Whole new worlds: Transmedia storytelling opens licensing vistas

The entertainment industry at large has come to recognize that young adults and kids are consuming content voraciously, in ways not dreamt of even 10 years ago - they're looking to follow the story surrounding a given property on as many mediums as possible, be it traditional TV, films, fan sites or related products. But to make a property truly work across the various platforms out there, the entertainment concept has to be conceived as bigger than any one medium and constructed with a sense of how each grand story arc will play out across each media touchpoint. Transmedia storytelling, as it's become known, is really the art that's driving this approach.
June 8, 2010

The entertainment industry at large has come to recognize that young adults and kids are consuming content voraciously, in ways not dreamt of even 10 years ago – they’re looking to follow the story surrounding a given property on as many mediums as possible, be it traditional TV, films, fan sites or related products. But to make a property truly work across the various platforms out there, the entertainment concept has to be conceived as bigger than any one medium and constructed with a sense of how each grand story arc will play out across each media touchpoint. Transmedia storytelling, as it’s become known, is really the art that’s driving this approach.

With the recent ratification of the Transmedia Producer credit by the Producers Guild of America, the announcement of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower as a concept that will run across a feature film trilogy and TV series, and Sony’s relaunch of Men in Black as a global cross-platform franchise, the age of transmedia storytelling seems to have truly arrived. Aspirational worlds and immersive universes are replacing consumer loyalties to movie stars and network television. Right now, the sharpest studios are planning from earliest development to build their tentpole and youth-targeted properties so their storylines will translate to an array of traditional and new media platforms, which has the potential to significantly enhance or even fundamentally change the relationship between intellectual property creators, owners and licensees.

Traditional licensing deals between property owner and manufacturer, more often than not result in books, video game adaptations or other consumer products that somehow recapitulate an element or image from the established story. T-shirts printed with logos or movie poster art, toy replicas and comic book series that deliver badly drawn versions of a movie IP or series’ beloved heroes are still all too common. However, transmedia properties are helping push this model into the next decade, arguably making consumer products and promotions integral parts of maintaining and expanding the story world that drives the IP.

Of course, transmedia properties aren’t hatched overnight and require long-term planning both on the content creation and media/product rollout sides. So how can high standards of quality and consistency be maintained over an entire story world while constantly expanding it and adding new creators and content along the way? I’ve managed to distill the construction of a transmedia world into four key steps.

* Prepare for multi-platform by expanding the story world

* Maintain the IP with transmedia planning

* Maximize value by assembling a franchise clearinghouse

* Build brand equity by validating audience participation

Expanding the story world

It all starts with getting a clear understanding of the property at hand. Who is your hero? Who is the villain? What is this fictional universe trying to say? You need to define the recurring themes, messages and archetypes that guide the central narrative of your property and describe the vision of the original creator. Take Spider-Man, for example. At its heart, the property revolves around teen superhero Peter Parker and the guilt he harbors because he let his uncle’s murderer get away. In short, it’s a story about a kid looking to do good in the world to make up for his past sin. Everything related to the property should stem from this vision, which can only be maintained by:

1. Making sure that the property’s essence is organically woven into its every iteration, no matter how seemingly minor (i.e. a mobile phone app, or even the description on a hangtag attached to a piece of apparel).

2. Explicitly and loyally observing the canon of the property’s fictional universe in all iterations (i.e. an event that takes place in the video game is referenced as having happened by characters in the movie, etc.).

Everything else stems from this. You have to uncover the unique elements of your story that make it resonate with the audience. Ask yourself the basic questions: What are you trying to say? Who are you trying to reach? What’s the appeal of the story? It’s simple stuff, really, but the vital importance of these details are often overlooked in their vital importance. Two dudes in robes, whacking each other with light sticks does not equal Star Wars. The theme that George Lucas infuses into each piece of the Star Wars story is the importance of finding peace within yourself before you can bring balance to your world. And it’s the presence of this theme that authenticates each new addition to the universe.

You must also create a story that alludes to a greater world within the fictional context. It’s got to be a place that feels real. It comes with rules and a history, culture and slang. It exists beyond the borders of the screen. If you’ve skipped ahead to asking how something like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles turned slime into a hot saleable commodity, you need to back up a second and ask why kids found it so cool to have that yucky slime in the first place. The quick answer is because it represented something in the story.

A fully realized story world doesn’t just make for a deeper narrative. It allows for the generation of hours and hours of quality content beyond the first presentation of the property. The main characters can have sidekicks who have histories that involve new adventures that take place in foreign lands populated by their own villains and steeped in specific legends. You see how quickly this works? It’s possible to constantly create new stories and characters, but be sure to lay the groundwork so that every new twist and turn in the story emerges organically and is infused with the brand essence.

Failure to build and then observe canon can produce an ‘anything goes’ universe in which your stories (and those of your licensees) are loaded with contradictions, schisms and nonsense. Canon allows for stories to build the brand through a framework of logic and consistency, even if the story world is fantastical or cartoonish in nature. For any multi-platform implementation of narrative, canon is imperative.

Transmedia planning

There is a reason almost everybody has heard of Lucas, James Cameron and J.J. Abrams – they’ve successfully created franchises from concept to fruition and beyond, and then left the gates to their properties unlocked, so that teams of writers and artists can add wonderful bits to the franchise canon. Though most of these worlds are now stewarded by other producers or groups of producers, the groundwork carefully laid by their creators continues to flourish as their licensed universes expand.

These are the visionaries, the people who know the history of the property (both real and fictional) and understand its core. They’re the ones who know what the J. in Bartholomew J. Simpson stands for, what kind of kid he is, and why he is so important to Americans of a certain age. But they are also the type to know Homer is the true engine that drives The Simpsons. As far as creative is concerned, the buck stops with the visionary.

In recent months, studios have come to recognize that the responsibility for conveying this canon to various corporate divisions, sponsors and licensees can fall on the shoulders of a new player, the transmedia producer. Something of a dynamic bridge between the creative, product development and marketing teams, transmedia producers are either brought on as consultants or employed via an in-house position. Savvy to the elements of story, keen on the strengths and weaknesses of various media platforms, and sensitive to the politics and bureaucracies of corporate environments, these franchise stewards facilitate brand extension while preserving the soul of the brand.

Transmedia producers are often responsible for assembling a set of guidelines or a franchise bible, which can be distributed in confidence to all interested parties. Participants willing to do the extra work to generate an engaging and persistent transmedia story world are rewarded by the producer, often with key events or major story developments designed to drive audiences to their product. So everything is ‘in game,’ it all counts, from the tags on T-shirts to the very last comic book.

Check out Star Trek: Countdown from licensee IDW Publishing, for example, which boasted all of the hallmarks of excellent transmedia execution. The 2009 feature film’s producers granted a boon to the comic book publisher by allowing the screenwriters to create a four-issue prequel story that cleverly bridged the classic Star Trek universe to the new one introduced in J.J. Abrams’ movie. This major piece of Trek lore helped soothe thousands of apprehensive Trekkies, who in turn primed the web with ‘thumbs up’ blog entries and message board posts, and it sold like gangbusters as a trade paperback and iPhone digital comic.

Finally, transmedia producers participate in planning the franchise rollout. They help weave together story and medium, designating the launch platform and how its content will dovetail into that of the driving platform. Like orchestra conductors, they must coordinate how different parts of the story will act in concert, determining when to launch that video game prequel or when to activate those licensed chapter books.

Opening product channels

Once your franchise steward or transmedia producer is in place, creating new content with the aid of a core brand mythology – even as your in-house creators and licensees are expanding your franchise universe – how do you keep these stories in the same world? And how do you keep your stories from getting stale? The answers lie in the establishment of a franchise clearinghouse.

The steward of the property, once the work of producing content is underway, must enable a team to vet the content and products emanating from the driving platform to make sure they make sense in the established continuity. Equally important, the new, fresh elements that licensees and other authors add into the mix have to be parsed and integrated into the established mythology.

Each consumer touch point tells a bit of the story. Or at least it should. Why should a person buy something new if it’s just going to rehash something they’ve seen or heard before? With so many options to choose from in the media marketplace, these consumers will most likely move on to find a franchise that rewards their searches with new material. A task force, particularly in the case of larger firms, needs to be assembled for creative and strategic guidance.

Successful task forces at companies like Disney, Sony and Microsoft Game Studios allow for key members of each property team, department and division and related licensees to meet regularly (monthly in the early going, possibly weekly during the rundown to rollout or major events). These task forces submit and review editorial content, graphic designs and product development, exchange news and developments, disseminate information from the franchise visionary, incubate ideas for cross-promotion and support one another’s endeavors with shared assets and brainpower.

The steward or transmedia producer maintains a presence in these clearinghouses by helping to devise submission guidelines, allowing for new content to be expedited through the system and supervising a centralized and streamlined approval procedure.

Clearinghouses are also used for conflict resolution. Vast storylines generated by multiple factions for an array of media platforms are likely to raise contradictions. Systems are created for determining alternative solutions to creative disputes. Because the IP is positioned at the center and placed above corporate politics, task force members see the clearinghouse as an answer-oriented asset, rather than as a place where ideas go to die.

Finally, franchise clearinghouses allow for the maximization of story potential. Team members are encouraged to recommend or provide solutions that energize and revitalize stories, rather than stamp them into irrelevance. Content worthy of being an important addition to the canon of the story world is encouraged. Nothing slides under the radar and everything must count in a surprising and entertaining way.

Validate and celebrate

Who best to tell you what’s going right (and wrong) with a property than the fans themselves? In truth, they are the torchbearers, the ones who keep it going, even between major product releases. Providing the means for audience participation is integral to any successful transmedia implementation. In short, if you show audience members that you’re listening, provide them with a branded forum that invites personal and creative expression, and maybe even talk to them directly now and then, the results can be quite powerful.

Forums in which fans talk to creators? Active social media sites? These are essential to the survival of a modern franchise. Successful transmedia is signified by two-way communication. Children are growing up in a culture where creative tools are at their fingertips. We must embrace these impulses and ignore them at our peril. The ideas are endless, as are the possibilities. By asking fans what they want, everyone can get what they need – better stories and even better revenues.

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