Anthony E. Zuiker may be best known for creating CSI, which is often cited as the most watched TV show in the world. But he’s also fully engaged in storytelling on digital platforms, hence his International Digital Emmy Awards Pioneer Prize this year.
Zuiker stepped onto the Grand Auditorium stage at MIPTV today to talk about his digital work, the role technology plays in CSI, and upcoming TV shows Whodunnit? and Wonderland. He was interviewed by Brian Seth Hurst, CEO of The Opportunity Management Company.
After reminding Hurst that CSI was “the first TV script I ever wrote”, he noted that interaction had always been a key element, even though the show itself was linear television.
“The rule of thumb for the audience is always to give them 30% and make them work for the extra 70,” he said. Think of CSI fans trying to solve the on-screen crimes while watching the crime scene investigation team go about its work.
More direct interactivity, though, was one of the core features of Zuiker’s Level 26 “digi-novels”, initially published as books with a companion website, before making the leap to iPhone and then iPad – in the latter case, with an app called Dark Prophecy.
“I love books, and always wanted to have a book published,” he said. “Why not a book and a movie and a social website all merged into one?.. When the tablet came it was wonderful: you could be reading the book and suddenly a gunshot goes off!.. I’m always trying to do things that are inspiring and surprising and trailblazing new ground. It’s what keeps me excited about this business.”
Cybergeddon was another example. Distributed online, it was a cybercrime thriller told over 10 nine-minute episodes, although they hung together well as a single 90-minute movie too. It premiered in September 2012, and was funded by internet security firm Symantec, promoting its Norton antivirus software.
“The number one rule in doing content for the web is to make sure the content is specific to the device. You can’t just move television over to the web, and vice versa,” said Zuiker. “We reinvented motion-picture storytelling for the web. Hard in, hard middle, hard outs… We had to be able to give it a rhythm and a pace that felt very internet, power of scale.”
Zuiker said Symantec played a key role in ensuring the technology within the series was authentic, drawing on its research and including a character from Norton in the plot. He outlined the benefits for the brand:
“If you think about a $1m contribution for a 30-second spot in season two of CSI. That 30 seconds comes and goes again. For that same million dollars for a Symantec, you’re going to get a 90-minute motion picture, brand integration and a shelf life [online]. You can’t cut it out of the movie, because it is part of the movie… It’s a simple example, but a great example of how brands can come into storytelling and get bigtime mileage.”
Zuiker talked about the upcoming Whodunnit?, a show from his Dare to Pass production company that will air on ABC in the US this summer. It’s a reality-mystery show where amateur sleuths compete to solve pretend murders, while the audience guesses along with them.
“I’ve been trying to crack this CSI competition show for years, and never quite wrapped my head around it,” admitted Zuiker, who thinks he’s nailed it with Whodunnit?
He’s also executive-producing Wonderland, a drama pilot in production for NBC that offers a new spin on Alice in Wonderland, based on a “19 year-old woman from Detroit” named Clara. But Zuiker said traditional TV work isn’t the majority of Dare to Pass’ work in 2013. Far from it, in fact.
“There’s a need for brands to tell stories, because media’s changed so much,” he said. “Our slate’s about 80% web and technology, and about 20% day-job television. That’s how busy we are in this technology world, because the demand is so huge. Brands are saying ‘we don’t find a lot of value in the 30-second spot any more. Help us find things that have a shelf-life and have scale.”
Zuiker warned that “there’s no cookie-cutter philosophy about how to tell stories through a brand: every one’s a little bit different”, but said the growing number of brands looking to fund web video content should be welcomed by storytellers and producers.
“There’s nothing better than finding brand money, and doing a great movie, and the brand’s happy and you walk away with a little bit of money. And more importantly, the negative is yours,” he said.
“That’s where you want to be: the more you can control your own destiny, and the more you can go global, and the more you can own and control creatively as a true artist… We all want that autonomy, that ownership, and to be able to do stories that we love for audiences.”