A Man crouches on a 3-foot-by-3-foot glass-top table in a dank basement near the Los Angeles River, just outside of downtown L.A. The man is a contortionist. He's wearing a skintight, hooded latex body condom, bone white, zipped up the back to the top of his head, with holes for his eyes and a zipper over his mouth.
He nonchalantly folds a leg behind his neck and scratches his head with his toes. Next to him is a gallon jar of snails, and on a table, a pile of salt has been cut into lines in the shape of a maze. With a razor blade, the contortionist scrapes the glass clean between the lines, then deposits a snail in the center.
Snails disintegrate in salt, of course, so the dozen or so people watching this scene on a monitor in the next room lean forward, rapt. The contortionist sets his featureless face inches from the glass and tries to coax the creature forward. The snail begins to move, ever so slightly, closer to a wall of salt, and ... stops. No payoff. No spectacular death melt, no triumphant exit from the maze.
"Cut!" Anthony E. Zuiker, the creator and director of this scene, is not happy. "Guys," he yells from the adjoining room, "for the 5,000th time, a dry snail will not move. Please. Dip another snail in shallow water, put him in the hero position, and let's try this again. I've got an actor with his feet behind his neck. Let's get the shot and move on!"
Zuiker is the creator of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, one of the most-watched television franchises in history. Since its launch in 2000, the original CSI or one of its CBS spin-offs — CSI: Miami and CSI: NY — has been among the top-rated shows in the United States. There have been almost 500 episodes, airing in nearly 200 countries. As many as 75 million people watch an episode every week. Yet if CSI has become known as a moneymaking machine — the show has generated an estimated $6 billion in revenue — it has also defined a signature visual style: supersaturated colors, graphic violence, surprising camera angles, and uncomfortable close-ups. All of which are on display today. Red light washes through the warehouse, a smoke machine hisses a sinister cloud every few minutes, and torture instruments lay scattered about the set.
But the snail sequence is not for CSI. The contortionist is a serial killer named Sqweegel, who's being chased by a brooding, handsome federal operative named Steve Dark. And the scene itself is part of a two-minute video Zuiker is shooting for his first major post-CSI project, something he calls a "digi-novel," a hybrid book/video/Web enterprise titled Level 26 that debuts in September.
Published by Penguin's Dutton imprint, the first book (there will be three) is a bizarrely — even perversely — violent murder mystery. Every 20 pages or so, there's a prompt to log on to the Level 26 Web site and enter a code to unlock a two- to three-minute video "cyberbridge," a short scene that brings the story to life and moves it forward, but not so much that you'd miss anything if you just kept reading through. On the site, there's other interactive content, and Zuiker is developing an iPhone app that merges every part of the endeavor — a "total sensory experience," he says. "I think that's the future of consuming books, period."
Zuiker has enlisted an all-star cast of partners: The creators of Lonelygirl15 and KateModern have built the site (their company, Eqal, also consults for CBS Interactive); Creative Artists Agency is helping wrangle possible product integrations; veteran crime-novel and comic-book writer Duane Swierczynski wrote the actual text around a 60-page treatment by Zuiker; and hip-hop-culture impresario Marc Ecko was creative director on the book. Zuiker likes to say he's going to "revolutionize the publishing industry." "What I think Anthony means by that," says Dutton president and publisher Brian Tart, who bought all three Level 26 books for a reported $2 million based only on a verbal pitch, "is he's going to expand readership to an extent that hasn't been done since the dawn of the mass market."
Level 26 won't be confused with high art. The style reads like early Dean Koontz, while the videos come off as sweaty, CSI-tinted snuff films. None of that is accidental. Zuiker sees Level 26 as a prototype, a model for exploring how multiplatform storytelling will work, and for his first outing he's hyperconscious of appealing to serious geeks and horror fans. But he intends to follow it with digi-novels pitched to just about every demo on the planet, from children to desperate housewives. "I want to turn the digi-novel into its own industry," he says. "You walk into B. Dalton, there's 50 Zuiker books there."
To spend three days with Zuiker is to be thrown about in a tornado of raw creativity, ambition, and unchecked bluster. He's a big man, nearly six feet, over 200 pounds, with a goatee and a bald head usually covered with a Kangol cap. He greets you with a bro hug. He laughs loudly and often, and just as easily flashes frustration with people who don't keep up with him. At one point while directing the Level 26 cyberbridges, he tears off his shirt and insists on acting out a detail shot himself.
Those control-freak tendencies have made Zuiker a fortune, but they haven't yet turned him into the mogul he aspires to be. He gets a percentage on CSI but doesn't own the show (that would be CBS) or control distribution. And while this arrangement may be standard in Hollywood, Zuiker is fed up with it. Just over a year ago, he renegotiated his contract and walked away from day-to-day involvement on the whole franchise.
Zuiker's frustration took root two years ago, around the time of the Hollywood writers' strike. He had been thinking about multiplatform storytelling and had conceived of the digi-novel, but he wasn't sure how to move forward until his lawyers at Morris Yorn Barnes & Levine held a one-day summit at their L.A. offices — an event they called the Bridge conference. The firm had negotiated the financing for actor Will Ferrell's funnyordie.com with Sequoia Capital as well as the landmark deal that gave South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone a 50-50 split with Viacom on digital revenue. The November 2007 conference was a brainstorm on the future of digital entertainment, intended to connect tech thinkers with the artists who fill the content pipeline. Or as partner Kevin Morris puts it, "Everybody's talking about convergence, but that's a creative problem — so why not ask the creative people?"
Fifty executives and creatives attended, including Zuiker, Brad Grey, Brian Grazer, Donny Deutsch (who moderated), Matthew McConaughey, Scarlett Johansson, Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, and executives from Facebook, Google, and MySpace. "There were a lot of questions from the talent side like, 'Hey, how do we make money off all this Web video, and where's my up-front $3 million?' " Zuiker recalls. "And the one-liner from the technology side was, 'Look, guys, you're not going to get your up-front fee. It doesn't work like that anymore. What you do is, you create a site, and you make it authentic. You own the content. And then you make money on the back end.'
"It was invaluable to me," Zuiker says. "The second I left that conference, I knew how to do the digi-novel. Because I want to be in a position to own: I own the content that I write and shoot; I own all the characters; I own my e-book rights; I own my Web site."
Zuiker credits Andreessen, whom he met at the conference and consults independently now, with two critical insights: "He told me, 'Make sure that you take the position of being a Web site first that rolls out to a book, not a book that rolls into a Web site. And two, make sure that you give your user a Christmas present every day — give them a reason to come back.' "
An early version of Level26.com launched in July at Comic-Con, intended as a sort of YouTube and Facebook for horror fans; per Andreessen's advice, it reaches far beyond the boundaries of the book and the cyberbridges. As readers become more engaged in the Web site, uploading videos, commenting, creating their own narratives, and submitting ideas for future Zuiker stories, they'll earn points to unlock ever deeper levels of the site.
Zuiker isn't the first to do a cross-platform book. Most notably, Scholastic's The 39 Clues, launched last September, takes kids from books to Web puzzles and games. "That's a similar idea in the sense that the book is the foundation," says Dutton's Tart, "but it doesn't go to the viral experience. We want to create a community that lives online."
"Honestly, that was why we got excited to do this project," says Greg Goodfried, cofounder and president of Eqal, which now bills itself as a "social entertainment" company. "We noticed early on with Lonelygirl, people would spend 15 minutes watching the video and commenting on the video, and then they would spend an hour or two talking to their friends, leaving comments about other stuff ... music, clothing, TV shows, movies. And we had this realization that if you can drive somebody to a place around an entertainment property, and then provide them with social tools to talk about these other things, you're going to build a really vibrant community — a whole universe."
A day after the snail shoot, Zuiker pulls up to my hotel on Sunset Boulevard in a convertible silver Ferrari (license plate: cre8or). He's wearing a Kangol hat, Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses, and a giant Panerai watch. He takes me to his house in Brentwood, a gated affair mostly hidden behind tall hedges. In the garage is a convertible Bentley. A team of gardeners busies itself on the impossibly green lawn.
Zuiker; his wife, Jennifer; and their three sons moved here less than a year ago. For the previous decade, he had spent weeknights living in hotels in L.A., working on CSI, while his family stayed in Las Vegas. Zuiker is, for all his bombast, still a kid from Vegas, married to a Vegas girl.
Zuiker's personal history unfolds like a Hollywood biopic — a colorful American-dream tale. (You'll be able to read his "inspirational memoir" in 2010, when HarperCollins publishes Mr. CSI, currently being written with a ghostwriter.) "I was born in Blue Island, Illinois — the same hospital as Gary Sinise," Zuiker says. (Sinise stars in CSI: NY.) "My mother moved west to find a better life when I was 6 months old, divorced my father. She was a cigarette girl under the name Linda Winston — sort of a code name that the Mob gave her. I was just a kid alone from 3 in the afternoon to 11 at night, pretty much all of my childhood. So I would sit there and I would play cards by myself, or just find ways to entertain myself with nothing. I would take three casino dice and roll them and add up the denominations and figure out that it's harder to roll a 3 than it is to roll a 10. Then I'd make up games based on what I figured out. In my golf game, three 1s would be a hole in one, but a 10 would be a bogey." By the time he was 14, Zuiker says, he had 525 different numerical matrix games — everything from saltwater fishing to bowling.
As a teenager and a college student, Zuiker says he made money writing letters and term papers for other students. "I would write letters for $100 a night, if someone needed to get out of trouble or something. In Vegas, people always need letters written, and I knew how to do it. I'd get kids out of jail. Or I would write their term papers for $300. And I had more work than you'd believe, man."
Sometimes it's hard to know when Zuiker's stories veer into myth. As evidence of his own bookishness — and competitiveness — he told me: "I was the guy in college who would take out not just the book I was assigned but the one to its left and the one to its right. And after I would read a book, I'd throw acid on the pages to fuck them up, so the next student couldn't know what I knew. It was hard core, man. I was bad."
This was at UNLV, where Zuiker graduated in 1991. It was his fifth college, having bounced through Cal Poly Pomona, Mt. San Antonio College, Arizona State, and the University of La Verne. Zuiker was an avid competitor in forensic speech — a form of evidentiary debate — and he began writing monologues for his teammates. "One was about a mentally ill guy who was watching his wife give birth," Zuiker recalls, "but he was announcing it like it was a horse race ... and down the right side, complications as they approach the first turn... . I had no idea I was training myself for Hollywood at the time."
After college, Zuiker burned through a series of "menial jobs" that culminated in his driving a tram on the graveyard shift at the Mirage, for $8 an hour. "I was, like, I know I'm very talented — I can do games and this and that, but I can't ever really get a break. At the same time, my buddy Dustin, who works for CSI now, said, 'Remember those little monologues you used to write for me in forensic speech? I've been auditioning with those [in Hollywood], and people want to know who the writer is... .' "
Zuiker bought a few screenwriting guidebooks and moved to L.A. His "first real job" was writing The Harlem Globetrotters Story for Columbia Pictures, a film that never got made but did end up on the desk of Jerry Bruckheimer, who was looking to ramp up his television business. "His new TV guy called me in for a general meeting. I didn't have anything to pitch, but one night before the meeting, my wife, who was pregnant, convinced me to stay home with her instead of sneaking out to play basketball." They watched a Discovery Channel show about the murdered Los Angeles Raiders cheerleader Linda Sobek, whose case was solved after detectives found a hair lodged in the headrest of the car she had been in. "Right there, CSI was born," Zuiker says.
"He pitched CSI to my executives, and they said, 'You've gotta see this,' " Bruckheimer says. "Anthony came in and he never sat down, just told us the story of CSI with so much energy and exuberance, and we loved it. That was it." Bruckheimer's company has produced the show ever since.
"One of the rules in TV is that you never do flashbacks," says Margaret Riley, Zuiker's longtime manager. "Yet Anthony's whole idea behind CSI was to be a procedural with flashbacks." It's one of the keys to CSI's success — weaving narrative threads together and geeking out on the science and technology (without stinting on the gore).
"He pushed the limits on CSI as far as you could go for network TV," says Tart. "It's like, 'I can't believe I'm seeing an eviscerated body.' And he pushed the idea with Level 26, too." Tart echoes Bruckheimer: "Most writers come in with at least a sample chapter on the page, if not a lot more. Anthony came in and read to us off his BlackBerry, just talking about the concept of the digi-novel and that it would be about the world's worst serial killer. It was the easiest pitch I've ever heard."
At lunch one day, across from the beach in Santa Monica at the Ivy, the waiters recognize Zuiker and tell him to take any table he wants. We settle in by the front window and he grabs my notebook and scribbles a diagram of the various revenue streams he hopes to establish in his digi-novel business. There's people buying the book, people buying the app, people buying merchandise, people buying memberships for the deepest levels of Web content. On the publishing side, there's foreign rights (Dutton has already sold the rights in seven countries — enough to make back most of its investment). There's the potential of ad sales on the Web site. And then the kicker: product placement in the stories themselves.
Product placement may be a mortal sin in traditional publishing, but in Zuiker's Hollywood world it's a given — even if it's often done badly. "There's the grotesque Wayne's World way to do it — you know, Mike Myers holds up the Doritos," Zuiker says. "And there's a way to do it organically." The difference is true integration into the plot, finding a way to weave another brand's story into his own — on as many platforms as possible.
On CSI, Zuiker started with elementary tactics like running a text-message game during commercial breaks. Then, in late 2006, 10 women from suicidegirls.com guest-starred on the show, resulting in a massive uptick in traffic while the show aired. "People were watching and logging in simultaneously; that was a huge breakthrough," says Zuiker. In 2008, Microsoft's 3-D crowd-sourcing tool Photosynth was featured in an episode. The program helped solve a crime at a high school prom by stitching together hundreds of cell-phone-camera photos to re-create the scene. It was just the latest in an ongoing collaboration between Microsoft and CSI, this one hatched when Zuiker visited Microsoft's Redmond, Washington, campus last year to scout for new technology. "It's definitely beyond what you would consider traditional product placement," says Andy Ma, a lifestyle-marketing technologist at Microsoft.
Then there was an episode of CSI: NY that integrated both TelePresence, Cisco's teleconferencing centers, and Second Life. Cisco paid "a lucrative mid — six figures," according to Zuiker, to be on the show and stipulated that it have a presence both on television and online. So Zuiker enlisted a company called Electric Sheep, which was part-owned by CBS, to build a custom portal in Second Life that included a TelePresence Center. On the show, detective Mac Taylor, played by Sinise, chased a killer through the real world and into Second Life, and used TelePresence to help gather evidence in both worlds.
When it came time to line up potential advertisers for Level 26, Cisco was Zuiker's first thought. "I said to them, 'Look, I want to use TelePresence in print in the book, I want to use it in film on the cyberbridges. And I want to use it on the home page on the Level 26 Web site. I want to give you three separate pieces of narrative, on three platforms.' "
To date, Cisco has taken a pass, and in that context, it's worth reiterating that Level 26 is dark — much darker than CSI. Indeed, it is beyond dark. For one of the cyberbridges, Zuiker hired a porn actress to play one of Sqweegel's victims and had the killer mutilate her with a razor blade. Early in the book, Sqweegel masturbates to a snuff film of one of his own victims.
That the content is shocking is by design, but it also represents a risk. As Zuiker puts it: "How dark can I go to make sure my audience respects me not as a commercial CSI guy but as an authentic CSI guy who's doing much more hard-R content? How do I bridge the gap between the existing 75 million viewers coming to my party and a new Web generation thinking Zuiker is cool because he hasn't sold out, and then having a corporate sponsor at the same time say, 'We accept that you're going dark, and we're going to roll the dice'?"
Back on the set in L.A., Zuiker is shooting a scene in which the contortionist murderer Sqweegel is delivering a baby from a beautiful olive-skinned woman strapped to a gurney, after he has tortured her. The baby is a disturbingly real prosthetic Zuiker had built for the shoot and another reminder of why he may face some challenges getting corporate backing (at least one other company has also said no to Level 26). Zuiker is sanguine. "Let's be frank: It's not earned now. When I've earned a half a million users on my site, and shown that you can tell stories on three platforms and be solvent, then I'll have more leverage. I need to prove to the industry, on so many levels, that this can work."
"Meanwhile," he says, "they're staring at a broken business model."
Tom Foster is executive editor of Budget Travel. He interviewed Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard for the July/August Fast Company.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.