Stories & Worlds: What Transmedia Has to Teach (and Learn)
by Nick DeMartino
If nothing else, last week’s Story World Conference in San Francisco affirmed the reality of a new creative movement devoted to transmedia storytelling. After years of building connections via online sharing and various ad-hoc collaborations, this gathering of the tribes of transmedia will certainly accelerate the movement, invigorate a cadre of practitioners and theorists, and generate buzz among many content creators.
StoryWorld / credit: Nick DeMartino
It’s a big tent that has been pitched, sheltering artists, theorists, academics, vendors, allies – with conflicting values and beliefs. (Don’t expect a manifesto any time soon.)
And yet, after listening to three days’ worth of panels, speeches and workshops, (with 2000+ tweets), it’s possible to extract some core beliefs of this movement that distinguish “transmedia” from “monomedia” – the world of stories told in a single medium.
Story Worlds are not stories.
This emphasis on worlds transcends the story and its traditional elements (character, setting, theme, plot, etc.) even while incorporating them. Because transmedia requires the audience to move from one medium to another, the emphasis is on “experience design.” (Think: game studio.)
Audience engagement drives everything.
To transmedia activists, the audience is an engaged, participatory, and demanding collaborator. Storytellers must invite audiences to “co-create,” not just as fodder for marketing or promotion. The release of narrative control opens the floodgates for new definitions of story, script and narrative. This frightens old-school story folks.
Stories live outside the silo.
Media is typically produced and funded inside a single silo, so it takes a lot of passion and will to spend the extra time and money to build a multi-platform story vision from the outset.
Finance loathes split rights, as Zak Kadison, Chairman, President and CEO, Blacklight Transmedia noted: “Ever since George Lucas, studios don’t want to give up any rights.”
Perhaps that is changing, said David Tochterman, Head of Digital Media, Innovative Artists: “Transmedia is great because it gives me multiple ways to get a buyer to say yes.”
It also creates value for the filmmaker, according to social media specialist Miles Maker, who sees the emergence of “the attention economy.” The story, themes, characters, and actors can generate content and audience engagement well before a film opens, though he admits, “Filmmakers don’t want to let the cat out of the bag.”
Software is the key and the bottleneck.
“The biggest challenge to physically distributed narratives was the bottleneck of the gatekeepers,” says transmedia pioneer Jordan Weisman. “With the onset of interactivity modes, the bottleneck is software engineering,” which has a much more limited pool of talent.
Data is the new oil.
Most transmedia projects converge on the Internet, incorporating audience interactivity that produces floods of very targeted user data that can be measured. This can drive revenue and influence the story form itself. Nowadays, the audience becomes a strategic advantage for the content creator, not just the distributor.
Business models are hard to find.
Whenever indies gather, they talk about money, and Story World was no exception. To date, all successful models for transmedia have been financed by patronage or commissions, as noted by Brian Clark of GMD Studios. Clark believes that “the next wave of innovation in transmedia storytelling is going to be about business models rather than storytelling forms.”
A popular tweet during the conference referenced the patronage model: “If you want to do transmedia, move to Canada.”
The emergence of an app market (for iPhones, Android, TV and desktop) offers new avenues to test the willingness of the audience to pay for original and indie transmedia story experiences.
So, as a veteran of the indie video and film movement of the 70s, 80s and 90s, I offer a few observations as encouragement.
Pitch the story, not the platform.
Story World was filled with platitudes about the primacy of the story from many speakers, but the overall feel of the crowd was very nerdy and techno-centric, not at like what you get at a film festival or a writer’s conference. I’m not sure it’s possible to escape this problem, but I do have the feeling that this movement needs to double down on story.
The audience doesn’t know what it wants.
Steve Jobs was famously uninterested in focus groups, trusting instead on his creative genius and his product team. It takes fierce commitment to finish a novel or to get a film made, and often requires ignoring what’s popular with an audience. Commitment to the unpopular is required if the movement wants to create great art (and escape the ghetto of sci-fi and fantasy fanboys).
Transmedia must make people cry.
I go to the movies for a sustained emotional experience; I read novels to inhabit the detailed interior worlds of characters; I listen to music for joy and for tears. Transmedia experiences must find ways to do this, too.
At Story World, Jeff Gomez got a huge ovation when he told the crowd, “Audiences must know you really mean it or they will leave you.” How? “Write yourself into the story world and infuse it with your soul,” he urged, observing that in most transmedia, “what’s missing is the pain – not yearning, but true loss.”
Art must stand the test of time.
The world seems to need the “canon” to enshrine those masterworks that stand the test of time. Every 10 years Sight and Sound in the UK issues its list of top movies, as AFI has done in the US. It’s always fascinating to see the shifts in reputation and appreciation.
Which is another way of saying, what seems good or cool or rocking in today’s transmedia world may never make a list ten years from now. Moreover, these experiences are so evanescent, there won’t be much of a list if somebody doesn’t start curating and archiving the work. Tweets are not enough!
Story Forms aren’t understood.
Frank Rose examines the emergence of the novel in The Art of Immersion as a correlative to understanding today’s immersive story forms. Henry Jenkins and other academics are creating invaluable taxonomies of transmedia work as it emerges. But there is still no simple and well-understood framework for popular appreciation of these complex story forms.
That must change. One suggestion is to create festivals that showcase the best work, even though the nature of the stories make this difficult. We created AFI DigiFest as such a showcase, and many more are needed to attract audience and press attention.
More mentoring, please.
Filmmaker and transmedia producer Tommy Pallotta hit StoryWorld fresh from the Sundance New Frontier Story Lab and was raving about his creative mentoring experience. Hands-on experimentation and mentoring around specific projects is the best way to infuse artists with a passion and understanding that will drive new levels of transmedia creativity.
Movements need tending.
The “explosion” of indie filmmaking in the 90s was preceded by two decades of organizing by artists, activists, and allies. Conferences, lobbying, member groups, workshops, funding mechanisms and schools – all were needed to create a world-class film culture alongside the dominant Hollywood model.
It’s a history that transmedia organizers will do well to learn from and it seems that it’s already happening, with transmedia “meet-ups” from four continents getting together at Story World to create an alliance, inspired by the formation in New York of a full-fledged non-profit: StoryCode.org.
Nick DeMartino consults with companies on their content and distribution strategies, deals and marketing initiatives. Previously he served as Senior Vice President, Media & Technology at the American Film Institute. Find him on Twitter @nickdemartino and on the web.