Jesse Alexander is the Exec Producer of Alias, Lost and Heroes, and had a lot to say particularly about the crossover between television and videogames, which can be summed up in his last comment here to a questioner: "I believe television and videogames are a natural fit".
Music to my ears, this stuff! It's going to be SO useful in my parting-gift-powerpoint to the BBC, heh. Here's the gist of it.
So you manage how the Heroes property moves through other mediums?
Yes, it was always seen as a transmedia property from day one. I read Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture: you should read that if you haven’t. To take a brand into the transmedia landscape.. a teevee show through the transmedia landscape, especially a serialized show like Heroes, well, we use a lot of techniques that are very germane to the way that videogames are made.
The writing of heroes is done by 10-12 people, we come up with the stories together, and we write every episode together. That’s an ensemble narrative,. One person can write a story for Peter over multiple episodes, and keep the consistency. What this allows us to do is to keep the whole team totally up to date and vested with the whole show, it harvests the hivemind focus, to deliver a quality narrative. We do rapid prototyping, we iterate on it.. It’s that constant iteration and rewriting that gets things done.
The interesting thing is that TV writing has been an exercise where a writer is brought in for each episode, so how did you get to this process?
Well that process is much more effective (the 1-on-1) for something procedural or episodic, but if you’re doing serialized, you need everyone focused on that narrative and you also often run out of time. By having everyone work on a script you can crank it out in days and have time to make it much better and to see where we’re going. If you see one writer off, they could be gone for a month and then show up with something [you don’t want]. The team approach gives it higher quality.
So on Alias you had to manage the fan audience – did you modulate the writing for fans rather than the greater audience?
We never cared about the greater audience. JJ Abrams wrote it because he was excited about it; we’re fans of shows. I was 10 when star wars came out, it changed my life.
[… missed a chunk here as the guy in front asks me why I'm typing...]
The alias console game came about because the media company who owned the license wanted to make a few more dollars so it sold the license to a game company. It didn’t really fulfil the promise of the medium, it was early days, but we tried. We were in that license area where they know they can sell a certain number of titles, and you only get a certain number of resources and money… thank god that’s changed.
From the beginning, I was brought into the alias process. Games are a huge part of my life. Any IP I’m involved in, I’m thinking about the gamespace. At that point there weren’t that many publishers and developers who were willing to hook up with us, so we had to drive it.
Let’s talk about Lost: shows that involve a lot of thinking on the part of the audience. Steven Johnson compares these shows to games: was that part of your active thinking?
Absolutely. Again understanding games we knew that was part of what we were making. Alias came out in 2001 and Neil young was doing majestic, and .. Neil at GDC where he talked about Majestic was the same experience we had doing Alias. How much story could be digested, how much attention span the audience has..
What is the viewer’s experience and what is their participation level, because we’re doling out information. How much info can they take? We piled on the mysteries with Alias, and by the end it required tremendous exposition. With heroes we’re trying to be much more tuned into the audience.
Heroes had specific story arcs with each episode ..
Heroes was about lessons learned. As far as how episodic you can make an episode, we’d like it to be a bit more episodic, but.. the episode Company Man was very successful, this sort of episode is very easy for audiences to remember. Alias was a relentless serialized ride, it all blended together. The flashback component to Lost was to allow an episodic story in each episode, so you could latch on to that…
Lost was absolutely mapped out as 5 years of broad strokes. It’s keeping along with that plan.
Heroes has an Indian main char, a Japanese main char. No formula, how did it become the rookie head of the season?
I don’t know. It really did grow from Tim’s passion fro the property. Creatively he came up with exactly what he wanted to do, he didn’t shape it to suit the network .. He did exactly what he wanted to do. There’s a lot of passion and spirit.. that comes thru in the content. People have really responded to that.
Heroes is also a comic book, a web community and games planned. Can you speak to that?
Yes. Everyone knows I talk about convergence.. [...] These big media companies are looking for new ways to exploit their properties. ARGs. Comics. I’m lucky enough to be part of some shows where we worked on these things, and there’s convergence with creators of TV and movies.. you have to understand how you can exploit your IP in all those spaces, in a way that’s authentic to your IP and won’t damage it.
With Heroes, we connect all the things we do with the brand, it’s connected to the show. The comic book is part of the canon of the show, it has value. That’s why we need the huge team, there has to be enough people to generate that content.
We’ve done .. It’s difficult to call what we do in Heroes an ARG. Is it transmedia television? We’re using ARG components.. and that’s something that we look to expand in the future. With these large media companies, they desperately want to do this, to exploit this entertainment, and they’re still trying to find the structure to actualize that.
Videogames typically have longer production cycles. In the case of heroes you have a story going thru from season to season. How do you reconcile divergent storylines.
That’s one of the nice things about internet space. ARGs can be very timely and connected to the episodes, whereas consoles take a lot more planning. We made some choices this year about ways to tell stories, and some of the choices had in mind the idea of console exploitation and pc exploitation, so we would have a compelling game experience that will connect seamlessly with the show.
Not to be glib, but why? There’s a competing licensing theory that says, if you just put the game out with the brand on, it will sell.
Yes, that’s true. In the gaming biz, it is at some point it’ll experience what TV and movies experience: competition. The only way to stand out is with quality. That’s the only way to build longevity. You can build a relationship with a studio, and create a lasting brand with like EA has done with the LOTR brand. Those games are awesome. There’s a dedication to making them great.
What are the steps that you go thru in knowing who to talk to in the parallel field?
That’s such a challenge. We don’t have that pipeline. We can create an amazing team of writers and producers who can manage the properly, there aren’t clear roads on the landscape yet. There are some many different divisions that can deliver or help you exploit.. You talk to one group, you realize you should talk to another, there’s someone doing something in parallel.
Each group needs a transmedia czar or something, to connect the people behind the properties to the people creating the [new] content. You have to get the creators involved in that. I’m optimistic that that is happening at NBC.. They really regulate how the people who sell the IP out do that stuff..
What advice would you give to other TV or film producers?
I think film and TV prods and writers need to educate themselves about the gaming industry and new media. I think that’s happening more and more. It sounds like a plug but the GDC magazine is a huge way that I’ve learned about this biz, the postmortems are key.
That education has to happen for producers, writers and executives in the biz. But that has to happen with the gaming companies too, how Hollywood works, and how things get done. Often there is that stereotypical idea that the game industry talk about Hollywood types.. At the end of the day, it’s schlubby guys making stuff.
There’s infrastructure of agents and stuff, but gamemakers have more in common with filmmakers and TV makers than they realize.
Everything Dave Perry does is what I do. The way you manage talent, a brand, hit deadlines, manage schedules. The dude from Ubisoft said .. Ubisoft is trying to get into ‘content creation’ and that is 100% the way to go. The Ubisofts and Microsofts and EAs of this world are adept at managing huge teams and making IP: they could easily be making movies and teevee shows and their own content.
I’m inspired by Peter Jackson working with Microsoft, that’s what the future holds. It doesn’t make sense to make Halo then sell it to
Hollywood and give up control, when they already have the management skills to make content based around that property. All the talent needed to make a movie is available for hire.
The passion is very synchronous, but that maps to the audience too. They want to explore their hero powers. What do you envision for the next couple of years as TV producers become more synched with game producers?
We’re already there in baby steps. With Heroes.. Online comics, online ARGs and other new things we’re working on. I don’t think there’s anything really innovative that comes to mind other than getting it done. Get it made!
There are new forms of entertainment, like Machinima and stuff, but games are great the way they are, movies and TV are great the way they are, and transmedia integrated into the DNA of whatever they create is what’s important. How am I going to get this content exploited on the internet, or in gamespace, or on TV. I just bought the Mass Effect novel, before the game comes out. That’s awesome.
The writers of these games are more than capable of writing screenplays or TV content. They can do that.
ARGs mobilize people . Heroes has at its core the concept of saving the world. Where do you see this altruistic streak leaving your property..
That’s something that’s very cool. It’s not really been.. I'm inspired by Jane McGonigal’s work, I thought world without oil was amazing and groundbreaking. The way it gets a grassroots movement designed to think about important problems and builds it around narrative – inspiring.
With Heroes, it’s about ordinary people coming together to save the world. We see that potential in the way fan communities interact with each other and can solve problems together, so we want to look more into that…
We want to move to the next level of ARG .. I think they’re still limited in participation. There’s a limit in numbers of who actually takes part.. 20m watch the show, plus viewers around the world. How do we find the ARG type of experience who brings in the casual viewer? Someone who wants to participate in the world of heroes, but who is unable to access a more traditional ARG? That’s what we’re looking at.
The Lost game was pretty successful, but you put a web address on a TV show, you get 50m hits, and you want to get them to do something rather than look at a web page then go away.
What are the games you’re playing now?
I just finished crackdown, it’s a guilty pleasure for me. I love crackdown. LOTR,
Battle for Middle Earth. A bunch of games with my son, Kingdom Hearts 2. I’m on the Halo 3 beta. I’m amped on Mass Effect, Halo, the new Grand Theft.. I play the same games everyone else does. I have Xboxes in all my rooms.
I got Forza 2, with the wheel and the paddles and the seat and it’s fucking awesome. My dad is a motor sports journo, and the [..] is his favourite track, and I put him on it and it blew his mind.
I love my 360 like crazy. My ps3 does a lot of folding@home.