The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

April 2003

by Terry Borst

filed 31 March 03 Copyright ©2003 alt.screenwriters

In the early and mid ’90s, a significant number of Writers Guild members began to secure screenwriting work in videogame and other New Media markets. The WGA began various outreach initiatives, both to promote the skill sets and availability of WGA members, as well as to encourage interactive media screenwriters to consider joining.

A tremendous challenge the WGA faced was the decentralization of the game and multimedia industries. Forget about the Silicon Valley. There was the Silicon Prairie (Austin, Texas), the Silicon Forest (the Pacific Northwest), the Silicon Tundra (Canada), the Silicon Alley (NYC), and so on. Promoting the message of the WGA to all of these locales was, at best, daunting.

However, there are increasing signs the game industry is migrating to Los Angeles. Given the success of the Tomb Raider crossover from videogame to film, and game titles like MechWarrior in active development, this migration isn’t so surprising. Games adapted from movie properties have also been hugely successful, with the 007 and Lord of the Rings franchises spawning hit titles.

Historically, game developers have veered away from expensive urban environments like Los Angeles and New York, preferring to take up residence in places like Las Vegas and Edmonton, where both overhead and labor would cost substantially less.

However — despite all of today’s sophisticated telecommunications gadgetry, enabling long-distance collaboration — game developers are now realizing there are significant advantages in relocating to Los Angeles, despite the predictably added economic cost.

This has been hammered home by Electronic Arts’ recent announcement that they will be building a game development studio in West Los Angeles. The new studio should employ some 300 digital artists, special effects supervisors and script writers.

Electronic Arts is probably the most successful game publisher and developer on the planet. But it’s not alone in basing a substantial segment of its operations in Los Angeles. Infogrames, the company publishing the hugely successful Unreal game series and the upcoming blockbuster Enter the Matrix, recently migrated to Santa Monica.

Activision, Crave, Interplay, Sony Games, THQ, TDK Mediactive and Vivendi Universal Games are just some of the other major game companies calling Los Angeles home.

What’s happening with The Matrix series of films — and the Matrix videogame about to be released — may offer a real vision of the future. Rather than farm out the writing of the game’s screenplay, the Wachowski Brothers wrote the script for the game themselves. They also directed the motion-capture sequences and designed much of the gameplay.

With a generation of writers and directors just emerging into their own who have grown up playing videogames, might we expect an even greater fusion of game and movie content?

Though the game industry flirted briefly with the Hollywood employment model — where everyone is assembled on a project-by-project basis — it quickly scurried back to the model it was more comfortable with: where artists, producers and programmers all worked under one roof, on staff.

Interestingly, a few game publishers and developers have now become so large that they are, in essence, studios — much like movie studios in the ’20s.

And it was out of the studio labor model that talent guilds like the WGA, DGA and SAG began to emerge in the ’30s.

Will history repeat itself?

Employees in the game industry are familiar with sweatshop-like hours and relatively short career spans — much like their entertainment industry counterparts in the last century. Stock option compensation plans have now lost their luster, and few employees enjoy any kind of royalties or residuals based on their work. Some of the advancements and protections offered by a creative labor guild may become increasingly attractive.

It behooves working writers to pay close attention to the increasing overlap between these two previously-separate industries: new opportunities are bound to emerge, as well as new challenges on the issues and nature of employment.

Written by tborst

March 31, 2003 at 5:36 am

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