The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

September 1999

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 18 August 99 Copyright ©1999 alt.screenwriters

The first TV networks were born out of radio. As the century ends, we are witnessing the first TV network birthing from the Internet. What difference does that make to those of us trying to realize creative visions?

Let’s take the story of a typical writer, Theresa Duncan. “I’ve always written creatively,” admits Duncan, but even after she landed an editor’s job in Washington DC after college, “I wasn’t really ambitious about selling.” This is where Duncan pretty much parts ways with other typical writers. She is, after all, one of the first of our kind to cinch a development deal with the media convergence startup that has the Entertainment industry a-buzz: Oxygen Media.

Oxygen Media is the brainchild of Hollywood heavyweight Geraldine Layborne. Having previously made Nickelodeon into the institution it is and having moved into the executive suite at Disney/ABC, Layborne shocked the Industry a year ago, when she announced that she was branching out to do something no man had done before. Layborne was leaving her high-profile post to start her own media convergence network.

Leave it to a woman to give birth to a new industry…

Layborne’s Oxygen Media is chartered with bringing women’s issues to light online and on TV, bringing programming and interactive content to an audience that only Lifetime TV has tried addressing to date. Having enlisted top entertainment names like Oprah Winfrey and Marcey Carsey to develop content, and venture capitalists like billionaire Paul Allen to fund the startup, Oxygen Media has already launched an Internet entertainment site, and is only months away from the start of television programming.

Thus, a new way to get on the playing field. Something writers are always thinking about…

“When I read about what Geraldine Layborne was trying to do,” says Duncan, it was “a natural for me to go to Oxygen, because it offers subject matter I really care about.” That’s because — after her DC editing gig — Duncan landed the assignment of writing an interactive CD-ROM title for girls. Chop Suey (published by Fox Interactive) was in fact one of the original “girl titles” in the predominately boy-skewed interactive marketplace. “Everything I’ve done so far has been slanted toward women and girls and teens,” she says.

A perfect fit for Oxygen. So, Duncan, with several animated CD-ROM titles under her belt, and an animated film that “was very popular with film festival audiences,” set out to make the Layborne connection.

“I tried to get her attention for a long time,” she says. “I looked up the records for registering domain names on the ‘net, and got Oxygen’s phone and fax number, and started faxing resumes and press kits.” Gutsy? “I think a lot of people have done this,” she says. But, “I didn’t get very far with that method.”

Next approach? Sending material to Layborne’s temporary office at ABC in New York. Still no response. Finally, she used the tried-and-true method perfected in Hollywood … networking. “A programmer on one of my CD-ROMs was married to a former producer who worked with Kit (Layborne, Geraldine’s husband) in Virginia,” Duncan relates. “You have to use any connection, no matter how tenuous.”

Fortunately for Duncan, Kit was a big fan of animation. “He wrote a big book on animation that’s used in college curricula, and he was familiar with my CD- ROMs,” so when she called him at Oxygen’s new offices in New York, (she called 411 to get the number), “he returned my call!” And she got a pitch meeting.

Still, typical of Hollywood’s m.o., Oxygen was leery of working with a lone operator like Duncan. “They wanted to go with big companies who already had something on the air.” But Duncan persisted. Her pitch: an animated show based on real women — shooting documentary footage of them talking about an item of clothing, then turning it into an animated show.

Something along the lines of “It was New Year’s Eve, and I had on a yellow silk dress, and this guy walked by and I thought he was kind of cute…” The kind of intimate chit-chat and dramatic situations you might overhear in a cafe late at night. The kind of material that is human and genuine and almost addictively entertaining.

Duncan’s Closet Cases suddenly had an audience, and “Marcy Carsey and Caryn Mandalbach really liked my idea.” A touch of Real World, a touch of Sex and the City, but taken yet a step further…

“It had to have an Internet component of equal importance. 50/50.” Duncan’s solution? Closet Cases “uses streaming audio and video with Flash cartoons,” and there’s a personality test online based on the clothes a woman chooses. “You pick shoes and a hat,” for example, “and it gives you a reading about your personality. It’s all tongue- in-cheek.” But fun.

Duncan also wanted to use the Internet component as a sort of feedback loop that would contribute to the episodes. “Because Closet Cases is based on real women, and the Oxygen site is based on community, I wanted to elicit stories from real women to use in the show. So I’m using it as a production tool as well.”

Duncan “finished the pilot early.” Aside from beating her deadline, she offers this advice to writers wanting to help build the convergence bridge. “If [your project’s] propelled by the technology, it won’t be that interesting, so it should be propelled by the creativity. The interactive portion should enhance the storytelling ability.”

When it comes to incorporating the Internet, “a lot of people want to do just a couple of things that are gratuitous.” This won’t work. The Internet content “should focus on moving the story along.” When it comes to merging the Internet with TV, “it has to be a holistic approach.”

Duncan points out that anyone can do what she’s done. In other words, writers can now creat prototypes and pilot demos, and even produce episodes — realizing their visions completely, from script page to finished scene, without the financial entry barriers that once existed. “Desktop computers have so much capability in terms of animation, you can buy 6 or 7 Macs and be a production studio. It’s a low-cost way of making animation.” Lest you think you have to be a superstar to follow in the footsteps of this pioneer, “I’m just a writer,” Duncan laughs, “and a producer.”

Not bad for a writer who wasn’t really ambitious about selling anything.

Written by tborst

August 18, 1999 at 3:55 am

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