TV

The Disconnect by Chris Weigl

I was talking to an old friend of mine the other day.  We hadn’t really talked since he graduated about a year and a half ago and it was great to catch up and connect even though we’re in two different industries now (he runs the social media platform for a start-up out in San Francisco while I still live in the world of Academia.)  What was strange about this conversation was our shared fascination with the idea of Influencers dinners (influencers dinners were started by Jon Levy as a way for people to bond regardless of their jobs or backgrounds.)  Neither of us are very social.  I abhor the conventional party where I’m forced to listen to stories about people’s jobs and how little things have changed in their lives.  Inevitably, when someone asks about me and what I’m doing I go into business mode and start talking about how excited I am about whatever project we’re doing.  That’s the disconnect.  Most people don’t enjoy their jobs, but what I do is more than a job and I believe more than a business; it’s a purpose.

I work seven days a week.  I used to think that I didn’t need any off time, but then I got realistic.  I take a few hours off during the day to play with my dogs and maybe watch an hour or so of Netflix, but then my mind wanders back to the list of tasks that I’ve created for the week.  I am my own boss, so I set my own goals and arrange my own tasks, which is good because when I work for someone else I’m a terrible employee.  Having an open schedule where I can arrange my day how I see fit allows me to work on all the little things I want to improve without having someone breathing down my neck about everything.  It also forces me to do the things that I don’t want to do, but I get to do them on my terms, which I’ve found makes the process a little easier.  Sometimes I spend an entire day editing a video, other days I get some writing done and when I’m really lucky I can go through my tasks and knock them out in the order of influence they’ll have in my life.  That’s a great feeling right there.

One of the reasons that I reached out to this old friend was because I had a problem that I couldn’t solve.  It wasn’t a little problem.  I had a revelation of sorts, but I didn’t quite know what to do with it.  I laid out my problem.  I don’t like TVs.  I think they’re big, bulky and don’t serve the kind of purpose that something else could if it were introduced into the TV market.  My company is devoted to creating commercial-free TV and finding a path towards new, original and sustainable programming for the future.  I know it sounds a lot like Netflix or Hulu, but this is where I realized we could make our mark; Netflix and Hulu have crappy deals with networks and production companies that allow the producer not the viewer to choose what programming they have access to.  Netflix has close to 150 million subscribers and they haven’t figured out a way to leverage deals so that the consumer can decide what they want to watch.  That’s just absurd and what makes it absurd is the TV.

A quick course in TV history: the TV was developed by Filo T. Farnsworth in the 1930’s and sold by RCA in the 1940’s.  Farnsworth’s system for producing images relied on a scanning system.  He looked out at a cornfield and noticed how everything lined up in rows and thought that doing the same thing on a screen could turn radio into a visual medium and sure enough he was right.  Our problem today is that we operate largely on that same system.  We still get our stations from signals sent out by networks like the National Broadcasting Company (which was started by RCA to supply content to their newly minted TV.)  Granted, some of us still have cable and that’s unfortunate, but the rest of us rely on streaming services.  This made me ask the question: why are we using streaming services on TVs?  Why hasn’t someone come up with a better way?  TVs are big, bulky and don’t serve any other purpose than to deliver subpar content laden with ridiculous commercials to an audience that’s growing older and dying off.  Someone needs to find a mechanism other than a computer or phone that allows people to utilize streaming media, but also serves other functional purposes.

Around 2000, Gateway computers (remember them?) bet big on a new idea that seemed like it could revolutionize the marketplace.  They wanted to take the computer and use it to replace the television.  Gateway invested heavily in new technology for monitors, much of the same technology that led to the development of widescreen HDTVs.  The problem was that people didn’t buy into the concept of a computer replacing their TVs.  There were a number of reasons for this, but the big one was that there was no Netflix or comparable service that could deliver a catalog of programming to this device.  My question for my friend was: how could we create something that allowed you to watch streaming content pretty much on demand while remaining plugged into social media?  Tablets could be the answer if someone comes up with a foldable one that can expand out to around 42.”  The problem that I face as a consumer and ultimately this is the quagmire that I’m trying to make my way through right now is how can I watch my streaming content, my sports, check my Facebook and Twitter feeds and potentially do gaming too eventually.  That’s a big, loaded question that has a lot of obstacles laden in its premise.  Of course, I’m assuming here that such a device could be made, manufactured and sold at a reasonable price.  I’m also operating under the assumption that everyone would be willing to ditch their TVs which is anything but a foregone conclusion.  What I want people to think about though was his response to my question.  He said that we need to change the way we watch and process visual and textual images.

“Remember the opening of the Brady Bunch?”  He asked.  “There are nine boxes and eight of them are filled with the heads of members of the family.  That’s the kind of thing you’ll need to do if you want to do this and you’ll have to maintain everyone’s attention on one thing at the same time essentially making it all one interface.”

“What a fascinating answer,” I wrote back.

“No,” he said.  “What’s going to be interesting is how this thing is developed by companies and sold to consumers because that’s where people always wind up getting screwed.”

Another great response on his part which begs the question for our readers: how do we avoid getting screwed?

Stop Writing for Hollywood and Start Writing a Better Story by Chris Weigl

I wrote my first screenplay when I was a Sophomore in high school.  I remember three things from that year in school.  The first thing I remember is the election.  The year was 2000 and one of the most ferocious elections ever fought was being waged that year.  I remember guys who had just turned eighteen voting for George W. Bush because "his daughters are hot."  I remember that election well because back then I was a Republican.  I was one of those "fiscally conservative" people.  I didn't care much for social issues.  None of them really affected me.  Why I was a Republican then is as much a mystery now as it was then.  I know I had my reasons though.  I remember showing up on Election Day and seeing the school packed with voters.  Most of the voters were old - something I took to be a bad sign for my choice - George W. Bush.

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Let's Make Art Again by Chris Weigl

What is happening in entertainment and media is so frightening that were I not so dogmatically tied to my own film and television projects as well as the characters they bring to life, the themes they embody, and the stories they play out that I would - in any other scenario - likely give up on media.  It’s been a nice run for me.  I’ve had fun and it’s been an eye-opening experience, but the people who are producing things in Hollywood nowadays aren’t the people that I want to work with.  Hollywood has completely forgotten what art is and they have no intention of even trying to find it again.  They don’t have the vision to put together a good product; they have an idea of what advertisers would like them to make and what focus groups think they’d like to watch.  If one were to walk into one of these focus groups Frank Luntz style one would be terrified even further by the insane amount of indecision that exists within the average Americans' mind as to what exactly they want.  This is why we have artists.  The job of an artist is to tell a story that people not only want to hear but need to hear.  That is what we're doing with our feature film: Finding our Founders and our TV show: Living History.  This is a film and a show that tells jokes at the expense of politicians, political parties, the media, and even the average voter.

What our projects represent is a fundamental shift in the paradigm of creative content in media.  That’s what we hope it does at least.  We want writers - whether they're repped or not - to be able to send unsolicited copies of their scripts to real production companies and actually have someone sit down and read it.  We want real artists to be taken seriously and we believe that a guy from St. Louis has as much right and ability to do that as anyone living in LA or New York.  LA and New York are the places where creative hopes and dreams go to die.  They are places that are romanticized by the people that live there for the people that live there.  We joke every year that the film that will win the most awards (and usually the Best Picture Oscar) is the movie that makes Hollywood look like the place that everyone in the upper echelons of the entertainment business actually believes it to be.  These are fourth or even fifth generation studio owners who think they know a thing or two about “creating” something.  The writers that work there tell them that they’re geniuses so that these studio heads will give them money to write adaptations of prior content that can be regurgitated in a manner that a fifth grader could understand because pitching to a smart audience has been frowned upon for the last fifteen years.

We believe that the audience for creative content is smarter than people give them credit for.  We believe people visit Wikipedia because it is an easy place to find information not because they’re looking for the most dumbed-down version of events available to man (Cliff’s Notes is still available, right?)  The truth is though that we live in a very divided country politically, ideologically and culturally.  A recent study came out that analyzed the opinions of two thousand climate scientists and only three of said scientists disagreed with the idea that climate change poses a huge and existential threat to our planet.  Three out of two thousand.  I’m not good at math but I think that’s more than half or as I like to jokingly put it: a mathematician calls it near unanimity; a conservative calls it a conspiracy.  This is the world we live in.  It’s polarized.  We can do something about or not.  My bet is that we don’t, but my God let’s at least say something about it!  That’s what we're trying to do and I hope that you can take the time to check out what we’re doing because somebody should be saying something even if it’s just speaking gibberish to gibber-gabbers.  If you scream at someone loud enough and long enough chances are they’ll at least realize that you’re not speaking with your indoor voice anymore.

Handling Criticism by Chris Weigl

The characters in Living History are not the founding fathers. The characters in Living History are historical re-enactors who get a bit carried away with their characters. Though there may be parallels with the historical and historical events do undoubtedly come up in the story of Living History that does not make Living History a documentary or historical drama. It is fiction. It is a story thought up by a writer with an imagination all his own. It is a little sad I suppose that this much needs to be explained. Some have expressed this view to me and I understand it, but I take no issue with those whose chief purpose is to maintain historical integrity.

Those who ask questions in the name of truth and honesty should be welcomed and indeed I do welcome those who question the accuracy or the truth in a given character, event, or even exposition. This is all part of the process of what makes Living History such a joy to work on. Were it not for the high-minded debates that I get to have with historians – both amateur and professional alike – much of the making of Living History would not be fun or entertaining for me the writer. I enjoy what may seem to most ordinary people to be mundane or trivial bits of history and I enjoy discussing these issues in a constructive way. What is not necessary and what is often counter-productive to the purpose of this show is to take what these actors are saying, the views they are espousing, and the events they are partaking in as fact. They are not. Although their actions may be rooted in some historical fact and though some things may have happened in the lifetimes of some of the individual characters most of what happens in Living History is the result of the writer’s imagination.

Just as Jefferson wrote out his feelings from the perspective of the head and the heart regarding Maria Causeway I too find myself in a similar philosophic position myself with regards to how to balance the historical accuracy with what is best for the story. While the historical sets strict limits with its true aim being objectivity the story sets few limits with its aim being entertainment and it is in the overlap of these two worlds where it is easiest to get lost in the wilderness that at least on its face appears to be separating the two. We live in a quarrelsome society, especially with regards to our politics. Some live for the quarrel more than they live for the day. These people will find something debatable in everything from the way someone looks to the way they act to the way they speak and carry themselves. This sort of behavior used to be reserved for lawyers but society has evolved or some would say devolved to the point where some are so itching for a fight that they will take the white flag of surrender as an offensive affront to their freedom and will use such action not merely to defend their over the top reaction but as a justification for their own overblown, often misplaced, and always overt hostility.

Overcoming Criticism by Chris Weigl

With the same certainty that I put pen to paper I equally understand that amateur historians, talking heads, wide-eyed pundits, and blind party loyalists will both attack and defend this show with the utmost vigor. They will assail my fictional creation because of its connection to history. History is, after all, in the title. We have an obligation to the historical to be honest and fair with the facts and fair to the players. The issues of historical accuracy and artistic license may appear at a crossroads in this show. Indeed, some may see the two issues as diametrically opposed. I do not believe that this needs to be the case. I believe in a world of imagination, creativity, and interpretation. It is my belief that we should not try to conform our world in such a way that one side gets to control the message of the past to fit their view of the future. Since no one can know for certain what someone from the past would do in the present just as we cannot know how we will act in future circumstances any commentary about this subject matter is entirely heresy. No one can be right because there is no way to prove them wrong.

Some will suggest that because they cannot be expressly proven wrong that they are almost as if by default, right. Such errors in logic need little explanation to the normal inhabitants of the Earth, but the conservative is another matter. The cacophony that passes for reason and logic amongst the conservative apparatus is such that their arguments hold little in the way of weight that most people require to make informed judgments or opinions like facts or evidence. In short, those who should listen too often speak and those who should speak too often listen. My chief concern is not that people are debating the historical. I think it is wonderful that we’re having a discussion about our history, but therein lies the catch. It is our history. Not yours. Not mine. History is something that we share.

I understand that this idea of sharing is naturally at odds with the conservative ideology of free markets or freedom or whatever but sharing is a crucial part of what it means to be human. Thomas Aquinas once said that: “taxes ought to be collected from the common goods for the common good.” Note that he did not specify who the “takers” were or who the “makers” were. The sentiment and logic was simple: we all have a price to pay if we are to live together in harmony. It was the conservative Oliver Wendell Holmes who said: “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” After reading these last couple of sentences the conservative machine will no doubt note that I mentioned the word taxes twice, but it would be of equal and perhaps even more important use to notice that the word “for” was also used in each of those sentences. They serve a purpose.

It is because of the basic truth that no one owns our history anymore than anyone else and because history is so open to interpretation that we find ourselves fighting over it. It is because we can fight about it that we do find ourselves fighting about it. The foundation of Living History is essentially a what if? scenario using actors who believe that they are the human incarnation of historical characters. These characters, driven by their own sense of justice and propriety, are what makes the show function. Many will ask: who am I to interpret past events? That’s the thing that some do not understand. I’m not interpreting past events. I’m telling a story. The role of the storyteller is vastly different from the role of the historian. This isn’t to say that a storyteller can take complete and total license with their work: that is most certainly not the case, but we approach people, places, and events though a different lens. The historian must set out much like the scientist with his concern first and foremost being the truth and perspective of those who lived through the time. The storyteller looks at what the most compelling case is for the audience and is based entirely on perspective. 

What Hollywood lacks right now is interesting and compelling stories and is it our jobs as storytellers to provide the American people with content that they can look forward to watching.  Not all of our content will be politically correct, but no true art should be.  Our solution to the current content problem in Hollywood is not without its problems, but Hollywood is a place right now that is running low on solutions.