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Monday
Jan072013

One year in "Now Media"

Simon Staffans is a Helsinki-based television and transmedia producer with a passion for sharing what he learns on his blog, simonstaffans.com,

Last year Simon aggregated the best of his 2011 posts, along with a slew of interviews from thought leaders in the transmedia space, including yours truly.

Well, he’s at it again, with an updated set of thought-provoking posts, together with interviews with some very sharp minds from different areas of the multiplatform storytelling field, including Brian Clark, Christy Dena, Jeff Gomez, Ian Ginn, Andrea Phillips, Robert Pratten, Inga Von Staden, Nuno Bernardo, Michael Monello, Chantal Rickards, Steve Stokes, Yomi Ayeni, Scott Walker, Lance Weiler, and Liz Rosenthal.

You can read the entire thing as a free PDF version online here, and shortly as an eBook version for $2.99. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Here is the interview with me, starting with his questions:

Last year you said the transmedia field reminds you of the indie filmmaking community of the early 90s. Is that still the case? For good or for bad?

You were not convinced that transmedia should be considered a new art form 12 months ago; has anything happened to change your mind?

Are there any particular trends you have been able to pick up on during the past year, that reflects on the evolvement of the multiplatform / transmedia world?

How about the distant future? You mentioned earlier that ” zeitgeist seems almost entirely dominated by rapid turnover of functions and fads.” Have you seen any signs that would contradict this?

Finally; have you, during 2012, experienced something in the transmedia field that has touched you in the way a good book or a film could do? A year ago, that was missing from the experience.

Indie Film as a Template for Transmedia

The analogy between the independent film movement and the current transmedia movement is still useful in a number of ways:

Similarities: The nineties were a breakthrough decade for the US (and worldwide) movement of independent filmmakers, sparked by the Sundance Film Festival and what appeared to be an audience appetite for more personal, quirky and challenging films. The revolution was one of distribution, with the rise of specialty distributors who put the resources (both financial and human) into customizing the process so that these niche films could find their niche markets. The heyday lasted roughly 15 years, until the recession of 2008 knocked the legs out of the distribution market, and most of the specialty distributors vanished, and the remainder struggled to find a business model that worked. With a glut of product on the market -- many more indie films are made now, thanks to lower costs of production --- it has become increasingly difficult for the specialty film to break through the clutter to find an audience. The need for customized distribution and marketing remains, but with less money sloshing around the system, filmmakers are often forced into the DIY model, which usually entails reinventing the wheel. 

Transmedia producers, at least those who are themselves independent of the mainstream, face the same requirement to build a bespoke model for reaching the audience. Indeed, because most transmedia properties are built around some form of audience engagement from their outset, the customization imperative is pervasive -- even for the big studio franchise productions and those transmedia projects build around brands. The difference between the indies and the big boys, of course, is that the latter have marketing budgets behind their audience strategies. 

Differences: The indie film of the 90s was the inheritor of four generations of creative practice in the production of feature-length films. Even if the themes, scale, subjects, character and tone varied between those that went before, the indie film was still a variation that audience understood. It's a movie. Transmedia suffers from a crisis of definition, even amongst its most ardent advocates. To some, the template is the ARG. To others its web interactivity. Others frame their work in the tradition of games. So we have the spectacle of the nomenclature flame wars, which are really turf wars over a very small available number of budgets from clients who need to start by creating a content strategy first, and then figuring out how to build to that spec. If the project is truly independent, meaning it is the work of an artist or a small team with a passion, they must first define the transmedia tale, and then, very much like indie filmmakers, reinvent their own wheel by finding funders, lining up distribution, connecting with audiences, and playing out the project. So it's similar to the indie model, only it involves more components.

Is transmedia a new art form?

Well, as I mention above, transmedia is the elephant surrounded by a lot of blind men -- all touching different parts and proclaiming with conviction that the damn thing looks a certain way. Depending upon whose description is used, the elephant can look pretty different. The trouble, for my money, is that the consumer doesn't recognize the container consistently across different case studies, as they do with movies, TV, games, and the other constituent platforms with longer histories. The conventions of the feature film are well understood. We grasp the container, even as we see a very wide range of expression within the container. There are elements that make it recognizable. Ditto with TV shows, series, games of all sorts. 

At the current state of things, the vast proportion of transmedia properties encountered by the typical fan are subsets of a dominant commercial culture. So naturally, they are regarded as part of the movie (Batman), book and movie (Harry Potter), TV show/comic (Walking Dead), etc. 

They are, simply put, extra stuff that somebody has made for them to extend the world of an existing property. How similar is that to a Lance Weiler or Christy Dena indie project, in which the entire experience is brand new? 

I think the indies are the place to look for the emergence of new models. Whether they will coalesce into a new and recognizable art form, or simply be examples of a broader category (interactive art? digital media? electronic arts?), it's probably too soon to tell.

Trends

To me the most interesting work is being done by folks who invite the audience into a co-creation role with the author (showrunner). I've been working with a company called Theatrics.com, which has a platform that allows a story to be guided by the author, but performed by audience members who create accounts in roles -- it's almost like a video documentation engine for a LARP. Because the story form is open to a wide audience, the challenge they have is scale -- so once large numbers of people accept the storyteller's invitation to participate, especially in an ongoing way, there has to be a way built into the experience that lets the audience curate, refine, select. Otherwise, it's not really a story, it's an archive. This interaction between user engagement, capture, sorting, display and sequencing is fascinating. 

Here's another example of the capture/display dilemma: I thought Daniel Knauf' BXX Haunted was an interesting experiment. Here's a guy who did a big-budget series for HBO (Carnivale) who launched a storyworld inside a haunted house. The user didn't create content so much as discovered it by navigating a customized website that featured the floor plan of the house. Cameras were recording the goings-on in the house, updated each week. Knauf finally ended the experience with the conclusion that the story was not digestible in its pure, randomized format. So he edited the whole thing into what amounts to a 32-hour movie. http://vimeopro.com/user9699278/bxxfeature I'm not sure it's any more digestible -- it's a very low-res unfolding of the story, which is pretty freaky if you like the genre. But still, it's only for the true believer. 

Disney Imagineering unveiled StoryEngine, which weaves virtual and face-to-face story components into a single back-end platform that will allow new types of experiences to occur at their parks. This addresses several of the persistent problems with ARGs, which typically come and go, and are lost forever after--rarely repeated; are difficult for audiences to find, and therefore tend to appeal to a super-niche of ARG fan types; and often have to have an engine built to contain the experience.

Finally, in addition to Theatrics, which is still pivoting from a story to a platform, we saw the emergence or growth of quite a few storyform engines that address one or more segments of the industry, including Galahad, Zeega, Cowbird, Zeebox, Watchwith, Storify, Story Nexus, Chute, Story Bird, Rides.tv, Social Samba, StoryRide, Animoto, Conductrr, Gloto, Coincident.tv, Switchcam. 

The question of Zeitgeist

The digital developer lives and dies by the rules of delight and discard. Microsoft eclipsed Apple, which returned with a vengeance and now dominates the world, even as its challenged by Google and its licensees. Facebook, and to a lesser extent, Twitter have become the sea within which we all swim, and yet in the last year, the shiny object is undoubtedly Pinterest, which grew to 11 million monthly uniques in less than 9 months. The same with Tumblr, very rapid growth and adoption. YouTube is the 900 pound gorilla, even as it pivots its model to imitate cable TV, which is still going strong with a business model that defies logic. Most of the startup buzz is around mobile-first apps. But nobody has really nailed a business model beyond apps which is dominated by casual games. Advertising will grow, but the user experience is painful. All of these are business/consumption/audience/product shifts that start small but grow. So yes, the only sane conclusion is that we have arrived into a world where the consumer has more power, but often, in the name of convenience, s/he cedes that power to a monopolist or an oligopoly which acts like everyone who gets that power, and milks it for all its worth because they know that empires begin to crumble at the pinnacle of success, the place where it's hardest to see the fissures.

When will we cry?

My only gasp/cry moments this year came from books, movies, TV. It's hard to imagine the "transmedia" experience that gave me the jolt I received from HOMELAND, which compelled me to sign up for Showtime again from my cable provider so as not to miss a minute. Or BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, which made me feel like I had taken acid, just from watching the movie. Or a half-dozen other movies. Or a new (to me) mystery series like THE BUTCHER BOY, which I really loved, especially because I listened to a superlative audiobook version.  Maybe the closest I've come is Bear 71 from the NFB in Canada, an interactive documentary. http://bear71.nfb.ca/#/bear71

 

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