If you look at the upcoming episodes for CBS’s signature procedural series C.S.I., you’ll see that an episode called “Sqweegel” is set to air on Oct. 14, 2010. For any casual viewer, that means very little, but for those familiar with C.S.I. creator Anthony E. Zuiker’s “digi-novel” series Level 26, it means that the cross-platform franchise is adding at least one more platform.
Level 26: Dark Origins, released last fall, was an international best-seller with a unique twist: an extensive web component which included video interstitials that directly tied into the book’s action. The follow-up, Dark Prophecy, is taking lessons learned over the course of Dark Origins, plus the release of the iPad, and building upon the franchise — beginning when the book comes out on Oct. 14, the same day the “Sqweegel” episode airs.
While the original “white” Sqweegel was (spoilers) killed at the end of the first book, C.S.I.‘s beloved team of crime scene investigators will be tracking a “black” Sqweegel (whose existence was suggested to readers at the end of Dark Origins). It’s this black Sqweegel — played by Daniel Browning Smith, the same actor from the Dark Origins web videos — who will not only figure in the C.S.I. episode but, potentially, some of the action in Dark Prophecy.
Zuiker, who wrote the upcoming “Sqweegel” episode, said via phone that Sqweegel is the only character from the Level 26 franchise who will appear on C.S.I., and in order to use him on the show the rights had to be negotiated with CBS, as Zuiker retains ownership.
However, Zuiker didn’t exactly play hardball in the negotiations — CBS is being charged $1 for the character rights — because the opportunity is to introduce the Level 26 franchise in front of a national television audience, on the same day that the new book is released. “All you can do is put 15 million people in front of your main character and tell them there’s a book in stores,” Zuiker said.
Dark Prophecy takes place chronologically after the C.S.I. episode, continuing the action while focusing more on protagonist Steve Dark and his back-story. “We were so villain-centric in Dark Origins,” Zuiker said, “that we had to make book two a coming out party for our James Bond, so to speak.”
Like the first book, the second book will include an EQAL-built website that hosts videos, written and directed by Zuiker, unlocked by codes found at the end of chapters. But this new round of interstitials, rather than representing missing scenes from the novel, are instead installments of an hour-long movie that can also be viewed as a stand-alone experience. (Making the film more stand-alone from the novel sounds like a dramatic improvement over Dark Origins, given that putting down the book to watch some video on a computer wasn’t a streamlined experience for me.)
In the film (shot over six days on the Canon 5D), a tarot reader played by Justine Bateman does a reading for Steve Dark, triggering flashbacks to key moments in Dark’s life as well as connecting to the main action of the book (where Dark is tracking a tarot-themed string of killings). Chronologically, the film takes place about halfway through the second book, but scenes from the first book, such as Dark’s confrontation with the original white Sqweegel, will be dramatized as a result.
If you have an iPad, though, it’s a whole different ball game. The Level 26 app will be available for $13 sometime close to Halloween, and will offer three different levels of user experience.
The easy option will let the reader just read the book cover-to-cover; selecting the intermediate option incorporates the video interstitials with the book. And the expert setting takes things up a notch: Readers won’t just be able to read the text and watch the video — they’ll be able to collect evidence, interact with clues buried in the text and discover all sorts of other “bells and whistles.”
“The iPad is the perfect fit for the digi-novel,” Zuiker said. “So we’re putting a lot of effort into trying to lick that core experience.”
The total budget for the experience, according to Zuiker, was $700,000: $250,000 going towards the video production, the rest going towards elements like the iPad development and paying the book’s co-writer Duane Swierczynski. While Zuiker hasn’t yet seen any money from book sales, the book’s success overseas has helped the experience pay off. “Rumor has it we’re breaking even on all three books based on the results of book one,” he said, “So books two and three will be profitable.”
The value to Zuiker, though, is being able to own the rights to his content and play with it. “It’s a training ground for my directing and a training ground for the digi-novel,” he said. “The future of content creation is ownership. We’re like mini-production studios. We’re able to control everything — from the website to production.”
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