Leaders in the field of transmedia storytelling converged at the National Association of Broadcasters Show to discuss its potential for engaging audiences as well as best practices for the creation process. Moderated by USC’s Henry Jenkins, the academic who initially popularized the term, the panel featured experienced producers in the film, television and videogaming industries.
By Celina Beach, originally posted at ARGNet
For the second year in a row, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show hosted a panel of transmedia luminaries to discuss the state of the industry. This year’s panel, Transmedia: Telling the Story through Narrative Content, Games and Real-World Adventures was hosted by Henry Jenkins (Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California, and author of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide) and included Jeff Gomez (President and CEO, Starlight Runner Entertainment), Kim Moses (Executive Producer/Director, Sander/Moses Productions and Slam Internet), Gale Anne Hurd (Executive Producer, The Walking Dead; President, Valhalla Motion Pictures), Danny Bilson (Executive Vice President of Core Games, THQ, Inc.), and Tim Kring (Transmedia Storyteller, Conspiracy for Good, Heroes).
Jenkins started the panel with a definition of transmedia from his book as a starting point for discussion amongst the panelists:
Transmedia Storytelling represents a process by which narrative information is systematically dispersed across multiple media channels for the purposes of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.
Jenkins asserted that the difference between transmedia and other methods is “that each element adds something vital to the mix as a whole” and “expand[s] the canvas on which storytellers work within the entertainment industry.”
After introducing the members of the panel, Jenkins discussed the recent addition of the new Transmedia Producer credit from the Producer’s Guild of America, and asked Jeff Gomez to speak on the subject. First, Gomez discussed his interpretation of what transmedia does: “What has been discovered initially is that, yes, transmedia can help us sell stuff: this has been . . . the most common application of thinking about how to tell stories over multiple media platforms because somehow, if you like the story, you might buy iterations of the story from one medium to the next. But that’s not going to be the most brilliant application of transmedia.” Gomez focused instead on other changes brought on by transmedia narratives, such as affording producers and creators the opportunity to enjoy a greater level of control over their properties; being able to take equity and stronger financial stakes in their properties; and giving creators new ways of expressing themselves. “The canvas of the story is no longer a television screen, or even the movie theater screen; you are now envisioning how to tell stories that dovetail and flow across these different media channels.”
Gomez conceded that greater financial investment would be needed in order to create robust storyworlds necessary to carry the story across media platforms, but found hope in new models of financing where creators and investors work in concert. Partnerships between struggling industries like the publishing or the music industry, and software companies looking to cross over and develop entertainment in these areas, are currently forming, and Gomez predicts they will become more prevalent in the future. There are also international partnerships forming. Canada has a new media fund that requires television and film makers to take other platforms into consideration in order to be financed by the new fund, recognizing the need for transmedia talent in order to make this happen. Brazil and other European countries have also been entering into co-production deals with the United States for transmedia properties. The greater equity this will afford will lead to new kinds of contracts: the amount of work needed to create a successful transmedia project will “command respect and participation. If we’re working harder, we deserve more.”
Gomez shifted the conversation to the new Transmedia Producer credit: “[The Producer’s Guild]’s responsibility largely is to reduce the number of credits, and here they are adding the Transmedia Producer credit. This is amazing because it indicates there is something very real and tangible happening in this space.” By doing so, the Guild is allowing transmedia producers the ability to get health insurance, to receive appropriate compensation, and to be recognized along with producers in other media. As a point, Gomez listed the companies currently pursuing transmedia strategies, including Disney, Sony, Nickleodeon, Fox, and even Televisa, who created a Transmedia Division.
Next to speak was Kim Moses. Her topic was the “Total Engagement Experience” model, which she employed for the television show Ghost Whisperer. The diagram of the model is an infinity loop, the purpose of which is “a creative and strategic model in which we drive eyeballs from one platform to another platform.” There is always a “cornerstone” in the model which could be a television show, feature film, or even clothing lines such as Quicksilver or Juicy Couture: the goal is to give the fan base an experience on many different platforms. This has the benefit of creating press buzz, new revenue sources, and “most importantly, is that it drives demographics and builds ratings, and a loyalty with the fan base.” Some of the platforms used by Sander/Moses Productions are cell phones, publishing, interactive features on DVDs, the internet, merchandising, music, and youth outreach on college campuses.
Moses next displayed demographics showing the decrease of women viewers watching network television, which is significant because women are more avid followers of dramatic television shows. The next demographic was regarding social networking, and in an vast number of areas, women are far more active on Facebook, Zynga, and Twitter; have more friends/followers than men on Facebook and Twitter; drive 74% of revenue online; and oversee over 82% of all consumer spending. Her point to all these statistics: “Women are the routers and amplifiers of the social web. Women are the rocket fuel of e-commerce. If you can harness the power of women, you can rock the world.” Based on these findings, in the fifth season of Ghost Whisperer, Sander/Moses decided to launch a transmedia campaign. The campaign was launched in the first episode of the season, when Melinda Gordon (Ghost Whisperer’s main character, played by Jennifer Love Hewitt) gave birth to her son Aiden. Fans were sent a birth announcement online and via mobile phones, letting them learn about the news before it was shown on the television show. This was the springboard used to continue the project on other platforms. Including GM as a sponsor provided additional revenue to the show, with the partnership focused towards engaged “alpha moms,” the show’s target demographic.
Next to speak was Danny Bilson, who started by answering Jenkins’ question, “So what can we do now that we couldn’t 10 years ago?” Danny set the stage for his answer by introducing the concept of a “central hub” which is a product’s main medium. For instance, THQ makes video games, so the video game is their central hub, and all other media are “appendages,” such as books, movies, comics, etc. Back 10 years ago, if a proposed project was not within the “central hub,” then it would be very difficult to get investors to invest in these “non-core competency” projects. Now, however, these projects can be promoted through marketing and partnerships. “The marketers all understand that it’s free marketing because . . . all our transmedia opportunities are partnerships, where we don’t license our property, and we don’t exchange money.” Danny used THQ’s Red Faction franchise as an example. Red Faction: Armageddon, a video game that serves as a central hub for the franchise, is being released in at the end of May, with a movie airing on SYFY the Saturday night following the game’s launch. Danny asserts this is true transmedia because “the movie tells the story that exists between the game from two years ago [Red Faction: Guerilla], and the game coming out this year.” Danny continues, “one thing about transmedia is that you never want to repeat [a] story, the idea is to extend fiction across medias, and tell it in different ways.” One of THQ’s creative prime directives is to determine what the fans would want, and what the fans would think is cool. To do that, you have to be a fan of your own project.
Bilson then discussed the transmedia aspects of Homefront, a THQ property which was released last month. It included Homefront: The Voice of Freedom, a book written from the perspective of journalist Ben Walker as he travels across America in 2027 after the Greater Korean Republic’s invasion depicted in the video game. There were also some video blog videos posted by Ben of the people he met on his travels. These videos were uploaded to the Homefront website, linked to a map pointing to the place in the country the video was supposedly from. Another video was supposedly shot by a couple of kids with a cell phone showing the bombing of Salt Lake City, which was uploaded to YouTube. This video went viral, and was even picked up as the lead story on a Salt Lake City news station. Next up for the Homefront transmedia project is a 6-hour miniseries THQ is planning that will tell the story between the first game and a future follow-up game. The same type of movie is also being planned between the third and fourth installments of Saints Row.
Bilson finished up by asserting, “Transmedia isn’t limited to film and games, it’s also toys, it’s comics, it’s board games, it’s any kind of media that can extend the story, including supporting fan fiction. And the great thing about fan fiction is that it’s self-sorting, so the good stuff . . . rises to the top.”
Jenkins next introduced Gale Anne Hurd, asking her to speak on any struggles with the transmedia expecations for The Walking Dead franchise. Jenkins noted that the zombie series was based on “a comic book that’s well known by comic readers, maybe not so well known by viewers of AMC, and you had to work to keep both satisfied.” Gale responded,
Genre fans are already very familiar with transmedia, because most of the properties they respond to have existed in another medium . . . look at Lord of the Rings, [and] some of the films I’ve done, including The Punisher, which became a THQ video game which started as a comic book.
Hurd discussed how transmedia can go in the other direction, mentioning how The Terminator and Aliens both ended up spawning comic books and games. Hurd notes, however, that fans of these works can be “the most demanding, because they feel an enormous connection to the material which has pre-existed, and the first thing you have to respond to is fear.” Fans, with their deep connections to the original material, are often afraid the adaptation won’t remain true to the original when they learn of new media extensions. Part of the solution to this is to involve the creators to make sure they’re happy with the direction the material is being taken. In the case of The Walking Dead, the creator, Robert Kirkman, came on board as Executive Producer and writer. Getting this information out to the fans was important to alleviate their fear, to give them confidence the adaptation would remain true. The other piece was deciding when to air the adaptation to get the most eyeballs on it, especially from the genre fans. AMC airs FearFest in the weeks leading up to Halloween, and the Walking Dead team believed this would be the best venue to air The Walking Dead pilot in order to reach AMC viewers who were already fans of the genre. The next decision was where to start marketing the project. Luckily, principle photography for The Walking Dead started in June, so there was imagery and clips from the pilot which could be shown at Comic-Con in San Diego, and provided an opportunity to showcase examples of both how they were remaining true to the source and also some examples of how they would deviate from it. A website was also launched very early on, including a motion comic and a video on the adaption process, including interviews from both cast and crew.
Finally, Jenkins addressed Tim Kring, noting that he “moved from Heroes, which has been one of the landmarks that helped to define television’s understanding of transmedia, to Conspiracy for Good . . . can you tell us about [Conspiracy for Good] and what you learned from Heroes that allowed it to happen?” Kring responded that Heroes taught him everything about how to transition from traditional television to “multiple platform storytelling.” With Heroes, the goal was to reach the audience “where they lived, and they seemed to be living everywhere else but 9 o’clock on Monday night on a major network, so that particular desire to reach an audience is what really kinda got me into the whole idea of multi-platform storytelling.” Heroes, being a story about interconnectivity and saving the world, got Kring thinking about how to roll out that kind of storytelling in the real world. Conspiracy for Good was born from that idea, by “[taking] some of the tools from multi-user online gaming, and combining it with the power of social networking” to create “social benefit storytelling – the idea of injecting people inside of a narrative in order to create positive, real world results.” Kring went to Nokia, who underwrote the project, which involved 130 people working on the project in five different countries for 18 months. As a result of the game, five libraries were built and stocked in Zambia with over 10,000 donated books, and 50 scholarships for Zambian schoolgirls were created. The blurring of the lines between fiction and reality extended not only to real Zambians and real libraries, but to the fictional “bad guy” corporation, Blackwell-Briggs. A video which was “never supposed to be found by the public” exposing the corporation created a stir when one of Blackwell-Briggs’ first Twitter followers was Karl Rove, who expressed eagerness to find out how the corporation was going to pull off one of its schemes. “It was a truly unique project, where technology pushed the development of it to the use of mobile applications.”
Jenkins started the question and answer session by directing the conversation to fan culture with the question,
One of the themes that’s been coming across in everything that we’ve heard so far is that transmedia is tied to a new model of audience engagement; that is, new kinds of fan relationships have started to emerge in the online world that’s shaping, in some pretty profound ways, how stories are told and how stories need to respond to varying degrees of participation. So I wonder if we could get a little discussion going on, how do you conceive of the fans as they’re tied to these properties?
Bilson was the first to respond, discussing his current project with Guillermo Del Toro. As fan-boys themselves, they have had conversations over “what would be cool” from the fan-boy point of view. “All of our transmedia pieces are based on what would be cool, not what would drive revenue. There’s no numbers involved in any of this, it’s all just about what would we like as fans?” Moses agreed, saying “If the fans love it, they’re going to carry it forward.”
Gomez also weighed in, speaking on the need for transmedia producers to put “ears around the narrative” – ways to hear or gather feedback, and act on it quickly. “It would be difficult to act on that quickly with a television series that is already well into production, but you can reflect changes or build upon that dialog relationship in the multi-platform implementation.” He mentions a great example of this is Glee. Kring agreed, saying “the way the audience is aggregating around watching television now is so different than what it used to be . . . our job as storytellers is to find where the audience is and to find a way to tell the story to them.” This creates an audience which is always connected. Kring states a statistic that “73% of the audience in the UK is watching television while [using] a connected device,” which causes viewers to switch between looking down at their device and looking up at what they’re watching; and while they’re looking down, they’re communicating about what they’re seeing when they look up. “So the real goal then becomes to create a kind of virtual cycle between the screen on the wall and the one in their hand,” since the device in their hand is usually a cell phone or tablet, something that goes with them everywhere, knows all their friends, and can take the narrative with them wherever they go. He concludes, “the really exciting thing is that these devices are now not only content consumption devices, but content creation devices as well, so then you have this fabulous opportunity to have a feedback loop where your audience is speaking to you and creating content that you’re reacting to.”
Hurd added that one of the reasons they launched The Walking Dead globally is because of the nature of the fan community, and the understanding that once something is launched in one place, it’s going to be made available around the world, and while fans want to do the right thing and not watch or download pirated shows, they also don’t want to wait months for the show to be made available to them legally. Fox International was on-board early on and embraced the idea of a global launch, the first time a brand new show was launched in 130 countries on the same day. She believes that due to the success of The Walking Dead, this practice is going to become more prevalent.
Moses then returned to the previous subject of connected devices changing the way fans interact with television, mentioning the reason they developed the Total Engagement Experience is to take advantage of emerging Smart TV technology, where the capability exists to move between the multiple platforms simultaneously. “So, doing this transmedia storytelling is just moving us into a place where the technology is taking us very quickly.” Gomez added,
It also takes the wisdom to understand that these other devices act and behave differently. We have different relationships with them than we do with our big TV screens. A mobile phone is a very intimate platform – for alot of young people, it’s like their bedroom, they’ll only allow a few people in there, and if you’ve got the privilege to be in there, you have to understand what that relationship is like and how valuable it is. So, we do need to consider that there are different ways to develop content for different media platforms that best leverage the strongest elements of that platform.
Bilson mentioned in response that THQ is developing a system that connects the gamers, their scores, and what they play, and sorts this data with that of their friends. This eliminates the kind of leaderboard where the top person has attained a level only a very select few have the hope of attaining themselves, since the gamer can sort the leaderboard by their friend base, town, state, or even country. He then mentions the more recent practice of “digital objects” that can be collected and traded. “In our business, we’re always interested in giving [gamers] something, so digital objects are another part of transmedia, where digital objects can be as important as real-world objects as long as you’re engaged in that fiction or in that content.” He concludes by mentioning that these digital objects can be used to reward players for different acts either in the game or in the multiple platforms as a way of driving engagement.
Finally, a question from the audience asked, “since this kind of non-linear narrative isn’t taught in screenwriting classes, how did the panelists teach themselves how to write that way, and how they were able to convince their employers to embrace such a non-standard method?” Kring explained that as a producer and writer, he wanted to “fish where the fish are,” and that the network really wanted to get into the digital space in a big way. Heroes was the kind of show that lent itself to this, the ability to tell a story in many different platforms. So, since this kind of storytelling was new, there was “no wrong way” to do it, and no bad ideas; and since it was being used to market the show, there was not a lot of need to convince the network to go with it since it was what they wanted anyway. On the subject of “teaching themselves,” he admitted there were a lot of mistakes made, but they had the luxury of not having to monetize what they were doing, so they could pretty much do anything they wanted. But this seems to be changing.
Now, the real goal is probably – because the networks have been burned a lot on shows that come out and only last four or five episodes, it’s very hard for them to invest in a big multi-platform push of a television show – and so, getting them now to jump on board this purely for promotion and marketing may not be as easy as it was.
The good news about this, Kring says, is that there are now ways to monetize the content, and if they won’t do it, others could, and would.
Gomez added that Star Wars has been credited with starting the idea of transmedia narrative in the late ’70s, but for him it started with the Japanese pop culture explosion of story universes in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Anime and live action shows like Power Rangers established a formula where the television series could end but then be continued in feature films, and associated toys further expanded the story world. “I started to emulate that sensibility kind of subversively at Valiant Comics, when Turok: Dinosaur Hunter and Magic: The Gathering were licenses we were dealing with , and I was simply allowed to create story elements on the internet and in video games and comic books and tie them together, because they really didn’t know what the heck I was doing, and it was just fun to me.” The fans responded to it, and the fan base grew dramatically because of it, creating Gomez’s new career.
Moses told about working with a number of shows that were in a similar vein such as Profiler and Ghost Whisperer. The shows all ended up on either Friday or Saturday nights, which are traditionally tough nights for shows seeking to thrive and gain an audience. Shows on these nights require more drastic measures to attract viewers. “You have to figure a way to get on the radar of the audience, so creating the Total Engagement Experience was very important by way of getting the audience’s attention, giving them an experience rather than just an opportunity to watch a television show, and then having them participate, and that created loyalty.” She explained that, at the time, the networks believed that anything regarding the show that went on the internet or any other media should be on the network’s platforms, and Sander/Moses didn’t feel the same way. What they believed in was “you go out and find those fans, you engage them, you give them things that connected them to the heart and soul of the brand, have them come and sample the show, and that’s your infinity loop.” So that’s what they did, doing a lot of things “under the radar.” As their methods proved to be successful, the networks and studios finally got on board with the idea.
Kring had a quick follow-up, noting that for shows like those mentioned by Moses, “it takes a tremendous amount of effort to extend this content, and you usually have to work with a group of people that are very closely associated with the writers.” Any extended storytelling has to come from and be embedded in the show itself, so there needs to be a strong liaison between the transmedia storytellers and the show writers. Hurd added that AMC agreed The Walking Dead’s universe needed to be a cohesive whole, but had at one point expressed a desire to have an outside producer create the webisodes. She had to explain to them that, “as much as someone else thinks they understand the world and the characters, we’ve lived with them. We have also lived with the fans.” She admits to being somewhat obsessed with following comments on the show on Twitter, and when The Walking Dead starts trending, she really pays attention. She wants to read what the fans are saying for herself, to see what they’re responding to, and particularly the things they don’t like. As mentioned before, a television series usually airs after production has been long since over, so it’s difficult to respond inside the show itself, it does effect the editing process on shows that haven’t been edited yet, and also informs the planning and writing for the new season. Hurd mentioned the promotion that got fans particularly excited about was the “stagger-on role,” in which fans had the opportunity to win a walk-on role as a zombie in the second season by watching the show, looking for a code, and entering it on the website, where winners were determined by random drawing. Gale mentioned this contest had been implemented even before they knew there would be a second season, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. Thankfully for the winners, the series was picked up. The writers are making sure the winners will have featured zombie roles to perform.
Bilson clarified that “transmedia is not adaptation. That’s the key thing – it has to have complete versability from one piece to the other.” During the making of the Red Faction TV movie, at the first set of meetings the writers had to explain to the filmmakers that “no, a terraformer on Mars can’t look like that, it looks like this – it breaks the immersion of the fan if it’s an adaptation.” Adaptations are fine, but in transmedia, everything has to remain authentic to the source.
Jenkins wrapped up the discussion by returning to the original question of “where did you learn how to do this” by mentioning he will be teaching a new Transmedia Entertainment course for film students at USC, starting in the fall, and that he has been working with other colleagues working in transmedia to work on a curriculum for the course, aiming to train the comic, tv, film, and game writers in the same way film school has traditionally trained film directors, photographers, editors, and script writers. “So I think the next generation of people coming out will be able to build on what the people up here have learned on their own, and will be able to work together in new ways.” Bilson will also be teaching a Transmedia section in his Game Writing class at USC, and Jenkins mentioned there are many good resources on the internet as well.
After the panel, I asked Gale Anne Hurd to explain her view on the relationship between alternate reality gaming and transmedia, and whether she thought the transmedia term has been overused. Hurd replied that she believes transmedia and ARGs are pretty much the same thing, just different terms. Both require a universe, character, a story, and fans. As for overuse of the transmedia term, her hopes are that this narrowing of definition will come about naturally as a by-product of the Producer’s Guild adoption of Transmedia Producer, and by the New Media board.
All in all, it was a very informative and interesting panel, and quite well attended. Given all the discussion over the Transmedia term and Transmedia Producer addition, it will be interesting to see how this acceptance of the term steers the industry in the coming year.