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 video (3)


Beckinfield – The Haunted Town Where the Audience Creates the Story 

Residents of the fictional town of Beckinfield have a lot going on, what with all the ghosts and other supernatural intercessions that keep popping up. 

But the townspeople are nowhere near as busy as some visitors to "Beckinfield," a website that presents an ongoing sci-fi series about the town in a format unlike any TV you've ever seen.

That's because the story is told entirely by means of first-person video diaries – in-character performances created by users and upload to the site.

The Beckinfield story unfolds continuously -- a kind of never-ending soap opera for the YouTube set. Every audience member's experience of the story is individualized, since one's view depends upon which characters one chooses to follow and watch. A weekly edit -- "previously on Beckinfield" -- provides a summary of story highlights. The site's tagging and trending tools also help guide the user experience. 

Suffice it to say: the Beckinfield user is an engaged user -- whether choosing to perform or just watch. 

The performers of course are all unpaid. Some are aspiring actors; others are amateurs from all around the world. More than 4,000 of them have registered since Beckinfield's "soft" launch at the SXSW conference in March, 201l. 10% are actively uploading content on a regular basis.

New members are presented with an online form, just like any social network sign-up process – but in doing so, they create their character. Once a user starts uploading video clips, they receive a weekly newsletter -- a sort of serialized story Bible. Actors are encouraged to reflect plot points in their performances and to collaborate with other actors to create interrelated story threads. 

"The show is written and plotted, but not scripted," says co-founder Bob Gebert, an actor, director and writer who evolved the idea while helping fellow actors promote themselves using YouTube.

"Just like reality television," he said, somewhat sheepishly.

Or a cross between Desperate Housewives and Dungeons and Dragons, as one Beckinfield actor put it.

A more relevant precursor is the 2006 YouTube hit "Lonely Girl 15," which initially seemed to be the webcam confessions of troubled teens, but turned out to be professional actors playing roles with improvisational brio. LG15 was groundbreaking, not only because of the mass trick that its creators played on viewers, but because the then-new YouTube platform enabled viewers to upload their own video reactions, creating a crazy-quilt structure for the experience of the story.

Lonely Girl 15 Reunion at Vidcon 2011

While YouTube itself was becoming the venue of choice for a new class of entrepreneurial performers, many L.A. actors saw online video as a means to get noticed within the industry -- a low-budget "American Idol" for actors. 

So Gebert began coaching actors to create improvisational monologues to showcase their talent, a process, which had evolved into a web site where 25 actors created characters -- all situated in a fictional town. 

"It ran for about five weeks," said Gebert, "but there was no plot, so the whole thing just fell apart…. I learned that you need an ongoing story." 

Gebert pitched the idea to Tracy Evans and Biff Van Cleve, interactive producers from Houston, where Gebert had run an improv-based dinner theatre. The three co-founded Theatrics in 2010 to develop the underlying platform and support the storytelling being showcased with the Beckinfield story, which Gebert writes. 

Theatrics has raised $1.4 million of seed funding to develop the site, most of it from investors in Houston whose previous experience has been in the oil business -- certainly a rarity in the go-go world of Internet start-ups. 

In January they stormed San Francisco’s MacWorld/iWorld, where they turned the stage into yet another scene set in the town of Beckinfield, the finale to an in-story competition to cast a local production of the "Legend of Beckinfield."  

An actor named Michael Town, playing a character named Farmer Roger Teddy was the winner of the "ultimate online audition", a prize worth $10,000 and the chance to star in a play being produced inside Beckinfield. Very Pirandello!

The MacWorld gig provided exposed the company to the Bay Area's tech community, and netted coverage by Mashable and some meetings with new investors, according to Gebert. 

It will be fascinating to see if there's an appetite among tech investors for a story-centered platform like Theatrics, which has dubbed its concept "mass participation television."

Theatrics' blend of user-generated content, Hollywood visibility, social networking, and guided story structure is quite unique, raising a lot of fascinating questions as story forms continue to evolve. For instance:

Could such a platform be used as a transmedia companion for conventional television series, creating a kind of video-based fan fiction? I can imagine this for the adventurous network or cable show-runner (and, I can also imagine the meeting with the network lawyers). 

  • Is Theatrics a social network for actors or a consumer viewing platform? Ideally, both, of course, but clearly to date, the tilt has been to create "an intimate experience for actors, a dream stage for them," as Gebert puts it. Theatrics has invested in "backstage" tools to attract and support actors, who, after all, are creating the content. The next challenge is to attract a viewing audience to the story these actors (and the site team) are co-creating. It may well be that the audience appeal of role-playing games and virtual worlds will trump the conventional divide between audience and creators.
  • Will this story-driven viewing experience scale? Social websites like Facebook and YouTube are built on the 80:20 rule, e.g., they attract vastly more members to consume the content produced by a small minority of "super producers," as a recent Pew study noted
  • What about curation? I suspect that audience growth will be capped unless the site embraces some form of user-generated curation, enriching the story container for the view-only visitor and the more active participant alike. The web is aflame with different tools that allow users to edit, curate, and shape the presentation of content--- a natural consequence of the proliferation of content. Of course, curation can also lead to the "hot chicks" problem -- telling a story based entirely upon, shall we say, non-story elements.
  • Finally, is the co-creation movement trending up or flattening? What started as an academic analysis of the customer-created value in business, we are now seeing considerable heat applied to the co-creation paradigm in all sorts of business. The  question is how long it will take to attract and retain an audience to these new forms of collaborative, participatory storytelling. (As with this site by transmedia innovator Scott Walker.)

Go ahead: Test drive Beckinfield and see what you think. If you have the time and inclination, create your own character and see what happens. (I thought I would , but I chickened out). 



It’s the end of the year, and I’ll be unfurling my favorite TV, films, software, and books of 2011 in a series of posts, beginning with television, here.

Speaking of lists, one of the most informative movie lists is from the BFI’s Sight and Sound, which polls 100+ critics to come up with the top movies. But the real fun are the critical commentaries that follow the main chart, where I discover lots of gems that I would otherwise never know about.

MOVIES: Speaking of movies, I for one can’t wait for the international coproduction of David Mitchell’s complex novel CLOUD ATLAS, which I just read. Evidently, the production financing may be as big a story as the ambitious movie itself, according to this report from the NY Times.

Meanwhile, Hollywood studios continue to roll out digital access to more movies via the UltraViolet “locker” project, with Sony releasing its first U.S. titles, and Warners expanding to the U.K.

PUBLISHING: Over in the disrupted world of books, Hachette tells the world why publishers are relevant in today’s digital ecosystem via a leaked memo, drawing a quick response from one J.A. Konrath, a successful self-published author. Makes for interesting jousting.

I learned more from a GigaOm post that shows how publishers have given “Amazon a stick to beat them with” by insisting upon DRM that locks readers into the Amazon walled garden. 

VIDEO: Online video viewing has crossed the threshold of 50% of the U.S. population this year, according to eMarketer.  

Beleaguered Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, on the offensive after a couple of brutal quarters, predicts that 50% of TV viewing will be on the web in ten years. He also announced that Netflix will stream more than one billion hours of video in Q4 of 2011. 

The web was abuzz with news and leaks about a planned streaming video competitor to Netflix from Verizon, which will team up with RedBox., an online video site featuring (what else) Machinima videogame content, has hit an amazing one billion monthly views, according to my old pal Allen DeBevoise. While the gamer niche is certainly an aspect of the success of the site, the larger implication to me is the success of ultra-niche video programming channels. Machinima will be of the 100-plus new YouTube partner channels that will begin rolling out in 2012, much as cable introduced “vertical” programming back in the ‘80s.

Microsoft made news with a major upgrade of the Xbox 360 platform, adding functionality and content partners and prompting this love letter post on Paid Content, which coins yet another term: “engaged TV.”

TRANSMEDIA: Two deep and thoughtful posts went up from leaders in the transmedia storytelling movement. First, check out part one of Gunther Sonnenfeld’s piece about evolving investment strategies in emerging media markets. 

The second, from Conducttr founder Robert Pratten is a great post about “engagement-driven” narrative design.

PREDICTIONS: The New York Times published a killer interactive feature on the history and future of computing. A timeline dating from 1617 lays out key discoveries in computation, AI, Transportation, Lifestyle and Communications, and then invites users to submit their own predictions. You can also amend the predictions, which in effect constitutes a form of crowd-sourced prediction. It’s fun!

The Personal Computer is Dead, by Harvard’s Jonathan Zittrain, is a jeremiad against vertical integration and walled gardens (Re: Apple). 

This Business Insider’s post, entitled “The Death of Television May Be Just 5 Years Away,” is bound to send shock waves through some of my clients, as it cites various cracks in the current model. 

That's it for this week. Follow me on Twitter (@nickdemartino) for daily doses of info, or subscribe to the newsletter on my site to get updates directly to your inbox. 


• Transmedia Talk at DALLAS VIDEO FESTIVAL

If you're in Dallas on September 25th at 2pm I'll be giving a talk about Transmedia as part of the 24th Annual Dallas Video Festival, one of the oldest video-focused festivals in the world. Launched by my long-time friend Bart Weiss, a fellow pioneer of the hand-held video revolution, the Dallas Video Festival brings a special twist to the festival circuit, now that film has merged with video and both have been swallowed by digital. 

I'll be building upon a talk I gave in May at Digital Hollywood and the three-part series on transmedia that I wrote in June for Tribeca's Future of Film site, and which has since been widely published on sites around the world. I've also been invited to participate on a panel on Saturday focusing upon The Changing Landscape of Independent Media on Saturday at 2pm. Details here.

I gave second thoughts to including the "transmedia" terminology in the title of my talk. On one hand, there's no denying that the term has buzz, and may help attract an audience more effectively than "the future of multi-platform story-forms" or some such thing. On the other, it's clear that many practitioners continue to air their displeasure at the widespread adoption of the terminology, especially by those without the credentials to do so (as one version has it.) 

I will dispense with the flame war quickly in order to move into why I continue to believe that transmedia storytelling has a strong future, providing further examples of exemplary work that furthers the trend since my earlier research and posts.

Please join me at the talk and the festival. Best part: I'm speaking at the Hyena Comedy Club. I leave it to you to connect THOSE dots.