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Blasting kids entertainment into the next decade

Much has been made of a quote I gave to New York magazine in January about the obliteration of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 4. Basically, I expressed my astonishment that Sony Pictures would invest many millions of dollars to make the original Spider-Man, watch it become a huge global film franchise, and then basically shut it down while renegotiating contracts with key players or waiting for Raimi and the screenwriters to come up with a viable sequel idea.
February 2, 2010

Much has been made of a quote I gave to New York magazine in January about the obliteration of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 4. Basically, I expressed my astonishment that Sony Pictures would invest many millions of dollars to make the original Spider-Man, watch it become a huge global film franchise, and then basically shut it down while renegotiating contracts with key players or waiting for Raimi and the screenwriters to come up with a viable sequel idea.

This is what you do with a property that’s worth untold dollars to your bottom line? Grapple over which villains you’re going to use years after a shakily conceived second sequel, weeks after somebody turns in a script for number four with a release date already set? Is that really the way Hollywood still works?

Not for everyone. There are some entertainment execs who understand how the landscape has changed, especially when it comes to entertaining kids. With the flick of a finger, any six-year-old is capable of shaping and altering what she or he watches and enjoys. With Star Wars: The Clone Wars, for example, Lucasfilm gives kids aspirational heroes, creates an engaging story and a richly imagined universe, and allows them access to it anytime and anywhere – on TV, the web, through their Xboxes, you name it.

More importantly, kids want content that counts. Presenting them with the same content in different formats won’t work. They want bits that move the plot forward, or add to their understanding of the storyworld; they even want forums that invite them to have a say in how it all turns out.

Enter transmedia. When applied with careful planning and artistry, transmedia storytelling is capable of shifting producers of kids entertainment away from the old-school mentality (read: linear, single platform). A good transmedia producer would look at Spider-Man (or Tinker Bell, Hot Wheels or Transformers) and understand that the property is bigger than any one medium. It requires long-term planning (five years or more), a strategic rollout and a sense of how each grand story arc will play out and be communicated through each media touchpoint.

Business and development practices must change to meet these criteria. So must our creative models. The story presentation needs to leverage the strengths of each specific platform. To use something as interactive and participatory as the web, for example, as simply another television screen is spirit-crushing.

Some might say it’s not our job as creators and producers to come up with how our characters and stories will work as video games, toy lines or Tweets on Twitter. Well, I’m not saying that we all have to learn how to write novels, design action figures or come up with transmedia blueprints (though some of us might find the prospect creatively alluring), but I do believe we need to push ourselves as creators. We have to make our worlds wider, richer and deeper so they can withstand these multi-platform extensions.

Fortunately, Lucasfilm’s approach is no longer the exception. The time has come for the transmedia producer, a specialist in the development, production and strategic rollout of aspirational fictional worlds. Transmedia producers will function as franchise stewards, creatively bridging the gaps between talent, marketing, licensing partners and fans to nurture kids properties into the next decade. Admittedly the old-school suits who look at stories one script at a time aren’t dropping out of the picture entirely, but why not check out the new school – I hear it has WiFi.

Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, has consulted on projects such as Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, James Cameron’s Avatar and Hasbro’s Transformers. You can catch him at KidScreen Summit 2010. He’s the event’s Digital Media keynote speaker and will examine how to transform intellectual properties into highly lucrative transmedia franchises.

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