Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Transmedia Way: Storytelling Across Platforms

By Greg Guma

For the Star Trek generation – which should also cover most Baby Boomers – the notion of a single cool, compact device that delivers all imagined media functions has been a captivating vision of the future. Just push a button and, presto, you see whatever info you need. But now that we’re well into an era of media convergence, that’s apparently no longer the goal. Instead, devices are proliferating, while information and stories are conveyed across more and more platforms.

Some predict extinction for the “old media.” But will books really disappear because of the new digital options? Not likely, since printed books do seem to deliver a unique experience. Then again, so do handheld devices, laptop computers and home theaters, among others. What seems to be happening, for the moment anyway, is a rough and tumble multi-platform co-existence, and the drivers include culture, economics and technology.
     For corporate media giants it’s a matter of synergy, the ability to develop and market their franchises across various divisions. But convergence is also turning more media “consumers” into active participants – as engaged fans, volunteer distributors, and, increasingly, producers of content. As Middlebury College student Aaron Smith noted in a 2009 study of “Transmedia storytelling for Television 2.0,” the processes of convergence “form a perfect incubator for transmedia stories to flourish, setting the stage for narratives to flow across media platforms.” This in turn is changing how both creators and consumers see the storytelling process.
     These issues and more will be explored in Vermont on April 26-28 at Transmedia:The Future of Storytelling Across Platforms, a weekend film festival in White River Junction. In addition to the screening of seven feature films, the festival will include hands-on workshops and presentations that examine the intersection of filmmaking, writing and web design for interactive and user-generated storytelling.
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One of the earliest to notice our changing media landscape was Henry Jenkins, currently teaching and writing at the University of South California after a decade as director of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program. In 1992, for example, Jenkins noted the impact of fan culture as more people began appropriating and “repurposing” content for their own amusement. Twenty years later it’s common for fans of a TV show, film or book to interact with the creators and artists through social media.
     Jenkins calls transmedia a set of choices about how to tell “a particular story to a particular audience in a particular context depending on the particular resources available to particular producers.” What he specifically excludes from this definition is “business as usual” projects that are “simply slapping a transmedia label on the same old franchising practices we’ve seen for decades.”
     In an influential 2007 essay, "Transmedia Storytelling 101," Jenkins described a process in which “integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.”  Most such stories aren’t based on individual characters or specific plots, he argued, but on “complex worlds which can sustain multiple interrelated characters and stories.”
     Because this type of storytelling requires coordination across media, he believes it has worked best either for indie projects where one artist shapes the story across all media involved, or those where strong collaboration is encouraged across divisions of the same company.
     New media tools have reduced production costs, removed some of the distribution barriers, and expanded the range of delivery channels. At the same time, however, concentration of ownership continues to accelerate.  Global corporations like Viacom, News Corp, Disney and Time Warner all have divisions creating films, TV, video games and comics. This gives them the ability, and an enormous economic incentive, to produce and market productions across various platforms.
     But branding and repetition aren’t usually enough to assure success. Along with convergence has come another dynamic, the attraction of “divergent narratives,” ones that extent stories and characters through social media, games, magazines, newspapers, and other channels.  Viewers increasingly follow their favorites online, download episodes or webisodes, and use syndication platforms like Hulu. You can watch – and learn about the back story, the production and players—whenever you want on a smart phone or streamed to your TV screen.  Some shows, particularly sci fi and fantasy, urge viewers to “synch” up and participate online as they watch episodes.
     This shift in how people consume media – especially films and serial stories – also seems to be “unbundling” them; that is, the primary object in the exchange isn’t always a CD, DVD, newspaper or TV channel. Very often it is a specific article, episode or scene, sometimes just a brief clip or single track. You obtain it however you can, then share it and perhaps add a comment.  Whether this improves communication or adds to human knowledge remains to be seen.
     On the other hand, it’s much easier these days to create or manipulate photos, video and music; in effect, to become an independent content producer. As Jenkins sees it, the power of this participation isn’t mainly its potential to challenge the dominant commercial culture, but rather the ability to write over it, to remix, remold, amend and extend it – and then re-circulate a new creation, possibly even crossing back into the “mainstream” media.
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For corporate media, one early model of transmedia storytelling emerged out of the NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street. In 1997, a cross-platform episode began with the investigation of a webcast killing. Detectives from the “Second Shift” closed the case on the Internet only to have it re-opened on the next Homicide TV broadcast. The case concluded online the following week. Each part made sense, but crossing platforms enhanced the experience.
     Two years later, two productions marked transmedia’s full emergence as a cultural force. The two could barely be more different.
     First, in March 1999, came The Matrix, the iconic movie franchise later extended into an online game, comic books and anime films, along the way contributing enduring memes and phrases. Rather than offering adaptations of the original material, each project added something new. The video game wasn’t well received, and the connection of Parts 2 and 3: Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, to transmedia content left some film viewers in the dark. However, those who crossed platforms got the full effect.
     The summer after the first Matrix film, The Blair Witch Project became a cultural phenomenon, and soon one of the biggest low budget successes in film history. The key ingredient was a website. Established a year before the film was released, it extended the story with alleged sightings, faux-documentaries and other devices designed to make the events seem real.  Blair Witch demonstrated the power of a devoted fan base and effective multi-platform promotion and storytelling.
     Since then, shows like Heroes and Lost have attempted something similar, spreading their narrative across platforms, while Canada’s ReGenesis, a mystery series about bio-terrorism, used a website to let viewers become “field agents” and play an extended reality game.  Two new post-apocalypse TV shows, Revolution and Defiance, currently urge viewers to synch up as new episodes air.  There’s something about sci fi that lends itself to extensions and interactivity.
     Still, the transmedia revolution has been relatively slow, in part due to a 2007 writer’s strike just as the power of multi-platform storytelling was being noticed. The big studios nevertheless argued that streaming video and other “ancillary” content is just promotional, and thus declined to offer writers much in residual payments. The theory is that Guild writers haven’t done their best work since because they aren’t being fully compensated. Perhaps. But it could also be true that, regardless of how much money is involved, it isn’t that easy to do.
     Ideally, a transmedia story invites the consumer to gradually discover a world across various media, layer by layer, and perhaps also interact with it. It encourages examination and ongoing investigation. But this means attention, involvement, and enough ability and time to follow a narrative across various platforms – at least to fully appreciate or understand it.  Well, you can rule out my mom, anyone not online, and most folks over 60.
     It’s a perfect approach for some projects, especially those hoping to tap into a base of collective knowledge or interest. But it’s not for everyone, and there will always be works of singular vision that, though they may be adaptable, aren’t necessarily improved by extension. Sometimes the best media experience is just to plow straight through to the end, then “close the book” and see what’s next.

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