Sunday, December 20, 2009

Braving New Trails to the Web and Beyond with Screenwriter Aaron Mendelsohn

Sisyphus had it easy compared to us screenwriters.

If the Writer’s Guild Strike of 2007 taught us anything, it’s that you don’t have to wait for the studios to green light your project to get something made. Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog and Felicia Day’s, The Guild are two shining examples of this.  Truth is, all you really need is a script, a cameraman, some actors, a grip, a director, a coordinator, a production manager, a best boy, a make-up person, some P.A.s, maybe a driver, equipment, an editor and most importantly, craft service. 

You’ll also need a place to display your production once it’s complete. 

Enter the internet. That mystical, magical cloud we can neither see, nor touch but we’re convinced will either be the savior of Hollywood or its downfall. The jury is still out on that one. The point is this: it’s virgin territory and for those of us willing to take a risk and put ourselves on the line, it’s a fresh proving ground; an opportunity for writer/creators to finally exert greater control over their own content while bringing it directly to the consumer.  On the other hand, it’s also a cheaper way for the studios to see what we’ve created without paying us anything in advance. 

New media equals new paradigm.

So is new media really just old media with a fresh coat of paint or is it old media’s salvation? Although it’s still too early to predict the quality of content that will be created by the collision of old and new media, one thing is clear: it’s gotten a lot of us writers out from behind our keyboards and into the production end of the game. The question is, will it level the field or simply prove to be another wasteland?  Conventional wisdom tells us it’s too early to tell, so I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

In the meantime, one writer I know who is currently exploring this wild New Frontier is Aaron Mendelsohn. Aaron recently took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few quick questions on writing for the big screen and for the internet.

A working screenwriter for over fifteen years, Aaron currently sits on the Board of Directors for the Writers Guild of America West.  During the recent Writers Strike, Aaron brought together a group of top writers from Hollywood to launch Virtual Artists, Inc., a writer-owned studio that produces sponsor-supported "water cooler" entertainment for the Web.  Earlier this year they completed their “A” round of financing and will be launching their first shows in 2010.

Previously, Aaron co-created the AIR BUD movie franchise and co-wrote the first two films.  Among his other writing credits are the Lifetime movie CHANGE OF HEART, the Fox series “KINDRED: THE EMBRACED” and the independent feature CHAPTER ZERO, which he also directed. 

Jeffrey Berman: What was your first break as a writer and what did you learn from it that you brought to your following writing assignments?

Aaron Mendolsohn: My first break was setting up a pilot for a drama series that was based on a book my old partner and I optioned.  The pilot never went anywhere, but I learned how meaningful it was to have the credibility of a book backing you up.  And this was back in 1993. These days, having some kind of pre-existing intellectual property is practically a requirement.

JB: There’s an old adage in the film business, “Never work with animals or children.”  Is the same true when it comes to writing for them?  Do you approach scenes differently when writing for a dog, like in your script for Air Bud?

AM: I think writing for children and animals is very liberating in that you don't have to conform to all the restrictive logic and behavior that comes with writing adult characters (unless you're Judd Apatow, in which case you write your adults as if they're children).  And it's nice not to feel you have to make every line of dialogue Sorkinesque.  The challenge, when writing about kids or dogs, is to not be too precious.  No one likes precious.  And avoid anthropomorphism.  Dogs don't smile, they don't dance, and they don't raise their eyebrows.  When we were writing Air Bud, our Post-It note on the computer was: Everything the dog does, he does it for the boy.  He doesn't play basketball because he's some ball-jonesing canine Michael Jordan, he plays it because the boy he loves plays it.

JB: When you’re working on a story and you creatively hit a wall, what techniques do you use to break through and finish the script?

AM: I just write through it.  Get down whatever hideous blather spills out of my fingertips, and then I "fix it in post."

JB:  You recently created a new media company called, Virtual Artists that produces sponsor supported content.  Is writing for the web different than writing for Film and TV, and if so, how does it differ?

AM: Films and TV are a lean-back experience.  Web content is a lean-forward experience.  We try to build interactive components in and around our shows, giving viewers the option to click, interact, respond, share and sometimes even control the narrative.  It's the evolution of storytelling.  Sponsors like this sort of engagement because it increases the number of touch points with viewers.

JB: What advice would you offer to up-and-coming writers who want to work in the industry?

AM: Get the rights to something that has a pre-built audience – book, graphic novel, magazine article, 1970s TV show – because, sadly, in this era of corporate bottom lines, no one's buying original stories anymore.


  1. "Truth is, all you really need is a script, a cameraman, some actors, a grip, a director, a coordinator, a production manager, a best boy, a make-up person, some P.A.s, maybe a driver, equipment, an editor and most importantly, craft service."
    Okay, sure. No argument, although it seems like the good will and voluntary support of a few billion global customers wouldn't hurt on the path to the next round of negotiations.

  2. Informative! Thanks for posting this and the interview!

  3. Terrific inside look at a fascinating industry! Do you agree that "in this era of corporate bottom lines, no-one's buying original stories anymore"?

    I found that to be a somewhat depressing thought...


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