Interview: 'CSI' Creator Anthony Zuiker on his 'Cybergeddon' Web Series & the Future of Entertainment

Anthony Zuiker Talks About Cybergeddon

As a society, we are spending more and more time in front of screens. If you don't believe me, consider this. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 25% of Americans now own tablet computers. That's up from 4% only two years ago. Here's another one. According to Pew research, nearly half of American adults (45%) own smartphones, with the number increasing to 66% for Americans aged 18-29.

Virtually everywhere we go, we carry some kind of digital device with us, which has had a profound impact on the way we consume and engage with media. And it has had an equally profound impact on the way the entertainment industry is creating content.

Online video, once considered the realm of funny pets, laughing babies, and faux-confessional web diaries, has quietly emerged as a legitimate avenue for writers and directors to tell original stories outside of the traditional Hollywood system. From Tom Hanks' animated web series Electric City to Bryan Singer's sci-fi web series H+, there have been a number of high-profile web projects in recent memory - and even more are on the horizon.

The most recent web series to hit screens is Cybergeddon, a new cyber-thriller from Anthony Zuiker, the creator of TV's hugely successful CSI franchise. The nine-part movie, which you can watch here, is a unique partnership between Zuiker's production company, Yahoo!, and the online security company Norton.

Here's a brief synopsis of the movie.

Cybergeddon follows the story of agent Chloe Jocelyn as she investigates a slew of seemingly unrelated cyberattacks with fellow agent Frank Parker and incarcerated master hacker Chase ‘Rabbit’ Rosen. Chloe and her team must crack the worldwide cybercrime ring led by Gustov Dobreff before it is too late. In a world where everyone is connected, everyone is at risk.

Cybergeddon isn't Zuiker's first foray into online content. The writer-director-producer has been a leader in the world of multimedia content for years, having previously released the "digi-novel" series Level 26, which combined a traditional novel with online videos called "cyber-bridges" to enhance the story. Zuiker is also a partner in the BlackBoxTV YouTube channel, which features original short sci-fi and horror films.

Screen Rant recently talked with Zuiker to discuss Cybergeddon, his thoughts on the future of web series, and the important role that brands can play in working with Hollywood talent to develop unique and compelling original content.

Anthony Zuiker Directs Missy Peregrym on the Set of Cybergeddon
Anthony Zuiker directs Missy Peregrym on the set of Cybergeddon.

Screen Rant: I’ve been interested in the concept of web series and digital distribution of content for awhile now and as far as heavyweight Hollywood talent, nobody has invested more into doing more for the web than you. So I wanted to know, what are the advantages, in terms of creativity, of producing content for the web versus something more traditional like TV or film?

Anthony Zuiker: I’ve been studying technology for a while now, a good seven years, and I got the sense based on some of the early behavioral shifts, based on communicating on devices, and just based on how content needed to be distributed into the future - all starting with Apple and all of their mechanisms and devices - I felt like everything was about to change. So I think that’s what really got me thinking about the technology space in general.

Then my lawyer hosted an event called Bridge at his law office that put together people from Silicon Valley, producers, and talent all in one room. And as we began to talk – and this was three years ago – we got the real sense that convergence was on the horizon. So that’s from a perspective of “Wow, things are shifting professionally in the industry.”

Personally, what was going on was that I was realizing the conventional ways to create content were beginning to feel a) paralyzing and b) having less and less control of your art. So the need of myself, and the need of other creators that are dabbling in this space, is to be able to try and get back to the artist inside of all of us. And for me, I wanted to take the responsibility to try and figure out and pave the way for the future for the industry. And that’s a big undertaking, but it’s already here.

From more of a business perspective, there’s still a question of how to measure the success of web series. With so much of the entertainment industry being bottom line driven, how can you tell if there’s an audience engaging with the content?

Let me give you the simplest example. Forget about numbers. Do we want to get a lot of views? Sure. Will views be important like ratings are important? Absolutely. But there’s something going on beyond the bean counting of it all, which is this: there was a time when a 30-second spot on a hit TV show would cost one million dollars. What you’re getting for a million dollars on a TV spot is 30 seconds that comes and goes, or is sped past by TiVo, or ignored entirely and will never see the light of day ever again. It doesn’t live on a DVD. It can’t be repurposed. That money has come and gone. So unless you have that attention for 30 seconds, that money is in the ether.

Let’s take the same philosophy with a web series. If a brand partner put in a million dollars, what do you get from that? Well, not only do you get product placement inside the movie and a level of entertainment and also edutainment about your product, but all of the interactive content online - tie-ins to the app, Netflix, Epix, video on-demand, the ability to download – I mean, the lifespan of that investment over the course of the next 20 or 30 years has far more global value and far more global reach of awareness than 30 seconds could ever dream of.

And that’s the major way going forward. We are working with brands to give them real staying power.

Cybergeddon Stars Kick Gurry
Kick Gurry stars as a master hacker in Cybergeddon.

That leads into my next two thoughts. First, how does it work from a finance perspective as you’re developing a project? Do you bring in the brand partner at the beginning?

There’s a need for brands to think outside the box, to think about where to put their money to have the proper staying power. When you think about Norton in terms of being in the entertainment business, it doesn’t seem like a fastball fit, right? But when you think about Norton being involved in a cybercrime movie, suddenly it makes sense.

So would Norton be better to launch a 30-second spot on CSI on CBS, or would they have a better chance of accomplishing their goals of awareness by being involved in a movie as big as this, with this kind of global scale. Our hope obviously is that we can convince other companies with other particular projects to buy into this philosophy – “Where do you want to put your money? Here or there?” – and hopefully it’s with us.

My second question is, how does a writer/director approach a web project? For Cybergeddon, did you say, “I have this interesting idea about cybercrime, so I’d like to approach Norton.” Do you find the brand partner to fit the subject or vice versa?

We don’t need corporate sponsorship to make this movie and do what we did globally. That’s the first thing. We didn’t need to incorporate a Nissan or a Norton. Obviously they’re valuable partners in terms of the outreach and what they can provide, but to just make an online movie through Yahoo!, we didn’t necessarily need these brands. We wanted the brands as a way to show the industry that you can work in tandem with brands and corporations to where you can have the biggest outreach possible.

We’re trying to show the industry how to work with brands in a very thoughtful way - to keep the brand happy and to keep us happy - to tell a big global story. To give advertisers a different way to advertise their products and brand by thinking outside the box and buying into our philosophy of doing online movies on a global scale. To provide them the opportunity to put their money elsewhere besides traditional media.

And on the flipside, it opens up the door a lot for other writers and creators in Hollywood.

When you write characters for television and movies, the one question a screenwriter always asks is, “What is the need of a character?” The need for creators in Hollywood - and most people in Hollywood that are in my position feel this way – is to find a way to get into the same business that they’re good at with less distractions, to not be paralyzed, to have more ownership and creative ability, and to tell stories on a bigger scale. Once they find a way to do that, you’ll find that more creators will be doing more and more of this kind of thing and less and less of that kind of thing.

Cybergeddon stars Missy Peregrym
Missy Peregrym is a hacker turned FBI agent in Cybergeddon.

So how do you make sure that your brand partner isn’t inhibiting the story in any way? That the product placement isn’t so egregious that it disrupts the flow of the narrative?

Here’s the thing, you just have to have an honest conversation at the very beginning and say, “Look, as much as we can do what we do, let us do. And we’re going to let you do what you do.” You kind of have to toe the line in terms of knowing when to back somebody off and when to give in.

It’s an art that we’ve perfected over the course of me working on CSI with different brands form Duracell to GM. There’s things you want to fight and things you don’t want to fight. Some of these brands do write the check, right? So you can’t tell them no all the time, but you can’t agree to everything.

It’s really just a mutual respect. Hopefully, you have a good enough relationship with the brand partner to where they respect why the answer is yes or why the answer is no. Nobody is going to bully me on my own project, and I’m not going to bully somebody that’s writing a check. So we very amicably get along there and just make it work and it’s very professional.

Obviously, you don’t know what you’ve got, until you know what you’ve got. I’ve had partners that try to bully their way into the show and create problems and you just don’t work with those people ever again. For people that get the program, you tend to open up the world for them and make their dreams come true.

From an actor’s perspective, what is appealing about appearing in a web series? You have some very strong name talent attached to Cybergeddon. How were you able to convince Missy Peregrym, for example, to be in the show?

I think there are three reasons to be a part of this, and I believe Missy and Olivier [Martinez] would all say this same thing. One, they want to be part of something completely brand new that’s groundbreaking, irrespective of the paycheck. And those are the actors we want. We don’t want actors looking for a paycheck, because it’s not a paycheck thing. It’s about being part of something brand new and on the cutting-edge. Number two, these people want to work with me and I want to work with them. So that’s a very cool thing to do.

Number three, and probably the most important, these actors in particular understand the power of scale. They understand that when you have the potential to be on Yahoo! - in front of 700 million people in 25 countries in 10 languages – there’s really no downside to something like that if the movie is good. And we believe that the movie is good.

It was a roll of the dice that actually paid off for them because now they’re featured in a brand new digital motion picture on a global scale that really features their acting talents. And that’s worth more to them than a traditional movie paycheck. Again, they’re playing long ball in their careers, and we’re playing long ball in our careers on how to do motion pictures for the future, and everybody wins.

Cybergeddon Starring Missy Peregrym
Missy Peregrym brandishes a gun in Anthony Zuiker's Cybergeddon.

It’s probably a little too early to take away any critical lessons from Cybergeddon yet, but what are you thinking about in the future. How can you get bigger and do even more than this?

What we want to do is turn up the volume on the storytelling. We want to tell a better story. We want to have better performances. We want to add new characters. We want to have better style. We want to go into new territory that is not emblematic of the movie we just did. We want to add more interactive content for the user.

Essentially, we want to continue to try and perfect the best way possible of doing an online event globally; of doing an interactive experience that starts as a motion picture.

What do you think is your role in moving web series forward as a viable career path for Hollywood creatives?

For me, I feel a responsibility as a pioneer in the business to figure this space out for our future. That’s the most exciting part for me. It’s not about making a buck. If it was about making a buck, I’d hole myself up in a room and try to do the next CSI. This is really about trying to figure out our future.

For us, we want to be able to write, produce, direct, own, shape the future, and make a living without the stress of a very paralyzing business. I think that the more work that I do and other people do on this end will make it easier for people to break in.

The reason why I’m even in this space in the first place is because I was completely flattered and taken by amateur content on YouTube. The things I watched on YouTube inspired me. They were clever and written better than what I do. And funnier than what I do. And they were put together and filmed better than what I do. They were just amateurs with no money, but they had a very visceral creative vision. And that got me thinking, “I want to now be in that space. I want to get back to that.” That’s what’s so very exciting.

If you have a camera and a vision, the Internet is a place where you can be seen. It really is the beginning of your Hollywood. And there have been tremendous success stories that have come out of that – people that have started successful careers online only or have graduated on to Hollywood. You couldn’t do that 10 years ago. You can get right to your art with the power of the Internet, and that’s what’s so great.

Cybergeddon is available to watch right now on Yahoo! Check it out here.

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