Have you ever followed a local band that wound its way through the bar circuit? They were your band, you learned the lyrics to their songs, loved them even when they had an off night, and cheered when they announced they got a record contract and were headed for the big time. But then you had to share them with everyone! It felt a bit odd: were they going to “sell out” and become something they weren’t, or would they maintain their integrity despite new temptations and the spotlight of popular culture? In a way, that’s how I feel about transmedia storytelling, and what a strange and exciting time it is!
Most of the whippersnapper writers and producers who dig transmedia today will cite Star Wars as their first exposure to a story so big and a universe so vast that it had to be spread across multiple media platforms in order for it to be told in its entirety. For me it was Planet of the Apes. The film cycle started in the late-‘60s; then came the novelizations, some of which expanded on what we saw in the movies. I puzzled through the Marvel Comics and the grittier comics magazine versions, attempting to somehow make their stories fill in the cracks between the events of the films, though some of them blithely ignored their continuity. There was the hallucinogenic animated series and cheesy live-action prime-time show, and bunched together it all never made a lick of sense, but it was not for my lack of trying. That’s what my Apes action figures and treehouse playset were for, after all. That’s true transmedia, by the way, when the kid at home is added into the mix.
The difference between the shambling multi-platform narratives of the ‘70s and ‘80s—and I’m including you, early Star Wars, with your Christmas special and your ‘Droids TV series—and transmedia storytelling as it has evolved to this very moment, is that the entertainment and advertising industries are realizing that there has been a fundamental shift in the way that mass audiences interact with media.
Compelling stories are no longer anchored in front of our couches. Our kids no longer have to wait a year for the next rerun of The Wizard of Oz. Within six weeks, what was in the largest movie theaters can be played on our iPhones. We may not be watching Clone Wars on Cartoon Network, but man was The Force Unleashed on Xbox fun to play! In short, we are getting our entertainment when we want it, where we want it and how we want it, and savvy producers are turning to the studios and to their financiers and to their production teams and telling them that this is highly unlikely to go away.
A lot of hay has been made over all the theorizing and defining of transmedia at recent confabs like South by Southwest and the USC/UCLA “Transmedia, Hollywood: S/Telling the Story” symposium. Some people came out of these more confused about this so-called buzzword than when they went in. But it’s really simple and practical, and all we have to do is look to our pop culture visionaries to understand the following:
Transmedia storytelling is not a trend or abstract theory. Transmedia storytelling is a technique.
Transmedia storytelling is a very real and ultimately quite creative response to the way that new generations of people want to—even expects to—receive, enjoy and interact with story. For the past decade, outside of the hallowed halls of Skywalker Ranch, it has largely been the purview of marketing divisions. These were alternative reality game implementations like I Love Bees for Halo and the remarkable Darknight “Why So Serious?” campaign. But more recently, there has been a shift in perspective that has taken place at the highest echelons of the entertainment industry:
- Brian Grazer recently announced that Imagine Entertainment has entered a first look production deal with Blacklight Transmedia, a group that has a number of “universe” properties primed for development.
- Mattel announced last week that they are joining with movie producer Neal Moritz and employing transmedia storytelling to develop and implement a brand new science fiction undersea universe as toys and across any number of media platforms.
- Microsoft is unleashing their blockbuster videogame Halo as a persistent universe with a clarified and far more compelling core storyline, integrating animation from top Japanese animation studios, novels by preeminent science fiction author Greg Bear, and Marvel Comics series. They’re anchoring all of this with Halo Waypoint, a community on Xbox Live that acts as a gateway to the storyworld as much as it does toward earning Microsoft Points.
- James Cameron has declared solidarity with fans of Avatar all over the world, and he has promised that all related content will go through a rigorous inspection, insuring that every “official” Avatar story will meet with his standards for quality and fit into a greater canon.
Perhaps most intriguing of all from the perspective of KidScreen, Bob Iger, who emerged from television to take command of The Walt Disney Company, has worked hard over the past few years to spread the focus of his conglomerate from feature films to, well, everything! The powerful Tinker Bell DVD and consumer products franchise was born at Disney Publishing with Gail Carson Levine’s beautiful Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg. John Lasseter himself supervised the maintenance of the book’s integrity and universe as it extended from one medium to the next. High School Musical and Hannah Montana launched through television before they became transmedia phenoms.
Sticking with Disney for another moment, Sean Bailey, perhaps most noted for his role in building Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Internet and cross-platform company LivePlanet, successfully pitched a revival of the Tron franchise to Iger and Lasseter. The result is going to be Tron Legacy, a stunning feature film that will serve as the vanguard for a full transmedia relaunch of the Tron universe. What’s so fascinating about this is that from the get-go, Bailey and his team have insisted that each working part of Disney’s rollout fits into the context of a mega-story that starts before the events of the first film and will continue long after the events of the new one. This includes the alternate reality game (which has been recruiting and including fans and user-generated content), the videogame, the upcoming animated series, the comics—everything!
What’s more: Sean Bailey, as true an advocate of transmedia storytelling as there ever was, has accepted an offer to replace Oren Aviv as the Walt Disney Studios President of Production. There, he will no doubt echo Iger’s mandate to incubate and leverage properties to make them easily and readily extensible across the media landscape. My guess is that he will do this with the artistry and elegance of a creative producer, who understands that the Internet is not television, that players will no longer tolerate crappy videogame adaptations of movies, and that Jack Sparrow should probably not leap into a time machine to fight Nazis, no matter how obscure the comic book might be.
And people—this is only the stuff that I’m allowed to talk about! Trust me when I say that there’s way more waiting in the wings. The biggest names and largest companies in the business are planning transmedia implementations. Not all of them use the term, but they are certainly experimenting with (and making significant investments into) the technique.
My final point on all this today is that, not only to we need to learn about this, we need to stay ahead of it, even if we’re starting out small and operating independently. You see, transmedia storytelling is not just about technique; it’s about our rights as creators and producers. If we are going to go through the trouble of building and expanding our storyworlds to accommodate multiple media, then we’re going to want to be rewarded by being allowed to assert control over the creative and to take our fair share of the revenues from the product.
I see this as a potential win-win for creators, publishers and studios, but we have to be realistic. No one’s just going to hand us our side of the “win.” As transmedia development and production moves out of the rarefied and becomes the norm, we’re going to have to put a lot of thought into making certain that we remain stakeholders. My commitment to you through this blog and through various KidScreen events is that together we’re going to work out exactly how to do just that.
Full disclosure: My company, Starlight Runner Entertainment has been involved with the transmedia on Tron, Avatar and Halo.
KidScreen Publisher’s Note:
From Joce: I’m thrilled to announce that KidScreen has partnered with Jeff to host a one-day Transmedia Bootcamp workshop on June 2 in Santa Monica. This unique event will deliver practical how-to transmedia training, using relevant kids industry examples and hypotheticals. It’s a can’t-miss learning opportunity for kids content producers and brand marketers looking to get ahead of the transmedia curve! To find out more and save $200 before April 23, visit www.kidscreen.com/transmedia