(Originally published in Canadian Screenwriter Magazine – Spring 2010 issue)
There’s a quiet revolution brewing and if you haven’t heard about it yet, you will. It’s called transmedia and it’s about the integration of fictional worlds across multiple media platforms. Put simply, transmedia means telling a story, not just on TV or film, but on your phone, your breakfast cereal box, your comic book, the internet, and every other media platform out there. It’s not about simple repurposing – telling the same story again and again — but about creating fictional worlds in which different strands of the story can be explored on different platforms. The movie, the videogame, the mobile phone app, and the website each look at the story from a different perspective bringing out nuances in the primary narrative that could only be dreamt of before.
Jeff Gomez, transmedia writer, producer, and CEO of NewYork based Starlight Runner Entertainment is a pioneer in the field. His first transmedia writing project started with Turok, the videogame and it snowballed from there. Now Gomez is the transmedia guru behind Avatar and Pirates of the Caribbean, as well as the upcoming Tron to name a few of his credits. Speaking of transmedia from a craft perspective, like many writers the first thing he talked about was character. “The number one position to concentrate on is character. If you don’t have a believable and aspirational character with whom the audience can identify there’s very little reason for them to want to transcend the first media platform let alone multiple media platforms. It all starts there.”
Aspirational in this sense refers to a character that is more than just relatable. It refers to a character with qualities that the audience finds actively desirable; qualities that they wouldn’t mind sharing themselves. If such a character is the wellspring of the transmedia experience, then theme is the river. A strong theme is essential so that the many modalities of the transmedia narrative can be pulled together in harmony. All those story strands have to be guided by a clear principle and that, in effect, is the difference between the transmedia we are seeing today and yesterday’s merchandising and licensing efforts — today’s stories have the potential to become coordinated, holistic entertainment.
As an example, writers of TV comedy are familiar with the notion of a callback. A particular joke might be made in the first act of the script, which is referenced later in the show to an even bigger laugh. Hence a callback is made to that previous reference. In the world of transmedia, callbacks are that much powerful because they’re made not just to a line of dialogue, but to an entire experience. As Gomez explained, with proper planning, the videogame of a particular franchise might get released before the movie. Your character in the videogame, might be someone you’ve spent a hundreds of hours with. You are intimate with that character, You become that character. The feature film might have an entirely different protagonist, someone who is only tertiary to the video game. But if the protagonist in the movie makes a callback sending out some kind of acknowledgment to the videogame character, guess what? The movie’s protagonist is speaking directly to you. Just like that, total immersion in the fictional world has been achieved. And that’s where transmedia is going – if competing story platforms are effectively coordinated, transmedia promises to offer the richest, most immersive story experience ever known.
Of course, to write transmedia effectively, you need to understand what works and what doesn’t on different platforms. Just as television typically makes use of closer shots telling less spectacle driven stories than you might see in a feature film, so every other platform has its strengths and weaknesses. A story told on your mobile phone can offer an incredible intimacy. If the murderer from a thriller calls you up, you’re going to notice. But mobile phones are also used in small frenzied snatches of time – much less say, than the typical allotment a gamer might give a console videogame. Likewise, people’s Youtube habits dictate that webisodes are short. A writer needs to get in and get out. The bottom line is that people use different platforms differently. Writers need to make certain that the storylines they choose reflect the reality of the platform they’ll be consumed on.
Genre is another consideration. Stories that are set in rich fictional worlds tend to offer a lot to explore. Look at the Star Wars or Star Trek franchises. These are incredibly rich story universes featuring more material than could possibly be explored on just one platform. But is transmedia translatable to more realistic story worlds, say a period piece or the world of a serial killer? Gomez, who produced the transmedia implementation for Showtime’s hour-long dramatic series Dexter would say yes. Dexter, a vigilante serial killer working in the tradition of Zorro or Robin Hood, only kills bad guys. He’s also very smart. So even though he’s a killer, he’s a brilliant one, and ultimately likeable. Gomez’s transmedia work exploits this aspirational element of Dexter’s character to let the audience in.
In fact a new generation of audience demands to participate. If they can’t contribute to their entertainment, if they can’t in some way make it their own, it will never achieve the kind of following necessary to justify the enormous capital costs required to create it. According to Gomez, audience participation is one of the biggest balancing acts that transmedia creators face. Sure, it’s fantastic to see your work on more than one platform, however to allow the audience to add to it – that could be considered the equivalent of inviting a crowd into a garage filled with instruments and expecting a symphony. But the reality is, audiences expect to participate. They want to write fan fiction. They want to interact with creators. They want to make mash-ups of episodes. Nobody yet knows what the right balance of audience participation is, but the trick would seem to be to let the audience in where you can without allowing so much participation as to diminish the experience as a whole. As always, the writer’s job is to keep the story train on track, regardless of what’s going on at the station.
Transmedia offers writers the potential of new markets and the opportunity to open their stories up, but in taking a closed narrative and allowing for the possibility that different stories could occur in different parts of the universe they’ve created, the author also has to relinquish a degree of control on the production side. Transmedia narratives tend to be big. A writer has to step back and realize that the project they’ve nurtured may well be larger than themselves. In effect, transmedia adds even more voices to the already collaborative medium of screenwriting. Any good creator knows that they need to keep their individual voice strong and distinct in order to keep a project on track. If anything transmedia just makes the balancing act that much harder.
You may still be asking yourself why transmedia matters? It may be coming to a platform near you, but it doesn’t have to impact your work as a screenwriter. Somebody else can take care of writing for the other platforms. And you’re right. They can. But there are changes afoot that make it important that a writer at least consider what a transmedia implementation of their project might look like.
The major change is the fact that the new Canada Media Fund which launches in April 2010, will require projects to be exploited across more than one platform. In other words, in keeping with the Canadian Heritage Minister, James Moore’s directive, the government is mandating a transmedia approach for those projects that wish to apply to the fund. The move isn’t without controversy, and there are fears that money that was in the past directed to traditional production will get siphoned off onto other platforms. The new CMF guidelines aren’t available as this article goes to press, but an informal interview with Stephane Cardin, Vice President of Strategic Policy Planning at the CMF suggests that for the first year at least, the CMF will largely resemble the Canadian Television Fund that came before it. Producing Canadian content will still be the goal and a traditional broadcaster will still be required in what’s being labeled the Convergent Stream. A second smaller Experimental Stream would fund transmedia content without a broadcast pillar, the requirements loosely following the guidelines of the now defunct Canadian New Media Fund. But Cardin also emphasized that the first year would be transitional. What’s different is that the CMF will be moving towards incentivising broadcasters to allocate their Performance Envelopes to projects with innovative transmedia content. Not just flat websites – the deriguer point and click of every television show, or simple repurposed broadcasts — but new groundbreaking content that plays to each platform’s strengths.
If broadcasters have an incentive to pick up projects incorporating innovative transmedia content, it follows that those are the projects that producers are going to be looking for, and ultimately what the market savvy writer is going to be pitching. Noreen Halpen, President of Scripted Programming at E1 Entertainment concurs. Her company actively embraces projects with a strong transmedia component. The challenge according to Halpern is to “take that one interesting brand and expand it across many, many platforms. You need good, smart writers to do that.” Clearly, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Ultimately what we’re talking about here are new tools to tell a story. The take away is to see those new tools as an opportunity. Charge your agent to put you up for work specifically in the transmedia realm. Those writers who adapt will thrive.