On a seemingly typical shooting day recently at a stage in El Segundo, a director in a baseball cap was hunched over video monitors, burly grips were moving lights, and the producers were arguing about just what it was they were making.
"I swear we need a tip jar for every time somebody calls this 'television' or 'marketing,'" said an exasperated Elan Lee, chief creative officer of Fourth Wall Studios.
"I want a jar for every time we say 'transmedia' too, but I don't know what else to say sometimes," added Jim Stewartson, Fourth Wall's chief executive. "What the hell is it?"
Call it transmedia, interactive media or the indescribable next leap in entertainment, but this Culver City start-up is trying to make it. Backed by tens of millions from perhaps Los Angeles' wealthiest man, staffed with refugees from the film, television and video game industries and about to launch its first public project, Fourth Wall is trying to create a new form of interactive programming that fits the era of apps, friends lists and watching two or three screens at the same time.
"We're building a studio of the future that has the pieces in place to pick up where Hollywood is dropping the ball," said Lee. "We're saying this is what the future of storytelling looks like. This is how you engage with audiences on not just one platform, but across multiple platforms."
The project shot in El Segundo, "Dirty Work," is a dark comedy that could air on any number of cable channels that target the 17-34-year-old demographic. Three foul-mouthed Los Angeles hipsters work nights cleaning blood and other bodily fluids from crime scenes. In just the first episode, they get themselves entangled in situations serious — a crime boss comes looking for heroin left at a cleanup scene — and ridiculous, like an accidental run-in with Lakers player Metta World Peace.
"Dirty Work" was made on a six-figure-per-episode budget by experienced, if not exactly A-list, Hollywood talent led by "show runner" Aaron Shure, who has written for "The Office"and "Everybody Loves Raymond." "I like being able to tell people that it's a Web show, but it looks really good," said actress Mary Lynn Rajskub, a comedian formerly on "24." "It's not wanna-be TV." People who load "Dirty Work" from the dozens of websites where it will be available starting April 30 and watch it on a computer or tablet could just sit back and watch what's essentially a half-hour sitcom. "We know the first time most people watch this, they're not going to give us their phone number," said Lee.
Those ready to type in their valuable 10 digits can "intercept" text messages between characters. From a girl hiding out at a crime scene who texts with a friend before she actually appears on screen, for instance. Or they can take a call and, while watching him bumble in front of a girl, hear the mental scrambling going on inside of actor Hank Harris' character's head: "Wow, look at her.... She's almost messed up enough to date me."
The creators, in effect, are taking on the ultimate challenge that no one in Hollywood has yet cracked — how to engage young audiences who want to do more than be passively fed stories.
Voice-overs are not new; nor are pop-up factoids. But hearing or seeing additional information on a different device than the one you're watching on could make the experience more immersive or engage viewers who might otherwise regularly glance down for the latest updates on Twitter and Facebook. "We think you get a much more intimate experience on the phone," said producer Jackie Turnure. "It makes you feel like a voyeur."
To encourage people to use their phones, Fourth Wall has borrowed a page from the video game business. Viewers — or are they players? — score points for every extra task they perform, racking up achievements they can share on a Facebook profile. Receiving texts and calls also allows them to unlock bonus scenes that tie into the narrative but aren't critical to it. For example, Harris' character finding his roommate engaged in lewd behavior with items in his bedroom.
"Dirty Work" is only a first step for the extensive interactive elements Fourth Wall plans to put in its next-gen entertainment. Six to eight more series are scheduled to come out this year in genres including horror, musical and reality. Many will be watchable in the company's Rides platform — technology developed to integrate phone calls, texts and emails into the viewing experience.
Others will use "augmented reality" technology the company is working on called Elsewhere. It uses the cameras ubiquitous on smartphones and tablets to integrate entertainment into the world around you. Imagine looking at the screen on your iPad and seeing your bedroom transformed into a spaceship or medieval castle. "In the long term, we want to build the holodeck," said Stewartson, referring to the uber-realistic hologram technology on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
Fourth Wall's work is not the first attempt to produce entertainment that extends beyond one screen. "The Blair Witch Project," which used a website to make its found footage story seem real, was one of the first to break into the mainstream. Aficionados can find games and novels that span media, and millions of TV fans have texted in votes to"American Idol"or read the digital comics tied into "Heroes."
But no one before has had the resources of Fourth Wall to create such original content for a mass audience. "There have been a lot of interesting small things in this space, but what Fourth Wall is doing will be the first true test," said Jordan Weisman, a game developer and transmedia pioneer who previously worked with the Fourth Wall team. "If they're successful, it will open a new channel for media that can stand alongside movies, television, music and books."
Innovators behind it
Stewartson, Lee and their co-founder Sean Stewart were part of the team that in 2003 founded 42 Entertainment, a pioneer in so-called alternate reality games that merge the digital with the real world as part of marketing campaigns. That company made its mark with 2004's "I Love Bees," an ARG designed to promote video game Halo 2 that had players scouring websites, solving puzzles and using GPS coordinates to find pay phones that would ring at certain times.
In 2007, the trio left behind 42, which still does ARG marketing, and founded Fourth Wall. Stewartson, the most strait-laced of the group, handles business affairs, while former video game designer Lee focuses on the interactive and Stewart, the author of 12 fantasy and science-fiction novels, is head writer.
At their new company, they endeavored to create original content using rules they learned in testing with people who've never heard the word "transmedia." "One of the things we've learned the hard way is, 'Storytelling: not broken,'" said Stewart. That's why, despite it being the most obvious way to make entertainment interactive, Fourth Wall doesn't do choose-your-own-adventure stories.
But attempts to get funding from established entertainment companies resulted only in frustration. It took three years for the trio to get their shot, after a mutual friend introduced Stewartson toPatrick Soon-Shiong.
A surgeon who co-founded and sold two pharmaceutical companies in multibillion-dollar deals, Soon-Shiong owns a minority stake in the Lakers and has a net worth estimated by Forbes at $7 billion. He saw Fourth Wall as an opportunity for his first foray into entertainment and to explore storytelling's role in his pursuit of improving Americans' health.
"On the healthcare side, it's important to develop interactive technology that helps you get the right information and treatment," Soon-Shiong said during an intense conversation at a Brentwood diner. "Fourth Wall has the same vision, but in the world of storytelling and enjoyment, which is a little less serious. To me, it's a relief."
Soon-Shiong is Fourth Wall's only investor. He sees his entertainment venture as such a small risk and such an integral part of his larger ambitions that he says it's "not a concern" whether it makes a profit any time soon.
His initial investment, made a little more than a year ago, was $15 million, and Soon-Shiong boasts that he is close to completing a new studio complete with stages in Culver City for Fourth Wall at a cost of more than $20 million. In addition, he provided the technology behind Elsewhere that was developed by other companies he owns.
And unlike many rich people who dabble in Hollywood, Soon-Shiong has no opinion on the content Fourth Wall makes. "I have very little knowledge of media, so I don't know whether what they are making is good or bad," he said with a laugh. "My modus operandi is to attack a problem in a way nobody ever has before and be confident that if we're successful, the revenue will come."
For now, Fourth Wall is planning to intersperse "Dirty Work" with advertisements and seek sponsors to attach themselves to its projects from start to finish, an effort that has yet to bear much fruit. The company could also make money from those who license its technology to create and distribute their own interactive stories.
"The person who invented the motion picture camera was probably not the one who made the best film," said Zach Schiff-Abrams, an executive producer at Fourth Wall.
At the company's digs in a Culver City office park, business concerns don't appear to be at the top of most of the 40 employees' minds. An almost completely open space — on their first day there, Fourth Wall's team took sledgehammers to most of the walls — it's filled with editing equipment, computers and couches, along with an inflatable shark attached to a propeller that staffers fly across the office.
At a time when technology and changing consumer habits have many studios and networks paralyzed by uncertainty, Fourth Wall wants to get as much content on the air — so to speak — as possible.
As with most movies and TV shows, of course, "Dirty Work" and the majority of projects that follow from Fourth Wall will likely flop. But while the company's leaders say they're fully aware of those odds, they betray no doubt that the world is ready for their approach.
"To those of us who have drunk the Kool-Aid, it's just obvious," said Stewartson. "People live differently, they consume things differently and they're ready for entertainment that suits that fact."