The power of transmedia storytelling

Transmedia storytelling, often referred to as crossmedia or multiplatform storytelling takes the elements of a character’s narrative and applies them uniquely to each medium while extending the story. Research has shown that when consumers meet their characters in different media contexts their bonds are strengthened.
Written by Vince Thompson, Contributing Editor

Is your favorite entertainment character on your TV as well your computer screen and your phone? If so…the fans of Transmedia storytelling wouldn’t be surprised. Transmedia storytelling, often referred to as crossmedia or multiplatform storytelling takes the elements of a character’s narrative and applies them uniquely to each medium while extending the story. Research has shown that when consumers meet their characters in different media contexts their bonds are strengthened. It’s like bumping into your CEO at an amusement park. The context changes the relationship and strengthens it. (As long as you don’t spill anything on him!)

Jeff Gomez is a producer and Hollywood creative executive who’s really dedicated himself to the Transmedia model with great success. As the CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, he develops entertainment properties and serves as a creative consultant to Fortune 500 companies. Jeff conceived, co-wrote and produced one of the most successful Transmedia storylines of the decade with Mattel’s Hot Wheels including comic books, videogames, web content and animated series. He has also worked with such franchises as Pirates of the Caribbean and Tron for The Walt Disney Company as well as James Cameron’s Avatar for 20th Century Fox, Halo for Microsoft and most recently Transformers for Hasbro.

Jeff, how does Transmedia storytelling differ from just telling a story in different mediums?

Under the traditional model, when a big movie comes out, for example, we are offered the novelization, the adaptation in comics, and the videogame version for our Xboxes. It’s the same story over and over again, so the property is essentially milked until it’s dead.

The transmedia approach to this kind of narrative would give us different pieces of the narrative on different media platforms, so that we can see the movie and then explore different aspects of the characters and the world in other media. Taken as a whole, it’s a richer, deeper experience that gives us more of what we really want.

But most of all, transmedia narrative by definition has a number of what we call “invitational” components, where audience members are welcomed to participate by commenting on the narrative, by playing established or original characters, or even by contributing creatively to the world and the storyline.

Why is Transmedia storytelling important?

We are watching a generation rise to power that is plugged in and expects to be heard. They are learning to use these amazing tools and are becoming enormously savvy. They interface with gadgetry and any number of screens intuitively—but right now, most of the entertainment and brand messaging does not do that! The principles of transmedia storytelling address this, which makes transmedia narrative the most powerful in existence today.

Are advertisers applying these principles?

While most advertising agencies are paying lip service to transmedia storytelling, the majority don’t understand it. Intrinsic to this kind of approach are vast narratives—stories that are deep and compelling, that are set in worlds with rich histories. Ad agencies don’t have creatives with the training to build these narratives. But that’s going to change in the next few years.

What about educators?

Of course, the term “transmedia storytelling” was coined by an educator, Professor Henry Jenkins in his book Convergence Culture. There are a number of academics across the U.S. who are teaching transmedia narrative and some are fortunate enough to use transmedia to teach it. Henry is at USC teaching it right now, the M.I.T. Media Lab originated transmedia, the Savannah College of Art & Design is assembling a fine program. There are also colleges in Australia, Holland, France and Brazil developing excellent courses in the subject.

But I also feel very strongly that transmedia narrative will become one of the most effective tools to educate people on an array of subjects. After all, if we are growing up to be perfectly comfortable with an array of media channels, why not put them to use teaching us what we need to know in a carefully designed and fully interactive way?

What types of stories lend themselves best to Transmedia?

It’s true that transmedia storytelling has been most closely associated with big science fiction and fantasy properties like Lost and Star Wars, but I think all you really need as a basis for this form of expression is a story set in a world where the visionary or creators have developed a number of characters and a setting with a past, present and future. This could be a soap opera world, a period costume drama, the ongoing life of a rock star, most anything really.

What’s the easiest way to create a Transmedia story?

Well, it’s never really “easy” per se, but it can be truly wonderful. At Starlight Runner the way we approach transmedia development is by first immersing ourselves in the original vision. We ask ourselves, what are the building blocks of this narrative? What makes the characters and the world unique? What is this story trying to tell the world?

Once we understand this, we can set about creating a guidebook to the narrative that we call a Mythology. There are often so many people, divisions, creative teams, licensors involved in generating content around these large franchises that we work on, the Mythology addresses all of their concerns by teaching them the essence of the characters and stories and making recommendations for how to best weave the story across multiple media platforms. These are the “narrative tapestries” that I often talk about. This process can take months, but when done well there is an artfulness to it.

Can the web and its various tools, text, video, chat, etc., serve as a platform?

Not only can the web serve as a platform in transmedia narrative, because of the very tools you mention it will ultimately become the “driving platform” for it. The web facilitates the meeting between creator, creation and audience, and by its nature (when properly used) the web turns audience members into participants.

When you are invited into an aspirational world, when you are given a voice, it’s like when a storyteller is spinning a ripping yarn around a campfire responding to the faces, body language and comments of everyone sitting around him in the firelight. A connection is made, memories are formed, and an experience is created that can last forever. Transmedia narratives that integrate the web generate a bond of fierce loyalty.

What examples can you share?

With its comics, novels and videogames, each of which add something new to the canon, the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a true transmedia property. One can argue that the spark that lit all of it up was the Bronze, a fan-generated web site devoted to all things Buffy. Peter Jackson was one of the few creators who took responsibility for partnering with the fans when he decided on a high level of transparency while making the Lord of the Rings films. In the process, he educated a new generation of young people in Tolkien’s fantasy world, prepping them and building incredible anticipation for the films’ release.

I only wish that 20th Century Fox had done this for Avatar—I’m convinced the late-breaking advance footage would not be getting the mixed response we’re seeing had the core fan base been prepped with a transmedia approach.

Where can we get more information or help?

The form is so new that there aren’t a lot of resources quite yet. The electronic press kit on the Starlight Runner Entertainment http://www.starlightrunner.com site has a lot of background information on transmedia storytelling. Stephen Dinehart’s site on Narrative Design http://narrativedesign.org is excellent. I would also recommend linking in to the transmedia pages and feeds on Facebook and Twitter.

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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