Michael Gubbines worries that transmedia is all hype:
Perhaps underneath all the youthful enthusiasm and vaguely radical language, we are merely talking about—admittedly big—adjustments to the distribution and marketing of film, or any other audiovisual media. Film will learn some new techniques and skills but, ultimately, it will assimilate those cross-media elements that boost the business and all that transmedia revolutionary talk will wither away. Yet transmedia promises something more.
Lotsa writers bemoan that transmedia has gone to the marketing dogs. The best that can be said is that we’re blurring the area between marketing and storytelling – and when it’s done well, it doesn’t feel like marketing anymore. So what more does transmedia promise? Jenna Hannon gives a few examples about how the marketing on multiple devices must enrich the story told in the main platform (eg the TV series). QR codes accessed via your mobile take the product into real world situations. You want to establish fan communities.
The idea is all about experience design, according to David Tiley (‘Transmedia Campaigns: ruthless logic behind social manipulators, but in a good way’, Screen Hub Thursday 29 November, 2012), who interviewed Brian Cain from True Blood:
The very first thing we did was a direct mail campaign where we sent out vials of blood. There was a huge moment with the lawyers where we were discussing can we do it, what’s the wording on the vial, how much like blood will this stuff look like….
The campaign starts with what he calls “deep-diving” into the property, aka reading the books very carefully for hooks. And then deep-diving again into all those communities they can imagine with some interest in the world space. That starts with the readers of the half dozen ‘Southern Vampire Mysteries’ by Charlaine Harris, who had already built an intricate world for the stories, and gardened a significant online fan community.
These people are known in that marketing world as “evangelists”. Beyond that, they were targeting a wider group of vampire tragic, interlinked by fansites and wikis and webpages and cosplay, all those cultural artefacts by which huge international communities can celebrate their shared imaginative world. And step from one to the other, and back again in time for work.
Cain describes himself thus:
“I’m more interested in figuring out how people think, and how I can motivate them to think the way I want – it’s like evil advertising stuff.”
However, this is very different from standard repetition advertising, or even brand development. “It’s not push at all, it is very much community building and experiential. I’m giving people control, and then seeing what happens.”
But giving them control in a very orchestrated way (hey, is that control, or just the illusion of control?):
It is pretty clear that these major projects are driven by a clear, clever intent; understanding the purpose helps to illuminate the strategies they are pioneering. On Game of Thrones, for instance, the producers wanted to reach the existing audience for George Martin’s books. As creative lead – not creative director in this case – he was crafting a campaign “that was very respectful of what they have and what they create as a community.”
He was trying to engage them and their network of wikis, websites and blogs, to “acknowledge them in a way that they understand”. They were demonstrating how well they understand the creative essence of the story universe, and how much it inspired them – that the production came from the fan base in a way.
“And also,” said Brian, “tying that into a more top level audience that perhaps wasn’t aware of the ‘Game of Thrones’ books, and showing how vast and rich the world was.”
“You can’t spend your entire marketing budget marketing to those fans – you’ve got to reach out to a new audience that doesn’t know all those details yet.”
“Personally I love the hard core fans, and we always do something with them but I’m much more interested in going after that top level “skimmer audience” that is not going to be so engaged but are the ones who are going to make or break your property.”
This is why they call the hard core fans the evangelists. They help to build the bridges to that wider community.
As Tiley alludes, the relationships between product, marketing, and real world issues can get pretty murky when social media and UGC is involved.
ROBOTS IMPROVE ALL STORIES
Chuck Wendig offers this slightly tongue-in-cheek ’25 Things You Should Know About Transmedia Storytelling.
For me, what makes true transmedia unique and beyond the buzzword, past the gimmick, is when it carries two corollaries to that earlier definition: first, it offers audience investment and lets them act as collaborators; two, the story was intended to be a transmedia experiment from the very beginning….
Stories are generally a single tree, sometimes grown by a single practitioner. But for me, the transmedia storyworld is far more fertile and compelling when seen as an entire forest growing up together at the same time. The forest for me is the perfect metaphor for transmedia — I live in the woods and I see how all these trees grow together, how some find light and others fail, how it’s all one big organic collision of life that thrives on organized chaos. You can certainly admire the forest for its individual pieces (“What a lovely elm,” or, “Those two squirrels seem to be having crazy methamphetamine sex on top of that turtle-shaped rock”), but you can also gaze out and see a much larger picture: the ecosystem. Therein lies the beauty and elegance — and yes, squirrel-banging chaos — of transmedia storytelling.
So what sort of experience does Wendig seek?
I’m starting to feel that the success of a given transmedia project lives or dies on how much emergence it affords — emergent gameplay being unexpected or unintended game interaction, and emergent narrative being stories growing out of the experience that you did not plan for or anticipate (and note that both are strongly driven by audience). You cannot demand or force emergence, but I think you can cultivate it by leaving room for it, by designing aspects that cede authorial control (or some portion of it) to those who are participating in your story. It also may work if you just hand out buckets of hallucinogens.
and a warning …
The transmedia writer must be like the Swiss Army Knife. You are a many-tooled motherfucker. Screenwriting, game design, flash fiction, belt punch, compass, crack pipe, wakizashi, and so on.
The Halo Effect: On grassroots storytelling and fan fiction – 4D Fiction by Geoff May muses on the relationship between transmedia and fan fiction, as realised by 343 Industries with the Halo world:
Halo Waypoint is a key element in 343 Industries’ efforts to connect with and work with the community. Among its strengths is its existence as a hub highlighting fan-made content; whether in the form of in-game videos, or machinima video series, or other community creations.
Fan-fiction is often promoted as an important element of a franchise’s transmedia strategy – affording the flexibility for a storyworld to expand and explore unique content, telling stories that may have only ever been hinted at, and enhancing the greater mythology conceived by the original creators. Quite often a fan-fiction community can run amok with enthusiastic writers taking characters in directions never initially considered (or desired), or otherwise making extra effort to adhere strictly to established canon. Many writings may only ever even reach the eyes of their fellow writers – but these creators are without a doubt some of the most passionate writers in existence. The Halo universe curators have taken this into account, actively embracing and promoting the creativity of its community – who produce content ranging from machinima, to fanfic, to fine arts, and many other forms of expression.
I think the point is – you need a team, and a lot of coherent, we’re on the same page thinking, to get this right.
More transmedia resources
Interview with Anita Ondine