Commentary: Whodunit? Anybody you decide!

"Mansfield" is interactive mystery

"Mansfield" mystery: Movies have a beginning, middle and an end, but as Godard once famously said, not necessarily in that order. In fact, today in the age of the Internet filmmakers don't even need to limit themselves to having a single ending.

With the whodunit "Mystery at Mansfield Manor," playing not in theaters but on the web at, for example, moviegoers can buy for $7.99 Canadian (about US$8) a ticket to watch the film on their computers over a four day period and decide for themselves who committed the murder. It's an approach that brings to mind the classic board game Clue with its umpteen suspects, all of whom have motives for murder.

"Mansfield," the brainchild of Toronto based writer-producer Rory Scherer, revolves around the death of Colin Mansfield Sr., a wealthy wheelchair-bound industrialist who's just made some changes to his will after suffering a stroke. On a stormy night Mansfield's dinner guests arrive at his isolated manor, each bringing to the table their own personal relationship with their host. Among them are Mansfield's disgruntled racist alcoholic son, Colin Jr., who wants to run Mansfield Oil & Gas and is furious his father may be handing the presidency to Barry Carter, the black vice president of accounting who's worked his way up over the past 12 years. Carter's now investigating financial improprieties at the company and reveals he has information about this in the briefcase he's brought with him to dinner.

There's also Colin Jr.'s wife, Rachel, who's upset about Colin Sr.'s relationship with his new girlfriend, Nicole, a beautiful young model who now seems likely to inherit his money. And there's Colin Sr.'s activist daughter, Debra, who hates how companies like her father's pollute the environment. Also on hand is Colin Sr.'s live-in nurse Beatrice, who tends to his needs, dresses him and brings him his vitamins. And throw in, for good measure, a Senator beholden to the company for re-election financing, a handsome young chauffeur Nicole's trying to seduce in the garage, a lawyer who knows the contents of Colin Sr.'s new will because he helped him write it and a cook who's preparing dinner and setting mouse traps with poison pellets at the same time.

After the power suddenly goes out during dinner at Mansfield Manor, the blackness is pierced by a scream as Beatrice discovers Colin Sr.'s dead body. Before long Detective Frank Mitchell arrives with rookie detective Billy Sheppard to investigate. Frank's got to wrap everything up by Midnight, only a few hours away, because he's being forced to take early retirement after 22 years on the force.

After logging on and viewing Mitchell's interrogations of the dinner guests, I was happy to be able to focus with Rory Scherer on how he put "Mansfield" together and about his plans for future interactive productions. When we spoke "Mansfield" had just been honored in the Canadian New Media Awards as one of three finalists in the excellence in gaming category.

"Basically you, the viewer, go to the website and you take on the role of the detective in that you have to solve the murder," he explained. "Once the detective arrives at the mansion you sort of make the decisions for him in order to solve the murder."

Scherer wrote the business plan for the website a few years ago while he was getting his MBA in Toronto at York University's Schulich School of Business and launched the site in the summer of 2006. "It's a new product that really hasn't been done before," he pointed out. "It's offering the consumer something new. There's a lot of games online and you can watch movies on line. Now you have the opportunity to watch something that's a combination of the two."

In effect, it's a pay-per-view movie with interactivity as an added feature. "It's similar to renting a DVD from Blockbuster (but without having to go to a store). You go to the website and if you want to play it you pay (by credit card online) and you get access for four days. It's all automated so you receive access instantly and it's available 24/7. There have been customers from over 12 countries so far. So it's available to anyone anywhere at any time."

Once a visitor to the website pays, an introduction video plays and sets up the film's story: "The detective is sent to Mansfield Manor where a murder has occurred. There are 10 suspects there. You make the choices for him (as to) what he does next. You can interrogate all 10 suspects. They tell the events of the evening according to their point of view. So then it's up to you to decipher who's lying, where the inconsistencies are and what clues to watch for. And there are some other interactive components, too -- like there's a notepad for you to (jot down thoughts as you view the interrogations). I don't want to really say what all the interactive components are because it'll spoil the fun for anyone who plays it for the first time."

All told, there's nearly three hours of video that viewers can watch. "However, because of the interactive components it may take you longer than that," Scherer noted, "or it may take you (less time) depending on the path that you choose. Basically, I wanted to make sure that all these different outcomes would be filmed so instead of launching one large video, there's about 30 short videos."

Although "Mansfield" has been on the web for about two years, Scherer pointed out that it's still pretty much undiscovered in terms of the wide audience that's out there: "I have not spent a single dollar on marketing so all of the customers are finding it basically through word of mouth. Also, I've been contacting some people in the media to get them to write a review or conduct an interview about it. So far the reviews have been extremely positive. The Associated Press gave it four stars out of four. CNN gave it seven and a half out of 10. (The media coverage is) all posted on the site in a section called 'MMM in the Media.'"

Asked who's going to see the film, he said, "I've noticed there's two different types of demographics. One is online game players. They're finding it because I've exchanged links with other gaming sites. The other (demo is) hard core murder mystery fans. None of the media has been done overseas, yet aside from the U.S. the second highest country where we're seeing paid customers is England and other countries in the U.K. like Scotland and Ireland. They're finding it because they probably do search engine searches for games like Clue or murder mystery games."

Does he envision adding other interactive mysteries to an online menu so viewers who have seen "Mansfield" can then see something else? "That's definitely a possibility," Scherer replied. "I have been looking into that, but I want to move on to making a (theatrical) feature film as my next project. A couple of years ago (when I launched) 'Mystery at Mansfield Manor' the Toronto Film Festival was an opportunity for me in which all of the entertainment media was in Toronto so I could approach them and ask them to review it. I would be running around to various restaurants and hotels trying to get the attention of some media (people).

"However, none of it worked. But as I was doing it it gave me the idea that what I'm doing right now would be a great premise for a film. So shortly after that I wrote a treatment and the screenplay and polished it over the course of a year and that is what I'm trying to get off the ground now. It's titled 'My Weekend at the Festival' (but that could change)."

As for making another interactive mystery, he added, "If I could find an investor who would like to fund another online interactive movie, I definitely have scripts I've done that are ready for them. It's just a question of finding someone to finance it. I think mysteries are the way to go in terms of interactive adventures because it gives the protagonist a goal and because you're taking over the role of the protagonist it gives you a goal to achieve."

Meanwhile, Scherer is starting to work on making "Weekend" happen. At this point, the first person he's brought on board is Canadian actor-filmmaker Dave Regnier to play one of the lead roles. When we spoke Scherer put Regnier on the phone with me to explain how they'd gotten together.

"I have a film coming out late this year entitled 'My Date With Hugh,'" he told me. "I don't know if you remember the (2004 documentary) 'My Date With Drew.' In that movie Drew Barrymore tells (co-director) Brian Herzlinger, 'I'll help you with the film, but you have to help one other person out to kind of pay for it.' He decided that's me. I (had an idea to do) a movie about how does an average guy from Canada get invited to the Playboy Mansion to hang out with Hugh Hefner? Brian heard about my idea and contacted me and basically used me as his one person that he's helping."

"I had auditioned for a show in Canada called 'Dragon's Den,'" Scherer added. "It's a reality show in which entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to potential investors. When I auditioned online I looked at all the other people who auditioned online, as well, and I noticed Dave was (pitching) his film 'My Date With Hugh.' I checked out his website and watched the trailer. I'm definitely in his target market because it's a movie that I think is really funny and, of course, I would love to be invited one day to the Playboy Mansion, too. I contacted Dave and introduced myself and mentioned I have a screenplay that I wrote. I sent it to him and he really liked it and wants to become attached to it. Right now I'm still shopping it around trying to get some more people attached to the project. I would say probably next year (is when it will be getting underway)."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel