about the number of Internet users. Bottom line? Eradicate PC CD-ROMs tomorrow, and the New Media world isn’t likely to change much. Eradicate game consoles or the Internet, and the business changes completely.

This month, we look at what lessons might be drawn from screenwriters’ experience in this CD-ROM rollercoaster ride, and how this hard-won knowledge can be applied to the roiling Entertainment landscape of the next ten years. (Keep in mind that, as we write this, NBC has just spun off an Internet company called NBCi, AT&T has just bought MediaOne, and AOL has gone into partnership with satellite system DirecTV.)

Lesson 1:
Whatever writers do, they should heed Grandma’s advice and not put all of their eggs in one basket. In New Media, that means don’t bet on one delivery system to become dominant and stay dominant. Recent history suggests that the churn in delivery systems will continue to accelerate. Just take a look at the progression: broadcast television transformed the business; videotape and cable transmission transformed the business a second time; video-on-demand, the Internet and media convergence are going to do it again. Exactly how is anybody’s guess, but the business is going to look very different in the next millennium.
Lesson 2:
New Media companies have not automatically gone to WGA writers for the development and execution of entertainment content. Historically, if a new TV network or studio came onto the scene (UPN or Miramax, for example), the content producers, who are MBA signatories, turned to professional screenwriters. But this mechanism has not been established for the AOLs, Eidos Interactives, and Sony Online Entertainments (see our recent column on online gameshows). So what? Ask this same question after AOL buys CBS and Microsoft buys NBC (both have been rumored acquisitions within the past few months, and the fact that the rumors were taken seriously should tell you something).
Lesson 3:
As always, writers who want to chart New Media waters need to convince New Media companies that they have the necessary tools for developing and executing next-generation entertainment content. Try calling the big Internet content companies that have just hit the market with record-setting IPOs and see if they’ll even tell you what they pay writers. Can anyone say “rude”? Let’s face it, playwrights who came to Hollywood in the ’20s and ’30s had to develop new skill sets, and comedy screenwriters went to work retooling their dialog and slapstick gifts for the emergent form of the TV sitcom. Does it really make sense to think that screenwriters no longer have to evolve?
Revision 3.1:
While Hollywood languishes in the regurgitation of the past, game developers are operating in a Golden Age of Creativity. Increasingly, Hollywood draws from these titles for movies after a franchise has flowered. Final Fantasy, Tomb Raider and Duke Nukem are just a few in development or nearing release dates. It’s vital that screenwriters participate in this emerging entertainment form, but they’re going to have to fight for a place at the table, because…
There is no obvious pipeline to New Media companies. Which leads us to…
Lesson 4:
The current infrastructure that Hollywood understands and thrives in happily — agents, producers, creative execs — has been of little or no value in the interactive world. Ultimately, this is both a plus and a minus.
To use a gaming metaphor: since there aren’t any guards at the gates (because the gates haven’t been built yet!), you no longer have to waste energy getting past them. But now you have a new problem: what you’re really trying to do is find the palace, which is constantly shifting around and morphing shape.
In other words, writers cannot rely on middlemen like agents and managers to connect them with producers. The money’s not big enough for middlemen to pay attention to currently; in addition, few agents or managers can generate an entirely new set of contacts and relationships as fast as the playing field is changing. So, writers are going to have to ply their own wares — a daunting challenge to the secluded yet secure screenwriter.
Let us reminisce. Oh, if only we had the good old days… when there were just a handful of studios and three networks. Now, back to reality. In New Media today, there are hundreds of companies developing entertainment and quasi-entertainment content. And they don’t all lunch at The Ivy…
Lesson 5:
Finally, as a previous column has explored ( April 1998: Charting a New Frontier), some writers are taking matters into their own hands and starting their own New Media shops. Not a bad idea if you’ve got the chops. The writer-as-entrepreneur has begun to emerge. Some young writers are performing work for New Media companies in exchange for “sweat equity” or stock options. For twenty-somethings in Silicon Valley, Multimedia Gulch and Silicon Alley — who have known only a rising stock market — this is far better compensation than working for contract wages and P&H (pension and health benefits).
Thus, the new world of New Media challenges the writer-for- hire economic model, just as the evolving nature of television economics (with its elite writer-producers) does. Will the Writers Guild respond quickly enough to these changes to continue to remain of benefit to screenwriters? Or will it slip gradually into irrelevance?

Hey, nobody said the new millennium was going to be easy, you know?For fledgling writers looking to break into Entertainment, the news is good: new opportunities are out there, and the rules aren’t established yet. For professional screenwriters looking ahead to the next 10 and 15 years of their careers, the challenge is staying nimble enough to adapt to the New World Order…

Written by tborst

July 1, 1999 at 3:10 am

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