DIGITAL MEDIA FROM THE INSIDE OUT: My focus is digital content -- production, distribution, collaboration, innovation, creativity. Some posts have appeared across the web (HuffPo, Tribeca's Future of Film, The Wrap, MIPblog, etc.). To receive these posts regularly via email, sign up for my newsletter here.


What Ever Became of the Transmedia Movement?

Remember “Transmedia”? At the beginning of this decade ‘transmedia’ was a buzzworthy catch-all term describing an emerging group of media formats and practices that seemed poised to become a major force within the entertainment business.

I found myself pondering the fate of transmedia after participating in three events in California that had once been hotbeds of the movement:

  • StoryWorld 3.0, a scaled-down edition of an event that, as much as any, showcased the theory and practice of transmedia when it premiered in 2011;
  • Digital Hollywood, now in its 24th year, a sprawling array of media, business and tech sessions that closely track buzz and trends; and
  • San Francisco-based TV of Tomorrow Show that has been tracking interactive and advanced television developments for 11 years.

Transmedia became a handy and very elastic term for the kinds of content powered by the rapid adoption of mobile devices and social platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Stories and entire story worlds could be consumed across multiple media, and could invite direct audience interaction. Dozens of format experiments by producers from around the world began to coalesce into a movement that some called “transmedia.”

Even as movie studios, TV networks, game companies and brands began to underwrite projects that they eagerly labeled “transmedia” in order to catch the buzz, there was a less commercially oriented group that resisted, preferring small-scale efforts like “alternate reality games.” These folks pushed back when the Producers Guild of America designated an official credit for “transmedia producer,” igniting a war of words, as I reported at the time. Indeed, my own work as a consultant and observer was fully caught up in the movement during its heyday.

Today, we rarely hear the word “transmedia” when trying to describe the contemporary media production, distribution and consumption landscape. And so, yes, “Transmedia” per se is dead, victims of what transmedia producer and author Andrea Phillips called the transmedia diaspora. Name-brand leaders of the movement like Jeff Gomez and Lance Weiler, both of whom presented at StoryWorld 3, are still in the field, but like the movement they helped spawn, focus upon the mechanics of story, not the nomenclature and categorization of the movement.

The truth is, the principles championed by the transmedia movement can be seen everywhere today across dozens of programs, platforms, formats, entertainment experiences, and media types. The reality of our media ecosystem and audience behaviors have demanded that all media is, without much fanfare, transmedia storytelling.

Here are some features of today’s media ecosystem with roots in the short-lived transmedia era.

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The Year in "Now Media" - 2018 edition

Finnish media producer and commentator Simon Staffans provides a lovely service at the end of each year by interviewing a range of thinkers via email regarding their thoughts on what he now calls 'now' media, with a review of the past year and predictions for 2018. He formats those responses along with a selection of his own posts from the year for a nice and varied read about our industry. The entire property can be viewed on his website. Here is my contribution. Simon Staffans, the emoji

What have you seen in the world of media in 2017 that has made the biggest impression on you? What do you feel it signifies?

In 2017 I’ve focused even more intensely on early stage companies and the world of startup accelerators. I continue to advise at IDEABOOST, a Toronto-based accelerator focused exclusively on media/tech startups. This year I visited seven accelerators in four Chinese cities in May, and am developing a first-ever media/tech accelerator in Los Angeles in partnership with Startupbootcamp, the largest innovation network in Europe, where I have also visited several programs. 

Accelerators provide a unique window into innovation, in that we analyze the potential of founders, the technologies and products they see coming in the future, rather than mature products that took years to reach scale. That said, in order to help these fledgling companies find their place in a very complex media landscape, we must constantly assess developments within today’s markets and audiences. 

More than ever, the media business is a story of platforms dominated by GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon). Their Internet-enabled delivery systems and devices have spawned thousands of products and have enabled new business models that are displacing traditional media.

Meanwhile, the tech world is obsessed with the next big platforms that can deliver growth and disruption on the scale of the Internet – machine learning/AI, cryptocurrency/blockchain, autonomy/robotics, and mixed reality (including AR and VR).

Among these, only MR/AR/VR would seem to be a “media” business, but in truth, all of these underlying technology layers will have dramatic impact on humankind, requiring new formats and metaphors that deliver stories, images, content and context – e.g., media -- to serve as gateways for entirely new applications and experiences.

In 2017 we’re beginning to see signposts of these new media forms.

The House of VR is a Toronto-based consumption venue for VR, AR and related content. Their viewing environments feature blue screen capture so that a user can be composited within the environment s/he is exploring, and then displayed on a screen that others can watch. This shared viewing model helps create an easier way to participate in this new medium and will spread. Earlier this year I got a demo of a multi-user distribution network for VR content at Two Bit Circus, a cool LA-based location-focused company started by Nolan Bushnell. Other VR venues like The Void and IMAX VR are growing.

Content discovery is the goal of another Canadian company, this one from Vancouver called Northway Games  , They demo’d the alpha version of a VR Museum app that featured some 80 independent VR projects, a very interesting type of aggregation channel that curates 3D VR content inside a navigable VR space that looks like a museum. I spent an hour tooling around inside the museum and saw only a fraction of the content. He has the idea of wanting to create a coop payment system that provides economic support for indie VR producers, which I of course found interesting.

I keep coming back to your contribution from some years ago, where you stated you’ve not encountered any “new media” content that would have been able to move you to tears, the way a brilliant movie for instance can. With the advent of the new wave of VR, plus a number of other projects in other fields, have you found anything like that yet? If not, why do you think that is?

“I’ll believe in ________ media when it makes me cry,” I think that was my snarky one-liner. This is a preposterously high bar for media that is less than three years old, when novels have been around for 400 years, cinema more than 100, and TV more than 50. Traditional narratives satisfy because of dramatic compression that enables Identification with characters journey over time. Interactivity disrupts this dynamic, in large part because the user/player gains direct agency within the story world. No longer is there an omniscient storyteller shaping the story for maximum dramatic and emotional effect. Instead, the viewer/user/viewser controls the flow of the story, and with VR, even where s/he looks.

Emotional involvement in VR to date seems to be sought by placing the user inside environments that evoke feelings – Chris Milk’s famous “empathy machine” theory. An interesting one this year was Autism Simulator, which allows the user to understand what it might be like to have symptoms of that disease, like earlier VR experiences that turned the user blind or put them into a prison.


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AFI & the Digital World - Excerpt from new book, 'Becoming AFI'

This post is an excerpt from chapter 7 of the book "Becoming AFI: 50 Years of the American Film Institute" by Jean Picker Firstenberg and James Hindman (Santa Monica Press), which I authored. Jean Picker Firstenberg, who was President and CEO of the AFI from 1980 to 2007, will be featured October 26th at a Writers Bloc event in Beverly Hills, in conversation with former AFI trustee--and ex-Monkee, Michael Nesmith. More information on the event, including how to buy tickets, can be found here.



It’s difficult to recall a world before the Internet, even for those of us who were there when it started. Just as AFI was setting out on its own digital journey, the Internet emerged from its academic and technical cocoon to take flight as a new and all-pervading data net- work that would soon transform all aspects of culture and business. In its infancy, the Internet was simply a marvel—a miraculous new utility that fostered community and created much beauty, rather than the corporate battleground it would become.

My Internet life started with AppleLink, a private email ser- vice for companies doing business with Apple. Logging on with a squawky dial-up modem, I felt like a member of a secret society of digital somebodies at a time when just having an email address seemed cool. Soon, we built AFI’s first campus email network.

Some in Hollywood heard about the World Wide Web—the graphical component of the Internet—at an “Information Super- highway Summit” in January 1994, organized by Rich Frank, an AFI trustee from Disney, who also chaired the television academy. (Rich Frank’s role on the AFI board, serving almost continuously since 1991, has been extraordinary. His Frank Family Wines have been served at many Life Achievement Award dinners, and he con- tinues to chair the TV jury for the AFI AWARDS every year.) Ev- eryone was there: Hollywood moguls like Jeffrey Katzenberg, Barry Diller, and Rupert Murdoch, as well as FCC chairman Reed Hun- dt and Vice President Al Gore, who would subsequently overstate his role in the invention of the Internet.

AFI’s first glimpse of the World Wide Web came a few months later during a campus tribute at AFI to Wired, the magazine that gave voice to “digital lifestyle” before anyone even knew what that was. After entertaining the audience with the magazine’s ground- breaking graphics and McLuhanesque content, Wired founders Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe blew everyone’s minds with a sneak preview of the web’s first commercial magazine, HotWired, which they were preparing to launch in a few months. Projected onto AFI’s movie screen using the Mosaic web browser, HotWired whipped us from one page to another—from words to images to video and back again—with a simple click of a mouse. This was something completely new, a revolutionary way of publishing, communicating, and connecting, and I knew that AFI had to be part of it.

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Entrepreneurship in China

China intends to win at yet one more key component of modern capitalism, entrepreneurship and the startup culture, as it has most certainly done in other areas of competition. Between 2000 and 2013, China’s non-state-owned business sector increased 18-fold, compared with the state sector that grew six-fold. Official government policy has strongly supported innovation and entrepreneurial enterprises in recent years. It is kind of mind-blowing to grasp the fact that this Communist-run economy may be the most successful capitalist in world history.

I say a few words at the pitch session during the Global Entrepreneurship Incubation Summit in Chengdu, China.I learned many nuances of the Chinese startup ecosystem during a ten-day trip, during which I visited seven business incubators and accelerators in four Chinese cities, and participated in a two-day Global Entrepreneurship Incubation Summit that marked the 30th Anniversary of the first business incubator in China.

Representing my client, Toronto’s IDEABOOST accelerator, I was a judge during a startup pitch competition on day two of the conference, along with a who’s who of the Chinese VC community. Many featured startups reflect China’s very strong focus on artificial intelligence and IOT solutions, as well as a few VR startups. I met dozens of interesting people from both China, and from around the world. Business is flocking to China, because the opportunities are immense, and of course, so is the market.Getting ready to begin a talk about the CFC's IDEABOOST accelerator program to a group of Beijing engrepreneurs at the UIS incubabator.

My trip to China was organized by United Innovation Services (UIS), whose CEO Christine Du is an amazing businesswoman I met at a VR conference last year, and who has joined IDEABOOST’s investment advisory group. UIS operates software parks across China’s major cities, which include incubators and accelerators for startups, alongside a who’s who of international technology firms.

Christine Du, CEO of United Innovation Services, poses with me at her Chengdu incubator.

I visited UIS incubators in Beijing, Yangzhou, Chengdu, and Chongqing. UIS will soon announce its first venture outside China.

Here I am with some of the startup entrepreneurs at the UIS incubator in Beijing.

Some of the startups I met were part of the country's robust VR sector, both hardware and software. China is likely to continue as a major driver in the growth of VR, with massive investment, strong support from the government, and a media consumption pattern that supports arcades and out-of-home gaming experiences, like the kiosks I saw at train stations and airports.

I visited the HTC Vive X Accelerator in Beijing, one of a network that includes programs in Taiwan, Shenzen, and San Francisco – each of these accelerators invest in up to 20 startups per year, making HTC one of the world’s biggest VR investors.One of the startups in the Chongqing UIS incubator has developed a VR system that uses body rigging and sensors to enhance the gameplay experience.

I also was fortunate to visit the Beijing Film Academy (BFA), one of the top film schools in the world. Among the areas BFA’s digital lab program is developing are real-time interactive previsualization, immersive content (like VR), 3D visual information reconstruction, and next-generation sound stage.  The BFA will expand from its historic in-town campus to a new 110-acre campus in Huairou district, north of Beijing, where the government has created incentives for film industry companies to locate.

Standing at the entry gate of the Beijing Film Academy with my host, Lulu, secretary to the dean of the secretary of Film and TV Technology Department

The BFA case illustrates the Chinese method, in which the central government creates an industrial policy, then provides funding, infrastructure, R&D, private sector incentives, capital and educational resources to intensify the chances of success. Startups get a leg up in a favored sector, which means that entrepreneurs may start companies that stay alive, even if they are not long-term winners in the race to find customers and profits.

But once a company gains traction, they have access to a home market unlike any in the world. Just witness the amazing growth of homegrown Internet companies like Baidu, Alibaba, and TenCent – all are ubiquitous tools of daily life on a scale that is rivaled in the West only by Facebook and Google, both of which are banned by the Chinese government (although most tech-savvy Chinese I met routinely use virtual private networks to access these and other banned sites). We should expect the same results in other targeted sectors like big data, AI and IOT in coming years.

A scale model of the Xiaotao Big Data Valley outside Chongqing In Chongqing (formerly known in the West as Chungking) I visited the Xiaotao Big Data Valley, a government-directed industrial park focused on growing China’s big data cluster, including storage, cloud applications, small sensors/IOT, and data mining. A mix of Chinese and international companies have already moved into phase one of the development, which will unfold over the next decade. I spent time at Shining 3D, which manufactures 3D printing and scanning systems. The company operates a 100-seat classroom to train students (starting in middle school) on how to use 3D software. These parks generally include education, startup facilities, VC and other investment support, residential and infrastructure, including transportation.

Similar sector-specific “new cities” are under construction across China, including a “biodiversity new city” in Yangzhou that I visited. By the mid-2020’s, Yangzhou will have a new city center, planned around a cluster of skyscrapers above a bullet-train station connecting with Beijing to the north and Shanghai to the south and beyond.

Chengdu is proud of its network of innovation hubs for startups. I spent the most time in Chengdu, capitol of Sichuan province, home of the pandas, and a major inland commercial center. UIS’s Chengdu accelerator is part of an eight-building Jingrong Global Startup Center housing hundreds of startups. A few miles away is an office tower housing the Thinkzone incubator and a new Startup Bootcamp accelerator, which hosted an afterparty the last evening of the conference. Chengdu touts itself as China’s ‘ideal place for innovation and entrepreneurship” with these and other facilities built as part of the country’s 2015 national policy on entrepreneurship. 

When people ask, what do you think of China, the word I always come back to is ‘scale.’ It’s difficult to grasp the scale of this country, its built environments, number and size of initiatives, and the volume of companies and people involved in every area of modern enterprise. If you’re building a global company, understanding China is a must.


You Can’t Survive the InfoGlut without Filters. Herein I Share My Favorites

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In the era of information glut, the crown goes to those with the best method of sorting, filtering, curating, prioritizing – in a word, ‘discovery.’

Five years ago I began to post my own favorites under the banner #NGIF – Nick’s Great Information Friday (bastardized #TGIF), a laborious curatorial chore that I could only sustain for a few months, suggesting that those who really cared about my info flow could follow @nickdemartino on Twitter.

Ironically, my clients at the Canadian Film Centre’s IDEABOOST have now asked me to provide a similar compendium called TLTR:BRA (too long to read: but read anyway) as part of a monthly newsletter. 

Until we get to the point where info discovery is entirely automated by AI robots, I find that I still spend a lot of time shaping the information flow that comes onto my screens every day. The good news is that there are some great tools to help – perhaps my own journey can help you save time and decrease anxiety. Let me know in the comments if you have better ways to find and sort.

By far the greatest improvement to my daily in-box has been my adoption of the Unroll Me app, which presents you with three choices for every email -- unsubscribe (that’s right!), leave in your inbox, or roll it up – the latter being a daily email you get that displays the front page in a scroll on mobile or desktop. On one account alone, I’ve unsubscribed to 316 accounts and rolled up 154 (though most don’t appear daily). It’s easy to manage and really unclutters my email life.

Aggregage offers a new way of finding content organized by vertical industries, such as these examples or Virtual Reality Pulse, a site and customized daily newsletter which showcases the best posts through a combination of peer engagement, machine learning, and human curation. I’ve subscribed to four verticals, and find that I no longer have to hunt down dozens of publications (even though I subscribe to many like VR Reporter, Upload VR, VR Scout)

Very few humanly curated sites are as useful to me as those in Jason Hirschhorn’s REDEF network, with daily blasts covering Media (most useful to me), Sports, Fashion, Music and Tech.

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