By Meredith Levine | SydneysBuzz April 11, 2012 at 1:03PM
Transmedia Hollywood is a conference, in its third year, which I used to work on. It is a joint venture between UCLA’s producer’s Program Chair Prof. Denise Mann and legendary scholar and now USC professor Henry Jenkins. It was intended as an offshoot of MIT’s Futures of Entertainment Conference with the added bonus of being in a city with access to some of the leading industry professionals. With the purpose of creating a dialogue between cutting edge storytellers and the scholars that study them, this conference puts professionals on panels with scholars to talk about the most pressing issues of labor, funding, style, platforms, and all things media/narrative in a convergent culture. In my first two years working on the conference I was a conference coordinator and curated a panel on the ARG as a storytelling mechanism and its role in branding/advertising and the following year (2011) a panel on theme park design and world-building, emphasizing the role of setting in narrative. Although I am no longer formally working on this conference, because I graduated with my M.A. from UCLA and am therefore no longer Prof. Mann’s research assistant, I still attend and write about it.
Transmedia Hollywood 3 just passed on Friday and like the two years previous, aimed to work out some of the prospects of the futures of entertainment. While many were looking for a singular vision of the future the general consensus from all four panels was that a unified business model to deal with the future of entertainment in a transmedia world is not probable. We are still in a stage where the successes in a contemporary entertainment world are happy accidents heavily contextualized in their own circumstances, only to be unsuccessfully copied by other stories.
One of the members of the transmedia think tank The Alchemists ,and panelist, Mauricio Mota articulated the necessary elements for a successful transmedia project in his description of the four pillars: story, fans, platforms and brands. In order to be successful first and foremost there must be a great story. We are still dealing with narrative even in an age of technology. The second pillar is the fans. A story must find its audience, engage with them and encourage them to participate and interact with each other, with the text, and with the content creators. The third being platform. Stories, even if they are being told over multiple platforms still have a main platform and a mothership text. This story needs to not only be good, but also be told utilizing the capabilities of the platform. If the main story is a feature film, then that film must not only stand alone but also be enhanced significantly by the other ancillary stories being told on other platforms. Those stories on other platforms mustn’t be afterthoughts, or there because they need to be, but rather take full advantage of what the platform is capable of, if not push the boundaries of what that platform is capable of. Lastly, there are brands. This has to do with who is financing the project. No matter where the money comes from, if it is not your own and you happen to be independently wealthy, there will be expectations for meeting what the brand needs, and often concessions for what the brand wants. If the money is coming from the government, then the project usually must fit some higher mandate for arts, culture, entertainment, or public service. If the money is coming from a corporate or private source, frequently they too are looking to gain from the partnership.
Yet another agreed upon idea was that of the “shiny object.” This referring to a piece of media, with high production value, used to distract viewers from the product being sold. This stems from the convergence of the worlds of advertising, storytelling, and technology. Where fans are combative towards advertisements that are pushing products without tact, they seem to be much more receptive when “the ask” is masked in one of these objects, like the YouTube brand in the feature film Life in a Day, or Canon 5D’s campaign introducing the still camera’s capabilities for HD video, or Google’s “Parisian Love” campaign. Some of the best of the transmedia world right now are these shiny objects because well funded storytelling companies, like movie studio and television production are hesitant to venture into this world with the financial weight they would a more traditional story. This leaves advertisers, with a lower threshold of entry, to foray into creating transformative works on behalf of brands, with the notion that this more avant-garde means of reaching an audience, is less measurable, but more attractive while being less expensive than a traditional 30 second spot.
Without a traditional business model, projects are getting funding any way they can, from the damn “The Man” crowd-source web site Kickstarter, to government funding (in countries except for the United Stats and Japan), to pairing up with companies and organizations in order to proliferate a message for a brand, or some combination there of. While Canada has a vibrant culture for public-private funding of the arts, and values transmedia as “experimental” by far one of the most out-there strategy for making a property work hails from Brazil. With its sequel film Elite Squad 2 being up for an Academy Award this past year, its predecessor Elite Squad after careful consideration and tons of research, it turned out that the best chances for this property were to produce independently and what ended up as being distributed through the rampant network of pirated DVDs that exist throughout Brazil. Through this piracy the film found its audience, and forced an earlier and wider theatrical release than what was originally planned. It is through this turn of events that it is estimated 13 million viewers saw the first feature film, largely illegally, and took in the storyline with open arms, despite the controversial nature of story, to go on and overwhelmingly, legally, watch the sequel.
The meetup group Transmedia LA was represented on a panel by Tara Tiger Brown, who plugged a new alternate reality game (ARG) that is being built around the neighborhood of Miracle Mile. The Miracle Mile Paradox is a labor of love by local transmedia professionals in an attempt to build something significant that isn’t tied to some other intellectual property. Choosing Kickstarter as their means of fundraising, this project will be one to watch as far as experimental narrative, and location based storytelling is concerned.
Closing out the day was a panel on comic books and how comic books are NOT storyboards for cinema. Comics have found themselves in an industrial paradox, where they are being used heavily by the movie industry, and traditional media as jumping off points for film and television with built in, time tested audiences as well as being used as an ancillary branch for products relating to another franchise, while shrinking as a stand-alone industry. Although comic fans are avid participants in their communities, the communities are too small to sustain the industry on their own. Buffy Season 8 was a comic book series, now on Season 9, that picked up where the television program Buffy The Vampire Slayer left off when it went off the air. As another visual medium, with a low cost of production and ability for more creative control, this series is one of several ways comic books are being used as a part of a transmedia story. There are spin-off comics, and licensed properties, graphic novels, and original works, all of which play into a larger ecosystem.
I will leave you all with a concept that media scholars and fans alike wish we could scream from the rooftops and have the powers that be in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Madison Avenue really hear. Fans cannot be bought. In traditional advertising, data points to the ability to buy viewers. Facebook has butchered the word “fan” to mean almost the exact opposite. A fan on facebook just clicks on a “like” button and does not feel compelled to act, interact or participate in a larger community and dialogue. A true fan sticks up for what they identify with, knows when they are being sold something, and cannot be bought. As a fan and a scholar of fans, I have found, that much like being in love, fans are grown over time when prompted by a text they identify with, and given the opportunity to interact with it and with others who share strong feelings about it. They take stories and make them their own. They don’t respect IP laws and hate being talked down to. They turn great stories into pieces of culture, and this, much like class, cannot be bought.
It is about the relationships and the communities. The future of entertainment depends on it, so remember… Story. Fans. Platform. Brands.