The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

April 2000

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 16 March 00 Copyright ©2000 alt.screenwriters

Last month, we told you about how the downing of an American pilot over Bosnia eventually led to screenwriter Rick Blackwood’s creative collaboration with the Washington, D.C. intelligence community on a highly successful “war game” symposium.At the same time, on the other side of the country, Paramount Digital Entertainment (at the behest of the Department of Defense) was trying to figure out how to bring a little Hollywood storytelling sizzle to an existing “crisis management simulation” known as Final Flurry. Paramount’s solution: a brand-new software platform called the StoryDrive Engine (SDE), designed for authoring and running story-based simulations.

Screenwriter Larry Tuch (whose previous credits run the gamut from episodic television to location-based and interactive entertainment) was brought in as Head Writer and co-designer of the StoryDrive prototype. “Final Flurry is administered by the Industrial College of the Armed Forces at the end of the academic year … Students role play as members of a National Security Council working group, develop strategies for managing international crises, and recommend courses of action to a fictional National Security Advisor. The simulation takes place over four consecutive days, during which fictional international crises become more or less critical depending on how well students apply their skills.”

In other words, if students haven’t been taking good notes throughout the year, it might be the End Of Civilization As We Know It — probably not the way to get high marks on the eval!

Tuch explains SDE’s role: “[The software] provides the interactive framework that connects the students and their instructor to the geopolitical world of 2008. It provides the instructor with alternative story paths and developments in the form of TV news excerpts, intelligence reports, voice mails and other media — which he sends to the students’ laptop computers to drive the simulation’s story line forward.”

The simulation had existed before, in a white-paper sort of format. Tuch’s initial task was to work with Executive Producer Nick Iuppa to “deconstruct the existing Final Flurry scenario and rebuild it into a dramatic and episodic structure.” He adds: “Once we had that down, I scripted the character- based videos, TV news reports and fictional documents (memos, intelligence reports, etc.).”

Tuch found that creating believable and interesting characters in this format was particularly challenging. “Characters made their appearances via sound bites from TV news stories, speech excerpts, and voice mail messages. I couldn’t use much ‘screen business,’ many visual cues, or set up any interaction with other characters on screen. The effect had to come exclusively from the words and how the director (Star Trek veteran Alex Singer) and the actors made them work.”

In addition to the scripting, Tuch wore many other hats — helping to stage and supervise test runs of the prototype one day, briefing key Pentagon and government officials the next.

For the Rush Limbaughs who are wondering why taxpayer dollars are going towards screenwriter salaries, Tuch has this answer: “A professional screenwriter helps make the simulation more engaging and immersive by creating compelling characters and story lines — the kind that pull participants into the experience. On top of that, a screenwriter’s sense of showmanship and connection with audiences can add a lot in terms of the presentation techniques that hook the participants, create a sense of anticipation and provide a dramatic payoff.” Rick Blackwood, screenwriter of the “war game” symposium spotlighted last month, adds: “A professional screenwriter brings to the teaching/gaming process a new kind of imagination. Many war gaming scenarios are euphoric; the U.S. wins and nobody believes in the operational authenticity of the game.”

While it’s too early to state definitively, Paramount’s StoryDrive Engine is likely to be used, sooner or later, in other entertainment contexts: video games, edutainment, location-based entertainment, and other “convergent” entertainment genres.

In the meantime, is more collaboration between Hollywood screenwriters and the military likely in the future? Tuch thinks so. “The Army has awarded funding to USC to establish the Institute for Creative Technology. Its mission is to combine the expertise of academia, Defense Department scientists, and the entertainment industry to advance the state of the art in simulations. So a collaboration with Hollywood creative talent is not only likely, it’s part of the plan.” Blackwood is a little more cautious on the likelihood of collaborations, but agrees “there should be more.” He adds, “One of the problems with all kinds of ‘training’ and even education has always been that it is dull. [Screenwriters can] make certain kinds of learning not a yawn, but a breathtaking experience.”

Contrary to the hysterical red-baiting of the McCarthy Era, Hollywood has always been a pretty patriotic place. Contributions to the World War II effort are especially legendary. But arguably, there has never been more cooperation between the Entertainment industry and the military than at the dawn of the 21st century. Tuch and Blackwood may be at the forefront of an entirely new market for screenwriters. And if this means better crisis simulations and “war game” symposiums — leading to fewer actual conflicts — then it may well be a marriage made in heaven…

Written by tborst

March 16, 2000 at 7:02 pm

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