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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 Jeff Gomez (5)

Friday
Nov022012

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.) 

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Jun262012

THE HORMONAL THEORY OF MEDIA OBSESSION (WRYD CON, Part One)

WyrdCom is a convention created three years ago to give Live-Action Role Players (LARPers) a deep dive into their passion: live game-playing, and play they did, with more than a dozen different games under way during the four-day event held at the Orange County (CA) Hilton.

On top of the main event was layered an extensive slate of panels and workshops, as the organizers tried to cross-pollinate the fanatically devoted LARPers with a bit of pixie dust from the broader landscape of storytelling – film, television, digital content, and transmedia. In the digital age, shouldn't we merge live-action, theater-based experiences with mediated content?

I spoke on two panels organized by transmedia producer Lauren Scime from Witchfactory Productions-- “Transmedia Storytelling 101” and “From Live to the Web and Back Again.” The latter is the subject of a second post exploring transmedia storytelling.

But first, a few thoughts about passion and story forms.

I’m not a LARPer, and truth be told, I’m not entirely sold on “transmedia,” and I don’t just mean the nomenclature. As I’ve written elsewhere, media ain’t no good if it don’t make me cry, and so far, games and websites, and Twitter and Facebook, well, they’re great but they don’t make me cry like the kind of stories I love.

These thoughts were bouncing in my head as I tried to prepare for the “Transmedia Storytelling 101” panel, to the point where I was getting a little crazy, not so much because I couldn’t handle the topic. More because of the caliber of the other panelists: moderator Scott Walker is a real expert on “co-creation” between producer and audience, a unique quality of transmedia; Starlight Runner’s Jeff Gomez has become something of a superstar in the field;  Jesse Albert, whom I just met has been there/done that as both an agent and producer in many different mainstream and emerging media; and Esther Lim has produced games and interactive projects for nearly 15 years.

What about me? Notwithstanding my history of incubating dozens of multi-platform projects at AFI, that all seemed way too heady. I kept thinking of Jeff Gomez’s talk at last year’s “Story World” conference in which he claimed that his passion for role-playing games saved him from adolescent oblivion -- the hero’s journey, not just as a construct for storytelling, but as a mantra for his own personal and professional development. Dungeons and Dragons saved his life, and gave him a career.

Not just with Jeff, but all of us I think: The media that rule one’s life today are the media that coincide with the onset of hormones.  Let’s call it the Hormonal Theory of Media Obsession.

The experts agree, to wit: Back in the 90’s, AFI launched a primetime TV show to count down the top movies of all time, as ranked by a blue-ribbon panel of Hollywood experts (including me). It was a lot of fun, and lasted for 11 years.

That first year, however, AFI was criticized because the list included too many pictures from the 70’s and 80’s (and not enough from the 20’s and 30’s). Of course this was true, since most of the so-called experts were baby boomers whose passion for movies coincided with their coming of age, and, not coincidentally, the first rush of hormones.

For me, storytelling means novels, movies, plays and TV. Those story forms transported a lonely little Army brat with very few friends into worlds of terror and delight. Characters from other countries and times. Worlds I wanted to visit, or sometimes had visited. Experiences I could not possibly imagine. Feelings I was afraid to have.

My adolescent media obsessions formed my own habits, still with me up until this day: For example, in 1962 I saw four movies a week for a year in Austin Texas, not counting WEST SIDE STORY, which I saw 11 times. About the same time I read the entire oevre of Dickens, Dostoevsky, Eugene O’Neill, J.D. Salinger, and many other novelists. By 1964 I was reading every book as it appeared on the NY Times fiction bestseller list, whether I liked them all or not. I still have 3x5 cards with my annotations. (Fortunately, it was a good year, including Ship of Fools, The Tin Drum, and, of course, Salinger.)

I discovered mysteries in third grade. I’m still a noir detective fan. If I find a hero and an author I love, I make sure I read the entire series and stay current as the books come out. I am, therefore, Amazon’s model customer. I am also addicted to audio books listening in the car. If you care, you can dive into my book obsessions at Goodread.

A little later, I took the PATH train into Manhattan every week from New Jersey, to  Saturday matinees on Broadway (less than $5 for a balcony seat). And movies.

Today I try to see every movie that might be nominated for the Oscar. I love the deep dive that DVDs and Netflix enable. Last year I watched THE KILLING on AMC at the same time as all ten of the original Danish episodes of “Forbrydelsen.” Season Two arrived from my secret source just last week. I’m in heaven.

As you can no doubt tell, I’m not a digital native. But I am an early adopter, just not a native. Hence, my touchstone is not the SMS or IM message, the Facebook or Tumbler post, and definitely not a game of any sort, console, casual, or otherwise. 

But for today’s kids, THESE are their media. Of course they want multi-platform stories. Their world is defined by simultaneous digital content consumption.  Even the “old” media which I adore are consumed within the context of the digital frame.These media permit not just sharing, interactivity, but production and control.

To reach these audiences, and to please these audiences, artists must get inside their heads, and their hormones, and let the audience co-create.

Hence: transmedia.

Monday
Nov072011

• OF STORIES & WORLDS: What the Transmedia Movement has to Teach ... (And to Learn)  

If nothing else, last week's Story World Conference in San Francisco affirmed the reality of a new creative movement devoted to transmedia storytelling.

After years of building connections via online sharing and various ad-hoc collaborations, this gathering of the tribes of transmedia will certainly accelerate the movement by invigorating a cadre of practitioners and theorists, and generating buzz among content creators of many ilks. 

It's a very big tent that has been pitched, sheltering artists, theorists, academics, service providers, vendors and allies, many with contradictory values and beliefs. Don't expect a manifesto any time soon. 

And yet, listening to three days worth of panels, speeches, workshops, and networking (and 2000+ tweets), it's possible to extract some core beliefs of this movement that distinguish transmedia from "monomedia" -- the world of stories told in a single medium -- followed by some advice gleaned from more than 30 years in the indie film world.

Story World attendees on Day 3 at #occupytransmedia workshop

-- Story Worlds are not stories. This emphasis on worlds transcends the story and its traditional elements (character, setting, theme, plot, etc.) even while incorporating them. Because transmedia requires the audience to move from one medium to another, the emphasis in on "experience design," a job which is more typical in a game studio than on a movie set. 

-- Audience engagement drives everything. To transmedia activists, the audience is an engaged, participatory, and demanding collaborator. Storytellers must invite audiences to "co-create," not just as fodder for marketing or promotion.The release of narrative control opens the floodgates for new definitions of story, script, narrative. This frightens old-school story folks.

-- Stories live outside the silo. Media are produced and funded inside a single silo, so it takes a lot of passion and will to spend the extra time and money to build a multi-platform story vision from the outset. Finance loathes split rights, as Zak Kadison, Chairman, President and CEO, Blacklight Transmedia noted: "Ever since George Lucas, studios don't want to give up any rights."

Perhaps that is changing, said David Tochterman, Head of Digital Media, Innovative Artists"Transmedia is great because it gives me multiple ways to get a buyer to say yes," It also creates value for the filmmaker, according "conversation agent" Miles Maker who sees the emergence of "the attention economy." The story, themes, characters, and actors can generate content and audience engagement well before a film opens, though he admits, "filmmakers don't want to let the cat out of the bag."  

-- Software is the bottleneck. "The biggest challenge to physically distributed narratives was the bottleneck of the gatekeepers," said transmedia pioneer Jordan Weisman. "With the onset of interactivity modes, the bottleneck is software engineering," which has a much more limited pool of talent. The emergence of new production tools and platforms will help the non-techies, including Coincident TV and Conductrr. Lance Weiler thinks of his transmedia projects like software, labeling versions 1.0, 2.0, etc. Indeed, his DIY Days, which preceded Story World, sponsored a hackathon

-- Data is the new oil, metrics is the new gasoline. Most transmedia projects converge on the Internet, and most incorporate audience interactivity --  generating floods of very targeted user data which can be measured and can drive the revenue model and the story form itself. For the first time, audience becomes a strategic advantage for the content creator, not just the distributor.

-- Business models are a bitch. Whenever indies gather, they talk about money, and Story World was no exception. Virtually all successful models for transmedia to date have been financed as either patronage or commissions, as noted by Brian Clark of GMD Studios.  Clark believes that "the next wave of innovation in transmedia storytelling is going to be about business models rather than storytelling forms."  A popular tweet during the conference referenced the patronage model: "If you want to do transmedia, move to Canada." The emergence of an app market (for iPhones, android, TV and desktop) offers new avenues to test the willingness of the audience to pay for original and indie transmedia story experiences.

This movement is young and still in what one observer calls the "us versus them" phase, exemplified by a slogan I saw during one workshop: "After the big boys fuck it up completely, feel free to give us a call"  So as a veteran of the indie video and film movement of the 70s, 80s and 90s, I offer a few observations as encouragement for this one. 

Click to read more ...

Wednesday
Jul062011

• WHY “TRANSMEDIA” IS CATCHING ON (Part Two)

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 IndieWire.com 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.

Tuesday
Jul052011

WHY “TRANSMEDIA” IS CATCHING ON (Part One)

• 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.