Thursday, 3 October 2013

SCRIPTS: Home Box Office by Ola Zaltin

So this summer I found myself in a summerhouse for three months (yes, really) and it had broadband WiFi, but no TV. Now, I read a lot. Minimum two novels per week (not bragging, just single with no kids) on a very eclectic range of topics. For example, last week I read Frederik Logevall's Embers of War, Christopher Brookmyre's Pandemonium, Nathan Englander's What we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank, and Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin. (Okay: now I'm bragging. But it was also a rainy week of procrastination on the level of depression to the point of not being able to shave or leave the sofa. Or perhaps, leave the sofa to shave.)

But man cannot subsist on novels alone. (Anyone not in agreement can stop reading now.) So at the beginning of this epic summerhouse sojourn, I hooked up to HBO Nordic online. It isn't TV proper, as it doesn't come over airwaves or through TV cables or boxes. But as the correct designation is "provider of on-demand internet streaming media", methinks I'll just stick with plain old "TV" for the purpose of this article.

For the uninitiated, Netflix, HBO, Viaplay and other such content providers produce their own TV-shows (example in point: the much-touted Netflix version of the excellent English "House of Cards"), with some of them buying additional series or films they want to have in their catalogue online. Some of these series (mostly HBO’s, so far) have been bought by state broadcasters, to show on their national networks. Sopranos, Band of Brothers, Girls, John Adams, are series that spring to mind.

However, the humdinger here is: they create the content they spread via their own distribution channels.  This is the brass-ring for these guys, and it has proven a phenomenal success, and one that is still just in its infancy. As a novice myself, I'll quickly point out the most impressive, in my mind, aspects of this way of viewing TV. First of all, I subscribe to HBO for a monthly fee of about 20 quid. That gives me unlimited access to all their series (dozens of them) and a library of films they have bought the rights to distribute, some of them produced by HBO, most not. But the simplest, yet most practical feature of all this is: I can view it when I want and where I want. On my iPad, mobile phone, laptop or indeed TV (via a gizmo that puts the internet stuff into the old box). And there’re no commercials. Not a one. Sounds silly now, writing it, but it has made me realize this is the future and there's no turning back. Phone rings? Push pause. Boring film? Select another one. Want to re-view a favourite series? Go right ahead. When I want, wherever I want.

I'm predicting that within five years, traditional TV-viewing as we know it will be all but extinct. The vast majority of us will have a brand-spanking new smart-TV sitting in our living-rooms. In the evening (still the most common time to watch TV, after all) we'll turn it on, and maybe first use one or several social medias (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatevergram) to connect with friends and family. Then, we'll continue over to the online TV-guide (your state broadcaster's content will be here, plus whatever other channels or content providers you subscribe to) and select the evening's viewing. Through point and click, we will put together our very own evening’s entertainment. Let's say I want to start with some news and weather, then the sport highlights, followed by my favourite TV-show (selecting any number of episodes I feel like) and then maybe top off the evening with a saucy thriller. To be watched when you feel like, with as many pushes on the pause buttons as you please. While you are simultaneously Skyping with your mate in Australia - through a screen-in-screen on the smart TV - who is watching the same cricket game as you are. (In fact, I'm writing this on my iPad, on Google Drive. The iPad in itself being a mini-version of the current and future smart TVs, as on this screen I also watch shows from Netflix and HBO, use different types of social media apps, Skype, check news and weather, as well as finish articles or pitches for TV, etc.)

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It has been said that this is the second golden era of TV (don't ask me what the first one was). And perhaps more famously, that these series now coming out is the new novel.
Well, is it? Erh, no: it's TV. Duh! However, one can easily understand where the notion came from. Creators - namely, the writers - of these series of four, five or more seasons have a huge canvas to paint on (with matching budgets). Dozens of hours to tell one main story. Compare that to the ten hours it takes to finish a 300 page novel (my guesstimate).

Traditionally, a novel would comprise a start, middle and end, and it was most often the ending that was seen as the essential component when judging a novel's greatness. This is not hard at all to replicate in a 90 minute film, hence the three-act structure. But hang on, now I'm going to outline 40 (forty!) hours of TV drama, and at one hour per episode, that's neigh impossible to impart a three-act structure upon. So what we get is TV-series with seemingly endless dramatic twists and more dramatic scenes and storylines than Swedes in Thailand. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing (the dramatic twists, that is) but what becomes hard to achieve in a satisfactory way is a good ending. Classic examples of long running TV-shows spinning out of creative control (to me) is Twin Peaks and Lost, where the narrative became so entangled and confused and silly that it became irrelevant, and thus uninteresting to watch. Recent outstanding TV-series have battled the same problem. Remember the furore that erupted over the final episode and scene of Sopranos? Everyone moaning about the last episode of Seinfeld?

Lacking the classic three act structure, the prevailing tendency is to head towards safe waters, that is: sex and violence. Graphic sex and explicit violence. This will wake ’em up, is the thinking. And it does. For reasons unbeknownst to me, these providers of on-demand internet streaming media are not beholden to the same censorship laws that exist for "normal" TV in America, so there's a torrent of torrid sex, cunnilingus, head-splitting, blow-jobs and gut-spilling. In close up. Now I'm no prude and I swing a mean battle-ax, but it has come to the point (after watching all there is of Game of Thrones, Banshee, John Adams, Strikeback, Magic City, Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Five Days, 30 Rock and Curb your enthusiasm this summer - yes, I’m bragging again) where I’m starting to wonder if one has to, just because one can. Sometimes - often, in fact - less is more.

Novels have taken this up, of late, and similar traits now have crossed over to the written word - the new TV. Novel series like Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey and Hunger Games go for kicks of the above-mentioned variety, where perhaps the structure is somewhat rickety and the ending more inevitable than important.
So: find a great setting, say Amish country, Pennsylvania. Add a new sheriff in town who’s really a crook in disguise, and a bad guy who’s of Amish descent and quite decent and you got yourself a show: Banshee

Perhaps imagine The Godfather as a long-running series, set in the roaring twenties’ boot-legging gangster mayhem and you have Boardwalk Empire. Or (making it easy for yourself) take Boardwalk Empire and transpose it to a hotel in Miami during the go-go fifties, and end up with Magic City. Dream up something similar, salt and pepper, roast for two hours and send it off to one of the big, new, hungry providers of on-demand internet streaming media (formerly known as TV) - and you’re home.


Ola Zaltin is a Swedish screenwriter living in Copenhagen, Denmark. He has written for film and various Scandinavian tv-shows, amongst them Wallander. At the moment he's having a screenplay considered in L.A and is developing a tv-series of his own. He also does script-doctoring, albeit exclusively for nubile young women with illusions of grandeur.

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