Thursday, July 30, 2009

James Cameron, Would You Like to Date My Avatar?

San Diego, CA

July 23rd, 2009

Convention Center

Int. Hall H

(Zoe Saldana has just introduced Felicia Day to James Cameron...)

“Hello Codex, a pleasure to meet a fan as always, and aren’t you a sprightly thing.”

“Well actually my real name is Felicia but hello King of the World, I mean Mr. Cameron. It’s an honor meeting you. Your 'Avatar' clip was quite the visceral experience.”

“Wasn’t it? Didn’t you feel completely immersed in the world of Pandorum and the Na’vi?”

“Yup, totally felt like I was right there, fluorescent plants and 10 ft. tall blue avatars and all.”

“Excellent! Plus, I’m also trying to make a meaningful film about respecting our planet.”

“Wow, really? Cool. Have you seen 'The Guild'?”

“The what? Oh is that your web show? (Felicia nods) Well no, I’m sorry but have been a little immersed in making the next earth shattering film that exceeds 'Titanic' in both emotional resonance and aesthetic achievement.”

“Wow that’s cast and I just want to defeat Kael’Thas, he’s a frakking tough mob boss. And we also want to entertain our amazing fans. We made a music video about Dating our Avatar- did you hear about it? Really awesome, one of the Whedon brothers directed it and Sandeep got to rap.”

“Well that sounds lovely, look forward to checking that out one day. Maybe you’ll get a panel here next year."

“Oh we did, it was sold out.”

“Really? Well mine too of course. But great to hear and good luck to you and your show”.

“Yup, you too JC, Look forward to wearing some nifty 3-D glasses when you premiere in Dec.
By the way I think Zoe would make a great Wonder Woman..."

(Not that James Cameron has anything to do with Wonder Woman, that's Joel Silver)

Fade to Black.

Obviously this is nothing like what a meeting between James Cameron and Felicia Day would be like (or what it would look like in Final Draft). And I apologize if my description of either the Avatar screening or the WoW jargon (and Felicia’s use of ‘frakking’) was off as I a) couldn’t get into Hall H during the Con thus did not see the 'Avatar' footage and b) am not a WoW player (and googled WoW highest level and found that there are no levels?) so I used creative research to add a tinge of semi-authentic detail to the exchange. But why the fictitious exchange at all? Because it illustrates an epiphany that I had upon leaving The Con. I suddenly realized that Hollywood’s sparkling gem, their biggest spectacle teased during the convention, the future of entertainment itself, the 3-D movie, is just trying to do what 'The Guild' already does: make the audience feel like they are a part of the show.

It’s crazy when you think about it? Really good web content is such because it is interactive. 3-D movies are special because they take you out of the two dimension viewing experience and bring you into the aesthetic world of the story. Both mediums are aspiring to the same thing-to create a heightened emotional experience, thus bond, with the narrative and characters…but only one is authentic. Both are immersive, one is interactive.

What does interactive really mean? It’s such a buzz word amongst web producers as creating an immersive and permeable world around your show is the holy grail (and apparently something that is monetizable). Finding a clear, non-contested definition of the word is actually a little difficult but I like the following definitions:

-Interactional: capable of acting on or influencing each other
-Any type of media that allows the user to influence and react to it.

Another definition that isn’t pertaining to media but nonetheless has an interesting implication is this:

-Synergistic: used especially of drugs or muscles that work together so the total effect is greater than the sum of the two (or more).

Greater than the sum of the two. Isn't 'The Guild' reflective of that thought? Two Seasons of episodes + Fans doesn't simply yield the intense success that has befallen the show. Something else happened here (above and beyond favorable YouTube placement and ICM), something I can only attribute to the initial fan involvement in Season 1; the fans became veritable, vested producers. As most of you know, fan donations allowed for Season 1 production to continue; the show would have ceased production if it were not for the well clicked PayPal button. Yes, the niche fan base was already there because of the WoW tie in and Felicia’s name, but it was a good show, something not embraced by the mainstream Hollywood machine (as it originally a TV pilot) and they supported not only with their comments but with their credit cards. And Felicia and her team acknowledged these donors (both on the site and by thank you notes apparently) and thus valued them . This initial infusement of money allowed the show to continue, then flourish and finally find the wide and fervent fan base it now has. Look where the show is at- deals with Xbox/ Microsoft (which means Yahoo now too?), sold out panels and signings at Comic Con, Wil Wheaton now a cast member of the 3rd season. All because Felicia, Kim Evey and Sean Becker made a great show that fans found they could actually be an integral part of. They could comment, converse and even contribute. (The pic above can be found at this fan's blog)

Which brings us back to the 3-D spectacles of Hollywood. Competition for your entertainment dollar is at it’s peak, with the recession hitting everyone’s pocketbook and myriad narrative products vying for your attention. Plus our ability to accept visual spectacle is evolving exponentially. Our brains have adapted to processing special effects/CGI so we aren't particularly wow'ed when we see Los Angeles being destroyed by a massive earthquake due to the 2012 Mayan End Date or the Eiffel Tower crumpling to the ground because of some weird green energy lasso. But when we first saw dinosaurs in 'Jurassic Park', didn’t your jaw drop? Mine did, and my heart soared with the experience. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Now I take it for granted. The 3-D jump aspires to put the audience back into that place of awe, where movie going is special and moving and new. 'Coraline' and 'Up' had that effect on me. But the effect will soon fade.

Wanting to connect with other fans, and with the creative product itself will not fade, however. That’s what makes Comic Con such a viable platform for Hollywood to premiere its new products on. The fans are clamouring to have an interactive piece of the movies, stars and directors that they are fans of. Comic Con is really the only chance where die hard fans will be guaranteed geographic access to their heroes, maybe even have the opportunity to engage in a quick question and answer session with. If that fan/ Hollywood star/ filmmaker interactive experience is authentic and exciting, then thousands of fans at the panel will spread the seeds and viral word of mouth takes off. But that’s where the interaction ends. Instant gratification for the fan, but short lived.

So this is our chance. This is our chance as web content creators and pioneers of the digital entertainment space to embrace the opportunity of creating stories and worlds where fans are a valued and viable component. Let's step away from producing TV lite and move towards creating the best narrative experiences that we can possibly film, and then acknowledge that that is only one part of the equation.

Be back soon,

All Things T

Sunday, July 12, 2009

What's in a name...

My brain feels like a newborn solar system. I have so much flying around on different orbits and trajectories: planets, moons, sightings of an occasional gamma ray blast from afar, a solar flare and a few asteroids keeping things interesting (and dangerous) all circling the center point that is my sun. And as often happens, at least in sci fi, a comet just hit an asteroid and caused it to change course. I was going to explore my two competing interpretations of ABC (Glengarry Glen Ross reference for those of you non-Mamet peeps) stemming from a chaotic week of brain churning panels at NATPE, an unexpected (and ill-fated) audition and an important week of writing- but hold that discussion. I'm watching a battle. No, not the battle to save the earth from the Asteroid (!) but a battle between David and Goliath, the man and the machine, the indie innovator and big media. To Syfy or not to Syfy...that is the question.

A lot of discourse has flooded my twitter timelines over the past few months about the name change from Sci Fi Channel to Syfy, a transition that occurred this past Tuesday. Did it really bother me at all or give me pause during the day to reflect on it (except the ill-fated timing of the roll over being on the same day as Michael Jackson's funeral)? Nope- I am a Sci Fi Channel fan but I'm really busy trying to create my own sci fi content, so if the icon on the bottom of my screen is a bit different, I'm not going to pay much attention to it. But discussions have continued to pop up revealing that many people feel very strongly about the name change. Why? Well from some posts it looks like it is basically being taken as a 'diss' by the authentic science fiction fans. That changing the name of the channel to a word that sounds the same but looks different is straddling both sides of the fence; the channel wants to retain it's hard core sci fi fans but not be off putting to potential viewers who might shy away from such associations. Maybe it is a diss but the reasons behind, it in my humble opinion, are valid, at least from a commerce point of view. NBC/Universal, the behemoth that owns the channel, wants to be able to control the copyright to the name. When someone Googles a 'Sci Fi show', unlike a TNT show or a TBS show, the genre, not just the channel results are posted. NBC/Universal also wants to be able to own the name for purposes of branding and merchandizing. Though the idea of someone buying a Syfy t-shirt who is not a sci fi fan is befuddling, what I think this issue gives rise to, on the eve of our most hallowed of events (Comic Con), is the disenchantment and disenfranchisement of the science fiction fan. We don't have a home of our own- no planet to speak of that is just ours.

The Science Fiction Channel (later changed to it's abbreviation) was birthed as an offshoot of the USA Network when it was owned by both Paramount and Universal. Both studios had libraries of science fiction content that found a natural home on the new channel and apparently Issac Asimov was even on the board. Original scripted content on cable channels didn't exist. And check out the wikipedia entry. Do you see how many times the ownership of the channel or its parent company changed? I'm suprised that the channel lived to see today. It did continue to be a natural home for network or premium cable genre shows in their second run. Then original content started popping up and Sci Fi had first run programming though low cost productions- like 'The Invisible Man' and 'The Outer Limits'- which were produced outside 'the circle' of Los Angeles. But primarily, Sci Fi Channel was a syndication landing strip for sci fi/ fantasy/ horror series and movies that had been deficit financed by other networks so needed to recoup their costs and ultimately hope to make a profit. For us fans of sci fi, it just meant that we knew to click on the channel if we were looking for something sci fi to watch on Saturday at 3pm or 1am on a Sunday as it is now.

But then the channel was forced to grow as the TV model changed. The syndication model was no longer effective in bringing viewers, thus advertising dollars, to a stand alone cable channel. The DVD release of TV series, one not regulated in its rollout 'window' like feature films, made watching 2nd run programming practically obsolete as the content was now available, on demand, in the palm of your hand (in the form of a DVD). Channels had to create original, unique programming to catch the attention of audiences so that the channel would become a destination. A great example of that in recent years is AMC. Would you ever think to click to that channel and see what was on if it had not been for 'Mad Men'? My image of that channel was akin to that of Turner Movie Classics, old movies, in black and white, probably introduced by some old TV star. But now, because of Matthew Weiner's brilliant show, I am hyper aware of the channel and will take notice of its schedule. So, original programming became the mandate. Over a matter of the past ten years this has become the norm, over the past five years, the fare has become top notch, edgy comedy and dramas started butting heads with the likes of the 'West Wing' at the Emmys. Do you remember when you were shocked as opposed to complacent about your cable programming being as good or better than network fare? USA Today reports today that network numbers are down double digits this summer because of strong cable fare. This doesn't surprise me as shows like 'Burn Notice', 'Royal Pains', 'True Blood' and 'Nurse Jackie' are at the top of my TiVo list.

Cable has competed effectively with the networks in scripted comedy and drama fare. But how do you compete when your product is sci fi? You don't, you can't, it's too expensive to produce unless you have the support of massive ad campaign or two. And come to think of it, you aren't even competing against sci fi original fare on network TV, as it rarely survives, you are competing against movies, often hundred million dollar ones. Most great science fiction will forever stay within the pages of a book or comic as the resources are just not there to support the transference of it into a live action filmed product. So we settle for hybrids. Tried and true story and characters arcs that are set in a semi sci-fi setting, dusted with fairy dust. That way this product can someone appeal to the masses even if they have no idea who Neil Gaiman is or what the Singularity refers to.

So what does this mean for the newly rebranded Syfy channel. Apparently the image one conjures when hearing the word Sci Fi is that of a geeky, overweight fan boy who resides in his parents basement playing WoW, with no steady income. Really still? Didn't anyone read my evolution of geek post? But apparently that stereotype is still alive and well. And Syfy didn't want to be solely identified with that specific audience, even as its numbers were growing, for fear (I'm assuming) of alienating potential brand sponsors. Plus, much of their viewership growth can be attributed to the popularity of their non sci fi programming, such as 'Ghost Hunters', 'Wrestling' and 'Scare Tactics'. They also have a growing mainstream audience base (including females) that responds to it's quirkier scifi comedy fare, that of 'Eureka' (I'm a fan), it's new sister show Warehouse 13 (I'm a potential fan if they expand upon the history/ mythology of the artifacts on the website and reduce the quirk factor) and its scifi fantasy lite movies. I know they are trying to umbrella this array of content under an 'Imagine Greater' motto but it's making the mistake of trying to convince the real sci fi fans that the channel is still for them. It's not, it's kinda, maybe, partially for them, sometimes.

So, what about the real sci fi fare, the mind tingling fiction that pulls us into worlds more fantastical than our own? BSG legitimized Sci Fi for a long time. It was their network competition heavy weight show (that better frakking win an Emmy this year). But now it's over and I can only imagine how nervous the network is about the 'Caprica' and 'Stargate: Universe' launch. Mass consumption, at the levels needed by corporate America, of serialized science fiction (save for the anomaly semi sci fi 'Lost') has proven to be difficult. Why didn't Syfy pick up 'Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles'. I assume because it was simply too expensive. Look at where most of their original shows are shot? Canada. Because the production costs are cheaper and the talent is as well. Even star names make significantly less under the SAG cable contract, ask the cast of 'Mad Men' and 'Damages'; I doubt Lena Hedley would be keen to relocate to Vancouver and take a big pay cut to keep the TSCC franchise alive. The mini-series 'Tin Man' was brought up in a discussion tonight as a highlight of SciFi's original content achievement. I have to say I never watched it, mostly because I'm actually not a fan of Zooey Deschanel, but also because when I read the script in preparation for the character I had an audition for, my take on the part, as with my read on most of the script, was intense but over the top. I actually got reprimanded by the casting director for my performance. Ironically the clip I saw of Kathleen Robertson playing the role was spot on to my audition- so go figure. And in just reviewing the show online, I believe that Sci Fi's creative team didn't know what story they really wanted to tell, thus, in a small way, 'Tin Man' parallels the evolution of Sci Fi into Syfy: it's a decent idea on paper- creating an edgy, new interpretation of a classic tale ('there's no place like home'), while appealing to broad non sci fi fan base. The result just didn't fully connect with either. Thus Syfy's name did catch up with its programming- it reflects an identity crisis.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, however. Syfy has a strong online presence and web platform. The ancillary Syfy websites like Scifi Wire (sci fi news) and Dvice (tech) add authenticity to the sci fi portion of the brand and's new MMO game is ground breaking for a channel. The SVP, GM of Syfy's digital arm has a history rich in science fiction in the digital space. Craig Engler, someone I do follow on Twitter, founded Science Fiction Weekly, the first sci fi internet magazine (that was ultimately purchased by and worked extensively with NBC/Universal on Sci Fi's cross platform digital programming, including the BSG webisode series 'Face of the Enemy' (which *sigh* beat 'After Judgment' for the Streamy). Craig is doing a noble job of connecting with viewers through Twitter during the channel re-branding period, being accessible, answering questions and spreading news, even if it is along the party line. From his previous experience and recent achievements I think he has the goods to help shape the future of Syfy via the online community. But because the programming on Syfy is not going to change unless 'Caprica's' numbers beat 'Ghost Hunters' and Wrestling- consistently -no matter how vocal authentic sci fi fans are to bring 'Firefly' to the channel, it's an uphill battle.

What's the solution? I have an idea. Let's relaunch When you click on the site now it autodirects you to (this is expected of course). Why not re-establish it as a separate site that is rich with JUST sci fi content, thus providing a strong online community platform and destination site for sci fi fans. You can watch old episodes of 'Firefly' AND watch original sci fi content, that which is already being produced for the web. I just happen to know of a lot of really great made for web content in the sci fi genre. How great to have a destination where you can watch 'After Judgment', 'The Crew', 'Galacticast', 'Afterworld', and even the premiere of 'Artemis Eternal' on one portal solely geared towards the sci fi fan. For once, we can mobilize and show our strength as a viable, brand consuming community to the sponsors while supporting independent, sci fi content.

The Sci Fi Channel was never really ours to begin with people- we've been holding on to the name as much as we held on to BSG. We didn't want it to end, but it is time. Much like the 13 colonies survivors, we don't have a home, at least on TV...but we do have the Internet, a vast domain that we all have strong, creative influence over. We just have to mobilize... and maybe can lend a hand.

So say we all?

Be back soon.

All Things T