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-to-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 Los Angeles 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 costar 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 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."
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.
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."