The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

August 2001

by Terry Borst

filed 15 May 01 Copyright ©2001 alt.screenwriters

Can comedy be interactive? Can corporate training be both illuminating and entertaining?

Screenwriter Stacey Hur Harrison would answer “yes” to both questions, and her reasons for doing so reflect an intriguing creative journey.

By her mid-20s, Harrison had already achieved what so many others dream of. Having contributed episodes to Full House and Home Improvement, and worked as a story editor for high-profile network sitcoms All American Girl and Sibs, Harrison seemed to have mapped out a path for long-term success in the highly competitive world of sitcom writing.

“But I grew tired of the limitations of the form — not just the 2-act structure, but the conventions of the set-ups and jokes, and the 4-camera look and feel,” Harrison says.

“Some people are very good at switching hats — writing a Home Improvement one day, and then writing a strange, dark independent film the next … I honestly didn’t know if I’d be capable of that. I wanted to expand my creativity before those sitcom wagon wheels formed their deep, irreversible grooves in my mind.”

She concludes: “Getting out of the sitcom world was an act of creative self-defense. ”

While optioning and developing feature screenplays, Harrison came across an intriguing opportunity: an entertainment-based learning network start-up looking for Hollywood talent, specifically to develop and write immersive media projects.

Before Harrison knew it, she was the Writing Director for San Francisco’s Ninth House Network, and soon to become an executive producer of an innovative episodic serial (called an “e-series”) that would combine education and entertainment for workplace audiences.

“Ninth House Network is designed to be an ABC/CNN for the intranet (an organization’s internal internet). The interactive e-series I’ve co-created is called All Work, All Play. It’s a single-camera comedic series set in a fictional dot-com division of a toy company. By driving the actions and interactions of a regular cast of six characters the viewer/user gets to practice what he/she’s learned in the rest of the program, and be entertained by the characters and conflicts. I wrote the pilot episode and have served as the ‘show-runner’. ”

Each episode of All Work, All Play offers menu-based decision points every 30-60 seconds for the viewer to guide the actions of a lead character (different episodes provide different lead characters). A single viewing of an episode might run 20 minutes — while the total screen time for each episode runs about 40. The budget for each episode is about $250,000, enough to pay for experienced comedic actors, as well as WGA and DGA talent.

Harrison notes that “Professional experience and talent assure quality. The whole point of the Ninth House product is to set itself apart from the rest of the training world.”

While the theme of each episode revolves around common workplace conflicts and challenges, the tone is very similar to that of a sophisticated situation comedy, where irony and verbal repartee rule the day. No surprise, since all of the writers have been experienced Hollywood sitcom and feature writers.

Whether comedy can be sustained within an interactive narrative structure has long been debated. But All Work, All Play suggests that if the writers are skilled enough, comedy can prevail.

“Creatively, interactivity is a ball! ” Harrison enthuses. “There are so many unexplored possibilities. Ninth House promises an immersive experience, so the user should never feel like a passive viewer. This means that the interactivity needs to take place every 30-60 seconds. That changes how you look at setting up story, characters, and sustaining tension in a scene.” She adds that, “these parameters can force you to find creative paths that you wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Episodic television writer Sydnie Suskind, who has served as staff writer for All Work, All Play, echoes Harrison’s enthusiasm: “It was fun and challenging to revamp the sitcom format knowing the viewer would have some control over how the story would play out. ”

Harrison says “The biggest challenge has been incorporating the instructional content into the story in an engaging way. If the user happens to choose the right answer at every decision point there’s no conflict. So keeping conflict in the main story path has been a challenge every time. We also ended up building in ‘b’ stories just for humor and character, and we added short intermissions — decision points midway through (the narrative) — that let the user choose from a group of Letterman-esque sketches.”

In summary, according to Harrison, “We took the best of what we learned from network television, mixed in education and interactivity, then gave a few extra unexpected twists and turns.”

The approach has paid off. All Work, All Play has already won New Media awards and is now making its way into corporations and government organizations across the country. Ninth House considers the e-series to be its flagship product.

Harrison has found the writing creatively fulfilling and notes that “Working in a world other than Hollywood has expanded my sensibilities in so many ways. Of course, ” she adds ruefully, “the downside to working at a start-up is the 80-hour work week.”

As to the marriage of interactivity to non- gaming narrative, she is also a believer. “What I’m doing at Ninth House comes pretty close to what a purely entertaining interactive series might look like and how people might respond, and the reaction thus far is extremely positive.”

“It appears that interactive TV will arrive in the form of ‘hotspots’ where you can click on what a character on Friends is wearing, and then proceed to purchase it … I find that a bit frightening, and I certainly hope the technology doesn’t become just another vehicle for commerce.”

She prefers more creative applications of interactivity. “Films like Cube, Sliding Doors and Run Lola, Run are already teetering on the edge of interactivity. What fascinating turns could these and other films take if the viewer could drive the main character’s actions in a slightly different way? On a fundamental level, it’s a question that nags at each of us, ‘What if?'”

Harrison concludes that “interactive story-telling affords us the opportunity to play at answering those questions.”

And Harrison’s own journey suggests that screenwriters who ask “what if?” might find creatively satisfying answers of their own…

Written by tborst

May 15, 2001 at 10:12 pm

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