Stories Matter at CES 2011  

By Tamara Krinsky, WGAW New Media Program Manager  

Photo Credit: Tamara Krinsky / WGAW
(L-R): Actor Kevin Pollak and Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof meet the crowd post-panel. 

Each year, gadget enthusiasts look forward to the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) for the opportunity to see the latest and greatest in everything from televisions to tablets to new automotive technology. The January 2011 installment of the annual mega-conference, however, offered a little something extra. Touting the slogan, “Entertainment Matters,” this year’s event aimed to make itself a must-attend for the Hollywood community, positing that never before have entertainment and technology been so intertwined.

As part of this new branding, CES programmed a slew of show business-oriented panels, including “Artists as Entrepreneurs,” which was part of the Media Money Makers conference strand. The panel emerged out of several conversations CES had with the Writers Guild of America, West about working together to create a session that would showcase the important contributions of WGAW members in the new media space.

Ultimately, we put together a joint panel with the Screen Actors Guild that featured several prominent members of each organization speaking about how they are using new media platforms and digital tools to expand storytelling opportunities, build their own brands and create work for themselves. Speakers included WGA members Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof (Lost), Justin Halpern ($#*! My Dad Says), and Shawn Ryan (The Chicago Code, The Unit, The Shield), as well as SAG members Amy Aquino (Secretary/Treasurer, SAG) and Kevin Pollak (Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show). The panel was moderated by Arthur Greenwald (President, Greenwald Media, Inc.).

The panel kicked off with a spirited, enthusiastic conversation about how the Internet has, in Pollak’s words, “Become a place to go and fail and has become one of the all time great venues to earn an audience bit by bit.”

Photo Credit: Tamara Krinsky / WGAW
Lost executive producer Carlton Cuse at “Artists as Entrepreneurs” CES 2011 panel. 

“The Internet has democratized ideas,” added Halpern. “If it’s good and funny enough, it will surpass the development process.”

If anyone should know this, it’s Halpern, whose current CBS sitcom, $#*! My Dad Says, started life as a Twitter account. Halpern said that just by looking at the rising number of followers on his feed, it was clear that his humor was connecting with people.

Ryan concurred, “I felt like I knew Justin and his dad just by reading the Tweet stream...he created a world for people to imagine on a daily basis and that's pretty special.” He added that he always encourages aspiring writers to just write, and that Twitter and the Internet provide new opportunities to do so.

Cuse and Lindelof’s experience involved taking an existing show, Lost, and making associated content. They described how they went from being showrunners to, as Cuse joked, “Grand managers of all media.”

Lindelof said, “We spent a lot of time building the iceberg – there were hours of work the writers were doing – and viewers only saw the tip of it on ABC. The characters on the show didn’t necessarily care about the Hanso Foundation...Jack cared about Kate. But the marketing person said we could tell the rest of the story online because there was a subset of fans that was really interested.”

Getting direct feedback from fans used to be difficult, however, the panelists joked that now you can get as much feedback “as you can possibly mentally stand.” Ryan, an avid Tweeter, said that one of the dangers of interacting with the fans is that it can make you feel like the center of the universe. Sometimes that can be misleading, as it can give you a disproportionate sense of how many people are watching your show; while at other times it can be quite helpful, such as when his series Terriers was cancelled. The week after the show went off the air, he went online and answered fan questions during the time slot the show usually broadcast. He said it helped to give him a sense of closure.

Time management was another topic that reared its head during the panel. Showrunning is a time-intensive occupation; how does one balance it with making all the new derivative content one is now expected to produce? Lindelof said that it’s important to maintain focus on the main show, see how people react to it, and then deal with all of the ancillary content. He cited The Event as an example of a program where a lot of deep mythology work was done, but no one was watching the actual television broadcast. He said that he and Cuse made a big point of “keeping our eyes on the mothership” during Lost.

Ryan added that the network doesn’t usually want to hire additional people to work on Internet content. “I’ve seen shows get in trouble when the writers and creators focus too much on Internet content instead of the show itself,” he added.

When it comes to monetization, all the writers and actors advised to get out there and make something. Pollak said, “If you create something that finds an audience that truly loves it, you will figure out a way to make money.”

The path to a paycheck isn’t always clear cut. For example, Halpern couldn’t have put up a pay wall around his Twitter feed because people were used to getting it for free. But instead, CBS figured out a way to monetize the idea – they created a television show during which they could sell advertising. Halpern had no way of knowing when he started his Twitter feed that it would eventually manifest itself as William Shatner playing an irascible father, but by staying true to his voice, he built an audience and eventually it paid off.

- For more on the WGAW’s New Media contracts:
- To watch the panel in its entirety, click here.