Sunday, November 20, 2011

Screenwriting means writing for anything with a Screen

Lately, I've been advising screenwriters to look beyond traditional movies as their platform for storytelling. You should be able to imagine writing for TV, for transmedia, for games, for e-books, web-comics, for websisodes. Your work will appear on computer screens, on tablets, on smartphones, on HDTV, and yes maybe even in the old fashioned, nostalgia-filled movie theater.

The "screen" in screenwriting means anything with a screen.

 With that in mind, you should read these recent articles:

"Are movies essentially a thing of the past? Does whatever we have now, digital or analog, represent at best a pale shadow of bygone glory?"
"Parker and Breyer were also in agreement that social technology is catalyzing complete reinventions of entire industries such as media, entertainment, music, and art. "

Thursday, November 17, 2011

An Amazon Studios Screenwriter

So what's it like for a screenwriter (and a director) to work with Amazon Studios?

Since its launch, Amazon Studios has been looked upon with curiosity and suspicion by screenwriters and filmmakers. Just uploading a script commits the writer to an 18-month free option, and many veteran and aspiring scribes have raised red flags. Amazon Studios is a non-union and non-signatory company, so members of the Writers' Guild of America cannot upload scripts, agree to options, or win prizes. For non-union writers, even if their script is purchased and the movie made through Amazon's deal with Warner Brothers, there is no guarantee they would be allowed to join the WGA and receive residuals for the movies they wrote. There isn't even a guarantee for screen credit. Veteran WGA members worry if this will lead to major studios bypassing the union and purchasing non-union Amazon scripts. For these reasons alone many have called it a "bad deal."

However, as Amazon gives away more and more prize money, funds test films, and builds their community, more and more writers and filmmakers who are frustrated with Hollywood are giving Amazon a shot,and the experience of those actually working and succeeding with Amazon Studios has belied much the suspicion and paranoia. Amazon Studios have shown that they are willing to listen to feedback, test and revise their system in exactly the same way that Amazon filmmakers listen to feedback, test and revise their screenplays.

For example, Alex Greenfield, who has toiled for a decade trying to get his scripts sold and movies made in the traditional way, decided to give the Amazon approach a try. He has become a kind of Amazon "poster child" for success. The many projects he is involved in have won awards for best script, best storyboard, best table read, and best test film. For Alex this adds up to nearly 40 grand in prize money, and for his collaborators this adds up to nearly $160,000 to divide between them. Most of all, it means money to make films. Beyond the cash, Alex seems to be having the best experience of his career.

I got a chance to interview Alex, and ask him about his experience.

What benefits in your career have you gained from your success at Amazon?

I've been extraordinarily fortunate in my experience with Amazon. Right out of the gate I connected with collaborators I know I'll be working with for the rest of my career. Christian Davis took a shine to the first script I uploaded and became a real creative partner on MEMORY, along with the tremendous cast of actors he put together -- Darin Cooper, Bess Harrison, Craig Woods and more. This is an ensemble I'll go to again and again. I wouldn't have met any of these folks were it not for Amazon Studios.

That AS responds to our work and has awarded us both some prize money and a production grant to make a film is pretty Goddamn awesome. I've written some movies and television shows for the paycheck that I'm... let's just say... less than proud of. But in the freelancer's life you just take the gig, you know? At AS, I feel like for the first time in my career I'm working with a group of people who really get my work. Who like it and rather than wanting to change it to fit some pre-existing template, and who are challenging me to further explore the territory that started me working in the first place.

As to the benefits to my career, that's hard to quantify in a direct way. Since Chris and I first won a prize [Best Table Read for MEMORY last January], I've booked an assignment and set up my pilot at Fox Television Studios. In both cases, the producers congratulated me on my Amazon success. In some ways, though, the best thing AS has done for my career is allow me the freedom to focus on work I want to be doing instead of hustling for day-rate production gigs or every assignment I can pitch on. I'm having a hell of a lot more fun directing THE TEMPLE and rewriting MY FATHER'S HOUSE than I would be trying to book a holiday movie-of-the-week.

Production art from THE TEMPLE motion comic

As a professionalism screenwriter, was the "18 month free option" troublesome for you? Why or Why not? Why not take the script out to producers and buyers in the traditional way?

It was absolutely a major issue and one I really had to think about. My buddy, Court Bauer forwarded me one of the first articles about Amazon Studios in the contest and it looked interesting. Then I read Craig Mazin and John August and some of their criticisms. I was really on the fence, you know? To take something out of the marketplace for a year-and-a-half is a pretty daunting prospect.

Then I thought about MEMORY. It's a script that had been sitting in a proverbial drawer since 2005. I'd always loved it and knew there was an awesome movie in there somewhere, but I never quite cracked it. My manager at the time didn't respond to the project and I was at the beginning of spending a couple of years writing and producing television for WWE. The script kind of fell through the cracks.

It was actually one of the criticisms of AS that attracted me to enter the script. I was busy and couldn't revise a script -- maybe somebody else could. Needless to say, that paid off in spades with Chris Davis. He injected life into the project. He brought it to life. I'm as proud of the film he made over the course of this year as anything I've ever been lucky enough to put my name on. Once I started collaborating with Chris and realized the reason for the eighteen month option (to ensure that a filmmaker has time to, you know, make a film), it was an easy decision to really invest in the process.

Both of my collaborations with Michael K. Eitelman on the site had been shopped a spec in the traditional way. THE TEMPLE and THE ROOF each went out wide and both came pretty doggone close to getting bought. Trying them in the Amazon process has answered some of the reasons as to why -- the test film process particularly has shown what works and what doesn't.

MY FATHER'S HOUSE, on the other hand, is brand spanking new. Our agent/manager shopped it to four producers since we finished it in February. Two passed. One made an offer and we negotiated for a month before coming to terms. The other wanted to attach and go out to directors and talent to put together a package, and we've been down that road before and know how long it takes. Ben and I talked a lot about it -- this is a big, ambitious project that doesn't fit into an easy box -- and came to the decision that the eighteen month risk is far outweighed by the potential reward. MY FATHER'S HOUSE is a very visual film -- that latter producer called it a "director's piece" -- and the test film process might be just what it needs.

Still from MEMORY, awarded Best Test Film and $100,000

How was the collaborative process been so far? How was the feedback you received on the website?

Creatively, the process of developing both with my peers through both "official" review and through superlative forums like Scott Mullen's Script Club (somewhere between a poetry slam and a colloquy where the whole community plays spitball with a given script) has been tremendous. Like you, I've developed material with producers and writers and managers and agents and studios and all the traditional forms. The AS process has been different, and thus far I'm happier with the results.

I feel like the work my writing partners and I have produced through this experiment -- from seeing what plays in the MEMORY or TEMPLE test films and adjusting the script accordingly to Ben Powell and I having one of the best development meetings we've ever had with the AS Story Department on MY FATHER'S HOUSE -- has been some of the best we've ever done.

Still from THE TEMPLE motion comic

Have "test movies" been made for your screenplays? How was the process of collaborating with directors?

The whole process of watching Chris Davis make MEMORY was tremendous. The guy's a machine. He didn't need to hire artists or photographers or green screen technicians, Photoshop experts, editors or audio engineers or After Effects magicians (all of which Ihave done on our production of THE TEMPLE). From breaking down and developing the script to creating the final credit sequence, he did it all himself. In the midst of directing a project myself (on Amazon's dime with an amazing crew and no day job or child to raise), I'm a little in awe of the guy. With not much more than sweat equity and dint of will, what he did on his own over the course of ten months blows my mind. To meet someone as simultaneously talented and creatively in sync with me through AS is pretty tremendous, and I'll work with Chris and his team again and again. When AS announced the competition for a production grant to make a test film, his was the first I listed in my production proposal to direct the voiceover session (and what I like to call the Davis Ensemble forms the spine of the cast).

Still from MEMORY, awarded Best Test Film and $100,000

What's it like to win a prize? How does Amazon compare to more traditional screenplay contests?

We've made a good spot of cash through Amazon, for sure. Every project that's won has been a collaboration. Chris's film of MEMORY has picked up Best Table Read, Best Photo Storyboard and ultimately Best Test Film -- and yes, it's been awesome to watch the film develop into what it is now. He won Best Dialogue Track for his work on Eitelman and my script, THE ROOF (Bess Harrison's preposterously good performance in the lead elevating what is essentially a creature feature into something more was a big part of that). Eitelman and I took Best Script honors for THE TEMPLE, and the production grant Amazon gave us to produce the motion comic is due in no small measure to the work of a whole lot of people not named "Alex Greenfield."

It's been really, really cool to be part of a team to receive this kind of acknowledgement both financially (which, yeah, kinda rules) and for the creative validation. I don't think Amazon Studios is really analogous to any other competition I'm aware of. The "Studios" part of the name is not a gimmick or a branding effort. It's real. Price, Lewis and the whole team are all about making movies in a new way. Their development people are passionate about the material they're working on. They are going to make movies. Frankly, they already are. The way the contest has inspired people to work is pretty absurd. I look at the stills I've seen from Marty Weiss & Hive's production of THE ALCHEMIST AGENDA and the Amazon-financed productions of L. Norgard's NEVSKY PROJECT and TOUCHING BLUE by Scott Mullen (and not to sound like a dick, but what we're getting on TEMPLE), and the line between "test film" and "movie people want to sit down and watch" is already being blurred. That's something new. I like new.

Concept drawing for the "Wall of Flesh," THE TEMPLE.

A WGA screenwriter residuals and health benefits if your script is sold. What happens if a non-WGA writer's work is made? Are they on their own?

You've just described the freelancer's life, my friend. I'm not in the WGA and since leaving WWE in 2007 (I was an employee as opposed to an independent contractor), I've had to buy my own insurance. Thing is, this is true of any writer not in the union... or a writer in the union who doesn't book enough. It's no different than budgeting in any line of freelance work.

THE TEMPLE - Voice Over session

Do you think the average writer gets a better deal at Amazon than they would at a traditional production company or studio? How do you respond to writers who have called Amazon Studios a "scam?"

I dunno, man. I listen to this criticism and it sounds naive. Who didn't do a free if/come option at some point in their career. I had this script called CHILDISH THINGS that was optioned for free by a company for eighteen months, then optioned again for free by a different company before we finally sold it for actual money. Almost every writer I know did a free option at one point or another. That's not to speak of low-pay/fifteen free rewrite assignments, of which I have done plenty. A free option is not a scam; it's a common occurrence. When you get offers like that you decide if it's worth it or not. Here's the thing: when you decide that, you know for damn sure you're not going to win thousands of dollar in prize money. At Amazon, you might. I have. I've also gotten a movie I'm proud of made and am working on another. None of that happened in any other free option I ever did.

By uploading your script, you are allowing anyone and everyone to read it. Do you worry that your ideas will get stolen?

Not at all. I *want* folks to read my script. That's why I do this: to entertain people. As to the concern about "stealing," that's always struck me as a silly concern in this business. The script I mentioned earlier -- CHILDISH THINGS -- came *this close* to getting bought by New Line. Like, meet-with-Toby close. It's a really fun horror script about an imaginary friend who turns out to be all kinds of bad. Great concept. Then New Line passed out of the blue. See, Fox announced that they were going into production on HIDE & SEEK... a movie about an evil imaginary friend. Bummer, but nobody stole anything. Our Amazon script, THE ROOF is about Yeti. The month after it made the Best Script finals and won Best Dialogue Track, Disney announced production on MATTERHORN, which features Yeti as the monsters. No theft there; just people having similar ideas.

THE ROOF, concept art

Which of your Amazon projects are you most excited about? What's the story? Where can somebody read it if they are curious?

That's like asking which of a man's kids he loves the most! It'd be hard not to say that I'm most excited about THE TEMPLE since it's pretty much consuming my life at the moment. The team of artists and technicians and magicians creating this movie are really exceeding my expectations and the whole process of making the film is really a blast. It's still gonna be a while before the film is done, but anyone interested can find all manner of production stills, art and other goodies on our Twitter, @TempleMovie. Thing is, from a purely visceral perspective the project at Amazon I'm most excited about is MY FATHER'S HOUSE.

Every breakthrough we make on TEMPLE, every new technique we refine or discover... in my head, all I can think is, "We could totally use this on MY FATHER'S HOUSE." The genre films I love the most are the ones that bury weighty issues inside deceptively simple, entertaining packages. Of all the projects I've been involved with, MY FATHER'S HOUSE is the one that I think comes closest to really tapping that vein. Ben Powell and I met as Freshman in college and have worked together off and on for twenty years. With MY FATHER'S HOUSE, I think we've found something really unique and the way we're developing the project with AS is going to make it ever better. Yep: definitely the AS project I'm most passionate about; I think it's one of the two or three best pieces of writing I've ever been involved with. If anyone's inclined and would like to check it out, they can find it here.

THE TEMPLE motion comic.

Does anyone uploading screenplays on Amazon check the box to allow ANYONE to make changes to it? What do you think of this experiment?

While the notion of other people finding ways to crack a script I couldn't was definitely one of the things that drew me to Amazon Stuios, I did like their introduction of a "By Permission" component. I love meeting and working with creative people, but hey... I also want to *read* someone before they rewrite me! A traditional studio certainly wouldn't give me that chance.

My Take On Amazon Studios

Currently, the three major concerns that writers have with Amazon Studios are the 18-month free option, the exposure of their "idea" to the public before the script is sold, and Amazon's relationship with the WGA. I should remind readers that I myself am a WGA member. So, I can't participate directly in Amazon's experiment. I have not projects with Amazon, and for now I look upon the Studio as a [mostly] neutral observer.

As to the 18-month free option, I would not be surprised if Amazon revises this policy in the future, since it spooks so many aspiring scribes who might otherwise upload their scripts. However, only the screenwriters who win prizes and accept money actually sign a written option agreement, and without a signed physical document the "18 month free option," is more of a gentleman's agreement to commit time to the Amazon development process than a binding legal contract.

If a script doesn't get attention, doesn't get a prize, and no actual document is signed, there is really is no reason a screenwriter can't delete their (registered and copyrighted) script from Amazon and go elsewhere, even before the 18 months is up. The idea that Amazon would track down and legally pursue such a writer, or that another buyer would decline to option or buy a script because it had once been uploaded on Amazon for a month, strikes me as absurd and a bit paranoid. Also, aspiring scribes should understand that even if you do take prize money and sign a written option agreement, that does not mean Amazon "owns" your script. That just means that Amazon has the option to purchase the script for $200,000.

However, I am not and attorney and I am not qualified to give legal advice, so every writer should make his or her own judgment and decision before uploading. I wouldn't advise uploading unless you are willing to commit to trying out the Amazon process.

Concerning exposing a brilliant movie idea to other screenwriters who might steal it, I would direct those concerned to my blog "Does your idea mean nothing?" and suggest that the answer to that question is [mostly] yes.

Concerning union membership, it remains to be seen what will happen when and if an Amazon film actually goes into production, but since Amazon has been so responsive to writers and filmmakers, and because the whole business model relies on their enthusiasm and engagement, I personally think that once a project does get set up at Warner Brothers, that the script will be bought through a signatory Warner's company, and that the writers and director involved will get the option to join the WGA or DGA. There is no advantage to either Amazon or Warners to NOT allow the filmmakers to do so. Given that the purchase price of scripts is 200,000 and given the way Amazon is dishing out so much prize money for screenplays and test films, I can't imagine that Amazon or Warners will try to "screw" writers and filmmakers out of union membership, residuals or screen credit if the film actually goes into production. Amazon is perhaps the only film company that actually has a stake whether the general pool writers and filmmakers are happy with their process.

But again, as with any non-signatory film company, the rights protected by the WGA - to residuals, to heath insurance, and to screen credit - are NOT guaranteed. So non-union writers should judge for themselves whether or not they are willing to take the risk.

So, while I still have nagging concerns, I am not nearly as skeptical as many of my peers. To me, Amazon isn't yet "making films in a new way" so much as experimenting with the way movies are developed. Once Warner Brothers gets involved in a particular project the traditional machinery of film production, marketing and distribution kick into gear. Furthermore, Amazon's approach to development is not new. In its emphasis on community feedback, table readings, test films, and workshops with actors and artists, they are just mirroring the creative process of an independent film. But, they are doing it on a massive scale online, and building a worldwide film community.

However, in another sense, their approach is indeed radically different from most Hollywood Studios (although not new) in that they have turned away from "pre-branded content" (sequels, remakes, and adaptations) in favor of original screenplays. What is truly new about their approach is that they are targeting the mass of writers, filmmakers, actors and artists who Hollywood generally ignores, using the power of mass collaboration and mass curation to allow the best content in this gigantic online ocean to rise to the surface. This is "bottom up" development rather than "top down," and nobody else is even trying it.

I myself think that Amazon will, eventually, completely disrupt the studio system. All traditional studios and cable companies are built on a 20th century distribution model, and right now, that distribution model is still dominant. This is why Amazon must have a deal with Warner Brothers, just like any other production company. However, once a movie or TV series can be uploaded and streamed instantly anywhere - to a theater with a digital projector, to a TV,to a laptop, to a smart phone or to a Kindle Fire - then nobody who has the money to fund a movie will need to go to a traditional studio or cable company for distribution. Amazon has the money, and they have their eye on long term trends instead of short term profits. If Amazon Studios positions itself as a world creative community center, where original stories are tested and developed, they could emerge as the studio where brands are created instead of just recycled.

NOTE: You may also want to read the comments section of this blog, where other Amazon filmmakers discuss their frustration with the process. One screenwriter called it "the youtube" of bad screenplays. The issue of curating, rating, and encouraging writers to give each other feedback is a problem that Amazon has yet to solve. Solving this problem of how to FILTER the wash of mediocrity and use the mob/audience itself to identify the best talent may well determine if the Amazon Studios experiment works.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Screenwriting, Transmedia, and The Future of Storytelling

I was recently interviewed by Latitude, a company that provides "creative research and unexpected knowledge for leaders in content, technology and learning" and "using leading-edge techniques and technologies, they uncover new opportunities for growth, tied to emerging trends and user behaviors."

Here is a transcript of that interview. You can read the original post on Latitudes website HERE.

We’re glad to connect with you, Sean. We’ve been following some of your writing online, and we know you’re a very active thinker about the future of storytelling. Can you give us a little background on yourself and how you got into the “transmedia” space?

I’ve spent the last twelve years as a filmmaker. I went to the USC Graduate School of Cinematic Arts, and I’m teaching there now. Mostly, I write screenplays to make a living, but also direct my own films, and I blog about the future of storytelling and the craft of screenwriting.

In the last five years especially, it’s become more and more difficult in Hollywood to get original projects off the ground. There’s a real focus on pre-branded content. So, I keep my eyes open for other ways to tell stories in emerging mediums. Movies are so expensive that I think many Hollywood filmmakers are looking for other, cheaper ways to tell stories—whether that be through webisodes, independent films, emerging mediums on multiple platforms, or transmedia. Transmedia in particular is becoming really attractive to storytellers, I think, because there really aren’t any rules for it yet; no one quite knows what they’re doing, and people are just sort of playing and goofing around with these new ideas and formats and seeing what happens. You don’t get to do that kind of experimentation in mainstream film or TV.

As a storyteller, why do you think transmedia holds so much appeal? Where do you see the most potential for it to change the ways stories are told? 

Every time a new technology emerges, artists and storytellers tend to hi-jack and repurpose it for their own ends. Right now, there’s so many new kinds of media for communication: a YouTube video, a tweet, facebook comment, a blog article, a web chat, an i-phone game, a webisode, a motion comic, an ebook—any activity on the web suddenly prompts us to ask, “How can I use this tools all-together to serve a narrative?”

Yet with all these new tools, the fundamental nature of a story remains the same. For me, a story always contains two things. One: a story is about somebody for whom the audience has some empathy. Two: that somebody has some sort of problem – something they want something very badly but are having trouble getting, and they are fearful of what will happen if they fail. With those fundamental elements, you can use almost any tool to create a world around those characters or around that situation and build out from there. 

What’s also appealing thing about transmedia—and one of the reasons I got into film to begin with—is that it’s highly collaborative. Transmedia offers opportunities to collaborate not only with other artists and storytellers, but directly with the audience. Otherwise, I get lonely sitting by myself in my office with my dog.

Going back to what you said earlier about Hollywood favoring pre-branded content and franchises due to cost issues—it sounds like you’re implying that transmedia is an attractive option cost-wise from a creator’s standpoint, offering a place to really experiment freely? 

That’s absolutely true. For me, transmedia is about brand creation rather than brand recycling. I mean, the only movies I’ve written that actually get made have been sequels, remakes, or adaptation—and I’m not complaining. It’s lucrative and it’s a lot of fun. But we screenwriters, filmmakers and storytellers got into the craft because we thought we had our own stories to tell. In transmedia, there’s an opportunity to start really small. Your project may eventually have seven branches in different mediums, but you start the project off on just one of those little arms to see how it takes off. Then, it can branch to another medium as it gets more and more popular and complex. If you are lucky, you get to a point where some of the more expensive medium like a movie or a TV show become viable because you’ve pre-tested the concept and built an audience.

One of the things we’ve definitely been hearing and thinking about is: is it best to conceive of a project as “transmedia” from the outset, or can you decide to go that direction later? 

You have to envision a transmedia project right from the beginning. If you think of it as just telling one story in one medium and then replicating it on a bunch of others, it’s not transmedia. You have to imagine how the world of your story and how the problem of your characters can branch out - you have think about how different elements of the story can be told in different mediums, and why these branching mediums are necessary. The whole should be greater than the sum of its parts, and that takes vision from the outset.

That said, transmedia is not about pre-planning every single little piece as it extends in all these different mediums and different platforms. It’s more like crafting a little piece of DNA; you know it’s going to grow up into something really big, and you can imagine its potential in all these different realms. But once it starts growing and lots of other people get involved, you are more like a farmer growing a crop - you seed it, water it, feed it and nurture it, but you can’t completely control it, or even be entirely sure of what it will grow into. A transmedia project doesn’t just burst from your head, fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’ skull. A transmedia storyteller comes up with ideas and potentials and then works with a multiplicity of collaborators, including the audience, as it grows. It takes on a life of its own.

So why all the excitement about “transmedia” now? And is it really something new?

 I think it’s because of the Internet. Even before the Web, there was always the possibility of a popular movie inspiring a line of original comic books or an original line of novels or toys. However, it was always a top-down process. Now everyone can sit in front of the computer and access all these different kinds of media. Anyone can be a writer, a filmmaker, a designer, or a visual artist and put their work in front of an audience. The internet has made us all active storytellers. This creates a different kind of opportunity for career storytellers because not only they can put all their stuff online, but they can interact directly with their audience through their phones and their pads and their computers. They can co-create. It’s a massively new feedback loop.

Furthermore, storytelling always has to reflect the lives and the consciousness of the people of its age. We’re at the point now where everyone’s consciousness is constantly being expanded, taxed, overwhelmed, and sometimes even enlightened by all these different communication mediums that we have at our fingertips. So, the stories we tell have to reflect that, and utilize these very mediums that have so deeply affected, expanded and fragmented the human experience. There is no better way to do that than with a transmedia project.

One of the most striking things for me is the role of mobile and what it enables; there’s this expectation among consumers and audiences that they can bring the story or content to a level of personal relevance that they couldn’t before. In other words, it’s not just about me going deeper and deeper into the storyworld and finding out more about a character or a storyline. In some cases, it’s also about opportunities to bring the story out into my world. 

Yes, exactly. In other words, stories used to be told in such a way that either you were alone in a room with a book or you were in a dark theater watching a screen or in a living room in front of a TV set. It was sort of locked down, but now it can come out into the world. It’s going to be really interesting. Of course, there are all sorts of gimmicks and games now – from flash mobs to planking to geo-caching, but, beyond that, I think there is an opportunity for storytelling to truly leak out into the real world, not only in the sense that you’re taking it with you everywhere on your phone, but that part of the story itself is experienced in public, physical locations.

 I mean, when followers of the The Dark Knight transmedia campaign were going to bakeries and finding cell phones from the Joker hidden in cakes, the “medium” of the story became the real world.

From your perspective, what makes the difference between novelty or gimmicks, as you say, and really meaningful, good experiences?

The difference is that all the platforms, gimmicks and surprises that the storyteller uses in a transmedia way has to come from the characters—whatever problems, needs, hopes, schemes or dreams the characters have. The audience should feel that they’re moving from one medium to the other because the flow of the story and the goals of the characters call for it, because the story couldn’t be told in any other way.

Then, not only does the audience accept it, they become that much more engaged because it’s reflective of the way we actually live. We live life in transmedia: We read a kindle while watching TV and are interrupted by a text. We talk on the phone while driving a car and are distracted by a video billboard. We tweet our location, share what we see, and comment on what others are doing hundreds of miles away, all in real time. So, it makes sense that fictional characters would be expressing themselves in this fragmented way, and that a story would unfold on multiple sites.

 For me, the key is to think: “What are the needs of my characters, how would they express those needs and pursue their goals in today’s world, and how can that be expressed through transmedia?”

Transmedia, when it works, is not about plot. There are multiple plots all co-created and supported by the mob. Transmedia, at its best, is about the characters.

So, to what extent should the audience have input into how the story plays out? 

I think it really depends on the particular project. What’s key is that the interactivity has to spring from the desire and engagement of the people involved. Otherwise it can be very disruptive of the experience. The joy of listening to a story around a campfire comes from having empathy for the characters—really feeling the joys, terrors, and heartaches of that character—and also believing in the character’s world. Too often a clumsy interactive device - a simple, choose-your-own-adventure for example – can disrupt that magical dreamstate. When I’m suddenly making a choice for my character, I’m not feeling for the character; I’m made aware that, “Oh. This isn’t a real person. This world is fake.”

So, the interactivity should be based on the audience believing – or suspending disbelief - that the characters and story are real, and specifically, that their own actions in the story have an effect on the emotional lives of the characters and the choices they are making—not that they’re making choices for the characters, but their input changes the quality of the fictional world—then that world and the people in it become more and more real. Then the audience becomes a charater interacting inside this world. Then, there’s the opportunity to become even more empathetically connected to the characters moving around the multiple mediums. The characters feel more like real people, and we feel for them more.

So, with interactivity, there’s an opportunity there to enhance storytelling, by increasing engagement and empathy, and there is an opportunity to blow it, depending on whether things are executed skillfully or clumsily.

As you said, at the fundamental core of any story is the notion of relating to or empathizing with a character. That hasn’t changed over time, but what is changing about the mechanics of storytelling, or the way we capture and unfold stories? 

There is a major change that I think we’re on the brink of—closer than many people think – in the world of video games. Right now, video games are very immersive and cinematic in the way we can move through space and shoot at things, fight, manipulate objects, and so on. That kind of physical interaction with a finely detailed environment is very sophisticated. The big change happens when the user becomes emotionally involved in the unfolding action the way they do in a novel, a play or a movie .

I talked earlier about the idea of empathy. We can empathize with characters represented as simply as a scribbled cartoon—take Charlie Brown, for example. That’s because human beings can project an inner life onto almost anything – a doll, a pet, almost any object or animal. We can imagine, “what is that creature feeling?”

So, as soon as the characters in a game or some sort of interactive environment seem to have an inner life and authentic emotional reactions to the things we, the game player, do within that game, that’s going to trigger our empathy, and get us wondering, “What is that character thinking? What is that character’s intention? Is she sad? Is she happy? What is she thinking?” Suddenly, you’re not just shooting zombies. You’re not just beating up bad guys. Now you’re imagining how this pixelated figure might be feeling and motivated by, and you are becoming more and more engaged in the relationship you are forming with this character.

What do you think is the best way to get people to connect in that deeper, emotional way? Will we need more advanced technology, or is it just about conveying some other element of the narrative differently? 

We don’t need hard AI driving this kind of interaction; we just need enough of those triggers in the game character we interact with to make us project onto that image the idea of an inner life. Remember, we are capable of projecting an “inner life” on a stuffed animal, a cartoon character, or a marionette. We just need the right triggers.

Filmmakers have become adept at creating these triggers. In a famous experiment, a shot of an actor with a blank expression was inter-cut in three ways: it was intercut with a beautiful woman, with a banquet tablet, and with a coffin. These three different montages were then shown to three different audiences, and the audiences were asked what the character – the man with the blank expression – was thinking. Each audience read his expression differently. One said,“Oh, that man is so in love.” Another said, “Oh, that man is so hungry.” The third said, “Oh, that man is so sad.” It’s the same completely blank expression, but we project an inner life upon it.

As of now, most of the interactive environments available now haven’t really been able to access that capacity of the audience to believe in the inner life of the characters. But, when the people who design games move away from the rendering of the physical space, and into the development characters and behavior, then you can hit a tipping point; people are going to have entirely different experience inside this virtual world because they’ll be interacting emotionally and empathically with the characters rather than just moving around in space and shooting them.

That brings up a really interesting question: is it possible that the more immersive visuals we’ve been able to create for video games have reduced the effort we put into thinking about them, and actually diminished our ability to project an inner life onto characters? Often, if you look at a character in a game, it looks really close to being human but there’s something that feels creepy about it – like a wax figure or an automaton. In robotics, they call it the uncanny valley. We may find that, in the near, a much more simplified graphic character that nonetheless behaves as though it has an inner, emotional life, will be far, far more involving and engaging. Some movies – like Beowulf and The Polar Express - have animated characters that look almost human but not quite, and to me they are creepy and off-putting. That emphatic connection is completely broken. I’m more likely to believe bugs bunny is real. So, we may find that backing off on the photorealism actually helps to cultivate empathy.

Image from Polar Express
Very interesting. Switching gears a bit, do you have any suggestions for other storytellers who are interested in or working in the transmedia space? 

I’d say that no one really knows exactly what “transmedia” is yet. So, if you’re a storyteller, there is no reason you shouldn’t be telling stories and playing around with whatever you can get your hands on. We’re at a time now where digital cameras, editing software, online publishing tools, and so on, are literally free—or close to it. I think it’s too often that people write screenplays or books wait around for somebody to give them permission to publish, to produce, or to share that work with the world. There’re thousands of tools that can help a storyteller create content and reach an audience. Maybe you only get a hundred people to look at your work at first—but that’s a lot of people. To be a storyteller, you don’t have Charlie Kaufman or Steven Spielberg, you just have embrace the tools available all around you and be inventive.

P.S. Another great discussion of technology and the future of storytelling can be found on How will the craft of storytelling change in the future?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Advice To Those Considering A Career As A Screenwriter...

(This answer was originally posted on Quora)

 "Do you HAVE to do this?"

This is the question my father asks each of his trumpet students when they begin studying with him. There are SO few jobs for a classical or jazz trumpet player out there - alarmingly few ways for even the most talented musicians to make a living or to find creative satisfaction.

 "I'm not asking if you like it, or if you think its fun, or if you think you have talent, or even if you happen to be a genius. If there is ANYTHING you can do besides this, you should go do it. Please."

 If the trumpet student says, "No, I HAVE to do this. I can't imagine doing anything else," then my father tells him or her, "Okay. My, lets get to work."

 So, if you have to write screenplays, my condolences, and here's what I would advise:
  • Read Screenplays - there is no better way to learn the craft than to read both the works of master screenwriters, and the failed attempts of aspiring screenwriters. A list of scripts to read can be found here: Which screenplays should aspiring screenwriters read?
  • Join screenwriting groups, classes and workshops. Los Angeles and New York are filled with groups, classes and workshops. And many are available online. The point is not that some teacher or guru with teach "the secrets of screenwriting" but rather that the classroom environment allows you to collaborate with other aspiring screenwriters, to read and exchange feedback on each other's work, and to become part of a creative community. See: What social tools do independent filmmakers use the most, and what do they use them for?
  • Make "digital films." Begin with short films. Screenwriters are filmmakers, and anyone with a digital camera and a laptop can make a "film." A good screenwriter can often showcase his or her talent by making an entertaining and provocative short film or a micro-budget feature.
  • Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Write one screenplay, get feedback from peers, do revisions, get more feedback peers, and repeat. Then begin the process anew. See What is the most important tool in the screenwriter's toolkit? I teach a class at USC's School of Cinematic Arts called "Advanced Rewriting the Feature Script," and I teach that...
All writing is rewriting.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Screenwriting, Startups, and Technology: Does Your Idea Mean Nothing?

As I was clicking through content on The Rocket Writer Group, Quora, and various blogsites this morning I came across an theme that I see echoed again in again the the domains of Screenwriting, Startups and Technology: your idea means nothing. It's become a kind of truism, echoed over and over.

First I saw a post on ScriptFaze called, "How to Spot an Amateur," which made a point that I try to emphasize again and again to my screenwriting students a USC.

"Writers are smart people, and it is generally hard to tell the difference between someone who’s pretending, and someone who has an actual career. HOWEVER, there is one very-common point of conversation that immediately blows the top off any writer’s cover, and exposes him for the amateur he really is:  

The fear of having his script STOLEN. Yup. That’s right. 

If you complain to others about having your spec script ripped off, YOU ARE AN AMATEUR. Why, you ask? Because working writers know that IDEAS DON’T MEAN SHIT. Everyone has great ideas—sellable, fresh, genius, spicy, new, amazing ideas. What makes a writer a writer is how they ACTUALIZE these ideas on the page."  [You can read the entire post here]

Perhaps you think that we cynical, bitter veterans are overstating things. We're not.

Here's an idea for a movie!

While working for a greedy corporation, our young, handsome hero takes on a new shape and enters an alien world filled with strange, exotic life-threatening creatures. Our hero is rescued by a sexy native and brought to her tribe where he must gain the tribe's acceptance. This sexy native's mentor is at one with mother nature. Our hero is confronted with a jealous rival for the attention of this sexy native.  At the heart of the tribe's power is a tree with its own life force that affects all of the splendor and wonders of this exotic world. When the evil corporation seeks to destroy the tree without regards to the indigenous people, the hero must decide between his growing love of the indigenous people and his ties to the corporation. In the end the hero rallies the locals, including his rival, and saves the day. (Synopsis stolen from Michael Dean)

What you say you've seen that movie already? It's not original at all. It's exactly the same plot as Avatar!

Actually, I stole that story idea from Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. This animated children's film has a story that is so close to Avatar that people have done hilarious trailer mash-ups.

If you throw Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves into the mix, Avatar becomes one of the least original "ideas" in recent memory. Yet the film has made billions and billions of dollars worldwide. It did so because of its execution.

"Your idea means nothing" is a concept echoed throughout other domains. In the startup and technology world the "Fergullies" are endless.

Idea: Search the web.
Execution: Altavista v. Google.

Idea: Build a social network.
Execution: Myspace v. Facebook

Idea: Build a portable MP3 Player
Execution: Creative Nomad Jukebox v. i-pod

A hilarious description by Michael Wolf of why Dropbox has succeeded, executing an idea that had been around forever and had seemingly already been done better, can be found here: Why is Dropbox more popular than other programs with similar functionality?

But here's the twist on the concept of "your idea means nothing."

Your idea means everything.

Said Michael Wolf in answer to Which is more crucial to success: the idea or the execution?, "I've never met a VC who told an entrepreneur, 'don't tell me about your idea since it doesn't matter!'"

Likewise, I've never met a producer or studio executive who told a screenwriter, "Don't bother pitching me your story. Ideas don't matter. It's all about execution!" When you walk into an office to pitch a great idea, what you are really pitching is your execution of that great idea; you are convincing the person listening that you in particular can tell this story in a unique and fabulous way. But, the idea itself still has to be great.

It is astounding how many bad ideas are pitched in Hollywood. I once had someone pitch me an idea for a horror movie that involved genetically modified goats with shark teeth. The eager and excited exec asked me if I thought his idea was scary. "Is it just the one goat?" I asked, as delicately as possible. He went on to describe a story idea that involved lots of goats, and lots of shark teeth, and he asked again if it was a really scary idea. I responded as honestly as I could, "It's definitely scarier than an ordinary goat."

If your idea sucks, you're dead. 

Every great script, like every great startup or great gadget, began with a great idea. If you start out with a bad idea or even a mediocre idea, your project is doomed to fail. The point in all this is that you shouldn't be scared of someone stealing your idea. You should be pitching and testing your idea (movie, starup, gadget) to as many people as possible in as many ways as possible. Once you have gotten plenty of feedback, and you have confirmed that your idea is a great one...

Get to work and execute it! What are you doing reading this blog when you should be writing!