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.


Mystery and Emotion: "The Cosmonaut" hits the big screen

“The Cosmonaut,” directed by Nicolas Alcala and produced by Carola Rodriguez and Bruno Teixidor, all part of Spain’s Riot Cinema Collective, had long since become a legend, at least in transmedia circles, well before its checkerboard theatrical release in venues around the world this week.

The project, which began as a short film in 2008, exemplefies many of the innovations in our digitally powered and audience-centric media world, including ongoing crowd-funding, online webisodes, consumer-edited mashups, on-demand theatrical distribution, hackathons, simultaneous day-and-date release, and probably a lot of other stuff I have missed in reviewing this creative and business brief you can download from Riot’s main website. (And of course, all of the characters have Twitter accounts. Let's not get into continuity issues right now.)

If there’s no in-person screening, not to worry – you can watch it for free online starting May 19th. The website is also where you can join the “K-program” for a onetime fee of 5€ that gives you 32 webisodes, a mockumentary, behind-the-scenes videos, a newsletter, a book, and 56 “Eastern eggs” (Lost, perhaps, in translation?) This stuff is intended, as one of the webisode links says, to “fill the empty spaces left out of the film.” Some clips are also available on the site for free.

None of this I really knew when the lights dimmed in the theatre and I entered the world of the story. “The Cosmonaut" focuses upon two young men who join the Soviet Union’s space training program in 1967. While preparing for missions in the heated space race with the United States, Stas and Andrei both fall for a fetching female technician named Yulia. Andrei gets promoted to the mission team and sends Stas to the moon – maybe so he can win Yulia, maybe for some other mysterious reason.

Stas, Yulia & Andrei The film is jammed with loose threads and snippets of mystery: Did Stas make it to the moon? Did he come back? Was there a disaster on Earth? The film is steeped in evocative nostalgia and melancholic yearning as it makes its way through a jagged, non-linear telling of a series of events, both personal and world-historical.  I particularly liked the set-up scene in which an Italian space enthusiast tells of his discovery of a “lost” manned space mission that the Soviets never publicly admitted had happened. 

Stylistically, many of the scenes felt like Terence Malick, offering a kind of diaphanous, non-linear sensuality and very tactile verisimilitude. These guys put all of their crowd-sourced bucks on the screen (except for a few unfortunate space-modeling sequences that looked more like Jules Verne than George Lucas). The pacing and subject matter recalls Kubrick's "2001."The filmmakers list such iconic filmmakers as Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson, among others. 

That would be a bit of a stretch, as is the film itself, which runs about 80 minutes (not counting a truly interminable credit roll that features all 8000 funders, I kid you not). This would have been a dynamite short film, had the filmmakers had the discipline to delete a lot of the repetitive sentimentalized shots of the three lovers wandering through lakeside grasses and other outtakes of Summer’s Eve commercials.

Subscribers get more stuffNonetheless, this film comes closer than most ‘transmedia projects’ at arousing genuine emotion. While I didn’t believe for a minute that this attractive threesome with tut-tut British accents were in fact Soviet space monkeys, I did want to know what happened, I wanted to know more about them, the story, and their world. Beyond this intentionally opaque film, I’ll be able to explore some of those questions, not only in the various webisodes, but other forms included different edited versions from the filmmakers themselves, and new versions of the film that the Riot Collective will enable fans to create themselves by releasing assets for all to use under Creative Commons license.  

The film also reflects something of a Cold War nostalgia wave, as well as a renewal of interest in space as a subject in movies and elsewhere in the culture. To wit: Check out the forthcoming Alfonso Cuoron feature "Gravity"; or this clip from 2011's Another Earth in which Britt Marling's character tells a Cosmonaut story; or the recently concluded period spy drama The Americans; or even this engaging video cover of Bowie's 'Space Oddity' by Astronaut Chris Hadfield shot in the International Space Station. (Plus Star Trek, and much more. We love our space operas, it seems).

I’ve often said, I’m waiting for transmedia to make me cry – my way of saying, I want the story and the characters to move into my heart. “The Cosmonaut” in its linear form came close. Let’s see if the other story elements push me over the edge. 

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Jane Austen, Edtech, and the Promise of ‘Theatrics’

The School Library Journal published Part 2 of an interview with me today in conjunction with the launch this week of "Welcome to Sanditon" on my client's collaborative storytelling platform. Here is the text. 

MAY 16, 2013 BY 

Following is a continuation of my talk with Nick DeMartino, Head of Business Development for This week’s first episode bow of Welcome to Sanditon, based on the unfinished novel by Jane Austen and featuring a robust fan participation platform provided byTheatrics, prompted our chat–which soon turned to school-based applications of the technology.

What’s a specific curricular example of what could be done with Theatrics…?

A literature teacher could assign a team to create a transmedia adaptation of a story–like theLizzie Bennet team did–and involve the entire class, grade, or even across distances with other students using Theatrics’ cloud-based platform. The “Calls to Action” and the responses from the participants can vary wildly–why not assign alternative endings? What would happen if Tom Robinson had been acquitted in To Kill a Mockingbird? How would Holden Caulfield have changed if he moved to a new school in Ohio instead of New York City? You get the idea.

Teachers in other subject areas can use the platform to create innovative learning experiences as well by developing their own assignments using documentary-style video production as well as fictional characters, which opens up subjects as varied as history and social studies, health education, ethnic studies–even math and science. 

screenshot sanditon Jane Austen, Edtech, and the Promise of TheatricsTo play devil’s advocate for a moment, should librarians and teachers be cautious in terms of their expectations for student engagement? That is, if they look to the success of Theatrics in relation to Sanditon, should they bear in mind that the audience that’s creating new characters and videos are alreadyfans of the central text? In contrast, in a class of secondary students I doubt that most of them would self-identify as “fans” of the literary text being used or the historical event being covered…

Yes, setting learning goals and outcomes is essential–it’s what great educators do that enables them to assess student achievement–and this is why Theatrics is eager to partner with innovators who know how to transform a toolset into a learning platform.

The meta-outcome of this kind of constructivist learning is that students learn how to learn. If they are charged with creating a character that responds to events in a story, and then to produce a video in which the story is advanced… well, there’s a lot of learning in that experience, not to mention the interaction it may trigger with the story creators and the other participants. This becomes less about producing “great” videos, and more about empowering kids to grasp the dynamics of storytelling.

Today’s kids are digital natives who take for granted the opportunity to engage with and contribute to the content they love online, whether that is expressed simply via social networks, or more elaborately as content creators on sites like YouTube, Tumblr, video games, even Second Life. Educators are recognizing that there is real learning that occurs through these mediated social interactions and narrative interventions, and are finding creative ways to make sure that learning of this sort does not stop at the schoolhouse door.

And yet many students will be familiar with Jane Austen and comparable canon authors only because of schools…

A narrative experience like LBD is compelling in part because of the great bones of Austen’s story and characters, for sure. But equally compelling is the story form, the opportunity for consumers to engage deeply with those characters, who literally can walk off the page and into the fans’ daily lives through social media and video.

So I think the driver for many kids will be the chance to participate and engage inside a storyworld. They get to be more than just fans, they get to be co-creators. And that act of engagement can be transformational, and certainly educational. Also, it may true that by some measures the quality of most student work will not compare favorably to professional content, though I’ve seen many exceptions. Talent is talent.


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School Library Journal Interview, Pt. 1

Peter Gutierrez is a consultant, writer, editor and education expert who posts around the web, including School Library Journal. He interviewed me about and the launch of 'Welcome to Sanditon.' Part 1 appeared May 15 and is reposted below. Part 2 follows on May 16 and I'll post it tomorrow. 

MAY 15, 2013 BY   

Welcoming 'Sanditon' .. and a Whole New Level of Fan Participation

In case you missed it a couple of days ago, the first full episode of the new web seriesWelcome to Sanditon went live. Like its predecessor, the phenomenon known as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, the series features an updated take on Jane Austen, sharp writing, a likable cast, and overall combo of smarts and fun that’s hard to resist. Of course both series display the strengths of the medium–brief episodes, modest production values, a clever leveraging of ancillary tech, and, most significantly, robust audience engagement. For the latter, the folks at Pemberly Digital have teamed up with, LLC, which is pioneering fan participation in exciting ways that may have direct application in schools and libraries. With this in mind, I thought I’d check in with Nick DeMartino, with whom I chatted about transmedia and libraries last year, and who now heads business development for the company.

DeMartino has led Theatrics’ shift from a storytelling destination, which had been the model for its homegrown series Beckinfield, to a platform designed to extend storyworlds for its customers, specifically television networks. He facilitated the first such deal that brought the Theatrics solution into an online companion series for Psych called The S#cial Sector, and was product lead on the launch of the beta test of the new online platform at .


LBD 500x281 Welcoming ‘Sanditon’...and a Whole New Level of Fan Participation

Fans of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries could already interact with the characters. How willSanditon go beyond this?

Fans who come to Welcome to Sanditon will continue to have all of the opportunities to connect to characters that they did with Lizzie Bennet–posting their own YouTube videos, posting on Twitter, Facebook and especially Tumblr, and commenting on all of the platforms. But with Sanditon, they are also being invited to create their own characters and perform in character as the story unfolds. To achieve this, the producers have partnered with Theatrics, whose collaborative storytelling platform is designed to optimize fan engagement.

Fans will create a “Persona” through which they interact with the show creators. In character, the fans can generate videos, stills and blog posts in response to Calls to Action posted by the show creation team. Audience members can rate, link, and share this content, and by so doing earn points and badges, because the Theatrics platform is fully “gamified.” Along the way, the work of some fans may be plucked from the Theatrics site by the producers and shared across the entire storyworld of Sanditon, creating additional incentives for fans to deliver “great performances.”

To what extent is the series being produced with this interaction and character- or persona-creation in mind? In other words, in what ways is Theatrics organic to experiencing the series rather than just a neat add-on?

The folks behind Lizzie Bennet and Sanditon are such brilliant storytellers for this new socially-engaged generation, and they’ve set up the story container for audience engagement in a very inventive way. First, they’ve adapted Sanditon in a range of ways to advance the audience’s opportunity for engagement. Like LBD, they have moved the location to California and of course made the setting a contemporary situation. Second, they have brought Darcy’s sister Gigi from LBD into the Sanditon story, and prepared for the launch of Sanditon by posting a teaser video that sets up the premise, namely, that she is moving to this new town which is trying to bring itself back with the help of Pemberley Digital, the company Gigi’s brother runs. Pemberley is launching a new piece of video software called Domino, which was a big element in the climax of LBD. In Sanditon, this fictional “app” will be used by residents of the town–this is the activity that occurs on the site.

Gigi Darcy

Thus fans will not only have the opportunity to interact with the story, but actually be a part of it. The platform will power the in-story beta test of the fictional Domino “life-revealing” application, allowing fans to create their own characters and interact directly with the storyline, offering a completely new interactive experience.

We’ll see how the LBD fans take to this new concept, but given the level of their engagement with story and characters, it seems very likely that they’ll jump on the chance to perform. Which means there may be lots more “location”-style video uploaded, in addition to the “vlog” style of LBD.

Does Sanditon being an unfinished novel enter into this at all? Will fan participation drive how the narrative itself ultimately plays out, or is that already close-ended?

As Margaret Dunlap, co-showrunner of Welcome to Sanditon has said, “People were constantly asking us about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries: ‘How did interaction with fans affect the story?’ And the truth is that when you’re working from an amazing and well-loved story like Pride and Prejudice, there’s only so far you can stray from the original before you aren’t telling a version of Austen’s novel anymore.  Using Sanditon—where literally no one knows what Austen’s ending was going to be—as the basis for our next project seemed like the perfect way both for us to do something new, and to be able to invite the fans to help create the town alongside us.”

The show creators refer to Sanditon as a “bridge” series–they raised nearly $500,000 from fans on KickStarter to support a DVD boxed set of LBD, and to launch a new series in the fall, based upon an as-yet unannounced property. Sanditon will bridge the two full-scale productions this summer,  and will by design include fewer fully produced video segments. The story will more fully unfold as the fans create characters and co-create the story.

Does it make sense to think about educators working with students to create their own low-budget series shot in everyday settings like LBD that are based on other works of canon lit in the public domain? Will Theatrics be a viable resource for media and edtech specialists in this respect?

While I was at AFI we created a curriculum under the banner of “Screen Education” through which teachers helped their students use the vocabulary and techniques of digital filmmaking to explore all sorts of subject matter. We saw filmmaking as a literacy issue, a means to an end, e.g., harnessing kids’ interest in filmmaking and storytelling as a way to explore subject matter. Teachers who were comfortable managing this sort of constructivist learning process achieved amazing results.

With the Theatrics platform, the entire classroom assignment can be structured within a contained and controllable story container. Teachers can give assignments on an ongoing basis through the Call to Action feature. Students can create videos in response, can comment and vote on each others’ work, and can share it across the open Internet (or not, it’s the teacher’s choice).


Please check back tomorrow, when we will get into more specific possibilities involving Theatrics and curriculum… Thanks!


'Sanditon' - A Town Built by Digital Immigrants

Welcome to Sanditon”, the highly anticipated sequel to the hit web series “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” launched on the web this week with a new, interactive twist: fans can create their own characters who interact directly with the storyline, thanks to the Theatrics collaborative storytelling platform. More than 100 Personas were created on Sanditon’s Theatrics site in the first 24 hours after launch, thanks to the huge and very involved fan base of the Bennet series.

Join the show to create your own Persona and learn more about how the Theatrics platform is helping this team of 21st Century storytellers bring their fans into their story world. The story’s home page is here. Pemberley Digital, the company producing both projects, selected LLC to provide a new component to their newest transmedia experience, complementing story and interaction on popular web platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

Key to the Sanditon strategy is the formulation of their Theatrics site’s value for audience engagement. The overall storyline calls for residents of the town of Sanditon to “ beta test” a new type of online video software called Domino. The Theatrics site is where that “test” is being conducted, allowing fans to create their own characters and interact directly with the storyline in a completely new interactive experience.

Over the next four months the Sanditon content creators will use Theatrics tools to:

  • manage the characters created by the fans
  • download fan videos to share socially and for compilation edits
  • send “Calls to Action” to accounts that have created personas, so they can help drive the story forward
  • connect the Theatrics experience to the other social platforms where the story is also unfolding in other forms

If you have questions about how to use for your project during this beta test period, please feel free to contact me at 

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Transmedia Branding Resources

Here's a selection of links and resources that accompany my Transmedia Branding post which I wrote for the May issue of Communications World from the IABC.

• Audi launched its A3 car in North America with Art of the Heist, a spy movie that audience members could participate in. The campaign was one of the first so-called “alternate reality games” launched by a brand and agency Campfire. Here’s a case study. To track these types of games, subscribe to newsletters from ARG.netand Unfiction.  

• Wrigley’s launched a mysterious “Mission Icefly,” a game that recruited “test subjects” who could only get deeper into the game by using special codes printed on packs of gum. The process of discovering the mysterywas a big part of the appeal of the game, produced by veteran transmedia firm 42 Entertainment.

• Old Spice created an online sensation when it brought back its tired old brand through humor and a sexy spokesman, Isaiah Mustafa, showing a keen sense of how different platforms can be used to create brand ambassadors out of curious users, including a cool interactive ad, profiled here. Dive deeper into the brand’s masterful internet “meme” in this case study.

• Lego transcends toys by creating story-based experiences for kids and other customers. Check out this overview of the Lego approach to transmedia.

• The iconic apparel marketer Levi-Strauss built a youth-targeted YouTube-centric story universe with video channels devoted to culture, men’s and women’s style, collaborations, and events. Read more.

• Toymaker Mattel built out the back-story of its famous dolls with videos, games and other digital content, radiating from a website hub. Check out this case study.

• Google’s Creative Sandbox website curates successful digital campaigns, including some cool transmedia storytelling experiences.

• “Transmedia Storytelling and the Media Cloverleaf” offers a PR agency perspective from Edelman.

• B2B Transmedia Marketing, one of the newest disciplines, is one of the areas of focus for a program at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab.

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