Notes on UFVA Presentation

I recently traveled to Boston in order to attend the annual University of Film and Video Association conference, where I offered a presentation called “Teaching the Digital Screenplay and Its Role in Conception and Execution.” The presentation was well-received, and I’m in the process of developing it into a formal paper I hope to publish. However, I thought I’d boil down some of the basic points in note form here.

First off, the theme of this year’s conference was “the future of media education,” so I went into thinking about this asking myself, “What is the future of screenwriting education?” This lead to four followup questions:

  1. How has digital technology impacted screenwriting (conception)?
  2. How has the digital screenplay changed film production practices (execution)?
  3. What is the future for digital screenwriting (or to borrow from web language, what does the Screenplay 2.0 look like)?
  4. How can educators better equip students for that future?

What I quickly realized is that screenwriting itself has changed very little as a result of technology. In fact, screenwriting software merely makes it easier for screenwriters to adhere to mid-twentieth century formatting conventions, conventions that developed out of a particular historical/industrial context in an analog culture. Screenwriting is digital in name only.

What is interesting, however, is how much technology has changed the way everyone but the screenwriter works with the screenplay. At both the property stage and the blueprint stage, the screenplay is going paperless. People are reading screenplays on a screen: on their laptops, iPads, Nooks, and Kindles. Production managers are breaking down the script through automated processes using software like Scenechronize and Tagger. Even the script supervisor can now use apps like Continuity to make their notations of a digital script.

All of these developments beg the question: if the crew works with a digital screenplay, why hasn’t that freed the writer from analog conventions? As best as I can tell, the answer is simply tradition. Screenplays have always been written in Courier 12-point font. It’s a rule, and screenwriters don’t break rules! But it doesn’t have to be that way. Such conventions serve a real world purpose, but the convention can now be supplanted by algorithms, by code. They needn’t be obvious on the surface of the script.

This brings me to the 2.0 of screenwriting, what I call the script wiki. I believe the days of the screenplay as a closed system of 90-120 printed sheets of paper are nearing an end. The script wiki will be open, non-linear, interactive, hyper-linked, cloud-based, collaborative, multipurpose, and transmedia ready. This will serve both the writer in conception and the crew in execution.

For the writer, we will see a shift from writing a closed narrative toward writing an open storyworld. This storyworld may still have a primary narrative, the one that will be used to make a feature film, but it needn’t be limited to that thread. Instead, the writer will work with multiple protagonists on multiple journeys. Indeed, we may see a day when studio execs turn to a hydra-headed script wiki and choose their own movie from the multiple narrative options contained within.

For the crew, the screenplay will become the ultimate information database. Imagine a prop master who can pick up her iPad, touch the word “cup” and immediately see a picture of said cup, a list of scenes in which the cup appears, notes from the director about why he chose this cup, notes from the production manager about the cost of the cup and where a replacement might be purchased, along with the exact location of the cup in the prop room. The script wiki would allow each crew member to add notes and information to the script that could be shared with everyone who would need to see it.

Finally, I turn to the teaching of screenwriting. Today, most screenwriters teach the writing of a spec script, a screenplay intended to be sold in the Hollywood marketplace. Never mind that technology has made it so that far more films are made outside of the studio system than within it. Screenwriters have a far greater chance of having their work produced in the independent world, but we (as teachers) focus exclusively on the conventional Hollywood script.

Teaching the script wiki offers an opportunity to break free from that mold, and I see at least four benefits in teaching it:

  1. Screenwriting 2.0 is groundbreaking. Educators have a responsibility to be ahead of the curve when it comes to developing new forms of discourse.
  2. Screenwriting 2.0 is a powerful tool for student and low-budget filmmakers. Information is power, especially where experience is unavailable, and the script wiki levels the playing field when a low budget production cannot afford the level of skill and experience typical of a Hollywood crew.
  3. Screenwriting 2.0 offers aspiring screenwriters marketable job skills. Not all aspiring screenwriters will be able to make their living writing screenplays. Working with script wikis may expose them to skills such as design, coding, transmedia storytelling, non-linear thinking, etc., that could be attractive in the workforce.
  4. Screenwriting 2.0 is a stand-alone art form. Traditionally, screenplays are only valued when they become films. The script wiki, however, is more like an interactive, multi-media novel, and may attract attention and a fan base on the web independent of whether or not it becomes a film.

So these are my notes from the UFVA presentation I gave. I hope to keep refining my thoughts and develop them into a more coherently argued paper for future publication. I welcome feedback and questions that might help me to refine my thoughts.

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