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.

Entries in ARG (2)



Many Paths to Audience Participation for Transmedia Talent

(Part One of this three-part series suggested that money, creativity, demand and buzz have conspired to bring Transmedia into the mainstream, despite or perhaps because of a testy flame-war within those producing cross-media stories.)

 Leading transmedia talent has emerged from a wide array of disciplines, including technology, indie film, fantasy games, marketing, comic books, videogames, advertising, brand advertising, television production, theme parks, academia, and, of course, the Internet.

What sets each apart is a willingness to embrace meaningful audience participation in the transmedia projects that capture their passion.

 “I think that the idea of participation is one of the key things we are all wrestling with, both fans and authors, movie directors or whatever kind of creative person we’re talking about, says author Frank Rose

“Participation raises the question of whose story is it? And, the answer I think is, it’s all of ours. In order to really identify with the story, in some way we have to make it our own.”

Here’s some of what I’ve learned in conversations with a range of transmedia leaders.

Bonds: The Audience is Ready

“We are tapping into a real demand from consumers,” says Susan Bonds, CEO of 42 Entertainment, a company that produces alternative reality games like “Why So Serious?” for The Dark Knight, and Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero.” 

“This is something that people want, and so studios are beginning to open up their creative properties to allow people to participate.”

Not only has the company has been pivotal in defining the ARG form, it has been home for key talent. 

Bonds, who is an industrial engineer with gigs at Disney, Lockheed, and Cyan, says that the art form follows the trajectory of the audience:

“In the first half of the decade, it was all about early adopters, the in-crowd playing interactive games, the first to buy the latest technologies. But now, the novelty factor has worn off, and it's about the experience. People are already emotionally invested and aware that all of these things are at their fingertips. Now they know.”

            Early adopters still play a central role in most ARG projects. Check out Test Subjects Needed”, a scenario that is currently dribbling out on the web and at E3 and Bonnaroo, for which 42 Entertainment is alleged to be the agency. And the client? Wrigley’s Gum.

42 Entertainment plans to apply lessons from its client work to create new and original transmedia content. Bonds would not discuss details with me, telling me to keep my eyes open “later this year.” 

“We’re ready to evolve the business model,” says Bonds. “We've seen that people in the millions and tens of millions will come together for a collective experience. Think of the freedom that this gives you! You can do the work on a smaller scale than a $100 million movie, and you are no longer necessarily held to the traditional ways of starting the work, either business or creative.”

Gomez: Appealing to deep aspirations and fantasies

Jeff Gomez’s “aha moment” came at a young age. “When I was 12 we moved to Hawaii, where I was exposed to what in Japan they call Mangaka, or storyteller . Mangaka has told his story over many volumes of comic books — Japanese Manga — and was granted the responsibility to tell that story in the animated television series, in the toy line, in the feature film, in the prequels and sequels. That was my dream job.”

With Starlight Runner, the company Gomez co-founded in 2000, he’s halfway to his dream. The company extends entertainment properties across time and media for clients with movies (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Avatar,” and “TRON”); games (Halo); and products (Coke’s Happiness Factory, Hasbro’s Transformers).

Fantasy role-playing games were Gomez’s first love, leading him to launch a fanzine called “Gateways, which in turn led to gigs in comic books and videogames.

In the fantasy role-playing scene, “a story was unfolding that could not be told without the participation of my fellow game players, the people who were playing roles in the world of the story I was creating,” Gomez says. “The participation is what triggered deep emotional responses. Storytelling, particularly your character in my story, allowed me to create scenarios that appealed to your deepest sense of aspiration, your fantasies, your desires.”

Like everyone in the secretive transmedia field, Gomez would not reveal his own plans for his proprietary transmedia projects, though it is clear that original production is his dream.

As to the flame war, Gomez knows he’s got “a big red target painted on the back of my ass.” Why? “Whenever you have a band that is really popular in the bar circuit, and it suddenly starts playing arenas, there are going to be some fans of the band who get disgruntled. Because it’s ‘our band,’ it’s not your band.” 

Weiler: Storytelling without Boundaries

Computer editing was the technology that triggered Lance Weiler’s personal digital epiphany, leading to the production of  The Last Broadcast,” an early digital film. Its website featured ARG-style elements such as 911 calls and fake newspaper items intended to deepen the paranormal mystery story being told in the film. “It was a forerunner to the idea of building and crafting a world around the main story,” Weiler told me.

He describes his approach as “storytelling without boundaries,” an approach on display in his projects like 2006’s Head Trauma  and 2011’s Pandemic.

He evangelizes this bottom-up, do-it-yourself approach, as in this recent speech at Ireland’s Darklight Festival.

“I think what you see is a major shift from as top-down, permission-based culture to one in which people are experimenting more.” Weiler says that “the audience is actually ahead of the industry, just waiting for storytellers to catch up. Maybe the big story is that the illusion of being an auteur is moving into balance, becoming more of a conversation when it used to be that you were talking at the audience.”

In addition to his own projects, Weiler runs a network called Workbook Project and a roving conference called DIY Days. He consults with organizations like the World Economic Forum, and collaborates with other producers on participation techniques.

European Innovation

Collapsus” combines interactivity, animation, fiction, and documentary to tell a story about the global energy crisis. The project, which took top honors at the SXSW interactive conference, is the work of Amsterdam-based producer Submarine and director Tommy Pallotta, the U.S.-born director of  “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly.”

Femke Wolting of Submarine ran an interactive exhibition program at the Rotterdam Film Festival for years. “Europeans are ahead of the U.S. when it comes to original cross-platform work, largely because of government-subsidizes and co-productions,” she says, noting that European broadcasters and film authorities have been allocating production funds for “new media” components for longer than their U.S. counterparts.

Pallotta and Wolting are working on an interactive web documentary about propaganda called Unspeak and a feature, “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” with British director Peter Greenaway, both of which include multi-platform elements. 

Alexander: Breakthroughs start at the Top

For TV writer-producer Jesse Alexander transmedia breakthroughs can only happen with “a visionary leader at the highest level.” He should know, as a producer and writer on both ABC’s “Lost” and NBC’s “Heroes,” two iconic series that set the bar for content extensions on the web.

“They were special shows,” says Alexander. “We had great timing and money to extend those stories. We're in a different world now.”

A big factor was the 2007-08 Hollywood writers’ strike, which Alexander called “catastrophic,” followed shortly by the global recession. His own series, “Day One,” was killed in 2010, a casualty of the Comcast-NBC Universal buy-up.

“There is no infrastructure to do transmedia, so you have to borrow from lots of buckets to find the resources,” says Alexander, especially for new shows without a proven audience. “So there are a lot of exciting and ephemeral transmedia experiences that market films, TV and games ... but what is the sustainable model beyond six weeks?”

Alexander told me that independent filmmakers and game developers might have an easier path to transmedia than mainstream Hollywood. “You’re not going to see innovation from the large media companies. There’s just no real incentive for them to change it all up.” They have what Alexander calls a “fire-and-forget” model. “It drives you crazy — so much time and money on a transmedia project, and it’s over in six weeks.”

He is excited about the prospects of independent transmedia studio Fourth Wall, founded by pioneer Elan Lee, who has gathered some of the art form’s leading practitioners and raised a large capital infusion to produce original content.

Clark: The Innovation is Other People

“The real innovation of the Internet is other people, not just data,” GMD Studio’s Brian Clark told me, which is what inspired him to co-found in 1996 and to produce films like “Nothing So Strange, which imagined the assassination of Bill Gates. Since then, he has been busy crossbreeding indie filmmaking, the web, brand marketing and creative services. He likes to think of the web as a production tool, and the outcome as alternate reality games (ARG’s).

“With ARG’s,” says Clark, “you’re writing a work that doesn’t really exist until it’s populated by the audience. The audience’s interaction with it is what creates the moment. You’re hanging cameras around and putting microphones on things and to capture a moment that you’ve created. That is a production technique, and it’s what the web is really good at.”  

Clark calls himself an “experience designer,” placing the focus upon audience participation. GMD typically works with a team of collaborators, both individuals and companies like Mike Monello’s Campfire. Monello’s work ranges from “Blair Witch Project” through this season’s HBO hit “Game of Thrones.” 

GMD’s techniques caught the attention of ad agencies and brands, and “they seem to want to buy,” says Clark, whose work include projects for Sega, Scholastic and Audi. 2005’s Art of the Heist employed a wide range of digital and real-world elements that involved half a million consumers in a faux theft of Audi’s then-new A3 car.

Not surprisingly, Clark, who is working on a major 9/11 project, believes that the art form is ready to soar. “Never have I seen more money available for this kind of work. For all the failures we’re talking about with Hollywood and advertising, the taste is there now.”

NEXT: Part Three: Tracking the Wild Beast

A version of this series was published by Tribeca’s Future of Film site

To learn more about transmedia, check out my Delicious account and this slideshare presentation.



• Part One: Shouting “Fire” in the Theatre 

“Isaac Newton didn't discover gravity, he just named it,” one TV writer-producer quipped during a recent conversation about “transmedia.”

And so it would seem, despite a testy flame war over the term transmedia –– or perhaps because of it –– the “transmedia” movement is catching on across the media business. 

“Transmedia” is shorthand for a grab bag of production and distribution practices and audience engagement techniques that have emerged over the past decade, and when taken together, promise a new kind of media experience.

Along the way, practitioners and pundits have applied many terms to describe this type of production –– interactive or participatory media, cross-platform or multi-platform storytelling, deep or immersive media, experience design, story franchises, sequels, packaging, integrated media, 360 production….the list goes on.

What’s new here is the idea that storytellers can create deeper experiences for their audiences when they unfold a story and its world via multiple venues, and when they invite consumers to participate meaningfully in that world –– especially when they do so from the outset of the project.

Whatever the nomenclature, the transmedia trend is gaining traction, fueled by some observable trends:

• Demand. Today’s audiences expect their media to be social, participatory and customized for every device they use, especially the much-coveted hard-core fans who are especially drawn to properties which let them go them deeper into a story or discover something first.

Creativity.  The formulaic is giving way to the innovative, as producers, including a new crop of digital natives, compete to engage fans in their stories over time and space with new approaches and on new devices.

Buzz. Transmedia is becoming the Next Big Thing in both Hollywood and on Madison Avenue with more press coverage, more blogs and websites, more panels at film festivals and commercial conferences and ultimately more pitch meetings.

• Money. Big names in film, television, and games are placing bets on talent with transmedia chops. New studios have been capitalized to produce made-for-multiplatform properties, and proven creative services firms in the space are prepping their own original projects. Marketing dollars now routinely extend anchor properties onto additional platforms.

From Interactivism to Transmedia

I’m excited about all of this activity because for more than 20 years, I have helped artists and companies develop new forms of storytelling across many platforms (movies, music, TV, PCs, CD-ROMs, game consoles, mobile phones, set-top boxes, the Web). The programs I created at the American Film Institute attracted true believers who were fervently trying to reinvent Hollywood in the wake of the digital revolution, a movement that I called “interactivism.”

Which is why I joined a transmedia panel at May’s Digital Hollywood. Whereupon, I immersed myself in the vigorous online fight over “transmedia” nomenclature, definition, and turf.

The hubbub dates to the April 2010 decision by the Producers Guild of America (PGA) to authorize a new credit – Transmedia Producer.”. This credit was drafted primarily by Jeff Gomez, CEO of New York-based transmedia consulting firm Starlight Runner.

Sides were quickly drawn between supporters and detractors of the PGA move. Advocates believed that the credit provided legitimization and would stimulate more multi-platform production. Opponents felt that PGA’s definition was too narrow, and left out many forms of cross-platform projects. Among the most vigorous opponents were producers of Alternate Reality Games or ARG’s.

“Why do we have to define it yet?” asks indie filmmaker Lance Weiler. “Why can’t we just continue to experiment?”  Because, says TV writer-producer Jesse Alexander (“Lost” and “Heroes”), “You have to give it a name so people can talk about it. Isaac Newton didn't discover gravity, he named it.”

Anger finally erupted at the 2011 SXSW interactive conference in March, and then spilled onto the public Internet where a flame war ensued. Take a stroll through some of the posts and comments to decide if the fight matters, or if it is/was a tempest in a teapot:

• A history of tweets on the topic by Londoner Rachel Clarke, using the new Storify tool.

• A play-by-play rundown of the fight from 4D fiction.

• A blog post by Steve Peters, veteran producer of alternate-reality games, in which he swears off the use of the word.

Another by Atlanta-based designer Brooke Thompson, railed against Hollywood “snake oil salesmen”.

• The #antitransmedia hashtag which Peters established on Twitter as a rallying point for critics.

• A Flickr image that features the word “anti” spray-painted over Wikipedia’s transmedia entry.

• An April Fast Company post entitled ‘Seven Myths About Transmedia Storytelling Debunked’  by USC Professor Henry Jenkins, who had pioneered the term back in the early ‘00s. Jenkins said, “Companies are laying claim to expertise in producing transmedia content. But many using the term don't really understand what they are saying.”

• A May Facebook post by GMD Studio’s Brian Clark, in which he parsed the competing tribes and contended that their real distinction was who had creative control. This conversation drew hundreds of comments and has been reposted by other bloggers in several countries.

Ironically, this online kerfuffle has only heightened Transmedia’s buzz, helped to spotlight the breadth of the movement and fed into a deepening appreciation within all segments of the entertainment community that transmedia is the Next Big Thing.

PART TWOMany Paths to Audience Participation for Transmedia Talent

To learn more about transmedia, check out my Delicious account and this slideshare presentation.