Lance Weiler: The Dawning of the Story Hack

In a July 19th, 2011 column for Filmmaker Magazine, writer and director (story architect?) Lance Weiler writes about the May 2011 Disrupt Hackathon - using his experiences there to suggest how motion picture stories might be developed in the future.

The TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon that inspired Lance Weiler's article started one morning in May 2011 with 500 hackers gathering at Pier 92 in midtown Manhattan. Over the course of the next 24-hours, more than 100 teams worked from concept to prototype to presenting on stage in front of an audience.

Lance Weiler participated in the 2011 Disrupt Hackathon as a well-known experimenter in the ways that stories can be told (for example, Lance's work on Pandemic, a storyworld experience told via film, mobile, online, print, real world events and data visualization, was a highlight of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival). Lance's creative work and his clear-headed writing about the process of creating New World stories has already earned him recognition from Business Week as one of “The 18 People Who Changed Hollywood.”

Like many of us, Lance is intrigued by the way that new technologies and processes (e.g., hackathons) are challenging the traditional ideas about making and distributing motion picture stories.

In the last 10 years, independent filmmakers have seen revenue models for their traditional feature-length films collapse. But, at the same time, revenue for filmmaking that is part of a multi-platform experience is starting to take off. According to Lance Weiler: "Independent films have little value as standalone products anymore. As transmedia storytelling matures and the experience for players/viewers/audiences/collaborators becomes more fluid, the relationship between stories, social interactions and discovery will become more common."

So where does the 2011 Disrupt Hackathon fit into all this?

In his July 19th, 2011 Filmmaker Magazine column, Lance Weiler writes that: "[H]ackathons offer a model for something all filmmakers want: an accelerated development process."

The formal hackathon, in which a group - including expert coders - are given a short period of time to develop something new is not part of the traditional Hollywood story-creation model. But many aspects of hackathon culture are. For example the notion of a "sprint" - where core team members gather and work in a concentrated manner - is very similar to the creative work accomplished in a television writer's room (or, for that matter, the creative work accomplished every day on a Hollywood set). At hackathons (like in a writer's room or on set) creative people meet and work in person - communicating more effectively than when working remotely.

So a story team could gather to hack a traditional script. But what Lance Weiler is interested in is working with technologists to accomplish goals that are not part of traditional Hollywood story development. As Lance Weiler notes: "As the entertainment industry shifts, story development is requiring a closer relationship to technology. A key member of my production team now is a creative technologist."

Before we consider the role of the technologist in creating a New World motion picture experience, let's look more closely at the process of a hack session. Specifically, are there techniques that are used in a hackathon that go beyond what Old World filmmakers do in an all-night story session - but that might be useful in an intense period of group work on a traditional TV or movie script?

As they start a hackathon, technologists will often create a prioritized list of high level requirements - what they sometimes call a "backlog." This backlog (which can be amended by the group as the hack progresses) guides the team through work on small “deliverable” pieces. Instead of conceptualizing the workflow as one long slog, the team can achieve workable pieces of code in short bursts or sprints. Similarly, a hack session for a motion picture storytelling team (certainly one developing a multi-platform story - but even one just working on an episode of a traditional TV show) could start with agreement on a story backlog - and then proceed to work on the highest-priority pieces of the experience in sprints.

Why bother with this new approach to storytelling? Are there really new creative opportunities that justify learning these new techniques? Is there really money in New World storytelling?

In his column, Lance Weiler discusses the role of story within the emerging mobile app space - (and yes there is money to be made in mobile apps). Currently many app developers are working on software for mobile devices where a "story layer" invites the user into a world where they will encounter opportunities to buy goods and services (so-called “in app” purchases). According to Lance Weiler: "Story is quickly moving towards a service-based model... For example, a story layer is added [to a mobile application] that provides a touch point for the discovery of goods, locations and catalog media like film, books, TV and music."

The previous paragraph may have left some entertainment purists shuddering. Mobile apps that exploit story simply as a tool for selling products may seem like the ultimate sell-out. But ask yourself - would you work for a commercial TV network? Isn't a story told with commercials and product placement on network TV simply fulfilling a "service-based model?" According to Lance Weiler: "It is important to note that seeing story as a service does not diminish the quality of the work. Instead I believe it increases the opportunity to give stories longevity, a chance to be developed in richer ways and in the process strike interesting collaborations that can challenge what a story can be."

And creative technologists and story architects are not just working on developing mobile apps that allow for “in app” purchases. In fact, many of the job opportunities in New World storytelling today seem to be coming from the world of "immersive marketing."

Immersive marketing is the term used to describe the creation of a cohesive and (if successful) all-encompassing experiences across channels to engage potential customers. The best immersive marketers are experts at reaching the influencers, fan cultures and communities that drive results for their clients. As Mike Monello, co-founder of immersive marketing leader Campfire, explains, when a storyteller is effective, s/he is conducting and orchestrating a creative narrative experience for an audience, no matter where that might be.

Immersive marketers often talk about pulling customers rather than pushing out messages. The idea is that great immersive marketing is created from the customer's perspective, not the marketer's.

In addition to creating mobile apps and immersive marketing campaigns, there are also opportunities for New World storytellers to volunteer for the social good as well: For example, Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) is a competitive hacking event (supported by Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, NASA and the World Bank) where volunteer software developers and designers work on tools for disaster management and crisis response.

No comments:

Randy Finch's Film Blog:

Thoughts from a film producer about making and distributing films.