Advanced Studies in Collaborative Endeavors

Whether you’re working with a team to make your new web series happen, producing a short pilot for a website like Channel 101, or just writing a script with a fellow screenwriter, there is collaborative technology out in the world that is designed to make your multi-person workflow easier.

I dipped my toes in the sea of collaboration when working in theatre first, where the writer relationship to the process is much more hands on. However, the trend in the industry lately seems to feature writers that cross titles: writer-directors, writer-actors, writer-director-actor-producer: whatever dual or triple or quadruple roles are available, there is someone willing to wear those hats (and that’s a lot of hats).

Even collaboration by email is going the way of the dinosaur: with applications like DropBox and Evernote, there is the possibility of what I like to call ‘Insta-Collaboration.’ Often when I start working on visual projects, such as a short piece or a pilot, I find myself trading seven or eight emails a day with other collaborators. Often we all have a hand in producing it, on varying levels, when working with a limited budget, and need access to some or all of the creative information about the project.

This means dialoguing in as many mediums as possible: words, visuals, articles, and concepts. And often my email inbox is out of control enough as it is: I don’t need an email with eight pictures attached coming back to me every five or ten minutes.

Applications such as Evernote are designed with this in mind: you organize everything into Notebooks, which can be shared with other users. Then you can upload photos, copy articles, make to-do lists, and share all of it instantly with your collaborators – and with all of your mobile devices, including a convenient icon on the taskbar of your laptop or desktop. What I like about this kind of process is that ideas can be instantly recorded and shared: often I find myself juggling notebooks while running for the subway with coffee, trying to write down that brilliant idea before I forget.

…and also saving civilians from danger!

Even an application as simple as Google Docs has powerful collaborative tools built in, where document contributors can dialogue within a document by commenting on elements without altering (how great for revisions!).

simplenote is another easy-to-use collaborative application. Like Evernote, you can share with collaborators. Unlike Evernote, simplenote deals with text only (but hey, we’re writers, right?).

If you’re in the brainstorming or outlining phase of a project, MindMeister is your ticket: it allows you to create clearly defined “mind maps” that can be edited easily and viewed in many different ways. MindMeister forces you to organize your outlines in clear and logical maps – which can be good for those of us with unruly minds. If you really get into organization, they even have a convenient Life Plan map (good luck with that one).

Of course, if you don’t care for outside collaboration, all of these can be used just as effectively for organizing and saving your own information and ideas – and having them accessible wherever you go.

Chances are, though, that if all goes right, you’ll be sharing your ideas and thoughts on your projects with high-level execs and directors – and with this type of software sharing your information to your phone, tablet, and laptop, you won’t be forgetting your key piece of paper at home.

Sherlocked: The Game is ON

If you haven’t heard of the BBC’s Sherlock as of the date of this post, get off your couch where you’ve been watching Law and Order: SVU marathons for the last three months. There’s a new detective in town – and judging the walloping publicity campaign for the much-anticipated CBS show Elementary, he’s here to stay.

Sherlock, co-created by Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss, follows the modern-day adventures of one Sherlock Holmes and his put-upon assistant, Dr. John Watson.

The show exists in a kind of sexy hyper-reality where the audience is privy to text messages, blog entries, and the thought processes of the characters through the layering of text and images over the screen images.   It’s a little bit like Google Glasses for television (remember Google Glasses?).

If you’re anything like me (and I always assume that you’re a least a little bit like me), you spend most of your day taking in at least two sources of visual information: you’re walking to the subway and you’re catching up on You’re watching television and you’re catching up on  You’re hanging out with friends and…well, you get the idea (don’t hate. I’m very informed).

Sherlock masterfully capitalizes on our multi-multi-multi-tasking brains and manages to essentially compress a great deal of information into a few seconds by making the delivery of that information exciting and making the audience feel, like Sherlock, hyper-smart.

This is intelligent television-making we should all pay attention to and here’s why.

This may be the trend to watch.  As viewer attention spans change and become less focused, there are two ways to start working more effectively: a) fit as much story as possible into a smaller amount of time, or b) create a world for the show where information is multilayered and rapid, never allowing your audience downtime to say, check their cellphones.

Sherlock, with episodes that are essentially mini-movies, has the luxury of length, but Moffatt and Gatiss, smart television folk that they are, have created a world where suspense and character are created on a number of levels simultaneously (there’s a great chase scene in the first episode, A Study in Pink, that really shows this off).

Watching an episode feels like being a in a high-speed amusement park ride, where we are occasionally intentionally stopped for a few moments before being taken around the next curve.  The iron-handed control of how the audience experiences each episode’s narrative is fascinating.

It will be interesting to see what direction Elementary goes in, whether CBS embraces this stylistic choice, and what audience response will be.  While I am a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes (the books), I doubt very much that Sherlock’s success is all due to the story of the detective – and has quite a bit to do with how this re-telling is packaged.


‘Make Those Around You Better’ : Collaborating Effectively

As creators become ever more connected to the people responsible to bringing that work to light – from producers to fans – we must deal head on with the process of collaboration. Every software interface seems designed to put us in communication with our peers and our idols. Even celebrities are jumping on the crowdfunding bandwagon to fund passion projects. There has never been a better time to get a team of people working on your ideas.

Many of us writer-folk tend to shudder away from the idea of collaboration because we want to protect our ideas until the “right person” comes along to lift us from obscurity and place us on the Oscar podium where we belong. And yet there is little evidence to support the notion that great work is made a vacuum. Reading the autobiographies of those who have succeeded in the biz, it’s impossible not to notice the formula:

Meet Someone + Work Together = Meet More People + Work Together + (repeat until sickeningly wealthy and famous).

Great! You say. I’m ready to meet people. Let’s go to Starbucks!

Hold your horses. Collaboration is an art form in itself, and the entertainment industry is home to the best and worst kinds of it. Some mad skills are required to do some excellent networking here.

Fortunately, the Internet has got you covered.

The first place to turn for collaborative advice is to the masters of collaboration: scientists. This article about scientific collaboration in graduate programs has some of the best advice for artistic collaboration I’ve read, and outlines comprehensively who to reach out to in collaborating, and the qualities of good collaboration.

Our next stop is PBS, to a recent and incredibly thorough article that deals specifically with collaborative journalism.

This chart created by Kelly Hall from East Carolina University offers a good evaluation of collaboration in groups.

Gregg Komer’s terrific blog Collaborative Acumen offers a wealth of information and insight on being a good collaborator.

If you’re sitting at your computer thinking “But I want to protect my precious ideas!” – you’re not wrong. You don’t just want to start riffing ideas with your neighborhood bum on your Brooklyn stoop – but you might also shouldn’t be spouting ideas to every industry-affiliated suit that comes around.

In our profession, ideas are money and success and the fulfillment of what we want. It’s important to be communicative and upfront, especially if writing with others, and take Rights for Writers’ advice on creating collaborative agreements. Be wise about sharing your ideas.  There are a lot of awesome, talented people out there who might be the key to bringing your work to life – and ultimately, that’s the result you want.

Collaboration, to me, is best described by the Jack Clark quote contained in the NPR article: “make those around you better.”

There’s Money In The Banana Stand (or so Netflix hopes…)

There are a lot of reasons I’ve been closely following the reboot of Arrested Development scheduled for 2013.  One of the big ones is seeing what will happen when Netflix picks up a show cancelled by a network and distributes new episodes (which they will also be doing with the short-lived Terra Nova).

All hail the Bluth family!

In keeping with the Dan Harmon theme of yesterweek, I’m very curious about the Power of Fandom in the internet age of television, and what it has achieved in this case. It’s not news that ratings are the dinosaur of television trend-telling, since people no longer rush home from their insurance-selling jobs to have a scotch and watch Happy Days (clearly what everyone did from 1950-1999).

The majority of viewers watch television whenever, wherever, and however they like. They may not even know when a show actually airs in real time. So, the new million dollar question on the table is how to tell what’s resonating with them and what isn’t, and once we know that, what we do about it.

Arrested Development is an interesting case, because we can actually track its considerable influence on the vocabulary of television comedy since its cancellation.  Shows like 30 Rock, Community and The Office all draw elements from it, whether it’s humor taken to logical extremes, jokes dependent on awkward silences, or even the prevalence of single-camera in the half-hour format (remember when it was just Friends and Seinfeld?).

We can also track the rabid fan community that’s grown up around the show in its absence (believe it or not, there’s an Arrested Development Wiki) that, given the accessibility of the first three seasons, continues to grow nine years after the network cancellation.

That’s right, it continues to grow – because people relate more and more to television as an on-demand phenomenon. Over time, television shows are controlled less and less by the networks. This Arrested Development move made by Netflix could mean that the ultimate network control – the television death sentence of cancellation or relegation to the time slot equivalent of Siberia  – is slowly losing power.

This isn’t even taking into consideration the high-profile programs, like the Fincher-produced House of Cards, that are bypassing networks altogether and going straight to on-demand content providers.

As creators at this moment, it’s all good news, because we are in an in-between moment where all kinds of content are being thrown against the wall, simply because no one is quite sure what will work and what won’t.  One need look no farther than the shows Hulu distributes to see the wide gamut of content made available.

However, I think it’s also a time to start figuring out where the market is going next, and get ahead of the curve when it coms to building a career.  In my humble opinion, the true power is in the fan communities online, who not only watch shows but are influenced by them, which means long-term revenue in the form of show merchandise and episode sales – continuing long after the show is created and distributed.

Seriously. There always is.

“Who are we to make these decisions? We’re the media elite.” (News from The Newsroom)

I have yet to read a single review of The Newsroom  that doesn’t reveal as much or more about the character of the reviewer as it does about the show itself. Although there are many (many) sins of television making of which I could accuse Aaron Sorkin, uncomplicated is not one of them.

What the hullabaloo reveals is a cultural conversation many of us are having right now, yearning for intelligence in news. Sorkin takes that conversation (not a new revelation by any means) and runs with it – and apparently (despite mixed reviews) popularly enough to garner a second season.

The show itself is not dissimilar from The West Wing: while I would never accuse Sorkin of not believing all the things he says (and he says a lot of things), he certainly has opportunistic timing in choosing the subjects of his shows.  Then again, it may be the only context  in which his particular brand of self-righteous, Shakespearean oratory can really soar.

Shall I compare thee to FOX or CNN?
Thou art more lovely and more moderate.

Sorkin has an innate tempo, not just to his words, but to his structure. In this how-to on writing, he even technically talks about the musical structure of his diatribes (I mean, monologues), and jumping from show to show of his is eerily akin to watching a concert of symphonies by the same composer.

The question that every Sorkin show asks of its reviewer is not, then whether the show is “good” – composition-wise, the dialogue is always pretty strong – but whether the topic of the show merits the symphonic grandiosity his words bring.  After all, Rachmaninoff is not the Rolling Stones, and to pretend otherwise would make fools out of both.

I knew he was a rock star.

There has been a mixed response to The Newsroom because this question is not as easy to answer as it was with The West Wing.  Of course we all want leaders who spout statistics and burst out on impassioned rants about fixing the world, of course we want principled, righteous, intelligent people of all stripes running our country.

The jury is out about whether those same characters (essentially), when placed in a newsroom, become egomaniacs whose idea of their own importance is so blindingly overblown that they really believe they are the only people capable of reporting the news to America (see Season 1, Episode 9, MacKenzie’s long speech after the power goes out).

The show’s conceit of reporting on past news stories is another millstone around its neck: it comes across as Sorkin saying to every news network in America that his network would have reported more nobly on events, had it been real.

Well, hindsight is 20/20, and while I am never going to jump to the immediate defense of either FOX, CNN or MSNBC, I appreciate that they make difficult decisions every day, which would certainly be easier if they also knew the outcome of the news stories ahead of time (as Sorkin’s newsroom does).

West Wing operated in a different world  – partially out of necessity, since (to all of our great chagrin) Josiah Bartlet was not, in fact, president..  The Newsroom’s challenge, which ultimately may be its downfall, is taking on the real world and idealizing what has already happened –a strange breed of wishful nostalgia about what-might-have-been-but-wasn’t.

To me, this is entirely different than West Wing, which was about what-still-could-and-should-be, perhaps a better conversation to be having about both government and the media.

Bartlet 2012