The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

December 1999-January 2000

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 15 November 99 Copyright ©1999 alt.screenwriters

With the beginning of a new year, decade, and century closing in, this is the perfect opportunity for alt.screenwriters to get deep and philosophical, and ponder the screenwriter’s role in next millennium entertainment. But as New Year’s Eve 1999 rolls in, we just want to rock and roll all night, and party everyday…Rock-and-roll lovers and historians alike will recognize those immortal words by Kiss, the glam super-star rockers who are still going strong after a quarter century. Now they are stars in a new entertainment format — the “multi-path movie” — written by Guild members Jeff Sullivan and Bruce Onder, distributed on the Internet, and offering a possible signpost for things-to-come.

Head to Brilliant Digital Entertainment, and you’ll find several multi-path movies available, with more in the production pipeline. Some are free; others are subscription only. The movies can be experienced either all at once (with the purchase of a CD-ROM), or as regular “webisodes”. In the latter, weekly email notification provides viewers with a direct, clickable link to the new webisode, making it no more work to watch than thumbing a TV remote.

Executive producer Lisa Eisenpresser says that BDE’s newest title — Kiss: Immortals — is the first multi-path movie truly optimized for the Web. Those of you already familiar with online animation might assume that means the cel-like animation format Flash — but instead, BDE is delivering motion-capture 3-D animation, creating a visual style that is far more compelling and cutting-edge than anything else seen on the Web to date.

Screenwriters Onder and Sullivan — whose credits go back to Saturday morning cartoons, but who have been writing and designing narrative-driven computer games for companies like Activision and SouthPeak Interactive the past several years (under their own company banner, Digital Arcana) — created the story bible and wrote several of the initial Kiss: Immortals webisodes.

According to Onder, the story starts as the band members “are transported to an alternate dimension where the personae they act out on Earth are revered as super-powerful demigods who will one day overthrow the evil, malicious ruler, Tempest. The only problems: they don’t know how to harness their newfound godliness, and all they really want to do is go home.”

The writers indicate that the cutting-edge 3D animation being used was one of the primary challenges of the project. “As you work with technology that’s constantly evolving, there’s real pressure … to want to work all the neat new stuff into what you’re doing,” Onder says. “But if you’re going to get something great done, you’ve got to learn how to stop and say ‘Enough. Let’s focus on story, and character, and do the best we can with this set of features.'”

The 5-7 minute episodic format of Kiss: Immortals posed another challenge: “It’s like the old Flash Gordon or Don Winslow of the Navy serializations — you’ve got so many minutes to get your heroes out of the danger you put them in last week, then get them into a whole new peril before the end.”

Sullivan thinks the Web could bring back the serial as a viable commercial format. “The brevity of the format is partially a concession to the bandwidth currently available … but that doesn’t change the fact that the Web is in many ways the most grazing- friendly medium we have… Perhaps the shorter format will persist because of viewer habits.”

However, Kiss: Immortals (and BDE’s other multi-path movies) differs from old-fashioned serials in one important respect: the interactive element. At one or more points in an episode, the viewer can choose what room a character enters or exits, or what object he might pick up in a room. If no selection is made, the movie will select a randomized story path. Branching storylines, Sullivan notes, are always a challenge. “The conflict is simple: we have a finite amount of assets, so the more we spend on alternate story branches, the less we can spend on the ‘main line’ of the story. Major trade-offs ensue. Talk about killing your babies!”

Producer Eisenpresser found Onder and Sullivan’s “hybrid” credits invaluable to the project. “Without their new media experience, it would not have been possible for them to construct a nonlinear story — with multiple plot lines — that seemed integral, rather than gratuitous. They also came up with some very elegant solutions to viewer participation that neither interrupted the flow of the narrative nor the look of the design. And without their traditional media background, I’m not sure we would have gotten the clever dialogue and character development that makes Kiss: Immortals so completely enjoyable.”

Kiss: Immortals can be viewed using a 56K modem, but it’s most enjoyable with a faster DSL or cable-modem Internet connection. These faster connections are now available for consumers, and in anticipation of this, streaming- video entertainment is already a reality on the Web, at sites like Spumco, Pseudo, Oxygen Media, and the Digital Entertainment Network.

Screenwriters will be writing these projects — but the question is how much the screenwriters will come from Hollywood’s traditional pool of talent. The answer lies in how aggressively screenwriters will pursue New Media opportunities.

For screenwriters looking to expand into this new marketplace, Sullivan advises that “you need to be familiar with what’s been done, what failed, what succeeded, and even what’s coming next, if you can see it.”

Producer Eisenpresser says she “look(s) for writers who understand that the Web is not the fall- back plan for TV or film scripts they wrote… I look for concepts that would be better on the Web than on TV, and for writers who have spent some time thinking about the medium and are excited about the new possibilities it offers. Vision for this hybrid medium — combined with the ability to think out-of- the-box and deliver an experience in a very short period of time — are essential elements of the skill set.”

With the development of the new streaming-video marketplace that Kiss: Immortals offers a glimpse of, the WGA is soon going to be faced with its own unique set of challenges. Sullivan worries: “The Guild has a history of letting little markets slide until they’re huge, then not knowing how to crack them. I fear that New Media is one of them.”

Welcome to the new millennium. And in the words of Kiss: “Shout it out loud.”

Written by tborst

November 15, 1999 at 11:55 pm

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