I had just set foot on the production lot of Globo Network, about 50 miles outside of Rio de Janeiro, when I noticed something strange was going on there. Signs with characters from James Cameron’s Avatar were cropping up all over the place, even in the golf carts that were being used to wheel my party past the Big Brother Brazil set, over to the auditorium. I’d been invited to speak at Globo by a group called The Alchemists. They did advertising and brand extension for various media firms down there, and specialized in something called transmedia storytelling, a topic with which I have at least a passing familiarity. I figured I was going to talk about it with some of Globo’s writers and producers, and maybe get a decent lunch out of the deal. Not so much!
The cavernous auditorium had been completely made over to look like Pandora! Illuminated with purples and blues, massive paper creatures drawn from the film hung from the ceiling. Jake Sully, Neytiri and the images of other characters stood 10-feet tall and up to 20-feet wide against the walls and as a backdrop to the stage. Dramatic music from the Avatar soundtrack rumbled through the smoky air. Translators were prepping to purée my words into Portuguese and whisper them into scores of headphones. Hundreds of people, including famous newscasters, journalists and telenovela actors were taking their seats. I almost fainted.
Pale and cotton-mouthed, the first thing I told them was, “Dudes, I did not produce or direct this movie!” My company, Starlight Runner Entertainment is really good at this transmedia thing, especially when it comes to tentpole franchises and properties that appeal to young people and the young at heart. We’d been hired by 20th Century Fox to work on Avatar, as production got under way in 2007. Our job was to hammer out and crystallize as much of Cameron’s mythology as he was willing to share, and advise Fox marketing on how best to implement the wider narrative of the Avatar universe around the release of the film, across various divisions of Newscorp and to licensors in the months to come. It was a humble and obscure contribution, certainly unworthy of the present fanfare. But, none of that seemed to matter. The Brazilians had settled in and were in the mood to listen. I had to deliver.
So “listening” became the day’s secret word. Cameron’s sense of storytelling comes from years of watching movies, good and bad, and observing how audiences responded to them. This gave him the tools to build a storyworld that was convincing right down to the tiniest details, like the way Neytiri’s blue ears shone translucent pink sometimes when sunlight hit them from behind.
As a dreamer growing up on the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I had to learn to listen to avoid being clobbered by older kids whose dreams had already been replaced by anger and fear. It was a skill I developed early on that would come to serve me well in later years. In some small way I would learn to tap into the same popular sensibility that Cameron did, figuring out how the building blocks of story connected with the needs and aspirations of people around the world.
The element of listening also sits at the bright center of this whole transmedia storytelling phenomenon. In today’s interconnected world, young people move from one media platform to the next without even thinking about it. Their communication, the way they enjoy entertainment, it all flows from one screen to the next in a digital stream of consciousness. As storytellers, we can barely keep up with them. We think repeating the story over and over again on each platform is the answer, but it’s not, because watching a movie on a smart phone is simply doesn’t leverage the best and most important features of a smart phone. We need to extend our content to flow with them.
As I told the Brazilians at Globo, transmedia storytelling is the vanguard process of conveying messages, themes and storylines to a mass audience through the artful and well-planned use of multiple media platforms. It’s a philosophy of communication and brand extension that broadens the lifecycle of creative content, and cultivates intense loyalty, because it validates and celebrates the feedback and participation of audience members.
When my talk was done, a young woman came up to me and took my hand. She told me how much she appreciated these new ideas and she called me a shaman. I’ve been thinking about that term for a while now, and in a way it applies to all writers and producers, again especially those of us who create for young people. You see, in ancient times, shamans told stories around the campfire, tapping into the questions, fears and aspirations of their tribes, adjusting the narrative based on the facial expressions, vocalizations or shout-outs from those around them. Today, with digital technology, capable of soliciting and generating near-instant feedback, we’ve come full circle. The glow of the fire has been replaced by the glow of our screens, and you and I are the shamans, taking on the worldly and spiritual responsibility of answering questions, surprising, delighting, and inspiring our audiences, and perhaps most important of all, listening to them.
So here’s the deal:
The world is changing so rapidly, and it’s my job to keep up with a lot of it, especially where it impacts popular culture, children and young adults and storytelling. I’m going to use this forum, so graciously furnished by KidScreen, to try and make sense of it all in the hopes that my observations and experience can give you a new or different perspective.
I’m also actually hoping that it’ll work both ways, and that through your email and posts to this blog, I might learn a thing or two, myself. The resulting dialog can only have a positive and dynamic impact on our shows and movies, web sites and games, characters and storyworlds…
You can also follow me Facebook at Starlight Runner Entertainment, and on Twitter @Jeff_Gomez or email me, Jeff Gomez <firstname.lastname@example.org>