Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Word About Aerodynamics and Rolling Donuts

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I am officially humbled.
When we started the Kickstarter campaign for BlackBxx:HAUNTED, I had to come up with some rewards. I checked out what other artists had given away and followed suit, beginning with a sincere thank you and warm thoughts for a $1.00 pledge and continuing up to an Executive Producer credit for $10,000.
Though the high-dollar rewards were fun to write, I never thought anyone would take us up on them. I mean, who would pay a grand for a dinner out with me, or $3,000 for me to fly out to their house and do live commentary for their favorite episode of Carnivále? I figured the highest pledge we’d see might—might—be the $500 Skype call.
So when the first big-dollar pledge rolled in, I was stunned on several counts.
To begin with, when we initiated the campaign, I sent emails to everyone I knew—friends, colleagues and family—asking for their support. I’ve worked with some fairly heavy-hitters in the course of my TV career, so I assumed the pledge must have come from one of them.
I was wrong.
The pledge came from Steve Bertolino, a Carnivále fan who lives in Middlebury, Vermont.
It seems I’ll be flying out to his place, hanging out with him and his friends and commenting on his favorite episode (or, as my lovely daughter, Mary, who has long-suffered my yammering every time she tries to watch one of her shows, so gracefully put it, “You’re kidding! Some guy paid $3,000 for you to come out and wreck his show?”).
I’ve never been to Vermont, so I’m really looking forward to checking it out with my newly-minted Associate Producer, Steve. From what I hear, I better bring a warm coat.
Then, just as I was picking my jaw up off the floor, Rebhi Barqawi, a nice young man from Dubai, UAE, pledged $10,000!
I’ve never met Rebhi. I called everyone on the BlackBxx team, and none of them had either. I emailed him a thank you, and learned from his reply that, like Steve, Rebhi just loves my work and wants to do what he can to help me make BlackBxx: HAUNTED happen. And I can say with some measure of confidence that Rebhi will be the best Executive Producer I’ve ever worked with.
Then another $3,000 pledge came in.
This time, I’d be flying out to Mahwah, New Jersey to chill with my new Associate Producer, Brian Deysher, yet another Carnivále fan.
At this point, we’ve raised $19,191 from 41 backers. To get an idea of where the pledges have come from, I created this handy-dandy pie-chart:

As you can see, the vast (and I mean VAST) majority of the contributions have come from patrons I’ve never met before. Meanwhile, of all my big-shot, money-burning, cigar-chomping Hollywood buddies, only one has come through: My friend, Tom Lavagnino, who does not smoke cigars and is not particularly wealthy (unless you count his wife, Hope, who is a treasure).
So if you’ve already gone to the site and said to yourself. “Sure, normally I’d pitch in five bucks, but this guy is an established Hollywood writer. I’m sure he has all kinds of rich friends who can afford to give him bread. He doesn’t need my support,” I’m telling you right now, you couldn’t be more wrong.
Sure, we’ve raised 25% of our goal, but we only have 25 more days to raise over $50,000, or we won’t collect a single thin dime.
So if you’re reading this, and you haven’t already made a pledge, please go check out our project page on Twitter. I know times are tough, but even if you can only afford a dollar, it will take us $1 closer to our goal.
Also, the goal of the Kickstarter campaign is not just to raise production funds, but build an audience. Not that those big-dollar contributions haven't been appreciated, mind you, but at this point, we'd rather have a hundred $5 pledges than one $1,000 pledge, because the last thing we want to do is play something as extraordinary as BlackBxx: HAUNTED to an empty house. Even if you’re totally strapped and can't support the project financially, you can help out by leaving an encouraging comment (we can certainly use those), embed the widget (below) or video on your social network page or link to us on Twitter.
Oh, yeah. And as for my rich Hollywood “friends…?”
Like my Dad used to say, as far as I'm concerned, they can all go take flying fucks at rolling donuts.
Power to the people, baby…

Monday, October 3, 2011

1% Inspiration, 99% Desperation

I’m sure some of you have wondered what I’ve been up to since CARNIVÁLE.  Believe it or not, I’ve been insanely busy.  The reason I say “believe it or not” is because only a small fraction of my subsequent body of work has made it to air. 

Though some of you are aware of the episodes I’ve written or produced for shows such as SUPERNATURAL, FEAR ITSELF, MY OWN WORST ENEMY and SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND, only I and a few guys in suits have seen my pilot for DARKFALL, postulating a future in which technology fails and magic becomes operative, or THE ORDER, about an ancient monastic sect whose sole mission for the past millennium has been to prevent the Apocalypse and now runs counter-occult black-ops from a basement deep below the Vatican, or CRUZ, my offbeat take on the P.I. genre. 

Nor have you seen my odd dark comedies like HONEY VICARRO, WHERE THE HART IS and my favorite, DEARLY BELOVED, a FAWLTY TOWERS-style farce set in a small-town funeral home in the rural South.  And then there are my long-form adaptations of DRACULA and THE INVISIBLE MAN.

A voluminous body of work that, for reasons over which I’ve had no control, has not been produced. 

Now, I’ve got an ego, but I’m not a total megalomaniac; I suppose it’s always possible that those projects sucked rocks.  But since my long-suffering agent, Pete, continues to successfully use them as writing samples to get me more gigs, quality doesn’t seem to be the issue. 

So if not quality, then what?

Figuring out the answer to that question is not only unproductive and debilitating, but also a one-way ticket through Poor-Me-Land to Crazytown. 

Suffice it to say, the planets simply haven’t aligned and, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past half-decade or so, it’s how impossibly, fantastically, insanely lucky I was to get CARNIVÁLE on the air and keep it there for two years.

To a major extent, the only difference between my career Before CARNIVÁLE (B.C.) and after the show’s Abrupt Death (A.D.) is that now I get paid for writing stuff nobody wants to produce. 

This would be just ducky (as Sofia might say) if financial remuneration was the reason I create.  But I was making a pretty terrific living as an insurance broker before I got into this nutty business, thank you very much.  No.  The reasons I write are legion, and I would continue to do so whether I was being paid or not, produced or not, published or not.  It’s hard-wired.  It’s who I am.  Besides, how else can I pay forward all the great moments gifted to me by my betters, Ray Bradbury, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Bukowski, Anne Rice, Mark Twain, Dennis Lehane, John Milius, Elmore Leonard, Gertrude Stein, Stephen King, Robert Crais, Alexander Dumas, H.G. Welles, Poppy Bright, William Goldman, Jan Fischer, Dashiell Hammett, David Mamet, Robert E. Howard, Rod Serling, Robert Towne, H.P. Lovecraft, John Steinbeck, Ursula LeGuin, Shane Black, John Fante, et al.

But I can’t pay dick forward if I don’t have an audience.

And among all my motives to create stories—sundry, silly or splendid—you decidedly will not find a burning desire to impress the shit out of a handful of entertainment executives. 

I suppose there are writers who, once paid, are perfectly happy to move on to the next project, but I am most decidedly not one of them. 

When I create, I do so with unconditional passion, pride and dedication.  Whether the results are worth the effort may be debatable, but what is not debatable is the cold hard fact that I love every one of them as I would my own child.  To see them locked up, languishing on a dusty shelf rather than woo and thrill and seduce and move an audience is intolerable.

Worse, I have grown increasingly impatient with playing Mother May I with a bunch of timid, arrogant punks. 

Every good writer and showrunner I know is absolutely miserable in the current production environment.  Virtually no creative decision—no matter how trivial—can be made without being second, third, fourth and fifth-guessed by terrified rabbits.  To resist or discuss—much less argue—the validity of a network note is tantamount to career suicide; if one doesn’t immediately and cheerfully comply with even the most egregiously bad “suggestion,” one risks being branded difficult and suffering years of unemployment.

Meanwhile, development—always a crucible—has mutated into a babbling, raging, giggling, blood-drenched chamber-of-horrors in the deepest, most dank basement of Bedlam. 

Drafts that initially delighted the network, that they assured the writer need “just a few tweaks,” are endlessly rewritten, restructured, reimagined and hopelessly twisted out of true.  They take the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant to its most extreme, most absurd degree by giving the blind men absolute and incontestable authority over a team of extraordinarily talented but docile surgeons to repeatedly carve up the elephant and stitch it into any configuration that pleases them.

Suffice it to say, the elephant rarely survives the procedure.

There are only two kinds of writers that thrive in contemporary Hollywood: Those few giants that have a long, unbroken run of monster hits who frighten the Blind Men, and the many attractive, charming hacks who shamelessly flatter the Blind Men with their eager, affable subservience.

Regrettably, I am neither.  That’s not to say I’m some kind of Howard Roark; I am perfectly ready and willing to resort to flattery and blandishments in order to feed my family. 

It’s simply not my strong-suit.

Such was the State of the Union, so to speak, when, two years ago, I came up with my weirdest and, perhaps, most audacious idea to date.

I called it BlackBxx.

A Pet Peeve

It started with a pet peeve. 

It’s always bugged me how dismissive and dumb the entertainment industry has been when it comes to the internet. 

They regard it as a novelty—at best the distant, bastard-cousin of television: Tough to monetize, good for promo and not much else.  Consequently, they utilize it with all the vision and ingenuity of a real-estate agent slapping a big picture of his grinning mug on the back of a bus-bench. 

Occasionally, they’ll attempt something “creative.”  Someone in some swanky conference room says something like, “This internet-thingy, I understand the kids like to play games on it.  We gotta do that—something, ya know… interactive!  Then they spend a couple million on a lame online game nobody plays, or a lame app nobody uses, or a lame BBS nobody visits, or a lame webisode (now there’s a tautology!) nobody watches.

More often than not, they simply upload their movies and T.V. shows—unaltered—to the web and rechristen it as “content.” 

The studios and networks don’t bother to adapt the source material to internet for one simple reason: They don’t regard it as a true, unique and distinct medium in its own right.  They see it as simply one more dot on the unbroken timeline of the human tradition of conveying a narrative; from a story told in a cave, to a play performed on a stage, to a manuscript written by a scribe, to a book printed on a press, to a movie projected in a theater, to a broadcast over the radio, to a broadcast on television, to voila!, a website on a server.

But there is a difference between the internet and all those other media.

A profound difference.

A difference the entertainment industry can’t, or won’t, or doesn’t seem to be able to recognize and comprehend.

An intrinsic difference that not only makes the internet a legitimate, distinct medium in and of itself, but one that utterly shatters the fundamental paradigm of narrative storytelling.

And that is this: We use the internet. 

We don’t “use” books or magazines, televisions or movies, radio or music.  We read; we listen; we watch.  The author actively transmits his or her narrative, and the audience passively receives it.

The internet, however, requires the audience to become active—we click on links, we read, we view, we cut-and-paste, we research, we review and share and tweet and blog and friend and favorite.  Moreover, we do all these things simultaneously in an environment designed for multitasking.

Because if we choose to simply sit and “watch” the internet, it doesn’t do anything.

Now that I’ve finished explaining something in exhaustive detail that is so obvious, so conspicuously self-evident (save, of course, to the peripheral-visionaries who finance the production of entertainment), back to the subject at hand...

So, I thought, given that the internet is a wholly distinct medium, a medium at least as dissimilar as, say, motion pictures are from books, how do I, the storyteller, adapt my narrative to exploit that medium?

First, I had to define exactly what characteristics are unique to the internet, which are, in turn, a reflection of how the audience uses it (so much, in fact, that they call us “users”).  They are as follows. 

·        The internet is pan-media – Content may be transmitted through text, videos, blogs, photographs, audio, interviews, or even biometrics such as EEGs or lie detectors;

·        The internet is multitasking – We rarely have one page, tab or media player open at the same time.  Likewise, we may be performing several activities at once;

·        The internet is impulsive – A click of a link instantly takes the user to content of interest;

·        The internet is concise – Tell us about your life in 140 characters or less.  It’s not as much about short attention spans as it is about all that interesting stuff we can see/hear/read with the click of a mouse;

·        The internet is social – We chat, we blog, we tweet, we post, we share content with others with similar interests;

And, most importantly…

·        The internet is non-linear – We unravel content by impulse, not chronological order, clicking through instantly to what piques our interest, skipping what’s not.

When it comes to storytelling, this last characteristic is the game-changer. 

As a writer, I am accustomed to structuring my story in the order I feel will be most effective.  I determine what elements are relevant or superfluous.  I decide which characters are worth following. 

For instance, let’s say I’m writing a movie about a kidnapping for ransom.  If DELIVERY BOY drops coffee and Danish off at the FBI office, the only reason I will write what happens to him after he exits the scene will be if it supports the central story.  DELIVERY BOY might do all kinds of interesting stuff—win the lottery, pull orphans from a burning building, murder his boss—but if I decide it doesn’t serve the plot, you’re not going to see it.

But what if you were curious about DELIVERY BOY? 

What if you could follow him back to the shop, see him interact with friends and family, lie, love, cheat, hate, suffer defeat and savor victory?  I mean, DELIVERY BOY is way more interesting than that square-jawed lummox, AGENT HOOPER, right?


It’s my ball and my rules and my playground, and AGENT HOOPER is the protagonist.  I’m the author; you’re the audience; STFU and eat your popcorn.

But the internet is not traditional media. 

On the internet, you not only should be able to follow DELIVERY BOY, but keep an eye on AGENT HOOPER in a separate window.  Not only that, but you’d have access to material as varied as the ransom note, MRS. HOOPER’s recipe for meat-loaf, the kidnapper’s behavioral profile and vacation snapshots of DELIVERY BOY’s kids.  If you stumble across anything unexpected or interesting, you’d be able to download it, share it with your followers on Twitter, or imbed it on your Facebook page.

Each medium gives the audience access to different set of windows into a narrative. 

A novel can exploit all five human senses as well as the characters’ thoughts, opinions and points-of-view.  A film is limited to what we can see and hear, but its impact on those two senses is much more intense than that of a novel.  A play cannot offer the action, breadth and scope of a film, but compensates with the energy of a live performance. 

Narratives can be (and often are) adapted from one medium to another, but the success of the adaptation is inversely dependent on how thoroughly the source material exploits the attributes of its original medium.  Works such as Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN and Ernest Hemingway’s THE SUN ALSO RISES, for example,  are so perfectly conceived and crafted to suit their mediums that an adaptation can only pale in comparison.

Likewise, a narrative conceived and crafted for the internet should defy adaptation. 

I concluded that the acid test for a narrative developed for the internet could be distilled into the following question: Does it so exploit the unique characteristics of the internet so thoroughly that its full telling would be otherwise impossible?

So I devised a narrative format that would pass that acid test.

In short, the concept is as follows: Capture an event of limited duration with a defined beginning, middle and end that features an ensemble of actors performing scenes—often simultaneously—in separate locations.   Story-related material is conveyed in a variety of media—text, photographs, audio files--and captured in on video in real time with multiple cameras from multiple angles. 

The end result would be a complete record of every incident and character interaction that occurred for the duration of that event—literally hundreds of hours of written, audio and video content.  Every moment and background detail related to the event would be instantly accessible to the user in any order he or she wishes to view it.  Separate scenes—or separate angles of the same scene—could be selected and played simultaneously in multiple windows.

Inspired by the concept’s similarity to the function of airline flight recorders, I christened it BlackBxx. 

Over the following months, I ran BlackBxx past all fellow net-savvy artists—a trusted circle of actors, directors, designers, FX artists and other industry professionals I’ve worked with over the last decade or so.  Not only did they get it, but they were stoked by it.  This was a authentically brand new, absolutely unprecedented form of dramatic narrative.  Virtually every one of them eagerly offered to attach themselves if I could get the project off the ground.

So enamored was I, so thrilled with my fresh, bold, revolutionary idea, I could hardly wait to present it to the powers-that-be.  Surely, they would be impressed with my ingenuity and gleefully shower me with the money I’d need to realize my vision! 

I called my agent.  It was time to set up some meetings and sell BlackBxx.

Red Light Green Light

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So there I was, out and about, sitting on the edge of a dozen or so uncomfortable sofas in a dozen or so posh network and studio offices, pitching yet another crazy, freakish idea to men and women who vociferously preach the Gospel of Originality while worshipping at the Altar of Banality.

The response was a thunderous, enthusiastic and unqualified, “Huh?”

It wasn’t that they didn’t like BlackBxx as much as they couldn’t even comprehend it.  My lips were moving, words were spilling out and they seemed to be listening, but nothing was landing. 

Mind you, they didn’t admit that they didn’t get it—like you and me and everyone else, entertainment executives don’t like to appear stupid and will fake comprehension when necessary—but there were those unmistakable, nonverbal clues.  Some would seem to get it, but then ask a question that betrayed their utter mystification.  “So,” they’d ask, “what happens when nothing’s going on?”
If the room is empty, we’ll continue shooting it.

“Who in the world would want to watch an empty room?”
Almost no one.

“Almost no one?
There would be a few people who are patient and dogged enough to watch an empty room for hours on the off chance that something interesting might happen.

Because then they’d have bragging rights as the first person to find that moment.  It would be their discovery.  They could share it with their friends, post it, imbed it on their Facebook page…

“But they do have to watch the scenes in chronological order, right?”
Wrong.  They can watch them in any order that pleases them.
“But then they’ll be able to see the end!
Yes.  So What?

“So what’s the point of watching something if you know how it ends?”
To see everything that happens before the end.

I think you get the idea, although the above conversation is a greatest-hits compilation of half a dozen.  In real-life, things never got even remotely that far in depth.  Had my goal been to find a cure for entertainment executives who can’t get their eyes to glaze over, I couldn’t have been more successful.

Worse, I could not offer them—or any other potential investor, for that matter—the slightest scintilla of  proof that there would be an audience for it.  For I had sailed far into the vast, unexplored Sea of It’s-Never-Been-Done, and I had no model upon which I could extrapolate a return on investment.

Then I remembered my circle of net-savvy artists who had offered to help out if I could get the project green-lit.  And it occurred to me that if they might be willing to defer their salaries in exchange for a percentage of any profits (not Hollywood monkey-points, mind you, but a legitimate piece of the action), I might be able to finance the project myself. 

Damn, I thought, I don’t need them to give me a green light.  I can green-light my own ass!

There would be, of course, unavoidable hard-costs.  Actors would have to be paid, equipment would need to be purchased, sets would need to be built, a location would have to be rented and a website designed.  Nevertheless, with prudent oversight, some crowd-sourcing, and a sizeable personal investment (sizeable for me, less than a pittance by studio-standards) I could produce a version that would test the viability of BlackBxx and its potential to draw an audience.

I decided to begin with a story that didn’t require too many expensive elements, BlackBxx: HAUNTED, a supernatural thriller about a disastrous paranormal investigation.  The cast would be limited to seven characters, and the action would take place on location in a suburban home.  We would cover the entire drama with 16 fixed cameras.  Additional footage would be captured with two handhelds operated by the cast when and if it suited the story.

After rehearsals, we would place our cast inside the house, start the cameras, call action

… and 48 hours later, after the last scene was played, we would call cut.
In the meantime, the cast would be living their roles, playing scenes, performing tasks, reacting to supernatural events all over the house as defined in the script. Scenes and action would be occurring simultaneously within the various rooms.  The actors would eat, sleep and dream in character for the duration of the shoot.

So I founded a company, recruited my team, and began writing lots of checks.

Which brings me to the present, three weeks out from production, on a wing and a prayer and in the finest tradition of the American Entrepreneurial Spirit.  The elements are coming into place; the expenses, incurred and growing. 

If we succeed, a small group of artists will have invented nothing less than an entirely new form of entertainment.  We’ll be able to go on to produce additional BlackBxx projects, each more complex and ambitious than the last.

If we fail, it will be written off as a harebrained experiment by the miserable few who see it. 

Oh, yeah.  And my wife?  She’ll murder me.

Hopefully, Kickstarter will accept this project and I will be able to crowd-source it to offset some of the costs.  If so, your contributions will earn you a boatload of cool rewards (one of which will be a personal visit to your home to watch your favorite episode of CARNIVÁLE with you and your friends).

I’ll be counting on you guys and other fans and friends of CARNIVÁLE to help pitch in and make this thing happen. 

If you choose not to, however, remember that my blood will be on your hands.