The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

June 2000

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 18 May 00 Copyright ©2000 alt.screenwriters

In case you missed it, here’s last month’s installment…Starting in the mid-’80s, a new door opened for screenwriters who were desirous of crossing over into directing and looking for ways to create a “calling card” film. Chanticleer Films hung out its shingle and invited writers to enter its Discovery Program, designed for the production and marketing of short films. Over the years, Chanticleer launched the directing careers of screenwriters like Bryan Gordon, Robbie Fox and Seth Winston, while garnering at least 7 Academy Award nominations, numerous film festival awards, and gobs of exposure on PBS and Showtime, as well as various international venues.

The barriers to entry, of course, were still pretty high. Thousands of screenplays were submitted for the few available production slots. Chanticleer’s short subjects could easily cost over a million dollars. And the opportunities for distribution were still sparse. But much has changed since Chanticleer began doing business. Today, the combination of cheap video equipment, cheap post-production tools, and the Internet have truly leveled the playing field. There are no more entry barriers. If you want to direct, direct!

A number of short film sites springing up all over the Internet will accept unsolicited submissions of short films for purposes of exhibition (i.e., streaming access) on their site, and a select number of these films will be actively promoted and can easily be used as “calling card” properties. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. How can we get to the point of soliciting Internet exhibition for our short film? There are two basic approaches: analog and digital. Not surprisingly, we can start to mix up the tw — which we’ll get to in just a bit. To begin with, the quality of consumer-level video camcorders has now risen to the degree that professional TV shows and feature films can easily be created using them. Witness The Blair Witch Project and Barry Levinson’s The Beat on UPN. It’s entirely possible to write and shoot a short film and edit in-camera.

If we have a finished short, we can send it to a website like, which will digitize and encode the film and then upload it to its server. Ifilm recently bought the Hollywood Creative Directory, thanks to investors like Sony, Intel, and Kennedy- Marshall. The site culls the best of its film submissions for its IfilmPro companion site, which we might think of as an ongoing electronic Sundance Film Festival.

Fine .. but if you’re ending up digital, why not start digital?

First decision: animation or live-action? If it’s animation, the tool of choice is Macromedia Flash. The current version allows you to create animation on a level with Hanna-Barbara and most of what you see on Nickelodeon. Its most attractive feature is that, even with low-bandwidth (56K dial-up) connections, you can deliver a full-screen image.

Check out,, and for samples of how much can be done in this format — and while you may never have harbored dreams of being a cel animator, you might be surprised by how easy it is to animate scenes using Flash.

Still preferring live action stored digitally? Then you’re going to need a digital camcorder, or video- capture software to corral your analog camcorder content onto a hard disk.

Numerous editing tools now exist for post-production work on your video and audio. Cool Edit and Sound Forge are a couple of popular audio-editing programs; Adobe Premiere is probably the most popular video editing package, but if you know the Avid, you can get a PC version of Avid’s software also. Check out Digital Video’s website for extensive information on the latest editing suites on both Mac and PC. Who needs a stand-alone Avid? For a few thousand dollars, you can do almost everything an Avid can right on your desktop (or even your laptop).

Now, you’re going to need to encode that digital short film into a streaming media format. Streaming media allows for the simultaneous download and viewing of material, making it feel like “TV.” A plus for creators is that the downloaded material vanishes from the hard disk on completion of playback, making it difficult (though not impossible) to retain for re- use –thus protecting intellectual property. The guys who more or less invented streaming media — RealAudio, RealVideo — are a good place to go for this step. They’re known now as RealNetworks. Reach their site and they’ll show you everything you need to know to get started (including useful information on production aspects). RealProducer Basic is the free software tool that will encode and stream your content.

As the name implies, RealNetworks now offers a library of films and shows as well — and your project can be part of it. If they really like what you produce, the site –like many others — will prominently feature it. And if you have a fat enough wallet to pay them (substantially under $1 million, we should note), and can create a new 5-minute daily show, you can become part of the “My Channels” section of RealNetworks’ daily broadcast. And that would be one helluva calling card… But long before you’ve gotten to that point, there are other potential venues for your work: AtomFilms, CinemaNow, WireBreak, Pop, MediaTrip, dFilm, the previously mentioned Ifilm — the list goes on. And if you’d rather, it’s certainly possible to host the film on your own site: the required server software is free from RealNetworks as well.

RealNetworks’ daily broadcast has a potential viewership of 120 million (that’s how many people have downloaded the viewer, which connects directly to the site every time it’s fired up). Shockwave is arguably the most heavily trafficked entertainment site on the Web. Reelplay has begun to operate as a sort of online American Film Market for short films. AtomFilms is already a bona-fide Internet breakout, and clips from its short films air regularly on television commercials.

You get the idea. Your film has the potential to reach more people than a show on many of the cable networks. And increasingly, Hollywood executives are paying attention as well. It’s only a matter of time before the next Blair Witch Project emerges directly from Internet distribution. The question is whether screenwriters will accept the challenge now placed before them, or if they will stand idly by. Want to do more than write? The old excuse — that the economic and distribution barriers to creating a calling card film are too high — no longer exist.

It’s an exciting time for writers.

It’s also put-up-or-shut-up time.

Written by tborst

May 18, 2000 at 9:03 pm

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