Shasha Seminar Part III: From the Page to the Screen

Photo Credit: NoHoDamon on Flickr

Photo Credit: NoHoDamon on Flickr

Despite what the last two posts might have you believe, the Shasha Seminar at Wesleyan University was not entirely about Joss Whedon. No, it was about how movies and tv go from an idea in some writer’s head to something that you and I watch (and then blog about).

On Saturday morning, we all listened to two panels, one on film and one on television. Heading up the film panel: Mark Bomback, (writer, Race to Witch Mountain), Matthew Greenfield (producer, The Good Girl), and Miguel Arteta (director, Youth in Revolt). On the television panel: Liz Garcia (producer/writer: Cold Case), David Kendall (producer, Growing Pains, Boy Meets World), Dan Shotz (producer, Jericho, Harper’s Island), and Evan Katz (executive producer, 24).

The Panels

Everyone talked about their first projects, their most recent projects, and how they figure out a balance between commercialism and artistic achievement. Mark Bomback and Miguel Arteta framed two different ways to go about being a screenwriter. Bomback decided not to produce his own work, and instead have a career writing projects that others will shepherd to completion. He compared this process to being an architect: “It’s not your house, you’re not going to live in it.” Arteta, on the other hand, directs his own screenplays. His advice to writers: “Relax and realize – what is my experience?”

The television writers and producers talked about writing a spec script (a sample episode of a running television show) and an original pilot script. They agreed that writers are most likely to get hired off of the quality of their original pilot script, since most shows want to know what that writer is like, not how well they copy another writer’s style. Liz Garcia talked about getting a story about a biracial lesbian bootlegger couple onto Cold Case, and the freedom she has in a procedural to tell stories that would otherwise be too edgy for network TV. Needless to say, it made me want to watch that episode of Cold Case.

Next Up:

We pitch to 24’s Evan Katz and Mad About You producer Jeffrey Lane, with mixed results.

Joss Whedon at the Shasha Seminar, Part II

Last time, I gave a recap of Joss Whedon and Mark Harris’s thoughts on where the media industry is going, but much of our time at the Shasha Seminar was spent talking about the nuts and bolts of actually getting work produced.

Photo Credit: Malenkov in Exile

Photo Credit: Malenkov in Exile

Whedon talked about his own career, and how he got his stories up on screen. He started with Buffy, who he described like so: “This is my voice. This is my avatar. This is my girl.” Buffy, the story of a “bimbo” getting her revenge on big scary monsters, was the story he needed to tell. Being a script doctor was not enough for him – because it didn’t involve creating anything. Lucky for him, as he creates, he sees the title, the trailer, the one sheet and the marketing campaign all in his head. That probably goes a long way to explain why Whedon’s incredibly off-beat concepts worm their way into the pop culture landscape – he understands that media doesn’t just live up on screen, it lives in advertising, it lives in conversations online and in person. He claims it’s not cynical to think of these things as you’re doing creative work – because “It’s going to be a dialog between the audience and us.” In other words, he’s reaching out to his audience any way he can.

For Buffy, reaching out to the audience also meant a huge amount of multi-platform content – some of which he controlled creatively, and some of which he didn’t. In the case of the books, Whedon said, “Please don’t have Buffy deny the Holocaust in any of them, I’ll be over here.” In the case of the video game, he voiced an avatar of himself. Whedon put a lot of creative effort into the comic book series, because that platform interested him. However, he also addressed the announcement that Fran Rubel Kuzui, producer of the original (and failed) Buffy the Vampire Slayer film, intends to revive the series without Whedon’s creative input. Whedon said that Buffy “would not have happened” without Kuzui, and that the party who would have legal difficulty creating a new Buffy TV series is, in fact, him. When someone asked if he regretted not telling more television stories in the Buffy universe, he said “I’m not long on regret.”

Whedon’s shows are widely given credit as some of the first to have massive (and well-organized) online followings, Firefly was one of the first shows without a fully aired season to come out on DVD, and now his show Dollhouse is being renewed in part due to a strong web-based viewing audience. As I noted in my last post, Whedon started shooting the second season of Dollhouse on Monday. Budgets have been cut, and he’ll be shooting in HD video instead of film. Whedon actually seemed pleased about this, saying that “When they take money away from me – I get better.” (Fox executives, if you’re reading this, please don’t take it to heart). Whedon talked about the challenge of writing a show with six act breaks instead of four (which I understand is at Fox’s request, since there are more ad breaks online than on TV). He said it was challenging not to take the audience “out of the story” with so many cuts.

When you watch Joss Whedon speak in person, what comes across most readily is that he genuinely loves his job, and believes in his own work. Much of the weekend (which I’ll get to in a third, and possibly final post) was very tied up in justifying the artistic compromises that everyone makes in order to get art to make money. Whedon still believes that storytelling can, should, and must stand for something – even when it’s happening in a staunchly commercial enterprise. Whether regular folks can do what he does – create their own Dr. Horribles without the backing of experience, prestige and lots of famous friends – remains to be seen. But it’s nice to know that there are powerful people who are still in our corner.

Joss Whedon and Mark Harris: Getting art and commerce to finally hook up

This weekend at the Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns at Wesleyan University, I was lucky enough to hear from some of the biggest movers and shakers in the entertainment business.

The weekend kicked off with Mark Harris, critic and author, who spoke about the need for both the producers and the consumers of media to raise the bar for pop culture.

To Harris, the relationship between consumers and producers of media is. . . a lot like a regular relationship – that when it works, it’s participatory, fun and meaningful – a lot like sex. As Harris actually put it, “I want better sex.” He observed that “We watch three things at once, and so we watch nothing at all.” The relationship has grown dysfunctional – a product of too many screens (he described getting distracted from writing his own speech by Hulu and Netflix), and and too little quality content on them. Harris challenged media makers to do interesting, edgy, inspiring work – and in return, he promised to pay more attention.

Screenwriter Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  JD Lasica / SocialMedia.biz

Screenwriter Joss Whedon, creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." JD Lasica / SocialMedia.biz

On Saturday evening, Joss Whedon also gave us a sex metaphor to describe the current state of the entertainment industry (what is it about Wesleyan University that inspires all this media lust?). Whedon described independent media and studio film as “. . .doing a very awkward mating dance. They’re coming together and they are going to have to have sex.” I’d say that is pretty apt. Some people in traditional media “get” new media (such as the clever webisodes from The Office) – but so far there’s a lot of flirting without anyone making a move. However, Whedon also insisted that “When the industry changes, as it can and will and must, the only thing left standing will be the telling of the story.”

Joss Whedon flew in for his talk after wrapping his film Cabin in the Woods, and before starting to shoot season 2 of Dollhouse on Monday. As he put it, the Dollhouse renewal is “Fine for you, but I had plans this summer.” Thank you, Joss Whedon, for forgoing the beach in favor of giving us something smart and funny to watch in the chilly months. Maybe the Actives can go on assignment in Hawaii?

Next up on the blog:

More from Joss Whedon’s talk: The future of Dollhouse, that pesky Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, and the creative process.

More from the Shasha Seminar: Why two esteemed TV producers would not buy a TV show about under cover cover models – aka, pitching is harder than it looks.

Movies, TV and Finding Your “Strange”

I’m about to go get a good night of sleep before the last day of the Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns, a weekend seminar at Wesleyan University that has a completely different theme every year, and draws a wide variety of speakers to the campus. This year the theme is “Defining American Culture: How Movies and TV Get Made.”

The conference has given me a lot to think about. Last night, Mark Harris, film and pop culture critic, spoke eloquently about the future of media, art and commerce. Tonight, Joss Whedon addressed his own career trajectory as a guy trying to tell stories by any means necessary. Great words of advice for writers from the very quotable Mr. Whedon: “Find your strange.” and “Finish it.”

Stay tuned, folks! More commentary to come.

Joss Whedon Gets Crafty

Image from elasticcamels photostream

Image from elasticcamel's photostream

Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and this summer’s web-based hit, Dr. Horrible, was just interviewed by Kim Werker of CrochetMe (transcript found here).  What does Whedon have to say about crafting?  Aside from setting us straight on whether Captain Hammer’s sweater vests are knitted or crocheted, Whedon speculates on the parallels between the DIY craft community and the DIY media community:

KW: I read a quote recently, in an article about the resurging DIY movement, that we’re “crafting to claim identity, to save the world from soulless junk.” Do you see any parallels in people’s approach to internet-based video productions versus the big-media productions for television and movies and how people are really taking those media into their own hands right now?

JW: Absolutely. I mean, let’s face it, in the media there are now eight companies. In any mall you walk into, there are now eight stores: there’s gonna be a Gap, there’s gonna be a Banana Republic. Everything is becoming consolidated, so where there used to be lots of variety, there are now, like, ten giants and tons of tiny little villagers. And yeah, the villagers are going to start making their own stuff because the materials will be available to all of them, and we can’t all just do things the way the giants want, because it does seep something out of your soul. I think it’s absolutely true on every level of art that this is the worst of times and, like some guy might have said once, the best of times.

I find this to be profoundly true.  Everywhere I turn, I see that massive consolidation.  Whether it’s NBC putting Jay Leno in a spot typically reserved for innovative dramas, or the CW potentially creating a Gossip Girl spinoff because it is less risky than shooting a pilot for a new show.  Then again, I also see people figuring out how to entertain themselves with projects like Odd Noggin Land – in which the creators actually made giant heads shaped like ketchup and fries.  DIY projects are inefficient, they are often messy, and they probably appeal to a small number of people.  But the result often has a depth of character and breadth of experimentation that’s absent from a product brought into being by a corporation.  That’s true whether you’re knitting a hat or making a movie in your backyard.

Like the man said:  “You have to remember that if the thing isn’t slightly out of control, it ain’t art.”

Dr. Horrible MP3s available from Amazon

Felicia Day of Dr. Horrible Image from BobbyPromFor those of you who prefer your internet-musical-extravaganza soundtracks sans DRM, the Amazon MP3 store is now offering Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog soundtrack. We’ve talked before about Dr. Horrible before, and I am a fan, but I do think it’s a little strange that the soundtrack costs $8.99 when the entire show could be had for $4.99 on iTunes.

I guess that’s the price you pay for convenience. Honestly though, who would pay $0.99 cents for the opening 9-second track? Joss, I think you missed the mark here. Amazon lets you set variable pricing (one of their major distinctions over iTunes, as far as labels are concerned). Take advantage of that and pick some reasonable prices rather than just going with the default. Your fans will thank you.

Dr. Horrible Defeats the Internet

Dr. Horrible Scene Image from Steve Garfield’s PhotostreamDr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is alive and kicking! After hordes of fans crashed their servers, the site appears to be back up and running. The first act is now available, streaming, for free. More info on the site crash can be found at Save Hiatus.

Since the site appeared to be on permanent hiccup when I got home yesterday, I bought myself a season pass on iTunes. I wasn’t the only one: Dr. Horrible is currently the top iTunes download for TV single episodes and season passes. For something that people expected to get for free, that’s kind of amazing. The long-tail-economics of that situation are better left to someone with more expertise, but I will say this:

Studios and record labels have based their attacks on peer-to-peer sharing on the basic premise that if a piece of media is available for free, no rational person will pay for it. Either Joss Whedon’s fans are crazy, or there’s something else going on. My suspicion is that there is something valuable ($4 worth of valuable) about becoming a part of the first wave of media consumers. This is why people dress up and wait in line for opening nights of movies (like Star Wars and Sex and the City), even though they could watch the same movie at a discount theater in a month, or get it for free from the library a couple months after that. As we move toward an increasingly information-rich society, the information itself becomes almost secondary to how it helps us relate to other people. We want to know where our information came from and how we can share it with others. People crave communal experiences, and getting to gab about Dr. Horrible on the day it appears is just one of those community-building events.

More Dr. Horrible news is on its way! Next time, a serious discussion of silliness. No joke.

Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible: Legendary with a side of Shiny

Nathan Fillion is Shiny (Photo by RavenU)

Nathan Fillion is Shiny (Photo by RavenU)

If you are a true fangirl or fanboy, then news of “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” will be old hat by now. Bear with us, we’re excited: Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly) is about to release what he’s calling an “Internet Miniseries Event.” You can watch a trailer via vimeo, or you can read his comments on the Whedonesque blog.

The premise looks hysterical: Neil Patrick Harris is a supervillain, Nathan Fillion is a superhero. They sing, and potentially fight over a girl. What more could you want? The answer is, of course, to watch it free, streaming through your interwebs starting July 15th.

The format looks gosh darn revolutionary: 3 episodes, staggered throughout 1 week in July, free to watch. After that, they’ll be sold online for a “nominal fee,” then they’ll potentially go to DVD.

According to Whedon (or Joss as he likes to call himself), this all started during the writers’ strike, when he and other writer/producers started looking around for alternates to creating studio fare. Joss Whedon has a history of working in mixed media: Buffy was originally a film (a flop), then a TV show (a success), then a comic (wildly praised by pretty much everyone) [Editor’s Note: We’ve even seen the musical episode produced for the stage]. Science fiction in general seems to be ahead of the curve on this yes-people-watch-the-internet thing: Battlestar Galactica has released web-exclusive content, as has Heroes. But no one has ever tried to launch a potential brand from the internet, using known actors who are creating original characters specifically for the web. What’s more, Whedon’s “make it on the fly, on the cheap” concept makes it better matched to the bulk of current web content.

I’m sure this is not the last post we’ll do for Dr. Horrible, since (a) Teague is eventually going to get jealous [Editor’s Note: So jealous…]that I got to post about Joss Whedon and he didn’t and (b) This is pretty much the content we’ve been waiting to cover: Big names with big ideas experimenting in free web formats, rather than running around trying to shut them down.