The technological arms race that has given us wi-fi and social media has left our society with a fractured attention span in a broken media landscape. Consider how we watch TV: smartphone cradled in one hand, iPad just a lean away.
“You’ve got these connected devices that are taking up a lot of your attention. It creates this conflict, it’s competing. You’re watching a show and then your phone rings and it’s a friend and you got to pause the show and go talk to your friend. Or then you’re chatting on Facebook. All of these kind of invitations into your life that compete for that very precious little band of attention.”
This is how Elan Lee, co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Fourth Wall Studios sees the new normal. It’s a problem that everyone in the entertainment industry is trying to crack: even movie theater owners are thinking about allowing texting during films, a sign taken by some that the barbarians have won. Where others see a crisis, Lee and his studio see an opportunity.
This month they launch Dirty Work– a cable TV style comedy about crime scene cleaners. But it is nothing like cable TV. It’s the first showcase series for the interactive platform they call RIDES. The show starts with a call to your phone, which lets you eavesdrop on a conversation taking place on screen. It’s a technique used to create “gee whiz” moments. Later on the phone trick is used to let the audience in on a character’s thoughts. Instead of letting smartphones and laptops compete with the show for the audience’s attention, RIDES allies with them.
“It collects all of those things together,” said Lee, “your Facebook account and your Twitter and what you’re looking at at the moment. Your telephone number and your ability to leave text messages and on and on. It synchronizes them all together so they all work in unison to tell a really, really good story.”
THE FUTURE OF STORYTELLING [BETA]
At Fourth Wall Studio’s cavernous offices— housed inside a post-modern office park in Culver City intentionally designed to appear as if it barely survived an attack by Mothra— Lee demoed the first episode of Dirty Work for me. Sitting nearby were the studio’s executive producer Zach Schiff-Abrams and head of production Jackie Turnure. RIDES was two weeks from launch at that point, with known bugs present. There were just as many nerves in the room as there would be during a video game demonstration, Lee and company on edge that something new would go wrong with the latest build of RIDES. If Dirty Work were just a pilot for a TV series there’d be no fear of an experience destroying software bug.
For the purposes of the demo Lee sends the signature “wow” content of Dirty Work— the phone calls— to the screen. This is always an option for viewers, but it robs the experience of its punch. Dirty Work itself has solid production values, to the point where the thought “web series” fades away from the first shot. Below the picture window a timeline lurks, anchored by data points that signal the approach of a phone call, text message, or bonus scene.
“One of the things that user testing revealed,” said Jackie Turnure, “was that there is a tension between anticipating and recognizing on the timeline that there’s about to be extra content coming up and then excitedly hovering. Waiting to click on it, but at the same time wanting to watch what’s happening. That tension of anticipation but also avoiding distraction, that’s what I think we’re getting right 80% of the time right now.”
It’s possible to watch Dirty Work— any RIDES content for that matter— straight through without interacting with the extra content. As the show plays out that material is collected into an inventory, which RIDES gives the viewer the option of picking through during the act breaks. It is an inversion of the classic commercial break from television. Instead of stopping down the action to watch some ads, RIDES takes a pause to let the viewer dig deeper into the world of the story.
As a show Dirty Work has a lot going for it. The crime scene cleaners set-up will give the writing team an endless supply of weird scenarios to put the cast through, which includes recognizable actors from 24 and Breaking Bad. These actors serve as a talisman to ward off any lingering notion that a web distributed series is a second string affair by nature.
Hours later, at home with my own second string DSL connection I log into Home: A Ghost Story, the early beta demo Fourth Wall released. It is here that I finally undergo the singularly creepy experience of a ghost calling my phone, perfectly synched to the action on screen. It’s a kind of magic that brings with it the physical shock the opening shots of The Dark Knight did in IMAX. Who knew a simple phone call could carry so much metaphysical weight?
THE ARG EXPERTS
Lee and studio head writer Sean Stewart had a pretty good idea. They were the co-creators of the first Alternate Reality Game, a promotion for the Steven Spielberg film A.I. affectionally known to its players as “The Beast”
“They were stories that would reach out to you and live in the same world that you lived in,” said Lee. “So all of a sudden you’d be playing the game and in the middle of the night a character from the game would call you on your cellphone and that’s when the next chapter would begin. And it was really cool. It was really fun. It felt kind of like crafting the future somehow.”
At the time he was working on “The Beast” Lee was the lead designer at Microsoft Game Studios.
“When we finished I was all excited because I was like ‘This is awesome! Let’s go build a ton more of these. It really feels like we’re on to something here.’ Then my boss at Microsoft said ‘Explain to me exactly how that makes more money than a game for the XBox which I actually hired you to build?’”
So Lee resigned from his position at Microsoft and went on to co-found 42 Entertainment, the company that pioneered Alternate Reality Games as a marketing tool for video games and movies. For the past decade the creators of ARGs have been developing a host of storytelling techniques that leverage all of our modern technology to create incredibly immersive experiences for a small but very intense audience.
“One of the things that we did was spend five years confusing the living hell out of people, and saying ‘We’re going to make the most impenetrable stuff you ever saw and it’s gonna be AWESOME,’ said Sean Stewart. “And it was pretty awesome. But it was kind of impenetrable.”
Stewart sees the work on RIDES as a chance to use what he and his colleagues have learned to reach a wider audience.
“Dirty Work reaches out to you if you wish it to— on your phone, in your email, via text— but you can consume it in a way that’s more familiar,” said Stewart. “You don’t have to stay awake, hop on one foot, run to your local campus, answer a ringing pay phone in the middle of the desert. It looks like other stuff that you do. The idea is that we’d like people to actually feel comfortable having a new media experience, instead of having to be the coolest kid in their dorm to do this stuff.”
TRANSMEDIA’S CROSSOVER MOMENT
Fourth Wall’s challenges are bigger than just tempting audiences into a new storytelling paradigm; they have to convince other media makers to embrace the new way as well. The past few years in Hollywood, thanks in a large part to the work of the ARG creators, has seen the term “transmedia” become the hot buzzword. Even if no one can agree on what it actually means. The time is ripe for a transmedia product to crossover into the mainstream, but the makers of mainstream media are still reluctant to play.
“You want to take the best writers, the best actors, the best craftspeople, the best [directors of photography] and a lot of those people are not working in games,” said head of production Jackie Turnure. “They’re not working in kind of crazy transmedia companies. They are out there making really high quality film and television, and you want to attract those people, because until the work we make can compete with the kind of work those people make, audiences are always going to see us as a second class citizen. As some kind of poor man’s version.”
“There is an expression that we’ve found ourselves using many times,” said Turnure, “that is ‘We’re building the plane as we’re flying it.‘ We’re building the platform at the same time that we’re building the content, and those two things influence each other greatly. Those are the big challenges. That we are kind of figuring out things that we thought would work and then didn’t, and that then impacts the way we make our content along the way.”
To thrive, Fourth Wall Studios has to be more than just a media production company. The technology is, obviously, central to what they are doing. The closest analogy is this: when a video game company makes a new game engine they ship a game with all the bells and whistles to show off what their new baby can do. Games like Gears of War are walking, talking, exploding, profit making calling cards for their home studio’s technologies. Ultimately the goal is to get other game studios to license the engine. According to CEO Jim Stewartson, the platforms that Fourth Wall Studios are building— RIDES and a mobile augmented reality set-up currently called “Elseware”— are toys they intend to share with others.
“Our goal is to create and experiment enough with these tools,” said Stewartson, “to build this platform so that it’s robust enough that other people who are even more creative than we are, who have incredible stories to tell, will be able to take the platform and the tools and be able to expand them and make them better. In the long term we see what we’re building as a movie camera and a movie theater. We want to be making movies with those, because at the end of the day that’s what we do; but we’re hoping that there’s something much bigger that will enable anybody to play in this world.”
To get to that point even the most mundane, sacrosanct parts of production have come under scrutiny. Writer and producer Jay Bushman— who started off his career as one of the players in “The Beast”— explains.
“We’re all used to screenplay format, which is a format that was developed a hundred years ago out of the physical necessity of the filmic production process,” said Bushman. “It was a difficult and interesting challenge, trying to take a format and make it do things that it didn’t want to do. We’ve talked about trying to come up with a new format. We’ve tried to talk about just starting from ground zero.”
BACK TO BASICS
That a group of some of the craftiest storytellers on the planet are rethinking the shape of the screenplay in a office park not far from where Howard Hughes when crazy seems completely appropriate. These are, after all, overloaded ADHD laden times. The cadre at Fourth Wall, who have been living on the edge of new media for the past ten years, are conscious of the historical moment. CEO Stewartson likens the moment to as a step as big as the one from stage plays to movies. So far the attempts to make that leap have been like “taking the Matrix and putting it on your iPhone. That’s a terrible experience. Just like watching a stage play on a movie screen is a terrible experience.”
“What we’re hoping to do is start looking at how the internet wants to tell stories.“ Stewartson said. “How do your devices want to tell stories? In the same way that the movie camera wanted to tell stories. We don’t see it as an evolution. We’re at one of those inflection points like the printing press and the movies and television that really took things to a completely different place.”
All of which is enough to make your head spin if you entertain the possibilities. The team at Fourth Wall is forced to stay much more grounded. They, after all, have to ship their platform and shows. Moreover, they have to connect with audiences, which puts the emphasis back on the basics of storytelling. This is reflected in the name RIDES, which Lee says was settled based on the similarities between the form and that of a roller coaster.
Executive producer Zach Schiff-Abrams, who came to Fourth Wall from a successful movie producing career, boils the choice of the name down to something even more fundamental.
“People want to be taken on a ride,” said Schiff-Abrams. “They want the storyteller to guide them along that path. Sure that path might take circuitous routes at points, but they desperately want to be taken on a ride.”