Many are familiar with the effort in recent years to produce a major motion picture expressing the values of The Venus Project and its vision of a Global Resource Based Economy. But the origin of this idea extends to a much earlier time.
Since the 1950s, Jacque Fresco sought to produce a motion picture depicting an optimistic future. He wrote what is now a lost script and called it Bright Tomorrow, “a documentary history of the future”. In 1976, Fresco wrote a new script for a film of science fiction edutainment entitled Welcome to the Future, in which astronauts were brought back to Earth in the future and revived from suspended animation to tour the new world. In later years, Fresco even wanted to use The Venus Project center as a filming location. By 1997, Fresco and a collaborator wrote a new story called And the World Will Be One, featuring a near-future scenario consisting of a city tour interspersed with sequences of autobiography. For a time, this was to serve as the basis for a new film until collaboration with a Star Trek animator led to consideration of a series for which 19 scenarios were conceived.
By 2009, Fresco was proposing a new scenario featuring a grandmother, who, with her grandchildren, looked back at the past. Finally, in 2011, a successful crowdfunding campaign raised $200,000 to begin development of a script. Screenwriters were in contact and immediately began development.
Four of the options centered around Fresco’s grandmother scenario and seven featured biographical scenarios or featured Fresco as a character. One option consisted of a treatment for a three-season series. Two options were entirely unique far-future scenarios. After fourteen options and several other undeveloped scenarios, Roxanne Meadows and two experienced producers worked toward reshaping a new script received from two screenwriters of the Writers Guild of America. It was the most cinematic screenplay up to that point. Despite compromises to rewrite the script, neither Fresco nor Meadows were satisfied. By this time, Fresco was experiencing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and this would require more and more of Meadows’ time.
Interestingly, it was found that seven common but major problems troubled the scripts.
- Over-reliance on exposition flattened the plot. Many of the scripts were exposition-heavy, focusing on extensive narration, dialogue, or monologue during tour scenarios, rather than action and events necessary to make a film dramatic, climactic, or cinematic.
- Many featured an excess of hostile conflicts rooted in the value system typical of our current culture (what Fresco referred to as “schlock”), rather than reflecting the values and vision of The Venus Project.
- Over-reliance on Fresco’s biography, often introduced superficial or contrived flashbacks that disjointed the main narrative.
- In correcting problem #1, important information would be lost. Failing to effectively translate information into action-event sequences, for example by adding in too much arbitrary action in place of message, reduced the signal and increased the noise. The more the story felt like a movie, the less it looked like The Venus Project. The more it looked like The Venus Project, the less it felt like a movie.
- In correcting problem #2 without sufficient inventiveness, the plot would be lost. This issue stems from a more general problem that has always troubled writers of utopian stories: to show a culture or human conduct without the conflict and sicknesses of today is almost antithetical to (or at least severely constrains) the mechanics of storytelling as we know it. This, in part, explains the prevalence of dystopian science fiction serving as far more convenient for storytelling about the future.
- These problems generally stemmed from a deeper problem: having knowledge-deficits in core areas. These included 1.) Fresco’s body of work and the ideas that influenced his work, 2.) command of storytelling and reference-base for creativity, 3.) experience in the entertainment industry, and 4.) trends of contemporary culture and technology. One person having all these to a sufficient degree represented a primary challenge.
- All scripts suffered from an overall lack of strategy.
Script writers often face the pernicious problem of not always knowing what they did that didn’t work well. Feedback from readers is replete with opinions of unqualified observers. Inconsistent feedback leads one to vague or ambiguous conclusions. This poorly supports learning or error correction.
Nathanael Dinwiddie, at the time an archiver for The Venus Project and one of the editors for The Venus Project’s documentary, The Choice Is Ours, gave extensive feedback about the latest script prior to its final rejection. Soon after, he was asked to begin development for a new script, rethinking from the ground up while continuing work in other areas. Nate had by then graduated with degrees in film and media studies and philosophy, and lesser studies in archiving and behavior analysis. Through his archiving, he developed an extensive familiarity with the subject matter of The Venus Project. In planning for scope, he understood the magnitude of the task and witnessed the difficulty encountered in past attempts to develop a script. To fulfill The Venus Project’s vision for creating social impact through storytelling, Nate requested to research key areas to gain better insight into forming a strategy.
Five phases have proceeded concurrently and iteratively toward progressive elaboration.
- Agenda (planning aspect)
- Research (information aspect)
- Programming (engineering aspect)
- Brainstorming (creative aspect)
- Development (designing aspect)
The agenda was established following initial hunches to identify any known knowns such as any preliminary problem areas and known unknowns such as questions and possible target solutions.
The initial research agenda consisted of major areas including:
- Narratology and screenwriting
- International literature and cinema of science fiction and speculative fiction
- Utopian, Dystopian, Apocalyptic, and Post-apocalyptic literature and cinema
- The literature of Future Studies and Utopian Studies
- Anthropological, ethnographic, nature, and travelogue documentary film
- Philosophical, technical, and scientific areas such as: transhumanism, political ideologies, biophysical economics, systems science, constructed languages, emerging technologies
- Organizations, projects, or ideas similar to The Venus Project, such as Copionics, Design Science/World Game, Technocracy, Post-Scarcity economics
- Viewpoints critical of The Venus Project and antithetical points of view including, technophobia, neo-luddism, primitivism, libertarianism
- Market and industry conditions, crowdsourcing and fanfiction
- Tropes and cliches in narratives
- Contemporary cultural trends, global problems, activism and social movements, social media, propaganda techniques, edutainment, social engineering, cultural assimilation, change management
- And a review of past scripts, Fresco’s lectures and writings, and related documents.
This agenda grew to encompass other, more foundational areas including project management, creativity, learning, lean methodology, and transmedia storytelling.
Nathanael’s research process employed both algorithmic and heuristic techniques for 1.) accounting and surveying above sources through databases, encyclopedias, and syllabi of curricula, 2.) a discriminatory selection and examination of sources using techniques of time compression, and 3.) extraction of information into notes. Parts of the research agenda are still underway. Nonetheless, other phases have proceeded concurrently.
The concept of “programming” is borrowed from the practice of “architectural programming.” Some have drawn parallels between the process of drawing a blueprint and the process of writing a script, especially when it needs to serve an end function or mission (purpose-driven design). In both cases, data must be gathered, problems must be identified, functions must be determined, goals must be stated, and these considerations should determine decisions that define an appropriate design solution. The creation of a story turns on the axis of decision making. Although these are “creative decisions” that in artful contexts are often more arbitrary, efforts have been made, in our case, to “arrive at decisions,” even within storytelling. This makes the process something akin to engineering. This is no surprise considering that, by extension, the film itself and its story are intended to function as an instrument of social engineering. Unfortunately, this has not yet been formalized and standardized to streamline development like other forms of engineering, until now with transmedia storytelling (described later).
In programming, a number of goals, constraints, and challenges were identified.
- The aforementioned problems of excessive exposition and translating the information into sequences of compelling events. That is, discretely walking the fine line between education and entertainment.
- The aforementioned problems of perpetuating a socially detrimental value system in action and dialogue. That is, telling a story about a society where the usual interhuman conflicts and destructive behavior (that drives and carries most plots) are eliminated, while still telling a story that is engaging, dramatic, and emotionally moving to the audience.
- Remaining true to The Venus Project’s vision while updating specific areas to appeal to contemporary sensibilities. There is a diverging impulse to use both what Fresco envisioned but also to integrate other ideas. The challenge is in giving utilitarian consideration to both and objectively balancing the outcome.
- Maintaining a competent futurology, extrapolating a plausible set of circumstances in the future from initial assumptions and current trends and trajectories.
- Simplifying ideas for the audience, yet not to the point of distortion.
- Showing an alternative social system to the audience that they accept/want/prefer, meanwhile not unnecessarily plugging today’s values into the future merely to help the audience relate to it, while still making the story and characters relatable.
- Showing a future world of a sufficiently broad scale to improve chances of a film series or television series, or more, developing from it.
- Rendering the presentation in a way that does not undermine the seriousness of The Venus Project’s mission, such as making it look as fictional as the movie.
- Making an unprecedented work of futurology and social theory expressed as science fiction.
- The classic problem of imagining how the “transition” unfolds.
Other considerations went to target audience, vision fidelity, and film function.
Usual demographic factors include age, sex, education level, income level, occupation, religion, political orientation, and the psychometric dimensions of personality including honesty-humility (H), emotionality (E), extraversion (X), agreeableness (A), conscientiousness (C), and openness to experience (O). The resulting targeting for general audience reduced to 18-34 year-old males of college-equivalent education or higher, of lower-income and technical occupations, who are non-religious and liberal left in political orientation, and score high in H, A, C, and O. These may be abstracted to encompass more specific categories to which we hope to appeal. They include:
- Scientific Community
- Intellectuals / Film Critics
- Silicon Valley, IT world, transhumanists, singularity techno-enthusiasts
- The The Venus Project/Zeitgeist support-base
- Science Fiction fanbase
- Left liberal political activists
“Vision fidelity” represents the degree to which we simplify ideas (dumb it down) to appeal to a broader audience vs the degree to which we remain true to our values and vision which consequently appeals to a smaller niche. “Going all the way” consists of staying in accordance with the values and vision that Fresco communicated, represented within futurology updated with current knowledge. “Holding back” consists of compromising the ideas to achieve wider appeal. “Anything goes” consists of doing whatever without respect to any standards. We chose to “go all the way.”
Possible consequences of the film include profit, entertainment, education, recruitment, notoriety. These translate to the following goals, all of which have some interaction:
- Generating revenue for The Venus Project. This requires extensive networking and marketing, and trends toward conformity to pop culture expectations.
- Attract audiences to support The Venus Project. At least attract attention. At most, “change people.”
- Lay foundation for series or a transmedia IP. This requires long-range coherent planning.
- Posterity. Endure in the cultural memory. This requires highly relevant and original ideas (relative to the current time) that appeal to film critics who represent the curators of cultural artifacts that go into historical record. It also helps to have wide distribution (through the film industry or social media).
All of the above are abstracted into the overall goal of “Social Impact.”
Options for the lifespan or shelf life consist of designing from the outset as:
- a singular stand-alone movie
- a movie leading to sequels
- a series consisting of short episodes
- an independent transmedia IP (franchise)
Major distribution options include:
Depending on decisions, these goals interact and can contradict or complicate achieving other goals. The challenge is in simultaneously satisfying the criteria of:
- industry and market
- target audience
- our values and vision
- The Venus Project’s next practical steps and projects
Hence the importance of strategy. Decisions for the above options were reduced to: creating social impact by using a transmedia IP distributed through the internet.
Frame of reference for creativity consists of elements derived from Fresco’s body of work. These elements represent the predominant inputs into brainstorming. This is followed by elements derived from relevant films, television, and fiction books, then nonfiction books, and topics of other miscellaneous sources. In brainstorming, a number of approaches represent the categories in which scenarios can be conceived. Those given most consideration include types of:
- speculative fiction (science fiction or fantasy)
- science fiction (hard, soft, social, etc.)
- genre (action, drama, adventure, etc.)
- protagonist (hero, anti-hero, tragic, byronic, etc.)
- point of view (internal, external)
- time period (near-future transitional or pre-transitional, post-transitional or far future, alternate history)
- social condition (pessimistic dystopian or apocalyptic, optimistic utopian)
- continuity (linear, non-linear, anthology, etc.)
- medium (documentary form, conventional narrative fiction)
Brainstorming has produced 240 pages of story notes, several elaborative decision documents, and 105 story concepts of which 2 were selected to enter development: a near-future scenario and a far-future scenario. The former has been taken as far as a scene outline for a feature length film and the latter as far as a 68-page treatment, episode outline, and series outline. Plot details cannot yet be revealed. Much of the thinking for these scenarios has established the models or formula that will help scale a transmedia IP (further described below).
The near-future scenario takes inspiration from Fresco’s 1999 story, And the World Will Be One. According to the above categories, it’s conceived as mundane social science fiction, relying on suspense and geopolitical drama, from the point of view of traditional hero protagonists, in a pre-transitional and transitional setting of primarily pessimistic social condition approaching a point of no return, and as linear traditional narrative fiction. The model for this scenario centers around the challenges of building initial test cities. This scenario is influenced by the work of Aaron Sorkin and the political drama genre.
In telling a story during transition, symptoms of scarcity would be more prevalent in thought and behavior of all characters. One reason among many for choosing a post-transitional, slightly far-future scenario is the strategic utility of establishing a new baseline of abundance (post-scarcity) against which human values, thoughts, and actions can be observed. This is in addition to suspecting that a far-future scenario might stand out as more provocative, thereby perhaps attracting more people of all types.
The far-future scenario draws from a much wider range of sources but takes some inspiration from Fresco’s second half of Looking Forward and his 1976 Welcome to the Future. This scenario is conceived as hard social science fiction, relying on mystery and adventure while achieving drama strategically via alternative sources of conflict and suspense via Kishōtenketsu, from the point of view of traditional hero protagonists modeled on monomyth cycle, in a post-transitional setting of primarily optimistic social condition, and as non-linear traditional narrative fiction that incorporates elements of documentary.
This scenario is influenced by the work of Iain M. Banks, the Strugatsky brothers, and Gene Roddenberry. But unlike their work, we have not conceived a “space opera,” but rather what we might call an “Earth opera.” This might represent a bold but down-to-earth futurism in contrast to the sea of fantastical sci-fi that floods the market every year. Initially conceived as a feature length film, later decisions extended it to an episodic series. This scenario brings to clarity the tensions between past and future and centers around 1.) assimilating into the new paradigm what’s left of the old world represented by isolated “microcultures,” and 2.) reconstructing the memories of people revived from suspended animation. Despite it being a far-future setting in a Global Resource Based Economy, technology takes the background while human life enters focus. If this scenario successfully establishes a model that contrasts an optimistic future with the rampant dystopian stories of contemporary science fiction film and literature, if we have solved the problem faced by writers of utopias, we will have achieved something rare.
Due to concerns about the effects of fictionalization vs factualization on audiences, much thought has gone into converting this far-future scenario into the form of a fictional documentary in the style of anthropological, ethnographic, and nature films that take a bird’s-eye view of a future culture. Doing so would only affect the mode of presentation and have no effect on the story itself. To date, this has never been done and would represent a highly original presentation, albeit highly cerebral as well. This remains an option. Additional considerations were given to an alternative history.
Admittedly, a far-future scenario requires more strategy and imagination from the creator, while a near-future scenario requires more life experience and real-world knowledge. Both scenarios await further development pending more information from research and additional background worldbuilding.
Important in the brainstorming process is so-called “worldbuilding.” Fresco established an initial foundation for it, but certainly not as much as other authors of science fiction. Worldbuilding is necessary to scale the transmedia IP. Devising a “constructed world” is useful because it can serve the creation of numerous stories that can tie together. By setting these stories in the context of the constructed world, structuring and decisions are easier. Story creation proceeds under the control of the history, future, rules, and conditions of the constructed world. Without worldbuilding there can be no overarching backbone to track connections between stories. This is often seen in the entertainment industry. When sequels or a series is attempted, it suffers incoherence and inconsistency with other installments of the franchise, often leading to audience complaints. This problem manifests because there was a lack of foresight from the outset, thus limiting the quality, shelf life, and impact of the IP.
Many sources report that less than 1% of scripts are produced in the U.S. film industry. It has become clear that better strategy will be required to gain traction. The complications arise in the practical aspects of strategizing for social impact. The realities of the entertainment industry today and the rapidly changing conditions of the marketplace and new technology has shifted the approaches we must take. If we are to fulfill the vision of social impact, then transmedia storytelling, lean approaches, digital solutions, and crowdsourcing offer clues to a better strategy. These are the subject of current research.
Many media scholars and entertainment analysts agree that transmedia is the future of entertainment IPs and represents a systems approach to creating them. By now there are best practices for it. So our interest now is taking that approach from the outset. The transmedia approach safeguards against the discouraging market statistics (success rates) of scripts and novels. The way to beat the odds is to play a “numbers game” with multiple people producing multiple stories taking different approaches, trying different ideas, all tied together by a framework. The diversity of viewpoints produces a collective intelligence. The pragmatic difficulty is in coordinating the transmedia content and the contributors toward long-term interests, something that requires a generalist overview of the variables involved. Although it will be difficult to produce an independent transmedia IP, it looks more promising than relying on mainstream industry.
Practically speaking, to meet the needs of The Venus Project and to fulfill its vision, we will require additional creators. How the team will work together and the processes for outputting content is still formalizing but there are models to draw upon from television writer’s rooms to game development approaches and lessons to learn from project management. The team will commit to a worldbuilding guideline (creative) and a transmedia guideline (managerial) that keeps the storytelling canonical by imposing liberties and constraints upon creators. The Venus Project is something specific. Therefore, people have to maintain alignment, a consistency running across their ideas to succeed in representing The Venus Project. In taking this approach, we will find that certain stories/approaches gain traction more than others which can then be further pursued. Any stories deemed non-canonical will fall into an independent anthology. The two scenarios already conceived lay the foundation as models and will be integrated at the outset.
As for the transmedia IP, stories will extend across timelines within either an optimistic dimension or a pessimistic dimension to show what our world could be versus what it will become without intervention.
Further announcements will be given after further development. We also want to thank everyone who has contributed to this undertaking and those who continue to do so. If inclined to contact with questions: [email protected]. Nathanael Dinwiddie