The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

May 1999

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 15 April 99 Copyright ©1999 alt.screenwriters

As savvy screenwriters embrace the interactive age, some have found a virtual pot of gold in the deep pockets of big business. And while some might say that writing interactive scripts for Corporate America might not be as sexy as writing for Hollywood, we suggest you double check that with Michael Utvich. “No, most corporate assignments don’t allow you to write about space aliens, cop chases, or fairy tale dragons,” he concedes, “but they do offer you an opportunity to work in the real world that is without equal.”Utvich is just one of the Guild’s members who has found an ample supply of fame and fortune in the corporate arena. And, like many writers who have gone corporate, he finds the creative freedom and the respect he gets to be a very rewarding part of the gig. “To be brutally frank, I find corporate work often offers more creative freedom and innovative opportunities than highly format-driven series TV or syndicated features do.”

Connie Zimmerman echoes Utvich’s sentiments. What is often viewed as an advantage in the Hollywood writing process can be turned into a big reason for wanting to write in the corporate world. In Hollywood, says Zimmerman, “the basis and norms of a program have been defined in a story bible and the format, [and] writers work within this framework.” By contrast, in the corporate world, there is little understanding of the great mysteries a writer brings to the table — only the knowledge that one is desperately needed. “In corporate/interactive work, I am hired for my expertise, not only to write the material but to assist in managing corporate employees working with me on the project,” says Zimmerman. “To a large degree, I find the playing field much more flexible and the opportunity for personal creativity to be higher.”

So when it comes time to finesse that creativity, how does a Hollywood writer apply his or her storytelling skills to the corporate world? “Got a week?” asks Rob Swigart. Working on assignments with the high-tech think tank Institute for the Future, Swigart services his corporate clients by designing fictional interactive case studies using narrative and storytelling skills he’s derived from his experience writing novels and screenplays. “Essentially,” he says, he works to “…create dramatic, emotionally compelling scenes for them to respond to.” Sounds easy on the surface.

“I begin with the assumption that any project — entertainment, informational, or corporate — is, at its core, a story,” adds Utvich. He says that he “always” applies “a storytelling approach to present the content.” Zimmerman agrees: “I apply my storytelling skills all the time. I create characters. I write comedic or dramatic vignettes. I develop role-playing exercises and games.” But lest you think it’s all fun and games, she adds, “At the same time, I must deliver information that meets specific objectives.”

Meeting these objectives can be as rewarding as thinking outside the box to come up with them in the first place. “Corporate customers, in my experience, are far more willing to experiment with the cutting edge interactive technologies than Hollywood has been,” says Utvich. “New media challenges us to rethink how we communicate and to discover new formats to offer story value and information, beyond the limits of traditional narrative.”

If the respect and the creative freedom aren’t enough to entice you, perhaps the monetary benefits will sway you to this side of the page. “The fundamental reason I started doing this was to provide for a family,” says Utvich. “In the corporate world, I often carry as many as five separate projects at the same time and work continually throughout the year.

The money, even by Hollywood standards, isn’t bad, if you have the expertise to back it up. Many writers new to the corporate arena work at a starting scale of $50 per hour. “Fifty dollars sounds low to me,” says Swigart. He suggests that writers can make up to $500 per hour. “For consultants, that isn’t really all that high.” Utvich agrees that the money is good. “I never charge less than $1,000 per day,” he says, “and for some of the newer and more exotic forms of design work, my rates are more than double that. I charge by the hour only for short term consulting assignments.” He adds, “rarely does my scale project involve less than 20 days of my time.”

With this kind of incentive, why isn’t everybody jumping onto the corporate bandwagon?

“Meetings,” says Swigart, are some of the pitfalls of working with corporate America. “Vague instructions, indefinite schedules, saying no when appropriate or necessary. Meetings. Keeping them off your back so you can work. Meetings.” Did he mention meetings? An exasperation echoed by many in the corporate world is that there’s a lot of wasted time. Which is why, beyond writing, the interactive scribe needs to take more than just good writing skills to the table.

“The extraordinary freedom in shaping the job and responding to client needs can be very confusing,” says Utvich, “if you don’t have a clear grounding in project management principles and techniques.” But, if you can go beyond your traditional role, the effort is definitely worth it. “At this point, I consider much of the corporate work I do to be much more “sexy” than Hollywood writing,” he says. “I have much more of a key creative role in doing the work, and much of the work is done from the ground up… Corporate or Information-based work always involves a story-based approach, and the more I have an opportunity to work with cutting edge technology, the more my traditional ideas of story are changing.”

Written by tborst

April 15, 1999 at 11:18 pm

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