alt.screenwriters

The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

February 2001

by Terry Borst

filed 27 January 01 Copyright ©2001 alt.screenwriters

If you’ve looked at a few webisodics (Internet cartoon serials such as icebox.com’s Zombie College and Hard Drinkin’ Lincoln, and urbanmedia.com’s Undercover Brother), you’d be excused for thinking that there is way too much fuss about the Internet, and that, really, all it amounts to is “TV on the computer.”

In fact, the Web also provides a landscape for re-inventing screen entertainment: obliterating the traditional boundaries of “episodes”, “long-forms” and “mini-series”, and offering the potential for screenwriters to re-define their role in the development and production process.

For an example of what we’re talking about, head to the entertainment website Z.com and take a look at The Prom Queens (TPQ), written and created by sitcom staff writer Jillian Tohber.

TPQ takes a new crack at the one of the oldest stories around. Three women graduate from the University of Wisconsin and head to L.A. to “make it” as the all-girl rock band The Prom Queens.

“I like to describe TPQ as Josie and the Pussycats meets Sex and the City with very cool music (by Hollywood Records artist Joan Jones),” Tohber says. “When I set out to create the show I wanted to attract the WB demographic (teen girls and young women), and I especially wanted to target college women because of their high-speed Internet access.”

And while 3-5 minute animated episodes are at the core of TPQ (accessible with a few-minute download time at 56K, and nearly instantly with higher-speed connections), they are only the starting points of TPQ‘s narrative world, which spills over into a variety of other forums and media.

“I knew that I wanted to do more than just ‘an animated TV show on the Web,'” Tohber notes. “I wanted to take advantage of what the Internet has to offer, and one of those things is ‘community.’ That’s why the TPQ discussion forum and guestbook are so important to the site. They let users interact with the show and with each other. I also wanted to give the audience a fuller entertainment experience (even with the limitations of short episodes), so in addition to the episodes there are other elements on the site (the ‘official’ TPQ band site, the music, the game, etc.) that are experiences in their own right.”

In fact, it can be easy to forget that TPQ is fictional — as downloadable songs, lyrics, screensavers, wallpaper, and TPQ e- postcards are all available, and all part of the immersive experience. Viewers are also able to share their own life experiences and compare them to the experiences of TPQ characters.

For Tohber, this has been a creative endeavor unlike any other: “On the Internet, a writer isn’t just limited to writing a script of a certain form or a certain length. In fact, a writer isn’t just limited to writing. I’ve been involved in all the major decisions: character and website design, the selection of Joan Joans to do the music, voice casting, and more… Z.com has really allowed me to be a true creator, working with a team of very talented people.”

You might think a high degree of web design savvy would be necessary to pitch such a project, but Tohber admits “I had absolutely no technical background going into this.” She did, however, have a very clear creative vision. “I just had an idea that I was passionate about … and I thought creating a show online would be fun and exciting.”

Some screenwriters have found their representation of little help in launching Web projects, but Tohber was fortunate that her agency, Endeavor, could set up some meetings with entertainment dot-coms. She had to do the rest, of course: “I pitched the general idea for the show — premise, characters, possible storylines — and I also had some ideas for interactivity, or more specifically how the show would take advantage of the Internet.”

Z bought the concept, and from there Tohber “did the mock-up of the site. It consisted mostly of some hand drawings with lots of boxes and arrows.” Not too many months later, TPQ debuted online. A number of episodes are now available, and unlike a network sitcom, you don’t have to wait around for re-runs if you missed one: they’re all one click away.

Tohber is well aware that a majority of Web entertainment so far has been aimed more directly at young men. “The stuff tends to be shocking or scatological, and not much else. There isn’t a lot for young women, and that’s what’s fun about what we’re doing. We care a lot about our characters and their stories and we think our users do too.”

Traditional screenwriters might wonder if the development of online entertainment is a way to further a career. Tohber’s experience says … maybe. “I have gotten some attention from TPQ, both individually, with meetings about my own career, and for the show, with interest in turning it into a TV series,” Tohber says.

However, despite her own quick success in creating and launching TPQ, Tohber does not underestimate the difficulties of getting this far: “The Internet market is being hit really hard right now. No one knows if the entertainment content space is even going to be around in a month. So, to people trying to get into this arena, I’d say the money isn’t great — don’t plan on cashing in your stock options any time soon — and, it’s a ton of work.”

But she adds that “it’s a really exciting ride, and if you want to create, there’s no place better.”

Whether or not TPQ ever crosses over to film or TV, there is no question that Web properties are already making that migration — and convergence between the entertainment arenas has begun. “The WGA needs to be thinking about how the Internet is going to change the future of entertainment,” Tohber observes.

True enough. But as TPQ also suggests, screenwriters of the 21st century should begin thinking beyond the old forms of entertainment … and beyond the traditional job description forged way back when sound was still a novelty.

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Written by tborst

January 27, 2001 at 9:42 pm

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