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Thursday, August 16, 2012

This is What Transmedia Looks Like


The luxury of time has afforded me and my creative partners the opportunity to take a long objective look at the results of our little narrative experiment, Bxx:  HAUNTED.  In doing do, we’ve come to a number of conclusions, the main take-away being that, like most experiments, the result we were seeking has been utterly eclipsed by another that we discovered quite by accident.
Our original intent with Bxx was to create a non-linear narrative that could be accessed by the user at any point in the story and viewed in any order.
In order to execute the concept, we needed to produce a 32 hour scripted drama in real time—an unprecedented task which presented a number of unique technical and human challenges.  Though, as one would expect, the technical aspects were tough (particularly on a miniscule budget), far more demanding than the hardware were the flesh-and-blood issues, as follows:
  • How do we script a 32 hour drama, much of which is being performed simultaneously in different locations?
  • How do we rehearse the actors?
  • How do the actors sustain a role, uninterrupted, for days at a time?
Nevertheless, after much trial-and-error, we devised (although “reinvented,” may be the more accurate term) solutions to writing, rehearsal and performance—techniques we immediately recognized as proprietary insomuch as they are highly counter-intuitive and would prove virtually impossible for a competitor to replicate or “reverse-engineer” by simply viewing the end-product. 
Much as the Apollo missions gave birth to calculators, adult diapers and Tang, our little experiment yielded a number of incidental discoveries in support of its ultimate goal.  One of those “incidental discoveries” not only overshadows the others, but arguably the entire experiment itself.
There is a project management axiom that is ruthlessly applicable to the production of filmed entertainment, distilled into the famed “Euler Diagram,” which you will no doubt recognize as follows:

The axiom states that one can only achieve two of the three aspects within a project.  For instance, if speed and quality is desired, the quest will prove expensive.  Likewise, if one has a small budget but takes enough time in execution, the results can be good.
The box-narrative format, however, obliterates this paradigm by virtue of the sheer volume of material captured within the time-frame.
The production of Bxx: Haunted, for instance, yielded almost 600 hours of video, hundreds of pages of notes logged by the characters in journals and investigatory forms and dozens of audio samples.  Our budget was less than $20,000, including the purchase of 16 IR cameras and a custom DVR system.  Though one may argue that much of the material we captured—empty rooms, sleeping actors, lulls in action—is unexciting, the same decidedly cannot be said once its entirety is distilled into its most compelling fraction of a one percent. 
In short, the box-narrative format can deliver a full season, twelve episodes of compelling commercial television content, for the price of a single episode using traditional methods.
And unlike a traditional production in which the unused takes are discarded, every second of every shot, every journal entry made by a character, every notation in a log, piece of correspondence, file, report, recording and photograph is available on the web to support the television series.  Whereas traditional film production is marked for its bloat, waste and grotesque inefficiency, a Bxx production rapaciously attacks and renders the narrative into hundreds of hours of entertainment content.
Consequently, the stunning efficiency of the box-narrative presents a unique opportunity to the private investor. 
Though it has long been possible to independently finance a single theatrical film, series television has remained out of the private investor’s reach due to its huge costs and protracted contractual requirements for cast and crew.
The box-narrative production format, however, decisively smashes both these hurdles.
For the cost of a single low-budget film, Bxx can deliver an entire 12 hour episodic series.  Assuming it commands even the most conservative, "reality show-level" licensing fees on a basic cable network, profits from domestic distribution alone will exceed production costs and generate a profit.  
Add foreign distribution, internet advertising and potential subscription revenue from its online component, as well as additional sources of monetization such as merchandizing and software, and the potential ROI of Bxx is self-evident.
Of course, all this is just theory.  Which is why we produced our proof-of-concept, Bxx: HAUNTED. But can such an unorthodox production generate content that can be tamed into a traditional media a standard narrative format?
To answer this question, we culled footage captured during the 32-hour production of Bxx: HAUNTED and edited them into a standard feature-length.
Judge for yourself:






Keep in mind, Bxx: HAUNTED was accomplished with a micro-budget (under $50,000 US) and severe technical limitations. 
Our next project, Bxx: MARS, will utilize over 70 high-def cameras, state of the art tech, studio-grade design and production values, first-rate digital FX, and twice the real-time shooting length, yielding over 5,000 hours of raw internet content and twelve 1-hour television episodes. 
Our budget? $5.6 million (US).  
Our intent was to turn the Hollywood paradigm on its head, to restore creative control where it belongsin the artist's hands. Our journey has led us to a format that offers strong potential returns at a relatively low risk to independent investors.
Oh yeah. This changes everything.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Spoonful of Reality Helps the Medicine Go Down


Before you roll your eyes and say, “Great. Just what we need. Another Hollywood big-mouth weighing in on a controversial subject he knows dick about,” a word about my creds: Before I joined the circus, I spent 20+ years making a living as a benefits consultant to dozens of private and public sector employers. So I do know a thing or three about how the current system works (and doesn’t work).



That said, it seems to me that whenever the subject of health care reform comes up, two opposing forces go totally Medieval on each other; the Left shrieks for a government-funded single-payer system while the Right bellows in defense of the current system of Medicare, Medicaid and employer/union-sponsored private payment plans. While both these approaches offer certain advantages and I could give you an exhaustive list of pros and cons to each, neither addresses the core issue, and that is the screaming runaway train of medical-inflation we’ve witnessed over the last four decades, a rate well in excess of three times the Consumer Price Index.

So how did the system get so screwed up? 

In the 1940s, employer-sponsored medical insurance was introduced as a "perk" to get around federally mandated wartime wage-freezes (yet another silly idea) to attract and retain skilled labor. What started as a snappy little benefit that cost only a few dollars per employee has since spiraled out of control. 

Now imagine for a moment if, rather than offering medical reimbursement plans, employers had opted to pay for some other basic expense—clothing, for instance.

At first, there wouldn’t be much of a change.  But it wouldn’t take long before plan participants would begin to upgrade their wardrobes.  Why opt for the no-name generic crap when you can fill your closets with haute couture?  After all, if there is no cost differential between “adequate” and “the best,” who in their right mind would choose cotton over silk underwear?  

Meanwhile, retailers would burn all those ugly “Spring Clearance SALE” signs because nobody would care about discounts.  In fact, the term “discount” would soon become synonymous with “substandard.”  And as prices became increasingly irrelevant to their customers, clothing stores would steadily boost them in order to maximize profit.  To counter this, insurance companies would establish benefit limits tied to “usual and customary” prices.  But since those prices would be pegged to the actual claims submitted, they would continue their upward creep.

Designers would soon jump on the bandwagon, abandoning seasonal lines for monthly lines.  Again, insurance companies would respond to the increase in claims by incentivizing the purchase of generic brands over designer duds.  However, it would soon be pointed out that there is no generic equivalent for the triple-vented pleated sport-kilt in Ralph Lauren’s Mid-October Collection.  Furthermore, there won’t be for the foreseeable future since Ralph holds a patent on the pattern.  So in order to placate their policy-holders and remain competitive, insurers would agree to cover designer-brands “until such time as a generic equivalent becomes available.” 

Then, some whiz-kid in Contract Services would negotiate a sweetheart deal with a network of clothing retailers, dub it a "Haberdashery Maintenance Organization" (HMO®) and the insurance companies would structure their plans to pay enhanced benefits to those employees who choose to exclusively shop at participating stores.  Employers would be weighing the advantages of Wal-Mart-Plus versus Target-Net. 

It would rapidly become apparent, however, that the HMOs themselves have become de facto bargaining units for their member merchants, who would unilaterally increase contracted rates with the knowledge that few employers have the intestinal fortitude to order their workforce to—gasp—change retailers! 

So, again, insurance companies would be forced to bite the bullet and pay the piper.

Oh, yeahand pass the costs on to their clients, who would pass the costs on to their customers, further increasing an invisible but steadily growing and onerous sales-tax to everyone who buys goods and services.

Still doubt all this would come to pass if the cost of clothing was borne—and corrupted—by the intrusion of third-party payers? 

Granted, there are a number of additional factors that drive up medical costs such as an aging population, technology and malpractice claims.  But consider the case of Lasik eye surgery, the average cost of which has plunged from $2,200 per eye in 1998 to just north of $1,000 per eye today despite a 98% increase in medical CPI over the same period.  Like every other medical procedure, it is subject to the aforementioned inflationary factors. 

However, Lasik is not covered by the majority of insurance plans, Medicare or Medicaid.  The sole reason the procedure defies economic gravity (or, rather, is subject to it) is due to the power of the market, supply and demand, and competition between providers.

Sure, third-party payment seems like a great idea, especially when you're the recipient. But consider this: The two components of the economy which are largely paid through third-parties—health care and college-level education—have seen costs skyrocket over the last four decades, far outpacing inflation.

Why?

Because third-party payment schemes grossly distort the market forces of supply and demand. 

More importantly, third-party payment eliminates incentives for consumers to exercise even baseline prudence, such as comparison shopping, negotiating prices and rendering judgments regarding cost vs. value. The resulting "super-inflation" has little impact on consumers who qualify for third-party benefits—medical plan participants or scholarship/financial aid recipients—but is positively catastrophic for those who don't.

This distortion, btw, occurs whether the third-party payer is the government or private insurance.

So why, when discussing “health care reform,” does everyone in the government, the health care industry and insurance companies insist on quibbling over irrelevant details like who will pay for what and who should be covered?  Why do they continue to ignore the third-party elephant in the room? 

Because, kiddies, with that tsunami of dough flying back and forth, they are making boat-loads of bank! 

For example, rate increases on employer health insurance plans are based on what is called “claims experience” (i.e. actual medical charges plus medical inflation).  The insurance company’s “administration” (i.e. overhead) and “retention” (i.e. profit) are bundled together and charged as a percentage of “claims experience.”  Now tell me, what company wouldn’t just love to peg their profit to the single most runaway component of the Consumer Price Index?  Oh, and by the way, you can bet they aren’t “spreading the wealth” to the rank-and-file schlubs who actually administer claims either.

The same is true of the medical industry and big-government.  The status quo guarantees each their measure of profit and/or power.  They distract by politicizing details of what and who will be covered, of what and who will foot the bill, all the while ignoring the underlying problem of runaway costs. 

Everyone is a winner except for the consumer.

The solution is clear.  It is long past time third-party payment of medical care was acknowledged for what it is: A ruinously failed experiment.  As such, it should be banned. Only then will consumer forces (and sanity) be returned to the health care market. 

True, because powerful business and public-sector interests are so utterly invested in the status quo, such a radical overhaul would generate unprecedented fear-mongering and doom saying.  But as counter-intuitive as it sounds, the key—the only key—to meaningful healthcare reform is to ban third-party payments altogether until such time that the patient has completely exhausted his or her personal financial resources. Though it may seem that such a scheme is cruel and radical, consider the fact that until the 1940s, this is *exactly* how Americans paid for their health care and, somehow, everyone retained access to the system.


Monday, July 16, 2012

And Now, Time for Our Feature Presentation...


First of all, the entire team at Bxx would like to thank everyone who helped build our brave little transmedia experiment or logged on to check it out. Bxx: HAUNTED was immensely challenging, and, though it started out as a “proof of concept,” it turned out to be quite a bit more than that, with over 30,000 visitors, a third of which staying on 30 minutes or more, with a total of over 4 million hits.  And all this with zero public relations and hype other than the interest we could drum up on the social networks.

Yay us. 
Yay you.
We’ve since taken a long, objective look at the results of our little narrative experiment.  In doing do, we’ve come to a number of conclusions, the main take-away being that, like most experiments, the result we were seeking has been utterly eclipsed by another that we discovered quite by accident.
Our original intent with Bxx was to create a non-linear narrative that could be accessed by the user at any point in the story and viewed in any order.
In order to execute the concept, we needed to produce a 32 hour scripted drama in real time—an unprecedented task which presented a number of unique technical and human challenges.  Though, as one would expect, the technical aspects were tough (particularly on a miniscule budget), far more demanding than the hardware were the flesh-and-blood issues, as follows:
  • How do we script a 32 hour drama, much of which is being performed simultaneously in different locations?
  • How do we rehearse the actors?
  • How do the actors sustain a role, uninterrupted, for days at a time?
Nevertheless, after much trial-and-error, we devised (although “reinvented,” may be the more accurate term) solutions to writing, rehearsal and performance—techniques we immediately recognized as proprietary insomuch as they are highly counterintuitive and would prove virtually impossible for a competitor to replicate or “reverse-engineer” by simply viewing the end-product. 
Much as the Apollo missions gave birth to calculators, adult diapers and Tang, our little experiment yielded a number of incidental discoveries in support of its ultimate goal.  One of those “incidental discoveries” not only overshadows the others, but arguably the entire experiment itself.
There is a project management axiom that is ruthlessly applicable to the production of filmed entertainment, distilled into the famed “Euler Diagram,” which you will no doubt recognize as follows:

The axiom states that one can only achieve two of the three aspects within a project.  For instance, if speed and quality is desired, the quest will prove expensive.  Likewise, if one has a small budget but takes enough time in execution, the results can be good.
The box-narrative format, however, obliterates this paradigm by virtue of the sheer volume of material captured within the time-frame.
The production of Bxx: Haunted, for instance, yielded almost 600 hours of video, hundreds of pages of notes logged by the characters in journals and investigatory forms and dozens of audio samples.  Our budget was less than $50,000, including the purchase of 16 IR cameras and a custom DVR system.  Though one may argue that much of the material we captured—empty rooms, sleeping actors, lulls in action—is unexciting, the same decidedly cannot be said once its entirety is distilled into its most compelling fraction of a one percent. 
In short, we surmised that, given adequate resources, the box-narrative format can easily deliver a full season of compelling commercial television content, for the price of a single episode using traditional methods.
And unlike a traditional production in which the unused takes are discarded, every second of every shot, every journal entry made by a character, every notation in a log, piece of correspondence, file, report, recording and photograph is available on the web to support the television series.  Whereas traditional film production is marked for its bloat, waste and grotesque inefficiency, a Bxx production rapaciously attacks and renders the narrative into hundreds of hours of entertainment content.
And so, in order to test our theory, we endeavored to see if we could wrangle the vast amount of raw footage and archival material into something that resembling a traditional feature film.  So our intrepid editor, April, culled the scenes that conveyed our original story and assembled them into a 110 minute feature. 
The results surprised and delighted us.

We plan on presenting BXX: HAUNTED  – THE FEATURE on YouTube on August 1st. 
Free.
That’s right, kids.  Free.  All you need is an internet connect and at least one working eyeball to see it.
So subscribe at http://www.youtube.com/user/bxxweb and be among the first to see the show.  We’re certain it will inspire you to explore the rest of BxxWeb (if you haven’t already).
And if you’re a venture-capitalist or an entrepreneurial type, and you’re interested in helping a motley crew of artists and miscreants take Bxx to the next level, drop us a line. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

DIALOGUE 1.0


Since I've cornered the market in the bubble-bursting department, I might as well sharpen my ice-pick and address the very important/not at all important issue of writing dialogue.

In my previous rants, I've committed the heresy of putting forward the humble proposition that you must have talent to write a good screenplay (operative words there, "talent" and "good.") 

An example of this is the writing of dialogue.

Having an ear for dialogue is analagous to having natural rhythm. Either you can dance, or you can't dance.  You can't "learn" how to write good dialogue any more than you can "learn" to tap your toe in beat with a song. It's either comes naturally, or it doesn't come at all.

Sure, even if you're a spaz on the dance floor, it's possible to sit down, one eye on a metronome, and, after hours of patient practice, learn to tap your foot along with one song. But you're screwed the moment the next tune comes up.

It's like the drunk who steps up to the bar. "Iwannashnwad," he says. The bartender refuses, "Listen up, pal, if you're too blotto to order the cocktail, you're too blotto to drink it.

The drunk staggers outside, stands in an alley for an hour and practices. "I wannashodgenwad. I wanna shcodgenwad. I wanna scotchenwadder..."  

He goes back into the bar, orders his drink. A regular Laurence Olivier: "I want a scotch and water."

The bartender gives him a look, says, "You want that straight-up or on the rocks?"

The drunk thinks about it. 

"Iwannashnwad," he says.  

I guess that what I'm getting at is you can "learn" to craft one good line. Unfortunately a piece of dramatic writing usually has a shitload of good lines, all coming from different characters, with different backgrounds and different ways of speaking.  

If you can't "hear" what they're saying naturally—automatically—and you have to intellectually ponder each and every line, you're not just at a disadvantage.  

You're totally screwed.

If you do have an ear for dialogue, congratulations. But that's just an admission ticket to hone your talent. Knowing how "real people talk" is handy, but it doesn't have a whole lot to do with written dialogue. Just listen to those two “real people” in the next booth at Denny's. 

NO! Not them, numbnuts! The other booth. Listen...

                REAL PERSON #1
    So I go down to the Sears an'...
             (takes a big bite of
             French toast)... 
    mish guy, ya know—

                REAL PERSON #2
    Which guy?

                REAL PERSON #1
    The guy, you know. That one with the 
    eye.

                REAL PERSON #2
    Oh yeah. I know that guy. Ricky somethin, 
    right? He's a dick.

                REAL PERSON #1
    Fuggin-A. So I'm standing there, waiting, 
    and, like, there's this music, you know, 
    like playing. You know that song...
             (
sings)
    Dee-deet-du-dee-dee-dee—

                REAL PERSON #2
    They always play that in there! I was 
    there, shit, I dunno, I was there and 
    they were playin that then, too. I swear 
    to God. It's like, what do they got? One 
    tape? Jeez...

Had enough?

Sure, it sounds "real." That's the way real people talk. The only problem is that real people don't say anything!

Then there's the other end of the spectrum: Characters who say exactly what they are thinking or feeling at any given time. Just turn on the television. It's like a pox.

                JOHN
    You're empty inside, Debra. You're 
    incapable of love.

                DEBRA
    That's not true, John.  I do love you. 
    I do! But you're too blind to see it. 
    It's not easy to open up to a man after 
    you've been repeatedly sodomized by a 
    satanic cult of outlaw bikers!
             (sobs)
    But I'm trying, John.  You must know that!

                JOHN
    I do, Debra. I do! But a man has needs.
         Can't you see this is tearing me apart?!

OH MY GOD!!! Stop! My head's about to implode!

People are simply a.) not that self-aware and b.) even if they were, they don't just blurt out their deepest feelings, darkest secrets and greatest fears. Except, of course, in hack screenplays. 

(Oh, and by the way?  The only place where John calls Debra “Debra” and Debra calls John “John” in every other line is on bad television.  In real life, we rarely use a friend’s name while speaking to him in a conversation.)

A close corollary to this brand of bullshit is "THE BUTTON."



The Button is a BIG LINE that one character says at the close of a scene that is so powerful— so absolutely right—that it leaves the other character(s) speechless.

                DEBRA
    Tearing you apart. You, John. That's
    what this relationship is all about,
    isn't it? That's what it's always been 
    about! YOU!!!

John stares at her, the bitter truth of her words sinking in. She coolly regards him, then turns and exits.

When was the last time an argument ever ended that way for you?

As for me, I've dropped some absolute atom-bombs on my wife in the course of arguments, yet none of them have ever rendered her speechless. Why? Because she has her own thermonuclear arsenal. Everyone does. The truth is, in real life, John would look at Debra and say:

                JOHN
    Really? You really think so? Well, 
    you wanna know what I think? I think 
    you liked being sodomized by those 
    outlaw bikers!

It's called Mutual Assured Destruction.

If you really want to see how people behave in a toxic relationship, check out WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Burton and Taylor are like a binary star system, each locked in orbit, feeding on each other in this beautiful, ghastly, absolutely brilliant death-dance. You can't take your eyes off it.

Of course, we can't all be Edward Albee. But we don't have to be hacks, either. And believe me, using "THE BUTTON" is a hallmark of hack-writing.  In real life, human beings simply do not relate to each other this way. 

Ever.

And they shouldn't in your scripts, either. So next time you write a nice, pat little scene that deftly steps down to a pithy little button, do yourself a favor and write the next line. Because, as in the JOHN and DEBRA example above, that's where things will begin to come alive and get interesting.

Characters are a bit like dogs. You can snap the leash and make them heel or cut them loose and watch them run down rabbits. The former may be nice and safe and satisfying to the person walking the dog, but the latter is far more entertaining for the rest of us.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

HOW TO BE A SCREENWRITER IN THREE EASY STEPS


Anybody can learn to write a script, and there are a number of books and sites and seminars that will teach you how. What the the books and the sites and the seminars don't tell you is that you'll probably never be much good at it, no matter how slavishly you follow their rules.

You'll notice I said "anybody can learn to write a script."  This is analogous to saying "anybody can sing." Unfortunately, simply because one has the ability to execute a task, it doesn't necessarily follow that one will excel at said task. 

Sure, if you really practice, work long and hard at any given undertaking, you may become fairly competent.  That said, blowing them away at Applebees on Karaoki Night doesn't make you some kind of Sinatra.

Any artistic endeavor requires craft and talent. The more you have of one, the less you need of the other.  It's sort of like state college entrance requirements.  If your SATs are great, your GPA can kinda suck (and vice versa) and you can still get in. 

However, if you want to go to Harvard or Yale, more people are competing for fewer spots, which means both your GPA and your SATs have to be pretty damn good.  Real damn good.  Plus, having a relative who's a big wheel in the Alumni Society doesn't hurt either.

(Hey, this is turning out to be a better analogy for the movie business than I thought!)

So if you want to make it as a screenwriter, the sad fact is: 
  • You must have talent.

There, I said it.  The ugly truth.  And it gets uglier: 
  • Talent, no matter what anybody tells you, cannot be learned.

When I say "learned," I mean it in the normal sense, as in out of a book or in a classroom.  I can't teach you how to be a great writer.  

Nobody can.


But I can tell you how to be a good screenwriter—or at least better than you are now—in three easy steps.

Step One:

Stop writing screenplays.

Step Two:
·        Start reading poetry;
·        Read more poetry;
·        Write poetry;
·        Lots of poetry;
·        Stop talking;
·        Listen;
·        Read;
·        Masturbate like a doomed lab-monkey;
·        Write more poetry;
·        Shoplift food;
·        Work at a series of meaningless jobs;
·        Get betrayed by someone you cherish;
·        Be afraid;
·        Watch THE SEVEN SAMURAI without reading the subtitles;
·        Pray for forgiveness.  Mean it;
·        Read your poetry out loud to an unappreciative audience;
·        Get stoned;
·        Contemplate suicide;
·        Help someone for no reason;
·        Hitch-hike;
·        Get angry;
·        Read Bukowski, Fante, Vonnegut and Ellison;
·        Drink coffee all night;
·        Be true;
·        Fall in love (at least twice);
·        Observe;
·        Get fired for hitting your supervisor;
·        Doubt yourself;
·        Flip back and forth from A&E Biography and The History Channel until you're sure Tammy Wynette built the pyramids;
·        Drop acid;
·        Throw an ashtray through the television set;
·        Have kids;
·        Quit a job without giving notice.   At lunchtime;
·        Fail;
·        Listen to music.  Very loud;
·        Toss and turn;
·        Understand nobility and treachery, practice both, favor the former;
·        Make passionate love to someone you don't even like;
·        Tilt windmills;
·        Get evicted;
·        Suffer pointlessly;
·        Pay attention;
·        Be foolish;
·        Go to jail (at least once);
·        Survive all the above, but imperfectly.

Incidentally, the entire laundry-list of tasks I've listed above can be boiled down to one word: LIVE! Live as greedily and aggressively as you can. Make every heartbeat count for something. Surrender yourself to as wide a range of human experience and emotions as you can without ending up in jail or a rubber-room.  

Why?  

Because no matter what they tell you in film-school, nobody wants to see a movie about a movie written by somebody who's only seen movies.

Once you have lived a decade or so past your teens, you may move on to...

Step Three: 
·        Write a screenplay;
·        Write another screenplay;
·        Rewrite the first one;
·        Write a third screenplay;
·        Rewrite the second one;
·        Burn the first one;
·        Repeat the above instructions indefinitely.

Because here's the deal: Writers write. They don't talk about writing. They don't strike poses in front of open laptops at Starbucks. They don't whine about being blocked. They don't piddle around in workshops. They don't argue about the comparative virtues of Final Draft 5 versus Final Draft 8.

Writers. Fucking. Write.

So go for it. If you're lucky and you have talent, you just might make it. But even if you don't, know this: Trying is its own reward. The very fact that you are willing to chase a dream makes you better than 99.9% of the humans on planet Earth.  

Even if you're not very good at it.