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At Least Five Things I Learned From Story World 2012

I choose to think of the Story World Conference as a bellwether for the health of the transmedia community.

What did #SWC12 tell us? Here are my thoughts a couple of weeks after the conference, held over three days in mid-October in Los Angeles.

  1. Big media brands are aligning themselves with the transmedia community.
  2. The transmedia tribe, still not quite a movement, seems to have subdued its fractious factional spats, even if there remain quite opposite ways of approaching the work.
  3. Independent producers are struggling to find business models, but are succeeding at building networks and new models for collaboration and experimentation.
  4. Non-commercial funders are providing vision, as well as money, to stimulate new work.
  5. The market for multiplatform story management is attracting new tools.

Here Come the Big Boys

When we talk about transmedia, we talk about Star Wars, the most influential model for the building and construction of story worlds. And we talk about Disney, the studio most responsible for building content brands across multiple platforms and venues.

Both were present at Story World, though their pending merger was still secret at the time. Suffice it to say, those who knew weren’t talking. (When I asked Ivan Askwith of LucasFilm to name a trend during the conference’s final panel, he mentioned the company’s venture with Angry Birds creator Rovio, but slyly added that in a few weeks “my answer will be quite different.” Indeed!)

Disney kicked off the whole conference with a talk by Scott Trowbridge, Vice President of Creative/R&D at Walt Disney Imagineering, who shared the group’s testing of a new breed of social media-enabled live action adventures, as well as a new real time “Story Engine” platform that’s in development. (Ball State’s Brad King covers the talk in detail here.) 

Trowbridge’s big news was the launch of “Living Worlds,” a new Imagineering program designed to attract independent transmedia producers and ideas. Successful applicants will work with Imagineers (and tools) to bring the project into the real world, meaning Disney parks. Living Worlds generated a lot of buzz, as well as a bit of grousing as you’d expect, which this post details. 

After that, Disney studio chief Sean Bailey took the stage to interview Damon Lindelof, who recounted his own creative journey, from discovering audience shills at a water park as an adolescent, to his work on LOST, Prometheus and other iconic multi-platform properties. The duo evidenced a lot of respect for the Story World audience, and definitely for fans.

Franchise or Movement?

These and other big-brand presentations were artfully interwoven by Conference Chair Alison Norrington with talks and panels featuring the movement’s leading independent companies and freelance transmedia creators, some of whom helped her construct a conference with nearly 100 speakers, including creatives, funders, academics as well as execs from companies like Jim Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment, Turner, AMC, Yahoo, Blizzard, Penguin, HarperCollins, Syfy, Viacom, Microsoft, Ubisoft, Sony, PBS, as well as creators directors Jon Chu and Tim Kring, and Guillermo del Toro’s Mirada Studios. 

Nowhere did I detect the sort of rancor that lingered last year (and which I reported here) between the various transmedia factions. Sure, there were plenty of snarky tweets from one quarter or another (if you care, check out hashtag #SWC12 or the exhaustive Epilogger archive).

And yet, two detailed and passionate presentations by two of the movement’s edgiest advocates illustrate how different are the lenses through which they see the transmedia ecosystem.

Jeff Gomez, whose company Starlight Runner typically works with big-brand media companies on their transmedia strategies, unveiled his “Ten Commandments of 21st Century franchise production”, even ranking recent examples based on his criteria for success. A summary can be found here.

Gomez’s focus is on helping big media brands to improve their franchises, a word he uses often. About this, he is optimistic, telling me that “brand owners are looking at a much bigger picture than any single piece of content, however large. They are coming to realize that when it comes to franchising, great talent can come and go, but the story world or brand must persist. The only way to do this is to take responsibility for knowing the DNA, the essence, of the brand and making certain that essence is successfully infused into each product, each narrative, each piece of marketing and licensing.”

Brian Clark, whose company GMD Studios works on both corporate and indie projects, gave a well-received talk that urged story world practitioners to see themselves as the natural inheritors of the major art movements of the 20th Century, all of which he defined as a subset of the philosophy known as phenomenology, or the study of consciousness and direct experience. Whether it’s in fine arts, pop culture, film, psychology, philosophy, literature, architecture, particle physics, artificial intelligence – our world has been shaped by an emphasis on perception.

Clark and his idol, Hussrel, one of the Dead German Philosophers.Slides and video of the talk are available on Clark’s blog, aptly named “Phenomenal Work” to emphasize his phenomenological call-to-action, namely a Manifesto which proclaims that as a movement, “we put the audience at the center of our work and embrace that we craft phenomena as much as we do objects.”

The Indie Struggle

In 1980 I produced a study of indie production for the Carnegie Commission for the Future of Public Broadcasting in which I proposed “A Center for Independent Television,” a single organization to fund, package and promote the work of the small-scale indie producer.

As I listened to the indies speak at Story World, I had, as they say, déjà vu all over again. Public broadcasting created something like what I had proposed when it formed the now-indispensible ITVS (Independent Television Service). On the film side, we have the Sundance Film Festival, as well as many others that spotlight indie voices, and now transmedia Labs and grant programs, as well.

And yet, at the very moment when mainstream media is waking up to participatory multi-platform story forms, the life of the independent artist remains a struggle -- for recognition and for financial survival.

Perhaps this is because there’s no consensus organization to advocate and lobby, to document and train, to recruit talent and screen work, though the emerging network of local transmedia groups (meet-ups and the like) has the potential to grow into that.

For now, perhaps StoryWorld serves part of that role, though it must survive as a part of a conference and media company whose priorities are probably not building a movement.

Perhaps it’s just destiny – the impulse to be truly independent compels people to worry more about the work and less about sustainable business models.

Brian Clark has postulated a range of indie business models for emerging media, including those he describes as “no budget.” grassroots, R&D, fan incubation, fan funding, marginable arbitrage, audience-developed products, infrastructure play (I would call this tools or platform), VC funding, and our old favorite, patronage (grants, gifts, rich people, trust funds). The discussion, in five posts by Henry Jenkins, is fascinating.

Examples of indie models from the conference include:

  • April Arrglington’s case study of the Miracle Mile Paradox, an ARG incubated within the LA Transmedia Meetup and funded via a Kickstarter campaign. 
  • Mike Knowlton’s presentation of this year’s Story Hack weekend, produced by New York transmedia group called StoryCode. 
  • Lance Weiler’s fun and inventive session wherein audience members co-created a collaborative story. “My Wish for the Future,” like many of his projects, melds crowd-sourced inventiveness with institutional funding and auspices.
  • Amber J. Lawson’s panel providing a case study of “Cybergeddon” from CSI creator Anthony Zuiker, with emphasis on global distribution and international co-production.
  • A deep dive into the multimedia world of “Reckless,” an app created by Mirada Studios in collaboration with author Cornelia Funke, which will be released in 1Q2013.

Hello Mr. & Ms. Funder

I was pleased to see active participation by government media funding agencies, whose grants programs help provide focus and vision, as well dough, to wit a talk by Marc Ruppel on “The Future of Digital and Transmedia Storytelling with the National Endowment for the Humanities.”

The NEH, along with the NEA, are moving into transmedia grants, although US funding pales in comparison to programs of the social democracies of Australia, the EU, and Canada, all of which were present and participating in SWC. Some of the most adventuresome transmedia productions have been sparked by these government funding sources in recent years.

Also in Canada, the non-governmental Bell Fund encourages and funds the creation and development of Canadian digital/TV multi-platform projects under a slogan that I just love: “Nobody watches just television anymore.” Bell’s Andra Sheffer and Nicoletta Iacobacci from the European Broadcast Union joined a panel on coproduction, another model that transmedia artists need to understand.

Platforms and Tools

Transmedia showrunners need many hands, not to mention great tools. Mike Annetta’s presentation outlined a range of existing tools that I found most helpful, including comprehensive platforms. Transmedia LA also maintains a tools wiki with descriptions and links. 

Into a marketplace that includes such tools as Conductrr, Social Samba, Storify, Cowbird, and others, comes the Shadow Gang’s Galahad, which premiered at Story World. The platform was developed in the context of creating an interactive story called BZRK with young adult author Michael Grant. Here’s a nice review. Also, check out Immersyve, which helps showrunners gauge audience analytics for multiplatform.

Finally, the end

I moderated the conference’s final session, modestly called “The Way Forward” and featuring Lightstorm’s Kathy Franklin, LucasFilm’s Ivan Askwith, Jeff Gomez, indie game developer Flint Dille, and Fourth Wall’s Elan Lee.

DeMartino, Gomez, Lee, Dille, Franklin, Askwith.

I’m not sure we found our way forward, exactly, but it was fun, and, as one participant tweeted, “Wow, final panel of the day is controversial!!” For instance:


  • The aforementioned divide over art vs. commerce (what one tweeter called “a deep and fetid pit.”) Dille urged producers to “just do it” and Franklin countered that “commercial doesn’t mean selling out.”
  • ARG pioneer Lee boldly pronounced that “it’s time to be done with ARG’s!” Which elicited gasps from the audience and bet-hedging from Gomez.
  • A barely contained spat over, of all things, DARPA funding between Dille and Gomez. Gomez warned that our movement’s expertise should never be used to “kill people.” It went downhill from there.
  • Perhaps too frequent use of moderator’s privilege and a handy call-bell by yours truly to cut rambling speakers off, politely I hoped. 
  • General agreement that there is danger of fan burnout. Said Askwith: “People are burned out on engaging with something that isn't meaningful.”
  • Better documentation and organization if we really want to call ourselves a movement (not controversial).


We’ll always go to Conferences

Back in the 70’s, academics predicted the coming of a “transportation/communications trade-off” ---  meaning that live conferences might die because of new communications technologies.

Not true, dat. Media is just not enough for humans, the most social of animals. Technology has not replaced the need for face-to-face events, even if we are all staring at our cell phones and iPads to tweet or cruise the net the whole time.

If anything, emerging media has multiplied the need. I've been to too many conferences, and there are more to come!

For, as Digital Hollywood founder Victor Harwood told me recently: “Disruption creates our growth – nobody needs conferences when everything is settled.”  

(Note: Additional SMC coverage can be found here.)

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