Creating blockbuster worlds
With media becoming pervasive and every one of us capable of making some degree of noise, how do you cut through a 'chaotic storm of omni-casting for many' to reach your target audience?
US based transmedia luminary Jeff Gomez, who has worked on 'blockbuster universes' such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Halo and Avatar, shares some of his expertise with Fiona Milburn.
"You need a system to navigate through the storm and reach your target audience no matter what screen they're spending time on. Transmedia technique enables the storyteller to provide multiple access points into the world of the story."
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Gomez, will be visiting New Zealand at the end of July to present 'Creating Blockbuster Worlds: The Power of Transmedia Storytelling' seminar as part of ASDCS & WIFT (NZ)’s Transmedia Storytelling Event.
Jeff is always very generous with his expertise and this week he agreed to answer some questions on how smaller content producers can utilise transmedia storytelling techniques in their own work.
Jeff, you are often described as the world’s leading producer of transmedia story worlds, what drew you to transmedia storytelling?
I led something of a chaotic life as a kid. Stories provided order. They showed me that there was a way out of seemingly impossible or horrific situations. Good could triumph over evil. The richer the story, the deeper the story world, the more excited and enchanted I became. I wanted every bite I took from the story to taste as good as the first one, but that was rare when I was young. The video game version, the television spin-off, the novelization, either they simply weren't very good as prequels or sequels, or they simply retold the story all over again, but not as well.
When I was 12 years old I learned that there were storytellers in Japan who were allowed to "travel" with their story worlds as they were adapted from comics to animated series, then from television to movies or direct-to-video films. The video games, even the toys somehow tied directly into a continuous presentation. You could move across a series of media platforms collecting pieces of your favorite science fiction or fantasy universe, and sometimes it just all made perfect sense when you assembled them together in your mind. That was awesome. There wasn't a name for it back then but it's all I ever really wanted to be.
Transmedia storytelling is still a new concept for many content producers, could you give us a brief definition of the term?
For me, transmedia storytelling is the technique of sharing messages, concepts or narratives with a mass audience through the artful and well-planned use of multiple media platforms. Rather than repeating the same story in different media, you are using several media as a canvas and expressing yourself through all of them in concert. Optimally, you have structured the technology to allow for the audience to somehow participate in the narrative, whether that is to allow them to dialog with you about the story, or even contribute to it somehow.
You also talk about transmedia narrative, how does this differ from transmedia storytelling?
Transmedia storytelling is the technique, and it can also be the act of telling that story in this unique way. Transmedia narrative is the story itself as it manifests across your chosen distribution channels or platforms.
Is there a difference in your approach to the extension of existing story worlds and the development of new transmedia properties?
They're different beasts. With a previously existing story world, it’s Starlight Runner's responsibility to learn everything about the narrative, the storyteller, the various stakeholders (such as the movie studio and producers), and the culture of the team that's bringing the property to market. Only then can we convince everyone that we fundamentally understand the story world and can be trusted with enriching it or refining it so that it can be extended properly across different media. That's a lot of analysis, creativity and diplomacy before the real fun starts!
If the property is new, and can be developed as native transmedia, we can get to the fun a lot faster! That is, if the visionary has an understanding of transmedia principles, and is willing to have a group like ours come in and produce it with him or her. We've come across a few creators who are very singular in their creative process and can't wrap their minds around a team helping to vastly expand their story world. That's why we've developed such a thorough process for getting to know the visionary as much as the work. You have to trust your transmedia producer!
Is the approach to transmedia marketing campaigns different again?
It's a variation on the process. In the case of marketing campaigns, we need to have a deep understanding of the brand and the corporation that is launching it. We need to either understand, develop or redevelop the underlying story that the brand is telling. What makes it unique? What distinguishes it from similar products? What is it going to contribute to the lives of the people who might be interested in it? How can those people be engaged in a dialog around it? If anything, transmedia marketing campaigns must be even more dialog driven than entertainment properties.
Is transmedia storytelling just for large companies?
Big media companies and global corporations already have access to multiple media platforms, so even if they don't engage in explicitly transmedia strategies, they'll sort of blunder on through and make their money (though it's becoming clear that they'll be making less of it if they don't adapt the technique). For smaller or more independent projects, transmedia techniques are becoming more imperative.
Media is becoming pervasive. Every one of us has become capable of making some degree of noise. We've gone from linear broadcasting for a few to a chaotic storm of omni-casting for many. How do you cut through that? How do you reach your target audience with so much interference? You need a system to navigate through the storm and reach your target audience no matter what screen they're spending time on. Transmedia technique enables the storyteller to provide multiple access points into the world of the story.
The technique also allows you to receive feedback, which means that you are using technology to listen to your audience. There is nothing more rare and valuable to a contemporary audience than the authenticity of a real dialog. This vital component will have your work stand out like a beacon, because so few understand this or care to pull this off. Check out the success of The Lizzie Bennett Diaries or the amazing high school drama SpangaS for examples of successful transmedia implementations on modest budgets that have developed intense fan followings.
If a content producer was interested in developing a transmedia story world, how would they know if any of their existing work was suitable for transmedia extension, or is it best to start afresh?
During my Transmedia Master Class talks in New Zealand I'll be talking about criteria for a successful transmedia story world. The primary one, I think, is that the world is a rich one with lots of characters, locations and plot threads. It certainly doesn't have to be science fiction or fantasy, but the narrative should almost feel like it could bubble over the edges of the screen and keep going in any direction: past, present, future.
When starting afresh, how much of the transmedia story world needs to be in place for the initial roll-out?
To me what is artful about transmedia storytelling is that you have to account for which media you're going to use to tell the story, as well as design the narrative to leverage those media in complementary ways that are still literate and poignant and cumulative. It's not easy! But it also doesn't require that you arrive with a filing cabinet loaded with story notes and endless bibles, or gigabytes of drawings and scripts.
Like any good story you'll want to have a sense of the arcs of the main characters and events, and then layer out the narrative around them, all the while making certain that the messages and themes are carefully integrated into even the most minor aspect of your implementation. You're slowly layering story onto something of a superstructure, but they are still stories, whole and complete unto themselves, yet additive to something greater, the story world.
If a content producer is new to transmedia storytelling, should they employ a transmedia producer or can they manage with existing skill sets?
They best transmedia storytellers we've encountered have at least some producer skills, because you have to envision multiple processes that are sometimes being run by multiple teams all at once. You have to be a pretty good storyteller, but you also need to be able to let go and allow others to extend aspects of your story without too much micromanagement. A good transmedia producer will facilitate that, because he or she knows the story world almost as well as you do, and they also can be diplomats, tyrants, jugglers, and accountants. I must say that visionaries like Joss Whedon, Peter Jackson, and Kevin Feige of Marvel Studios make excellent transmedia storytellers, because there is something more happening in those brains. Whole cosmos are flying through them!
Does multiplatform storytelling change the revenue model for transmedia projects?
Transmedia technique strengthens revenue models in a variety of ways. With transmedia you can set the stage for the main body of your work early, connecting the core potential fan base with the property more powerfully, priming them for what is going to happen, and turning them into apostles for it.
It's arguable, but I believe that this is something that Paramount Studios did not do with Star Trek Into Darkness. The marketing campaign aimed very broadly with the razzle-dazzle of the movie, but the core fan base was unprepared for what they got in the story. They (and a lot of critics) didn't seem to understand the nature of the JJ Abrams Star Trek story world and what sets it apart from the original Star Trek universe. A lack of dialog didn't help, and hardcore fans (a major source of repeat viewing) were alienated from it. I think this largely accounts for the lower than expected domestic box office for the film, despite the fact that Into Darkness has a lot to say that is essential Star Trek, and provides a ripping good time while saying it.
Some of the creative stakeholders of Star Trek Into Darkness are explaining quite eloquently what distinguishes the new story world and why it's playing out this way. But its too little, too late. The time to make that connection was in the months running up to the rollout, and the best way to have done it is with concerted multi-platform storytelling and fun interplay between filmmakers and fans. That's what Disney is facilitating with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and they are clearly cleaning up, but Paramount did not do that.
So to answer your question, transmedia technique enhances and expands the revenue model, because we are no longer selling a main product (like a movie) and then a bunch of ancillary products that are not terribly consequential. Instead, each product in the rollout is a complete and vital story unto itself, and at the same time is an intrinsic piece of a greater puzzle. This promotes collection, it spurs loyalty, and hence generates more cash.
Do transmedia story worlds tend to utilise certain platforms more than others, or can transmedia properties emerge from any area of content production?
Some of the most fascinating discussions around transmedia storytelling are happening in areas where it is needed even more than in film and advertising. It's no secret that publishing is struggling as bookstores shut down and digital takes over. The music industry is also grappling with new models for the development and distribution of bands. I'm hoping very soon we're going to see new kinds of business relationships between artists and labels, authors and publishers, where the partnership requires larger investments in multi-platform executions, but also grants more equitable stakes in the intellectual property.
And to finish, can you give us an example of a transmedia story world that epitomises the best in existing transmedia storytelling techniques?
On a grand scale, I'm excited by what Lucasfilm is now planning for Star Wars, where there seems to be a more concerted effort around building out the canonical universe of the original films. The new animated series will continue this on television, even as the new movies push the universe forward in exciting ways. Marvel is also using television in a fascinating, truly transmedia way with the upcoming S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series, which I understand will directly and indirectly dialog with the movies. The tiny bits we've been hearing out of Lightstorm makes me really excited for what James Cameron is planning around the next phase of Avatar.
On a more modest, independent landscape, I'm thrilled by the work of Katie Elmore, Mauricio Mota and the Population Media Center for East Los High (more info), which is designed as a compelling young adult narrative with soap opera elements across media such as Hulu and mobile phones. The issues tackled by the story world have a lot to do with female agency amongst sub-cultures that often still prioritize pregnancy and acquiescence to young men. Tell this to a teenage girl any other way and you become didactic and can be dismissed out of hand.
But East Los High integrates accounts by actual teens, and tells the stories of its fictional characters with authenticity and passion. The campaign is also supported by actual social services such as Advocates for Youth and the California Family Health Council, which is an amazing aspect of transmedia activism. The numbers are not yet in, but my bet is that the rollout will have an immediate and powerful impact on its target audience, possibly even curbing teen pregnancy in certain areas.
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Jeff Gomez is an expert at expanding entertainment properties, premium brands and socio-political themes into highly successful transmedia franchises and international campaigns. His company, Starlight Runner Entertainment, designs, develops, strategizes and implements carefully orchestrated transmedia implementations, often on a global scale, with partners and clients. In the process, they drive new revenue streams, open up significant new media opportunities and capture the imagination of millions for movie studios, television networks, videogame companies, book publishers, and consumer product corporations.
Jeff created the smash hit Hot Wheels animation universe for Mattel, and has worked with such companies as The Walt Disney Company (Pirates of the Caribbean, Fairies, Tron Legacy), 20th Century Fox (James Cameron’s Avatar), Sony Pictures Entertainment (Men in Black 3), Microsoft (Halo), Coca-Cola (Happiness Factory), Hasbro (Transformers), Nickelodeon (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Showtime (Dexter), and Pepperidge Farm (Goldfish).