On New Media
They thought she was nuts. A contract actor with RKO Radio Pictures who’d performed on Broadway under a pseudonym before transitioning into film and television, she became known as “The Queen of the Bs” thanks to her many B-movie roles, but she was still just one of a million lesser stars in the Hollywood firmament, destined to be outshone by the likes of Doris Day and Rita Hayworth...until she ventured into New Media.
I’m talking of course about the first woman to run a major television production company, which was known for producing shows like Mission Impossible and Star Trek, among many others. You may be just as familiar with her first show however, a sitcom that broke a lot of New Media ground by integrating the serialized story arcs of radio, the live audiences of vaudeville, and the film and lighting techniques of studio-set films. And while historians and TV buffs argue endlessly about who invented the sitcom, a lot of working television professionals today are still walking a path paved by Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy.
They thought she was nuts. And if you’re reading this article, they probably think you’re nuts too, because you’re probably thinking about trying your hand in New Media. My hat’s off to you if you are. Now let’s take a look at this brave new world into which you’re about to venture.
New Media are loosely defined as new entertainment formats developed for emerging technologies, like television in the 50s and the internet today. And the question that drives new formats every time a new medium is developed is “how do we make money off this?” Understanding the answer to this question is of paramount importance if you’re going to make any headway in this new arena.
Picture a poet telling a story before the dying embers of a campfire while wondering quietly to himself: “How can I make money off this?” The answer that came to him and others was to build a raised platform, hire good-looking people and have them act out the story, and charge admission - a method which carried over from live theater to the theatrical exhibition of films when the celluloid process of moviemaking came about. In fact, this method of monetization was so successful, probably thousands of years went by before storytellers really began to earnestly ask that question again.
Which they had to do with television, because you couldn’t get people who’d just paid a boatload of money for the technology to then pay for tickets in their own homes. So storytellers put their business hats on, act breaks became commercial breaks, and advertisers came on board. Of course this all vastly oversimplifies an important piece of history, but let’s focus on the New Media aspect here, because it’s important to realize that television remained a vibrant new medium for many years to follow. As the technology advanced through inventions of devices like the remote control, the VCR and cable and satellite broadcast, storytellers have had to continue to adapt to these emerging technologies just in order to keep up.
We’re witnessing the same thing with the internet today; the technologies are constantly improving, new platforms are constantly emerging, and the way we tell stories today could be history by next Friday. Which is good news for innovators and audiences alike as the next Lucille Ball could come from anywhere. But it’s bad news for this article, as any attempt I make to paint this new landscape will quickly become dated. Nevertheless, here’s a basic overview of where we’re at and what you need to know in order to start writing for New Media:
There are a lot of channels! The internet is like television in that there are various channels out there, including standalone sites like Funny or Die and Blip.tv, as well as YouTube, which carries thousands of its own distinct channels. If you’re writing a webseries to showcase your work to New Media producers, it’s especially important to research and watch shows that are similar to the one you’re developing – and to be familiar with the channels on which they’re distributed, and with their audience and advertisers. For example, if you’re thinking of writing a comedy series about an entrepreneur developing a new line of e-cigarettes, knowing the channels to which you might pitch such a project and whether they’re sponsored by e-cigarette makers would be incredibly helpful.
There are a lot of platforms too! The internet isn’t the only platform or medium out there, you need to be aware of SVOD (Subscription Video on Demand services like Netflix) and OTT (Over the Top devices like Amazon Fire, Roku and Xbox) platforms as well. Of course, each of these platforms have their own channels and advertisers as well, which is good for you; there are a lot of people hungry for new material right now!
And there are a lot of companies! Production Companies vs. Studios vs. Networks; these distinctions mattered significantly when Lucille Ball was producing television, because while she owned the production company that produced I Love Lucy and the studio that produced shows like Star Trek, she didn’t own the network. Nowadays the lines between these seems to be blurring, but it’s just as important to research and know the companies and their relationships and deals now as it ever was. For example, sometimes the producers own multiple production companies with multiple different mandates, sometimes they own whole studios, sometimes the studios are owned by larger studios (like Sony’s Crackle, which produces Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars getting Coffee, among others), and sometimes the studios own smaller companies which they use to develop web content and talent for more established networks (like Lorne Michaels’ Above Average Network, which produces shorts for the web but which also develops writers and content for his company Broadway Video, which in turn produces Saturday Night Live for NBC as well as theatrical features like MacGruber and Baby Mama).
But who’s looking for what? Bear in mind this will constantly change and the best way to find out is to research the company, call or email, and ask someone directly. But as I’m writing this, I am aware that AOL is looking for unscripted material (reality shows based on characters like Duck Dynasty or My Five Wives, i.e. material that comes with talent attached). Yahoo is looking for talk shows and game shows, among other things. Hulu is looking for animation and edgy comedy, the last time I checked. And AfterhoursHD is looking for ten-minute webisodes; here’s a lead we ran for them recently in The Preferred Newsletter, which you can pitch by logging into this link with your email address and a code (email the writers’ department here for the code or for more information on how to subscribe to The Preferred Newsletter):
We are looking for horror or comedy webseries pilot scripts. Material submitted should be for webseries that are no more than ten pages per episode, and should appeal to the sort of audience that would attend events like Comic-Con. Note that this will be for a new digital TV channel launching on XBOX 360, Xbox One, Roku TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV and Opera TV. The series content needs to be flexible enough to appeal to brand sponsors that would include product placement within the story content. Please do not pitch feature, television or scripts in any other format, we are only looking for material that was developed and written as a webseries.
Notice how AfterhoursHD is looking for material to distribute on, among other places, gaming devices. So what does that tell you about their audience? Their distribution plan, along with that hint about “the sort of audience that would attend events like Comic-Con,” tells you pretty much everything you need to know; they’re targeting an audience made up of fan boys and gamers, the most cutting edge audience out there. So if you’re a comic fan or a gamer, this is definitely someone you want to get in bed with. (Figuratively speaking, of course.)
But how do you pitch them? Well, this depends on whether you’re pitching as a writer or producer; if you’re a writer, a logline and synopsis are the tools you’ll use to get read and considered for upcoming writing assignments. If you’re a producer, you’ll need a one-sheet and a sizzle reel, which is a whole ‘nother article (or book) in and of itself.
It also helps to know and network with people on the cutting edge of New Media; Susan Johnston’s New Media Film Festival is the best place I can think of to start. The New Media Film Festival screened simultaneously in Los Angeles and in the video game Second Life as part of the United Nations Millennium Project, which is about as New Media as it gets.
Just remember this cardinal rule when it comes to pitching: you only have one shot! So write and rewrite your logline, practice and polish your pitch, know your audience, and above all, don’t pitch until you’re ready – which means don’t pitch until you have a script that is ready to go, and which precisely fits their needs.
And if you’re on your way to becoming the next Lucille Ball, hit me up! A lot of InkTip writers are venturing into this new world with you, and I’d love to help you meet them.
Jared Wynn has conducted thousands of interviews with producers, agents and managers, and he knows a lot about how to successfully market a screenplay.