Friday, May 1, 2015

Become a Prince in Another Land

A couple years ago I attended a Writer’s Guild retreat where J. Michael Straczynski spoke. Mr. Straczynski is known for creating the television series Babylon 5, doing runs as writer on the comic books The Amazing Spider-man, Thor, and Superman, and writing the movie Changeling. And that is only a sampling of his television, comic book, and film writing!

A major topic of Mr. Stracynski’s talk was his “Prince from Another Land” concept. He believes writing in different media boosts his career, because people are more impressed by accomplishments in a different field, one they don’t know as well. So comic book people are impressed that he worked in television, movie people are impressed that he worked in comic books, and TV people are impressed that he worked in film. The prince from another land is more impressive than the local prince.

Mr. Stracynski may have been prescient in his career approach. The screenwriting business is changing fast. When I entered it, there were firm walls – screenwriters didn’t work in television and television writers didn’t work in film. You picked one and if you were lucky enough to be successful, you stayed there. But today, many screenwriters are moving to television, and several television writers I know have made movie deals – and both are finding jobs in videogame and comic book writing.

There are many reasons for the shift. One thing that has broken down the barrier between film and television is the improving quality of TV. When I started out, television was considered creatively inferior to movies. Writing for TV was supposedly beneath screenwriters, and television writers were thought to lack the skill to write movies. Now, of course, most people regard television, on average, as creatively superior to feature films… and the wall has come down.

But there’s a bigger change at work here – a technological paradigm shift. Not only has the snobbish judgment collapsed, the divide between what is television and what is film is blurring. And you can add “web series” to that blur.

In the past, we defined media largely by delivery system. Television came in over cable or through the air to your TV set. Movies played in movie theaters (and then on television and DVD, but that was considered secondary). Anything on the Internet was a web series, something you watched on a computer.

But now we’re moving to a world where television series and movies are being created by websites like Netflix and Amazon – and winning Emmys. Web series are streamed to your television while television shows are often viewed on a computer. Widespread day-and-date releasing of movies in theaters and on-demand at home seems inevitable. And the new buzzword in movies is “story worlds” – a fictional universe that can generate multiple movies (e.g. the Marvel, Harry Potter, and Star Wars story worlds), changing the perception of what a movie story is.

So today, the difference between “television” and “movies” is simply whether something is serialized or self-contained. For screenwriters, it means that we must become increasingly versatile to sustain a career.

And that can be harder than it sounds. Narrative works differently when it’s serialized vs. when it’s self-contained. That’s another reason film and TV writers didn’t cross over much in the old days – their skill sets were different. Movies are all about beginning-middle-end. Television is all middle. Story worlds are a new form entirely – a world that can generate multiple self-contained stories that are yet interconnected.

Let me get back to the “Prince from Another Land” idea. You may have noticed another shift in the film industry. Almost everything is based on something else – a comic book, novel, videogame, etc. There have always been a fair number of studio movies based on underlying material (historically novels and plays), but now it’s newsworthy when a studio actually greenlights an original screenplay.

Television isn’t immune to this trend. Many recent television shows are based on comic books (Daredevil, Flash, iZombie, Agents of Shield) or movies (About a Boy, Fargo, Parenthood, the upcoming Rush Hour).

This is posing a challenge for newcomers breaking into the business and for established writers trying to reinvent themselves. It used to be you would do both of those things by writing a spec script. Spec scripts got a lot of attention and showcased what a writer could do. But the spec market is waning in the era of “underlying material.” It’s actually a little unclear how the industry is going to find new writers in the future. Specs are certainly still part of the equation, but it looks more and more like if you want to write for movies and/or television, you ought to showcase your skills in another medium.

To that end, I just self-published an ebook novella based on one of my favorite spec screenplay that was never produced. It’s an action-adventure story called Aftermath: Kodiak and Dawn. The logline is: After America is devastated by a deadly plague, a world-weary trucker who’s lost his family searches for a runaway teenage girl in a wilderness controlled by a gang of vicious hijackers.

It was an interesting process turning a screenplay into a novella. I’ve written prose before, but converting a screenplay to prose really emphasized the differences in the mediums. Much like the difference between serialized and self-contained stories, there are differences in the way film and prose function. It was sometimes challenging to deal with those differences – but also a lot of fun to try something new.

If you’d like to read the ebook of Aftermath: Kodiak and Dawn, it’s available for a mere 99 cents at Smashwords, Barns and Noble and in the iTunes store (use the search function from iTunes) – with more outlets to come. Let me know what you think!

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