alt.screenwriters

The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

September 2000

by Terry Borst

filed 15 August 00 Copyright ©2000 alt.screenwriters

Daydreaming in his high school history class, Mike Reiss suddenly had a different vision of American history. Sure, Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves and won the War Between the States. But what did Lincoln do in his off hours?

Thus was born Hard Drinkin’ Lincoln (HDL) — an amusing, youthful character sketch that may have played a part in convincing Reiss to try a writing career.

Reiss moved on to write for Johnny Carson, The Simpsons and Garry Shandling. HDL, meanwhile, stayed in the trunk: a terrific concept, but not the kind that could drive a network sitcom or a feature film. Then, one day came the Internet. And HDL, at last, found a home.

“I literally had to wait a quarter of a century for a medium that would embrace something that was simultaneously adult and juvenile, smart and stupid,” observes Reiss.

He forgot funny. HDL is a weekly 3-minute cartoon produced using Flash animation, in a style that owes at least a bit to Jay Ward (the original Rocky and Bullwinkle). Episodes are viewable on icebox.com, an entertainment website featuring several shows written by Guild screenwriters. (Because the shows are short and use what is now the standard in Web animation, nearly everyone with an Internet connection can enjoy them.) HDL is politically incorrect, definitely not for prime time, and definitely very funny.

Before HDL, Reiss had never even used a computer. Why the move from network TV to the Internet? “On my last sitcom, I had eleven execs telling me what stories to tell, what jokes to write, and who to hire. The reason so many writers have jumped at the chance to work at icebox was their promise of complete creative freedom. Most people are not aware that network TV is choked by an abundance of network and studio executives with a constant stream of notes.”

HDL is as stripped down to the basics as you can get: the primary creative team is Reiss and director Xeth Feinberg. No creative notes, no casting notes, no Standards and Practices, no sweeps month and no advertiser pressures. In other words, nirvana. Says Reiss: “Icebox has reminded me how much fun writing can be.”

And Reiss makes the most of it. One episode satirizes Who Wants to be a Millionaire?; another episode aims to set the Guiness World Record for most movie allusions in a 3-minute timespan. Still another episode is a gloss on the history of cartoons. Reiss can offer his comments on everything from politics to stand-up comedy in the format, which he offhandedly describes as “raunchy Mr. Peabody.”

For at least a brief moment in time, the Internet may be the perfect vehicle of expression for every screenwriter who has wearied of executive gauntlets, creative compromises, and the painfully slow gestation periods of projects.

One advantage of online entertainment is that shows do not have to fit into neat time-boxes of 30 minutes or 60 minutes. Most of us have either padded or compressed stories to fit a standard chunk of time: Internet entertainment, which isn’t dependent on a schedule, can take as little or as much time needed.

Not only does the Internet offer unparalleled creative freedom, it may also be evolving into a showcase for project pitches. “This is a perfect medium to launch new ideas,” notes Reiss. “I’m afraid most entertainment execs would rather see a two-minute cartoon than read a detailed ten-page treatment.”

While HDL has not yet migrated to television or film, John Ridley’s episodic Web cartoon Undercover Brother is now being adapted as a studio feature, and Rob LaZebnick’s Starship Regulars is moving from icebox.com to a half-hour Showtime series. Other original Web properties are certain to follow this path.

Increasingly, screenwriters are finding that online is the place to satisfy their creative urges and attract attention for new ideas and properties. Getting a studio exec to read a spec script may be nearly impossible, but getting the exec’s assistant to log on to a website every day is within reach…and buzz can build quickly…

That said, can anybody make a living writing short online entertainments? The answer here is less certain. Reiss is being paid in stock options for icebox’s initial episode order. Payment will be made for subsequent episodes — and perhaps most importantly (music to all writers’ ears), he owns 50% of HDL, i.e., half of all its future revenues…

Reiss’s arrangement may suggest new directions in the structuring of writer deals. The traditional concept of profits has now gotten subsumed into larger issues of media brand building and equity growth — and the old models of payment may no longer be flexible enough to embrace the new distribution landscape.

We should add that Reiss has not turned his back on television forever. But he eagerly declares that “the Icebox experience has been the happiest of my career, and the most personally satisfying.”

For working writers who have almost forgotten why they were ever attracted to the profession, this could be a clarion call. Here is a world where the old rules don’t apply, where formulas don’t exist, and where writers can re-define their role in the making of entertainment.

Amen.

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Written by tborst

August 15, 2000 at 9:23 pm

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