The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

May 2002

by Terry Borst

filed 04 April 02 Copyright ©2002 alt.screenwriters

Imagine a marriage of “reality TV” and “live television theater” for a moment…

An instant audience poll would determine the location of the proscenium and the principal cast members for the evening’s performance. No satellite trucks or dishes or fixed infrastructure would be needed. The program would have the immediacy of a sporting event, and the flexibility of a one-man guerilla production crew.

This may sound like science fiction, but the tools for this are already in the hands of consumers. One example: Sony’s new Bluetooth-enabled HandyCam — which not only shoots video, but allows you to browse the Web and immediately post the video online — all wirelessly. (Bluetooth is the name of a “protocol” or method for connecting wireless devices.)

The camera’s built-in Internet browser offers a screen that spans 320 pixels in width and 240 pixels in height. This is about 1/4 the size of a standard computer screen, but identical in size to the screen of an iPaq PDA. Though compact, this screen is still plenty useful for reading webpages, viewing streamed and downloaded video, and reading email. (By way of further comparison, the screen on a Palm Pilot offers only 160×160 pixels.)

Why should this hardware wizardry make a difference to screenwriters? Consider this: the number of potential platforms and “form factors” (i.e., the screen’s size and aspect ratio) for moving picture entertainment are beginning to proliferate, and this is likely to drive the shape of content in the years ahead.

There is ample historical precedence for this process: the emergence of the living room television box created new genres of comedy and drama in the 1950s, and the development of lightweight and inconspicuous cameras helped usher in the “reality TV” programming that is still gaining momentum. (Entertainment has always been driven by technology: cheap printing helped create the literary novel, and the development of film … well, you know…)

Until now, the forms of moving picture entertainment that we’ve learned to write for have been creations of fairly cumbersome technology. First, cameras captured action, pieces of that action were then assembled together, and sound, music and special effects could be layered atop that assemblage. Second, the finished product was distributed through very narrow and costly channels, and displayed on screens that were predictable in their size and shape.

But when your cameras become wireless capture and distribution devices, new doors for creating “instant” entertainment open (like the example above). And Sony’s wireless camcorder is not the only new delivery platform and form factor. Look at these developments:

  • The miniaturization of DVD players (something never really possible with videotape players) means that a substantial (and growing) audience is now viewing movies and TV episodes on a 6-inch screen while being transported in a car or airplane, or even while sitting around in a coffee shop.
  • Video can be streamed on handheld PDAs like the iPaq — wirelessly, if the service is available –and thousands of iPaq owners already watch full-length movie trailers and other video content on their handhelds. (Often, the video is delivered within a tiny 160×120 pixel window.)
  • Nokia has struck deals with RealNetworks (the leading purveyor of “streamed” Internet video) and Lucasfilm to host video content on their cell phones. Now before you laugh … Nokia already markets video-ready cell phones in Europe and Asia. The new Nokia Communicator 9290, also video-ready, will debut in America this summer. Incredibly, these cell phones include 640×200 pixel full-color LCD screens (the phone screen’s individual pixels are smaller, so the screen is still smaller than on a PDA).

At this point, the only barrier to delivering large amounts of video to wireless devices is the data speed (the bandwidth). But this will change — in the same way that high-speed DSL and cable modem connections are gradually pushing aside dial-up Internet connections. Nokia, RealNetworks and Lucasfilm are counting on nothing less.

A decade ago, many considered the delivery of video to computers (via CD-ROMs) a revolution. But one can easily argue that this didn’t greatly change the audience experience: the computer screens were 14 inches or 15 inches in size, not much different from the average TV screen.

The greater revolution may be in the consumer expectation of portable video entertainment experiences.

And while some readers may be dubious about an audience for small video screen experiences, check with the nearest teenagers you know. They’ve grown up with GameBoys, and they have no problem shifting their gaze between gigantic Imax screens and tiny handheld windows. They understand that the canvas can be any size.

What does all this mean?

  1. More than ever, entertainment properties are going to need to scale. Is there a way to evolve or re-purpose some aspect of a movie or TV show for these smaller screens and new platforms? Can new revenue streams for properties be created? Can old revenue streams be enhanced? Can audience interest and loyalty be developed and increased? “Reality TV” shows have been at the forefront of exploring these possibilities, and show creators and filmmakers should be studying these approaches as they develop new properties.
  2. Brand-new programming genres will develop — although what these will be, and how big they become, are all anyone’s guesses.

An even bigger conjecture is how much traditional creative talent guilds — writers, directors, and so on — will be involved in this new world. The entertainment marketplace is more confusing and amorphous than ever — but those who can make sense of it will get the chance to be pioneers in 21st-century storytelling.

(Since this was first written, Intel has announcd the introduction of its Personal Video Player. If you can take your audio with you, why not your video?

Written by tborst

April 4, 2002 at 8:10 pm

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