November 17, 2006
FOE: Transmedia Properties
Transmedia Properties
Paul Levitz, President and Publisher of DC Comics. Paul's early comments focus on the tools that are available now which open whole new realms of storytelling. To paraphrase, his opening remarks were that, "for cartoonists and comic book writers and artists, the potential of using our tool set and forms for a wider range of people and for evolving forms of transmedia has been something that has been a minute away for the last decade, it seems, and appears to be here now." He also traced direct forms of transmedia storytelling in America back to James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy, which appeared in 1821 as a novel and 1822 as a play, as well as the history of The Wizard of Oz through its various book, play, and film forms over the years. "You have people building Troy on top of Troy on top of Troy, 100 years of creative development layered on top of each other. That's the process of transmedia." Alex Chisholm also pointed to the development of Christianity and the spread of Jesus Christ as a figure in the early years as, in many ways, a transmedia project. He also made the comment that the idea of a mass media form that reaches everyone on two or three channels "don't work so good no more." "If you are an advertiser searching to get a large audience, you can either build out of big blocks that aren't as big as they used to be or you can start breaking away from the tyranny of 30-second messages and find cool new creative things people have been responding to. And you'll see combinations of the two, both 30-second spots and transmedia pieces."

Alex Chisholm, Founder of Ice Cub3d Studios. Chisholm, who has an ongoing relationship with the Comparative Media Studies program here at MIT, discussed the vocabulary and modes of thinking he learned from the time he has spent working with Henry Jenkins and others in the CMS department and discussed his work with NBC, who he said is trying to figure out a variety of new ways to reach audiences and to develop content across multiple channels. He particularly discussed his work around Heroes and understanding how audiences are interacting with that media property across various media forms, a concept he also encountered when working with the Olympics.

Michael Lebowitz, CEO and Co-Founder of Big Spaceship. Michael said that his company is in the fortunate position to work with major media properties such as television shows and feature films and sees his role as helping these content owners form new dialogues with consumers and to tell new aspects of stories through as many different means as possible. "We are thinking about everything from interactive experience development to branded game development across all digital platforms." He said that the job gets most interesting is when you start with crossover potential to lead and create development in types of convergence that hasn't formerly existed, expanding the transmedia storytelling format. He particularly discussed moving his work into an increasingly digital space, along with the help of his "team of 50 mad scientists in Brooklyn."

Also, check into Rachel Clarke's transcription of the panel here and here. Also, see Erica George's notes at Writing in Clay. Adrian at wrote this entry about the transmedia panel as well.

Comic Books and Transmedia
Alex discussed his work on Heroes and concludes that Heroes "gets it," particularly in their creation of a digital comic book that reinforces the stories in the TV show without overlapping them. It becomes an interesting part of the narrative world, and he says that he is very lucky that working with that particular NBC show was where his firm ended up. Paul began talking about how, often, the popularity of a super hero in a particular genre has peaked at different times, so that Superman may be popular on television at a time when he is not on film, etc. "These characters are exposed in virtually every form, building and reinforcing, but the great peak has been as a national fad or focus of attention separately for television and film." He said the same took place with Batman. Batman was created in the comic books and later beccame a star in film through serial movies in the 1940s and then as part of a television show in the 1960s and then as a series of movies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, followed by a peak in popularity of the cartoon series, and now we have moved back to a new series of films. He said that comic book stories are, in some ways, uniquely conducive to transmedia storytelling. "The reason I think comics characters can often be transmedia is that they build up structures that allow for expansive storytelling rather than restrictive storytelling." He particularly pointed to the open environments and rich back stories, the lack of the story being confined to a single narrow space and with characters who have open-ended missions rather than closed quests. "Take Batman versus The Fugitive. Who killed Batman's parents didn't matter much. WHat mattered is that he was out to eradicate evil. That's a very long-term job." After a couple of jokes about George W. Bush from Henry Jenkins, he discussed the power of the characters to move from a variety of creative directors as well. "It's very important to have the Batman TV show driven by one set, Tim Burton's Batman, Chris Nolan's Batman, and that doesn't even go back to Bob Kane's Batman and the beginnings of the comics. "

Paul said, "For whatever set of reasons, the essence of these characters is transferrable from one creative team to another. Since both are reflections of the strong image that exists in one's head but they leave strong room for interpretation, comics are a uniquely powerful medium to move from." He says that it starts with the comic and then moves to film because the comic leaves some room for interpretation when moved into live action, where the reverse is not usually the case, as the actor becomes more clearly defined with the character. Alex suggested that the U.S. ambivalence about the nation's place in championing good versus evil may have also led to a strong drive in recent years for storytelling about heroes. Also, Paul pointed to Scrooge as a powerful transmedia hero, to acknowledge Dickens' place as, many would say, the forefather of many aspects of the current ideas of powerful and complex storytelling.

Transmedia in Other Genres..
Michael said that he feels that transmedia stories have become more possible as fan culture has become more mainstream. "It's chicken and egg as to where one begins and the other ends, but what the boom of the Internet achieved was the explosion of niches and niches becoming mainstream in a sense. The common identity of the comic book fan, the misconception in my view, is breaking down to a certain extent, just as people are realizing that video games are played by people other than 17-year-old boys." He cited, for example, the fact that, online, casual games among middle-aged women are the most popular type of games, at about 60 percent of online game-playing. He speculates that this new understanding of fan communities is driven, in part, by new ways to understand those communities through new networks. He also points out that the size of the screen makes a big differences as to what types of stories lend themselves well as a transmedia project and reminds everyone that it is "difficult to achieve Hollywood-blockbuster-level scope when people are looking really close to the screen and have little headphones on."

Alex pointed to C3 researcher and MIT graduate student Ivan Askwith's work on Lost, which he has written about here on the C3 blog. Paul discussed the importance of complexity in storytelling and said that it has become a public virtue. "It wasn't. This is a case where the people in this room won." After some applause in the audience, Paul discussed how, traditionally, one of the main jobs of marketing books and television shows in particular was to reduce or minimize the complexity involved because of the fear that it would not sell as well. He pointed to Roots as a turning point as the first time to go from marketing television as complex and discusses Hill Street Blues as another show that changed the understanding of television storytelling toward a more complex form of television writing. Alex discussed the graduate work of C3 researcher Sam Ford at MIT, who is looking into complexity in the soap opera storytelling world. The narrative possibilities in these complex narrative universes echoes this idea of complex storytelling with great potential for online projects and points to the examples used in Henry Jenkins' introduction. Look at other examples of Sam's work on transmedia storytelling in soaps here and here and here. Lynn Liccardo, one of Sam's thesis advisors, later asked questions about how soaps presented another legacy of complex television that is often ignored when discussing the development of television complexity. Paul emphasized that soaps, as comic books, do provide myriad interesting examples but that they are often diminished because they are considered on the margins of mainstream popular culture. See a previous post here about how mainstream tastes limit media in many ways.

Sam Ford later asked a question about an example of a newspaper being used in a soap opera world to meld user-generated content with the television show. Users could supply the articles for the newspaper, with officials with the show acting as editors, creating a project that would allow users to make official content for the story world and creating a transmedia project that would not tax the creative team any further. This ties into DC Comics newspaper from 52. However, Paul says that one problem when inviting content from fans is laws. "One option is that fans can give us everything, and we own it the minute that you do. We can make it into a TV episode or a film or anything we want, and we won't send you any money, and if we do it's just because we have a good sense of humor about it. Or we can say, 'I don't want to read what you do. It's not real because I didn't look at it.' Nobody has found a good solution much between that." He points out that the problem is that, the way the legal structure is set up, if anyone sends in story ideas, the show could potentially get used if anything related to those ideas are ever used, even though the idea may be completely independent. "The first hurdle is a claim from someone who had a perfectly obvious idea for a character suing you for copyright infringement. They will lose, but they will lose $100,000 or $200,000 of legal fees later." He said that he feels uncomfortable using fan-generated content without compensating them for it. Michael, on the other hand, said that he thought these types of projects would be very possible as long as fans are given control over the content. He mentions, in particular, the need for profanity filters. "You need to build a delicate system with only a minimal amount of moderation, but you don't want someone to participate so much that they have an editorial point-of-view. These can be touchy things, but this is an awesome type of idea."

Henry Jenkins suggests the newspaper is a rich metaphor because the newspapers are the way we report on the real world, and it provides fans a similar chance to do that in the narrative world. While Paul is nervous about inspiring creativity and then not paying for it, Michael says that the company would be paying in goodwill. "We approach it as fans. When we talk internally, we talk about goodwill more than anything else. You can establish a goodwill dialogue for the people you are creating a project for." Some pointed to the online newspaper for the town Smallville is set in as a good example, where fans write in letters to the editor but the articles are written by official writers with the show.

Creating Narrative Universes and Questions of Authenticity
Paul said, "Creative worlds do not spring like Athena fullblown out. Nothing of Heroes existed perhaps a year ago today." He said that a project like that would go from a two-paragraph pitch to a six-page bible, quite a bit different than the process in which The Lord of the Rings novels were created, with the world created painstakingly over time. He said that the economic model of today's creative industries do not sustain that type of development time. "But we need to create a generation of people and where user-generated content comes to the fore. When the kids who are 20 now are driving these shows, they will have grown up in a world in which everyone adds one on the other." Michael also pointed to the importance of companies coming into cre
thinking about transmedia content earlier in the production process.

Michael says that, at Big Spaceship, they are really just creating what amounts to fan fiction but are now paid to do it at a high level. The panel also discusses the ways in which fans can provide quality control through their transmedia interaction, for instance. Paul said, "The problem is that there are two types of mistakes. The audience is extraordinarily forgiving of sincere mistakes." The other type of mistake is the ones that make fans ask, "Didn't the moron read anything that happened before?" He says that it is the "stuff that damages it." Paul explains various ways in which he has made mistakes in the narrative world of DC over the years but that were considered honest mistakes by fans. He said that, when the transmedia content is considered insincere, it leaks back to the main media and throughout the narrative world, damaging the brand.

They also talk about breaking away from expectations in a narrative world and the amount of room creators have to do that. There's not a clear line, Paul said, in which you can break away and speculate. Audiences want to see first that you get the history of the brand before you enter that speculative behavior. "I've sat there in development processes for films and TV shows where wonderfully talented and creative people were proposing to put their heads in a pencil sharpener. You can't change THAT piece. I have tried to explain it in business logic, creative-neutral terms, how much you can screw with that project in that way, but I have not yet found a great objective language for this. I can explain that as a Lord of the Rings fan, Don't screw with it in the first 5 minutes of your film, for instance." He uses the example of Bryan Singer's changing of some of the subtlety of the colors of Superman's outfit for how it would look on film.

Alex Chisholm drew links to his experiences in following New York theater boards, particularly for Wicked "In the space of something relatively fixed, in these spaces, people are seeing these plays in multiple locations." The question that is raised is who is more true to the "real" Wicked. He also discussed You're in Town as another example of questions of authenticity in content derived from an "original" source.

Michael said that he likes the model of subscription content for transmedia world building in the future. "I would love to subscribe to worlds I appreciate and have it sent to me by RSS feeds or whatever replaces RSS feeds." He asks, though, if big broadcasters can let go of the property associated with their own brands in this RSS feed model. He pointed out that his interest in Heroes does not extend to NBC, and he doesn't like going through the NBC site this way. "Film is more successful than television that way, but both have a longer way to go," he said. "People care about the content, not the network."

Alex pointed out that the shift has to be thinking about not just the number of people you get but how and why, which changes the monetizing of the media industry fundamentally. The panel also discussed transmedia as it pertains to journalism and the differences between creating content that rewards people interested in transmedia extensions and those who only want to enjoy the content of one media form without having to branch into other content across various forms of distribution. The complete panel will be available in video on the site in the coming weeks. Be sure to check back here at the C3 site and at the Futures of Entertainment site for more information.