At the final panel of this weekend’s Futures of Entertainment 2 conference, titled “Cult Media,” pop culture properties from NBC’s popular Heroes to Hasbro’s Hot Wheels served as case studies in a growing entertainment strategy: transmedia storytelling.
Four experts spoke on the panel, including Jesse Alexander, co-executive producer and writer at NBC’s Heroes; games writer and screenwriter Danny Bilson; Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment; and Gordon Tichell, EVP of Business Development for Walden Media.
Aimed at media professionals and scholars, it took place at the second Futures of Entertainment conference in Cambridge, Mass., which was cohosted by MIT’s Comparative Media Studies and the Convergence Culture Consortium. Henry Jenkins, the Director of the Comparative Media Studies program, moderated the discussion.
“Transmedia storytelling” is the term for any narrative that starts in one medium and extends to others. In his book Convergence Culture, Jenkins explores franchises like The Matrix that go beyond simple spin-offs, into a form of storytelling where each new platform adds something meaningful to the fictional world – whether it’s more backstory, deeper stories for secondary characters, the interactive dimension of a game, or new opportunities for the fans to participate in telling the story.
For the creators of cult and genre fiction, transmedia work often comes naturally: all of the panelists but Tichell have worked with games, television, and film. Gomez laid out his own vision for transmedia storytelling, and he started with an example from Dungeons & Dragons.
Gomez commented: “When I was a Dungeonmaster, and I was playing with 5, 10, sometimes 15 people sitting around this table, I was creating a world – a universe – in which, when it was done just right and the pizza and the beer were set aside and they were all looking at me, there was a spark of magic. We were in this world."
"And I as a storyteller," he continued, "was validating and celebrating your participation in this world. I was building something that raised you up in this world, and then challenging you, so you could overcome that and again be raised up. … I want you to be validated and celebrated for being part of canon, for part of universe proper.”
Part of the attraction for the fans lies in falling deeper down a rabbit hole: the casual audience might only watch the film or the television series, but a more dedicated fan will study the backstory online, or follow the web comic, or contribute fan fiction. Most of the panelists agreed that Heroes has been a transmedia success story, with a hit television series spinning off a popular web comic – recently collected in hardback – and a mobile phone game.
How Heroes Works
Heroes has its own transmedia department at NBC, to manage new opportunities and to try to keep the writers’ stamp on every new project. At the same time, working this way is as crucial to the business as to the art.
As Alexander said, “That was a strategy that was borne out of Alias, this other show I worked on that was a serialized narrative that had a very specific fan audience. We just tried to get the network and studio pregnant with as much Alias stuff as we could. So if those numbers went down, we could have critical success, we could have audience love, we could sell lots of DVDs – anything to keep us on the air. And that was certainly something we applied to Heroes. You have to find those other revenue streams, especially with something like Heroes, which is very expensive.”
Alexander also discussed his experiences with product placement, which he described as successful: so long as the creator gets a say in how a product is used in the story, he argued the placement could fit naturally in the story.
“Nissan had a new car they wanted to launch,” and they assigned it to the character of Hiro Nakamura, who kept talking about the Nissan Versa. “It was organic to who he was. The car became a character in the narrative in a way that didn’t seem forced.”
Tichell has handled The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe for Walden in partnership with Disney. In his experience, close collaboration is the key to success: the teams from both companies “gets together right now at least on a monthly or biweekly basis to go over everything, from video games being developed to consumer products, to other possible spinoffs.”
Authenticity is crucial to every part of the project. Said Gomez, “You’re there to shepherd and steward this franchise, this brand, this wonderful universe. If you stop doing that and start to please yourself a little too much, people are going to get pissed off and walk away. And if the geek is pissed off with the property and walks away, and says, ‘Look, Spiderman didn’t use his spider sense once in part 3!’ Joe Average actually thinks about that and goes, ‘Yeah, what was up with that?’”
Gomez’ Starlight Runner works on a consulting basis with media companies, and they have the advantage of coming in as outsiders – “because we’re a third party, a commando unit that is granted a little bit of a carte blanche to kick down doors in all of these divisions.” They can act as “stewards” of the franchise, “so that Jack Sparrow doesn’t jump in a time machine and start shooting people with laser guns. It allows us to use a huge amount of diplomacy, and a huge amount of coordination to essentially become the clearing house for the intellectual property.”
But the successes are still the exception. Producers often have to force their will on the corporation, a division at a time.
As Bilson said, “I left Electronic Arts [in 2004] to try to set this kind of stuff up. And what you run into is, the movie division could care less about TV, they hate consumer products, and they really don’t care about comics at all. Everyone’s protecting their own little piece of the pie. That’s the culture of Hollywood right now.”
When will the top executives appreciate the full extent of transmedia? Based on his experience watching Hollywood embrace games, Bilson predicted, “My guess is, when some executives enjoy transmedia the way some of us do, then they’ll get it.”
And while most transmedia projects take place in cult media, they’re expanding into the mainstream – and even into into the real world. Alternate reality games are inherently transmedia, taking place on websites, audio files, phone booths and graveyards – and Bilson alluded to a new project he’s designing in Dubai, a theme park that will “data-mine people.”
“I can’t divulge too much,” said Bilson. “But if you wear something on your body that holds everything related to you, and that is persistent ... one attraction could be [to turn the visitor into] a character. And it uses technology, it uses motion capture, it uses false reflective surfaces. But the basic concept is if you could take a theme park, a physical space, and everyone could be data-mined, then you could have a live-action MMO.”