ALTERNATE ROUTES: Screenwriting 2.0 – Incorporating Digital Technology into Screenplays

Since writing now happens in the digital world, we can actually create new screenwriting practices that don’t focus on print. Marty Lang explores how incorporating digital technology in screenplays could dramatically change collaboration and filmmaking.

Marty Lang is a screenwriter, filmmaker, journalist and educator. His feature writing/directing debut, RISING STAR, was acquired for worldwide distribution by Content Film in 2013. His producing credits include the 2016 Independent Spirit Award-nominated OUT OF MY HAND, and BEING MICHAEL MADSEN, starring Michael Madsen, Virginia Madsen and Daryl Hannah. Twitter: @marty_lang.

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Since writing now happens in the digital world, we can actually create new screenwriting practices that don't focus on print. Marty Lang explores how incorporating digital technology in screenplays could dramatically change collaboration and filmmaking.

Since I’m in graduate school, I’ve been doing a lot of research lately. Reading articles from film and screenwriting professors about how they teach, and new ideas they have that might help them do it better. And I recently found a great article that addresses the potential use of technology in screenwriting education. As you might expect, there isn’t much of it–the screenplay is still a pretty analog document, even though we live in a digital age. And the more I’ve been thinking about it, the more I’m realizing technology might help folks through the writing of their films.

The article I read is Screenwriting 2.0 in the Classroom? Teaching the Digital Screenplay, and it’s written by Southern Oregon University Digital Cinema professor Andrew Kenneth Gay. In it, he argues that if a Hollywood screenwriter from 1950 time-traveled to today, all they would need to do is learn how to use a computer, and they’d be able to pick right up writing screenplays. There hasn’t been any evolution in the creation of screenplays in all that time.

But since writing now happens in the digital world, we can actually create new screenwriting practices that don’t focus on print. Things like websites, blogs, wikis and interactive media can now be incorporated into the actual creation of scripts.

How, you might ask? Gay called this new style “Screenwriting 2.0,” and explained its structure in terms of “Web 2.0,” a phrase coined by web designer Nancy Dinucci in 1999 that envisioned the web as a “transport mechanism, the ether through which interactivity happens.” Gay took five core principles of Web 2.0, and applied them to what he thinks Screenwriting 2.0 could become:

Harnessing collective intelligence

This is also called crowdsourcing, and there are many versions of this online. Think of Wikipedia, or the stream of personal information you and others post on Facebook or Twitter. Web 2.0 allows multiple users to contribute information to a completed whole.

If you transfer this to screenwriting, the obvious example would be working with a cowriter in another physical area, as you work on writing a script together. But what if you expanded your pool of creative collaborators? Say you want to write a script with six main characters. Each of the actors playing those characters can become writers on the project, and can tailor their own dialogue and action based on how they interpret their characters. This would make a collaborative screenplay possible, without losing the narrative cohesion that sometimes lessens when films are improvised.

Script EXTRA: Crowdsourcing for Filmmakers – Interview with Stage 32’s RB Botto

Perpetual beta

This deals with the ending of software release cycles. Web-based applications, on desktops, laptops and mobile, constantly evolve with upgrades; those who have them always have access to the latest version.

A screenwriting equivalent of this would be a cloud-based wiki script, where revisions could easily be tracked. This way, everyone involved in a project (both writers and production folks) would have immediate access to every revision of the script, in real time. This would eliminate the need for the multi-colored script revision pages so common on professional sets. And it would allow those same people to have access to the revision history of a script as well.

Rich user experience

When you think of a website today, there are all sorts of interactive and dynamic elements that the site can provide. Gay mentions seven facets of user experience-focused design, saying an interface should be useful, usable, desirable, findable, accessible, credible and valuable. Audio, video, animation and even VR/AR elements are common.

Thinking of how to apply this to screenwriting, if you’re writing a cloud-based wiki script, there’s no limit to the kinds of interactivity you can embed into that script. Have a story that takes place in Boston? Embed a Google map of the city, with your locations highlighted. Hyperlink dialogue in your script to the research you did when figuring out how to come up with a character’s voice. There’s no limit to the kinds of additional elements you can add to this type of screenplay. When Zach Braff wrote the script for his first film GARDEN STATE, he actually included a CD of the songs he wanted for the film’s soundtrack when he sent it to producers. He also added notations in the script, for when the reader should listen to each song. Now anyone can do the same thing–or better–by creating the script online. Gay called it a “living pre-visualization of the film to come.”

Script EXTRA: 7 Ways To Turn Technology Into Writing Productivity

Software above the level of a single device

When you look at cloud-based software applications, it’s possible for users on different devices to interact with the same content. If you have editing software on a server, for instance, multiple editors can interact with the same pool of footage, and edit different parts of a movie at the same time.

Likewise with screenwriting, this idea translates to writing above the level of a single medium; that is, to write in transmedia. Have backstory in your script that doesn’t make sense to include in your narrative? Branch it off and create a graphic novel to tell that piece. Is there a conversation you really wish you could include, but time constraints won’t allow it? Add them as a text message conversation. Are there side characters you think would be perfect for their own stories? Write a web series or television series that focuses on them, and their own stories. Gay suggests Screenwriting 2.0 might eventually involve focusing on storyworld creation as opposed to the traditional three-act script design.

Leveraging the Long Tail

Wired editor Chris Anderson first described the “Long Tail,” a graphical representation of how many of today’s Internet-based businesses work. On his website, he explains the theory of the Long Tail as “that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of ‘hits’ (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly-targeted goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare.”

As screenwriters, this means that writing a mainstream, four-quadrant film is not the only way to become successful. By focusing on small, niche markets, screenwriters can target their work to specific audiences. Over time, those writers might be able to identify those audiences through email lists, social media and crowdfunding campaigns, and could even make the jump to becoming producers of their own material, with their own audience built in from the first typed sentence.

Understandably, this might be difficult for screenwriters to wrap their heads around at first glance, but incorporating technology into writing screenplays holds a lot of promise. As Gay says, Screenwriting 2.0 could “attempt to integrate conception and execution through an interactive digital text.”

Might be worth a try.

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