Friday, February 23, 2007

My Dinner with Quandary

Last week we were having dinner in the Hollywood Hills at another couple's house, and after enjoying a tasty meal that featured some of our host's glorious home-made meatballs, the subject of the Internet and the future of the Industry came up. Now, for reasons I won't go into, an inordinate number of our friends make their livings as writers for film and television, so this is not such an unusual topic for after-supper conversation.

One of the problems that professional writers for both the large and small screen are currently grappling with is media consolidation, which significantly erodes their bargaining power as a group of specialized professionals, but the other looming threat to their livelihood is the consumption habits of the digital generation themselves as viewers and their general unwillingness as an audience to pay outright for content, even if their parents are still content to shell out for those video store late fees and write that monthly check to their local cable company, like other oldsters. If the digital generation consumes the standard Hollywood fare, the fear is that they will do so without paying through participating in common file-sharing practices or logging onto shadowy offshore websites.

Or, even worse, the entire market may continue to shrink as audiences reject the value of dramatic or comedic expertise entirely and opt to turn their eyeballs to the all-volunteer entertainment galaxy that is proliferating among amateur dramaturges online. Reality TV -- which has already taken over much of the broadcast spectrum -- could become the norm into the Nth dimension, and the "participatory culture" celebrated by Henry Jenkins could put the entire membership of the WGA on the unemployment rolls. (Even I will confess to liking Project Runway, on which I'll be giving a paper in April, and The Amazing Race before reality TV "professionals" like Rob and Amber cut in.)

As the kids were sent downstairs to play anti-social videogames, and the cigars and champagne came out, my friend actually asked me point-blank what professional writers should be doing to survive in this new infotainment economy.

Now, on the rare occasions when I'm urged to give my opinion about emergent media, it is usually in regard to higher education or to government institutions, two subjects that I actually know something about by virtue of my service to the University of California and my research in the field of digital rhetoric. When it comes to entertainment, however, I'm just about the least likely person around to be able to predict the likes and dislikes of mainstream America. I still pull TV signals out of the air with a coat hanger on my set, and the only shows I watch have to do with politics and famous historical rhetoricians. When I go to the movies, it is most often a foreign film that I can walk to in my boho neighborhood. And, if it isn't a NASA astronaut, I have no idea who the people on the covers of People are.

But I do know the basics of how to hack my iPod to play clips that I find on the web. And I watch more YouTube than anyone in my age or education bracket that I know. (In fact, I bought my most recent cellular plan for my mobile phone expressly for this purpose.) And I do have screen names on a number of social networking sites and MMOs. So I might not be the stupidest choice for a semi-knowledgeable informant when it comes to these new electronic genres.

So here's my list of possible strategies, suitable for a memo to a Hollywood bigwig, that tries to answer my friends' basic question about what's a nice scriptwriter to do now that the world is going digital.

Approach One: Go Gentle into that Good Night

Give up. Content yourself with being cool and retro and potentially ironic, like silent films or organ music or film strips or ditto machines. After all, the hip thing to do at Burning Man is to make drive-ins, so you could just show film festivals of your old work to whacked-out half-naked mud-covered teeny boppers and feel good about yourself until it was time for your appearance in the montage of dead Oscar winners. Then again, you could be a sensible capitalist and invest in companies that produce search engines, plug and play social media platforms, non-DRM technologies, more intuitive interfaces, ubiquitous computing devices, and semantic web services. (Remember, usability matters to consumers, whether you are talking about the Sony PS3 or the Microsoft Zune.) Or flip a coin and chance putting it all in Microsoft, on the hunch that Windows Vista might really succeed in its most evil plans.

Approach Two: Put Heads on Pikes

Get tough on those lousy punks! Although you are still merely labor, join up with management in the entertainment industry in hunting down and prosecuting scofflaw file-sharers. It won't do anything to affect demand, of course, so the War on Piracy is probably as efficacious -- and expensive -- as the War on Drugs that you may well have ducked bullets from in your own youth. Nonetheless, it might be a really fun power trip to be on for a while; even better than writing an episode of 24. You can cheer for the use of new gee-whiz automated bots that troll the Internet for distinctive audio or video signatures, like the software that busted this dead pianist. (More of the damning evidence against her is here.). You can enlist your local boy scout troop. You could even make content that tricks those outlaws into revealing much more than their IP addresses when they unwittingly log on.

Of course, there are still all these people who are watching interesting, non-infringing stuff on YouTube, like some of my favorites. Furthermore, as users gravitate toward Constitutionally protected forms of expression like parody, you might find it a difficult fight to win in court, even with Congress in its current regulatory mood.

Approach Three: Make Shrinky Dinks

Appropriately, next month's Wired magazine has a cover story on "Bite-Size Entertainment: Explore the New World of One Minute Media," which is all about what is essentially the micropayments option, in which entertainment is pared down to the puny size that penny-wise consumers remain willing to pay for . . . or at least sit still for as they multitask. (My favorite fun fact in the article is that 39 percent of all respondents among college students write that they IM while writing papers.) The image on the cover explains the basic premise: a bag of chips that is labeled "Try! Snack Culture! Tasty Bits o' Fun! Now with MINIMOVIES! SONG SNIPS! MICROGAMES! & MORE!" But it also dishes some of my own favorite pop culture delicacies, such as PostSecret and or customized slogans on t-shirts as indicative of this trend. Even with a DVD rental costing less than a venti latte, who wouldn't pay ten cents for a few minutes of best bits?

Approach Four: Turn Everything Into an Ad

Why do you want to make stories about Rick and Elsa when you can write scripts about the forbidden love between the Taco Bell Chihuahua and Betty Crocker? Or -- better yet -- can you say product placement? Payments for those highly visible consumer commodities soon may be topping the box office for some films. Furthermore, choosy upscale consumers can't TiVo through a brand name product featured on the set, since it's not actually part of the commercial air time. Already ostentatiously visible products are turning up in supposedly home-made YouTube videos, and certainly the sale of Mentos isn't hurt by spontaneous fan behaviors. Unfortunately they won't need writers to put these products into the story, since digital technology can do that work in post-production.

Approach Five: Understand that the Search is the Message

What's really valuable about new forms of Internet search technology, websites that allow personal files -- even family photographs and home movies -- to be stored and organized on remote sites, and online social networking services is the intimate data about consumers that can be gleaned. Even without supposedly identifiable information, search behaviors can tell marketers a lot about individual consumers. But with those identifiers willingly supplied, there is much more that a marketer can do with the data. From talking to my own teen, I know that he is remarkably willing to give up private information in exchange for access to "free" content. As a recent article in New York Magazine explains, we may be approaching "The End of Privacy: The Kids, the Internet, and the Greatest Generation Gap Since Rock 'n' Roll. (When I looked at it, I thought of the famed recent UNC Pit Break-Up -- which was advertised on Facebook and publicized on YouTube -- was a fake, but we might not be that far from an ethos of stadium-style coverage of young people's most intimate moments, even if this particular episode was Internet theater.)

In other words, the challenge may be to create content that is primarily designed to reveal information about the audience member rather than about the character onscreen. Suppose there is a consumer, who may well have uploaded pictures that show who in the family has hair that is graying or who has put on a few extra pounds and thus is in need of a specific consumer commodity, but the mega-corporations won't be able to target their pitches appropriately without the necessary metadata about who is who in the pictures. Perhaps having your tagging done by Mechanical Turks, even in the Third World, may still be prohibitively expensive. So how do you get the consumer to give you that information online? Luckily, despite all the publicity about fakesters, most people are remarkably forthcoming and represent their Internet personae relatively accurately, even though they may shave off a few years. But perhaps you can get them to reveal even more about themselves by tracking the choices that they make in watching an Internet story, particularly when personality profiling is such a lucrative industry, although I'd still liken it to nineteenth-century pseudo-sciences with self-fulfilling prophecies like phrenology.

Approach Six: Make the Scripts in Videogames Not Suck

Of course, the money to be made writing for videogames is nothing compared to a six-figure studio paycheck, but it is a growing entertainment industry that is desperately in need of better characters, stories, and jokes. Of course, good, post-cinematic story-telling will probably have to start with independent game developers, and they are facing new technological hurtles of their own with the looming prospect of de facto lock-out from Microsoft Vista and a lack of support for new controllers like the Wii.

Approach Seven: Make Interactive Art and/or Literature of Some Value to the General Public

A lot of cool game-based or interactive technology for lyric, dramatic, or comic expression that universities are developing is only getting used by the military. What if Hollywood actually teamed up with the ivory tower instead of shot anti-intellectual surface to air missiles at it? They are doing it at the Institute of Creative Technologies and some other places around the country, but the general public is still not included.

Nothing prevents a relatively intelligent person from learning enough code to communicate on a software development team. Even your faithful reporter is taking a class that includes learning some action script from this Flash teacher. Of course, if numbers scare you, you can do a lot of story-telling even with relatively low-tech approaches. You can even be nominated for awards just using the protocols of an off-the-shelf commercial product. Look at the controversial one-time Slamdance finalist Danny LeDonne's work on Super Columbine Massacre RPG!

Unfortunately, a lot of this work doesn't actually need writers. For example, this week I am majorly digging the work being done at Northwestern, particularly News at Seven, which creates automated evening news shows with game characters and data from online news and the blogosphere. (More about this later.)

Approach Eight: Write Stories that Are Site-Specific

Ubiquitous computing opens up enormous entertainment possibilities, particularly now that cell phones have so many capabilities for staging group interactions in physical landscapes. You may not want to tell your story against the backdrop of a wedding or Bar Mitzvah, but there are still plenty of opportunities to tell stories in shopping malls and theme parks and build on work being done by people like Jonathan and Casey Ackley.

Approach Nine: Write Transmedia Stories

Hollywood has run on a closed shop model for a long time, and perhaps it is no accident that they call their professional associations "guilds," given the protective medieval environment of apprenticeship that still surrounds the process. Crossing into print or combining forces with other one-to-many forms of traditional media may be one chance at survival.

Approach Ten: Join a Campaign

With an election coming up, progressive parties and candidates probably need your skills most. Politics needs better stories, characters, and jokes to engage the public. And participatory democracy could be the place to start.

Then again, now that the Oscars have a Thank You Webcam, and the Emmys are giving prizes for Interactive Media, perhaps the moguls already know all this.

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Blogger BJ said...

Hey – since you’re a YouTuber, you might want to check this out… There’s a video company that’s recruiting
YouTubers and if they like your stuff, (and they should) they will actually pay you when your video gets a hit.
Here’s their link… It’s about time the people who make
the videos get some of the money instead of it all going to YouTube!

12:42 PM  

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