The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

May 2000

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 17 April 00 Copyright ©2000 alt.screenwriters

The day after the Oscars, the Los Angeles Times Morning Briefing column was filled with three-dot Internet film news bulletins: David Lynch making animated films for Shockwave.comJames Brooks providing 300 minutes of animation for… Spielberg and Katzenberg at the previous week’s Yahoo Online Film Fest, announcing a film festival for their entity.

And somebody’s writing all this screen material. Though it’s been technically possible to deliver full- motion video (FMV) on the Web for several years, Hollywood has mostly ignored the Internet. Online FMV was a joke, of course: postage-stamp sized frames, hideously slow frame rates, non-synched sound … the list goes on.

What was this Internet fuss about? It’s just a place for research. Oops, make that a place for gaming. Okay, then a place to find communities. Maybe another publicity medium? Uh, a place for buying stuff? Hmm, maybe we should check into this Internet thing after all.

Now, nearly overnight, it’s a place for entertainment. Yes, we’ve been down this road before: the online soap operas that briefly ignited the skies and then flared out. Because the Internet was only good at delivering text and still pictures back then, the flame-out was pretty inevitable. Technically, it all seemed like a giant step backwards. Instead of the suspension-of- disbelief, all you had was the World Wide Wait. It was too little, too soon.

But with broadband (fast connection delivery systems that make Internet FMV something actually watchable) now a reality for more than a million domestic subscribers (and double or triple that by year’s end), the time has come. Only a year or two ago, media behemoths like Disney, Viacom/CBS and GE/NBC were buying stakes in “portals” — so they could start directing traffic to their publicity and commerce sites. Now, they’re underwriting short film websites, both live-action and animation. Not out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they view these sites as the launchpads and farm clubs of tomorrow’s entertainment franchises.

Sony Pictures has a stake in; Imagine and Dreamworks together are financing; and, well, then there’s that little venture called, bankrolled by (gulp) AOLTimeWarner (and notice who gets top billing in that credit list).

Watch the Oscars? See all the commercials for AtomFilms? They were all over the last Sundance Festival as well, buying up short films for their site. Already, a couple of their shorts have been breakout hits — thousands of viewings and downloads that have paid off both financially and professionally for the filmmakers.

None of these new companies — Shockwave, Ifilm, AtomFilms, icebox and Cinema Now (to name a few) — is an MBA signatory as of this writing. And what these new players represent is more than a bit murky. Do their platforms constitute broadcast channels? Or are they more like Sundance Film Festivals? Or is the Web an interactive distribution medium like CD-ROMs?

Are we in trouble even applying the old content brackets in the 21st century?

Regardless, a substantial number of scripts will be coming down this pike. Sure, there’s not much money writing an Internet short film yet. In addition, much of the pay structure in this emerging venue is very different: stock options, micropayments on banner ad “click-throughs,” etc. And right now, we’re just talking short films. But 12 to 24 months from now, might it not be full-length movies? wants to make that happen even sooner. They’ve already bankrolled a $3 million, 40-minute movie that is available solely (at least initially) for (paid) Internet download. Straight-to-Web, rather than straight-to-video.

The recently approved WGA-Public Television Freelance Agreement has begun to address compensation for Internet re-use of programming. But as the WGA gears up for its next contract negotiation, should there be new attention paid to coverage of properties that begin on the Internet, especially when bankrolled by MBA signatories?

Writers, of course, don’t have to sit back and wait for the Guild to pry open new venues … which is why, next month, we’ll ask whether writers shouldn’t circumvent the hated possessory credit by simply picking up a camcorder themselves…

Written by tborst

April 17, 2000 at 8:49 pm

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