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.


One Year in Now Media

Each year my colleague Simon Staffans from Helsinki provides a great service to the transmedia field with the publication of "One Year in Now Media" -- a compendium of his own great blog posts as well as interviews with people in the field, myself included.

Here are Simon's interview questions:

o   How was 2013 for you? You launched Theatrics – how’s it done? Why did you decide to launch that venture? And what projects – other than Theatrics ones J - have you been the most impressed by?

o   Back in the days, along the times of the first wrap-up I did, you said that there had been no transmedia projects to move you to tears yet. Has that happened yet? If not, why not? And do you see signs that it might come to happen? In what direction do you feel the multiplatform / transmedia world is moving?

o   What are your hopes and fears for 2014? What possibilities and challenges do you see on the horizon?

And my replies:

2013 was a great year for me. My focus has been work with start-ups in the digital media/technology ecosystem. Some examples:

I am Senior Advisor to ideaBOOST, a new accelerator for start-ups in the media/tech field, created and launched by the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. We completed and launched two cohorts -- more than a dozen companies including game platforms, transmedia properties, mobile apps, story-based e-commerce, and much more. We launched cohort #3 in late November, as well as a unique Production Lab in conjunction with wearable computing pioneer, Mind Pirate, a company that I advise. This Lab will incubate as many as five new products that run on Google Glass, as well as iOS and Android in 1st quarter of 2014. I’ve just gotten my own Google Glass device, and I’m very jazzed about this new form factor for experience delivery.

I'm also mentoring companies in another accelerator called Dogfish, based in New York City, with a focus on content creation startups. This accelerator from within the independent film community, and like ideaBOOST, believes that the principles of the "lean startup movement" can and should be used by content creators in order to develop sustainable business models for the digital era. One of the companies I advised is building a live-action game engine/platform, for example. Very interesting.

I also continued my work with, a collaborative media platform based in Houston. The company grew out of a unique interactive sci-fi soap opera called "Beckinfield" in which users created and performed as characters in the story. I loved that idea and felt that I could help the company introduce this form of deep fan engagement to the television industry. To that end, Theatrics helped power The Social Sector, a digital native story-driven "mystery" that invited fans into the story world of the characters from USA's hit series PSYCH, which ran for 8 weeks in Q1, and is still live.

In April we expanded the idea by offering the beta version of the Theatrics platform aimed at independent transmedia producers who want to offer fan-based content in a story container. Our first example was "Welcome to Sanditon," the sequel to the Emmy-winning "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries," which modernized Jane Austen. In Sanditon, fans could impact the story through their own character engagements uploaded as video, text or images. Other outstanding examples included The Ghost Club and Aurelia: Edge of Darkness. The latter, a steampunk adventure, struck a chord with Live-Action Role-players (LARPers). The beta test continues -- anyone can create their own interactive show by using the wizard on The company is also building other applications in conjunction a range of online publishers and enterprises. 

Theatrics is but one example of the rise of what I'm calling "Fan Powered Media." I gave several talks focusing on the idea of audience as engagement engine with content, including this presentation at the Broadband TV conference that used "The Walking Dead" as an example. Henry Jenkins and others have shown the way in recognizing that deep fan engagement, including content creation by users, is happening in both authorized and unauthorized ways. So a piece of commercial content is no longer just the linear artifact that attracts the fans -- it's really a vast ecosystem of fan engagement as well.

In terms of transmedia work this year, I focus on the independent projects, which are what interest me. I'm sure that companion apps for the latest Hollywood superhero movie were awesome, but this is not my terrain, except when forced to watch by friends or a long and boring plane ride.  

Rather, I applaud the talents and especially the perseverance of my colleagues who have managed to devise and launch ambitious independent projects that hold the greatest chance of moving me like novels, films and great TV.

I was very moved and quite impressed with The Hollow, an interactive documentary about an impoverished county in Appalachia. The creators used the power of documentary storytelling, but layered the navigation of the experience with very beautiful graphics and a killer UI. I don't know any more what is "transmedia" and what isn't. I just know that intensity of feeling is the goal, and this work brought me there more than most. Elaine McMillion and her team found support from Tribeca, Kickstarter and elsewhere to support a long-term media commitment to a specific place where information can make a difference. What makes her effort distinctive is the authenticity of the content and the delight one has in navigating the site.

A similarly beautiful user-experience was achieved in National Geographic Channel's "Killing Kennedy" TV movie's companion website (Kennedy and Oswald)!/premiere-screen. Our web technologies allow such a rich mix of media types in a user-controlled environment. In this case, the emotions were less intense than a dramatic narrative, nostalgic and bittersweet, sort of like reading an old LIFE Magazine.

I saw a screening of the theatrical component of the much-awaited transmedia production “The Cosmonaut” which also included webisodes and other digital elements. At the time I reviewed it, the non-film components were just being released, and so I concentrated on the film itself, much of which I liked, though not entirely. I did very much like the premise of taking a historical milieu, in this case the world of Soviet-era cosmonauts, and creating a fictionalized world that unfurls in different media. There was a delicate, haunting quality to this work that was quite fine. 

 “The Institute,” is a 2013 film by Spencer McCall that documents the story of an alternate reality game held in San Francisco a few years ago in which some 10,000 people participated -- a hoax-based story world revolving around a kind of EST-like cult, the mystery of a missing girl, and a lot of real-world activities on the streets. While McCall can't replicate the experiences of those involved, we get a sense of the experience through interviews with many of those involved, including the creators, the participants (including a few who are mentally ill), and occasionally capturing scenes as they unfold. By the end, some viewers might themselves wonder what is “real” and what was manufactured for either the game or the film. I liked this because it reminded me that we don't really have any way to archive these time-limited experiments. Even those that are entirely digital may suddenly vanish with the fortunes of the companies housing the data.

On a slightly different note, I've been very impressed with the curatorial excellence of Google's Creative Sandbox. While much of the work is from agencies and brands, it's very nice to have a neutral location that enhances discovery with a different spin from the always useful FWA site (Favorite Website Awards). And in the transmedia/ARG area, I find Michael Anderson's ARGNet indispensable. 

Year’s end affords an opportunity to reflect on where we are as a community. We saw the demise of the Story World conference and the launch of the Transvergence Summit, two conferences with some overlap and similar challenges -- an attempt to bring under one big tent a hydra-headed monster of a community which can't even seem to settle on a definition of what it does, and probably with good reason.

The nomenclature flame wars, to wit Brian Clark's recent Facebook post and the comments that followed, are tiresome. The essential issue being raised by many early transmedia practitioners has come and gone -- namely, that stories can unfold in many ways across a number of different platforms. Got it. Now what

We've seen multi-platform story experiments large and small from mainstream television and motion picture producers without much evidence that there is sustained interest there, other than to find inventive ways to promote and market the mother ship. Sometimes this stuff is great fun, especially with properties that already have fans.

A new artform? Not so much. Just take the meteoric rise and fall of so-called "second screen" apps, especially for TV, as an example. Marketers have done a lot of different implementations for many, many shows on a slew of emerging platforms, and I suspect will continue to do so, but the real winners at the end of the day are the all-purpose platforms Facebook and Twitter, which are easy for agencies to understand, and have massive scale. And can be measured, sort of. And therefore monetized.

So, I would expect experiments with the form to remain the province of independents who have different measures of success, though some financial return would be much appreciated, I'm sure. These folks want to invent something new, and perhaps along the way deliver a deeper experience to a smaller, but more intensely committed group of fans. Many of these folks will emerge from the transformed film and journalism programs at major universities, which, if you haven't noticed, are bursting at the seams (go figure!). We have a new generation of transmediologists coming up. I look forward to seeing their work. 


Helping the Dogfish Fly

The ‘classic’ business accelerator model is an investor-backed bootcamp-style program that offers tech entrepreneurs money, training, advice, and access in exchange for a share of the company (think: Y Combinator and TechStars). 

Can the model work for indie film?

That question drove NYC-based producer James Belfer to expand the boundaries of his indie film company Dogfish Pictures by launching the Dogfish Accelerator to help filmmakers think like start-ups. Inspired by a summer at Tech Crunch, Belfer joined with his colleague Michelle Soffen to co-found an indie film accelerator, which held its demo day last Friday.

James Belfer (via #googleglass)

I was there as a minor mentor in the program, having spent an intense day of speed-dating with six of the eight companies in the program and some Skype calls along the way. I'd originally reached out to Dogfish for a panel for accelerators in the media business -- there are still only a handful (Media Camp, Matter Ventures, and ideaBOOST, which I advise).

I wanted to see how far these young companies could come in three months, and to learn how the Dogfish model has progressed its first time out. It’s one thing to generate press buzz, and quite another to execute.

Did it work?

The teams I met in September delivered much better pitches last Friday. Their business goals were more clearly articulated, and somebody made sure they were funny and engaging and warm. Even though they couldn’t explicitly raise money at the event, they all laid out their financial needs and how they’d use the money.

Me w/ Zach Lieberman, shot by Ryan Koo via #googleglass (their company, Exit Strategy is building a live-action game engine).Listening to the pitches, you could see the influence of the tech start-up spirit, even among those companies that were essentially offering single films or a slate of films (which was the majority). All of these companies had deeply absorbed the new paradigm for successful indie content – which is to know, find and connect with audiences long before the release date. All were exceedingly tech and social media savvy, and much more grounded in the entire business ecosystem they hoped to conquer.

But they’re running a marathon, not a sprint – it’s too soon to know whether Dogfish’s companies will succeed at raising funds and building sustainable businesses.  

To help, Belfer announced that Dogfish will work with the eight companies on an ongoing basis as they raise funds and launch their businesses, and that “by next year, I hope to be telling you details about a Dogfish Studio.” The 2014 program will kick off in September. Aspirants can register early on the website prior to the official application process.

I can’t wait to see what happens. 

Allie Esslinger of Section II, the first VOD platform for premium content for lesbians.Jessalyn Abbott gives me and my #googleglass an infectious smile (Aptly, her company is Go Infect Films.)


Impresarios of Interactivity

If you’re near New York City next Wednesday (12/11/13), you should check out the one-day version of the TV of Tomorrow Show. And if you do that, don’t miss my panel at 4:55, charmingly dubbed “The Impresarios of Interactivity” by Tracy Swedlow, herself quite an impresario and the hardest working woman in show business. Seriously.

The session showcases folks who see interactivity as the key to advancing TV and video and proving it by attracting investors, partners, customers and audience for the vision. If you too believe that the future of TV and video should be interactive, social and personalized, please don’t miss this panel, which includes:


Dawn of the Next Big Thing: I Get Glass

While other Americans were trampling each other for retail bargains on Black Friday, I was driving through the rain to Google’s Venice Beach facility for an appointment with a Google Guide named Sam, whose job was to introduce me to my new Google Glass wearable technology device.

We traversed a predictably whimsical courtyard (giant chess board, etc.) and a gourmet lunchroom (Sushi Specials!!) bereft of the 600 Google employees housed in the former Chiat-Day binoculars building because of the Thanksgiving holiday. The joint was empty except for Google Guards, Google Guides, and Google Explorers, the latter group being the one that includes me.

My first pic with Glass.The Explorer program launched back in the Spring with a #ifihadglass contest. Some 8,000 folks were offered the chance to buy their own Glass (at $1,500) and, as Google put it, “Being part of the Glass Explorer program is pretty insane (good insane): let's face it, using cutting edge technology that changes every month requires a certain sense of adventure.”

I did not enter the contest, though I must say, I was tempted. A friend and colleague Shawn Hardin had told me privately that his next company, Mind Pirate, was developing a full-scale game and app platform for Glass and other wearable computing devices, premised on the conviction that this market will be huge.

Shawn is incredibly convincing. His research suggests that the wearable tech market, which includes smart glasses, watches and clothing, will grow to $18 billion by 2018, up from $1.4 billion this year, with more than 64 million units worldwide. He told me that 10 million smart glasses will ship by 2016, and not just from Google – many companies are jumping into this.

In the intervening months, I’ve joined the Mind Pirate Board of Advisors and helped formulate a new production lab program between the company and the Canadian Film Centre’s ideaBOOST media tech accelerator, which I advise. We launched that program November 21st in Toronto with five participants (SmokeBomb Entertainment, Imaginary Computers’ Sean McCracken, Normative, and Little Guy Games and the CFC Media Lab). It was an extraordinarily creative and energized experience, diving deep into the technology of developing for Glass, learning about Mind Pirate’s Calisto platform, and jamming with some insanely smart folks. It’s called Flow.

So, of course, I had to apply to the Glass Explorers program and I had to accept when my invitation arrived a few days after my return from Toronto. I plunked down my own dough at a decidedly non-Black-Friday price, even though I know that other, cooler wearable gear is likely to make this thing on my head seem quaint in a matter of a business cycle or two. I’ve got to hurry up and be cool.

Rainbow outside the Google office, taken with Glass.So here I am again at the dawn of the Next Big Thing:  a new and very disruptive generation of devices, applications, and services, to rival previous revolutionary platforms such as the PC, Internet, broadband, social media and mobile.

I’ve been in the land of tomorrow in the past. Somewhere in the closet I have, for example, Apple’s QuickTake camera (boo), a Newton (ugh) and several Palm Treos (yea). None of those turkeys lasted. In general, being on the bleeding edge is messy and time-consuming, since pioneering devices are never as useful as their progeny. Which is why it’s better to get them for free.

Still, I do like the idea of being first, seeing the technolust in the eyes of my fellows, though so far, most people have ignored me. As my friend Carol said, “I thought it was going to be Goggles.” No, Carol, Googles, not Goggles.

So far, I’m just learning the interface, which is kind of tricky. I’ve set up my account, learned how to take a picture and record a video, set up WiFi and navigate pointless Twitter posts on my eyelids. When I sent an email to my college roommate, I couldn’t figure out his reply, which was “Wow, Alice, is it really you?” until I read what I had actually sent:

hi Michael this is my first email response on Google glass

Followed by:

Sent Through the Looking Glass

Seriously, the Glass default signature is THAT?

Then there’s social etiquette of using the device – the Internet was alive with the story of an Explorer who got kicked out of a Seattle restaurant.

I’m more afraid that I’ll look like I’ve got Tourette’s or epilepsy as I twitch, tap and shout to my little friend in the screen inside my head. 

I will be in Silicon Valley and New York City in the next week, which should give me plenty of experience to report here, and on the Explorers website. I figure I’d better hurry up and act like an early adopter before everybody gets these things, rumored to be in a matter of months.


The Walking Dead & The Era of Fan-Powered Media

"The Era of Fan-Powered Media" was a talk I gave last week at the Broadband TV Conference (formerly OTTCon) in L.A. -- a riff I've been developing for a long time, and sharpened over the past year as I've worked, a really interesting platform for participation and collaboration. We were required to use a PPT template and focus on a theme, not a company sales pitch. 

My premise is simple: the actual TV show itself is the hub of interaction, participation and content-creation by fans who now have both the desire and the means to step into the story. The smart showrunners and networks generate many opportunities for fan involvement -- but, whether they do or not, today's fans are going to engage & create in dozens of ways across the Internet. Oftentimes, over the life of a TV property, these fan-engagement engines generate more views than the original content, although this is difficult to measure by traditional means because the fan-centric experiences are so fragmented. Work needs to be done to expand "engagement metrics" beyond a handful of the most obvious social networks.

Theatrics and other platforms that focus on fan-generated content offer some fascinating pointers to how the future might look as "shows" become authentically co-created. I've included some examples towards the end of my presentation, but for more, please see the presentation I gave for StoryCode in September. 

In this presentation, I decided to dive deeply into one property -- AMC's The Walking Dead. What resulted was a parade of examples of both official and unauthorized fan content production across the web in text, graphics, and video. The choice of the AMC hit was, in one sense, low-hanging fruit. It's a mature property with ten years of the underlying IP (comic book) and five seasons on television. It's a sizzlingly hot genre, e.g., zombies. And it is, arguably, the most successful cable show ever, in terms of the growth and maintenance of the audience. 

One would also have to give kudos to TWD's creative and marketing team for their consistent and inventive brand extensions and deep understanding of the social media ecosystem. They keep feeding the hunger of their fans (pun intended) and recognize that mash-ups and remixing and other unauthorized expropriation of their copyrighted materials (video, images, gameplay, etc.) only serve to generate a virtuous spiral of excitement and commitment by other fans. 

These Super Fan are the target for certain kinds of popular culture, not just because they may be the sort of "influencers" that marketers covet, but because they are collectors, curators, makers and sharers. When a Super Fan makes a mark inside her story world of choice, they feel that they are a part of that story. 

Put another way: The TV show of the future includes its fans.

Note: Huge hat-tips to Henry Jenkins, whose understanding of fan culture is unrivalled; and Kris Longfield, who calls herself a "fanthropologist" and proves it in the work she does to leverage fan culture for content and brand innovators. 

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