The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

November 1999

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 16 October 99 Copyright ©1999 alt.screenwriters

“Way back” when Bill Clinton became President, no one imagined that the Internet would become crucial to marketing Hollywood entertainment. Only a few years later, however, we all take for granted that any mainstream film or television show will have an Internet website. Generally, movie and TV websites are advertisements for the creative work, helping build “brand identity” that will contribute to the commercial success of the project (click on the homepage, see the movie).But can an Internet website function as more than a billboard for the creative experience of a film or television show? Can the website compliment or actually be a part of the creative experience? And should writers who are creating film and TV properties begin thinking beyond the printed page and the action slate? Two mainstream titles — one a film, the other a TV show — offer some tentative answers, and open new doors to the meaning and form of narrative entertainment in the 21st century.

By now, it has already become a Hollywood cliché that The Blair Witch Project owes its success to the Internet, and the accepted wisdom credits the marketing brilliance of the distributor, Artisan. But take a closer look. Long before Artisan bought the distribution rights, long before the picture went to Sundance … the website existed. The website was not whipped up by the marketing department, nor was it a project of some corporate Interactive or eCommerce Division. The website was written and designed by the film’s creators.

At a recent conference focused on the magic buzzword “Convergence”, Blair Witch producer Kevin Foxe stated flat out that the movie and website “were co-joined from the start.” Indeed, the two narrative experiences were “developed together and cannot be separated out.” The writer-directors not only knew sluglines and camera angles: they knew HTML. And they understood that they could create a fuller, richer, more immersive experience by exploiting the strengths of the Web (in the same way that they exploited the limitations of their budget and locations).

Screenwriters create worlds. And the world can be made deeper and more textured by realizing that a single creative experience can now span different mediums. Movies have been the art form of the 20th century because of their immediate and visceral impact. But movies have always come up short in the immersion that a novel — and more recently, a computer game (that unspools across dozens of hours) — offer. But here is a way to have the best of both worlds.

On the Blair Witch site, raw film footage intermingles with a protagonist’s journal, a complete history of the Blair Witch disturbances, and accounts of the aftermath of the film’s events. The website — as creative experience, not as marketing gimmick — conjured up the initial Blair Witch mystique.

Switch to television’s Dawson’s Creek, created by screenwriter Kevin Williamson as a sort of thirtysomething for teenagers. The writers and producers of Dawson’s Creek understand that a majority of their audience is Web-savvy. And the website goes way beyond the usual marketing tie-ins and episode loglines to further enhance the fiction of the show and immerse the viewer in the world of Capeside.

Head to Dawson’s Desktop and you’ll find a doorway to Dawson’s own computer. Not only is this a nice post-modern conceit, it dovetails perfectly with the characterization of Dawson Leery as a teenager who leads the ultimate self-examined life. We can read Dawson’s old screenplays, look at clips from his films, read his journal, check his calendar, and look at his homepage (complete with his own film reviews — he snuck into Eyes Wide Shut and loved it). In addition, Dawson has links to other Capeside web pages, including one that has posted love letters of friends of his. Sure, Dawson’s appalled at this breach of privacy — but he can’t avert his eyes (just like we can’t: we like poking around on his computer).

You know how it was always so maddening that TV characters went away for the summer (paving the way for “summer repeats”) and then the first episode of the Fall was “What I Did on my Summer Vacation”? Well, the website doesn’t go away for the summer. Dawson’s Desktop has continued the Dawson’s Creek storyline throughout the “repeat” season. Register with the website and you’ll even get regular email from Dawson Leery detailing his adventures, new characters he meets, and other ongoing developments.

In fact, characters and situations being developed on the website are expected to be incorporated in the Fall season’s storylines, creatively blurring the division between website and TV show to the point where it’s difficult to separate the content on each.

What does this mean for screenwriters? Just this. Blair Witch and Dawson’s Desktop aren’t aberrations. They’re not even the future. They’re here and now. A new generation of writers and directors is already grasping that narrative entertainment will never be the same again: that a new hybrid is emerging.

For the Writers Guild, this new hybrid also presents unprecedented challenges: issues of intellectual property rights, compensation, residuals and credits that will affect every writer now entering the Guild — and many of us who are current, working members.

If you ever thought all the big battles were behind us, think again. The fireworks may just be starting…

(If you work as a TV staff writer or producer and contribute to a show’s website, alt.screenwriters would love to hear about your experiences. Email us at the address below.)

Written by tborst

October 16, 1999 at 11:48 pm

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