May 28, 2008
Talking Transmedia: An Interview With Starlight Runner's Jeff Gomez (Part II)

What do you see as the challenges of generating content that appeals to both niche and mass publics at the same time?

Like any good story, content designed for genre-lovers or niche markets should contain strong characters, evocative issues and clear, accessible throughlines. Story arcs must be designed from the outset to feel complete and deliver on their promise.

Also importantly, the audience needs to be able to appreciate and enjoy the content as it is presented solely on the driving platform of the trans-media production. With Heroes, for example, the driving platform is the television series. Much of the success of the franchise hinges on the audience finding the show exciting, intelligible and complete.

What the producers of Heroes are doing quite well is in providing fans of the show with a far more expansive experience of the fictional universe of the show on the complementary or orbiting platforms of the trans-media production. This additional content is presented in the form of web sites, graphic novels, prose fiction, etc., and this material all takes place within the canon of the Heroes chronology. So fans are provided with the level of depth, verisimilitude, sophistication and complexity that they crave, but casual viewers are not required to seek it out to enjoy the show.

When the two approaches cross over, we have seen the potential for pop culture phenomena. The media's coverage of "The Lost Experience" for example, conveyed the fact that there was a greater architecture to the fictional universe of the Lost TV series than was originally suspected. The excitement generated by the transmedia components of the show helped to boost broad interest in it. The same can be said of similar approaches for both the Batman: The Dark Knight and Cloverfield feature films.

Also powerful on the home front, as families gather to watch Heroes, a teen fan of the show might recognize a peripheral character making her first appearance on a given night's episode as one he originally read about in the online comic. So our fan takes on the role of gatekeeper for the show, filling in family and friends on the backstory of the character, and giving them a greater appreciation of the show with his "exclusive" knowledge, and making the whole experience more entertaining.

In short, depth and complexity are built around the show, rather than weighing it down by presenting it front and center.

What kinds of trade-offs have to occur in order to broaden the appeal of media properties?

Studios and entertainment companies are now learning that fewer and fewer trade-offs are necessary to broaden the appeal of niche or "cult media" properties. Contemporary audiences are now primed for high quality genre entertainment across all media platforms. So long as marketing efforts place focus on a driving platform, the launch platform and complementary content can be used to build anticipation, educate audience "gatekeepers" about the property, and enrich the overall experience.

There may be trade-offs, however, when it comes to the level of depth and complexity of the core property and how interdependent the driving platform content is with complementary content. The Wachowski Brothers ran into difficulty with the mass audience reception of the second and third Matrix films, because the films were hard to understand without a working familiarity with the characters and storylines of the orbiting platforms (graphic novels, video games, direct-to-video animation). Hence, at this point in the evolution of transmedia storytelling, it is still vital to present a full and complete entertainment experience within each component of the rollout.

It should be noted that niche productions such as alternate reality games don't tend to bother with these distinctions, trusting the sophistication and intense loyalty of their audience to follow plotlines and story nodes back and forth across multiple media platforms almost indiscriminately. I believe that some day soon, web-based alternate reality games and experiences will evolve into much more accessible and dynamic productions, playing a vital role in transmedia storytelling.

What are the risks involved in alienating the base of your audience?

Franchises are built on the energy and loyalty of their hardcore fan bases. While these bases are often a fraction of the size of the total audience, they are indispensable, because they are vocal, passionate and active. A tiny fraction of the genre television series Jericho sent tons of jars of peanuts to the network that had just canceled the program--moving them to reinstate the series. A small group of fans that gathered at conventions and shared amateur publications centered on the original Star Trek series managed to bridge the period between that series' cancellation and the Star Wars-inspired relaunch of the franchise in the late 1970s.

When the producers of the television series Enterprise publicly stated that the show was being designed for a much wider audience than previous incarnations of Star Trek, and exhibited this intention by altering the shows music cues, pandering to sexual titillation and (perhaps most egregiously) ignoring at will the established continuity and thematic tone of the fictional universe, the result was a gradual erosion of the franchise's core fan base. Without the approval and loyalty of "Trekkers" there would be no reason for the greater audience to stick around.

The original Crow graphic novel and feature film generated an extremely loyal fan base. But with the second feature, producers chose to ignore the fictional rules and tenets set down by the original work, and so the franchise experienced the first of what would become many fractures. Dubbing the property an "anthology franchise" that could be wildly altered based on the vision of individual artists and storytellers, the producers continued to build and deconstruct The Crow into smaller and smaller pieces, each with its own dwindling following. They chose to place the needs of their artists above the integrity of the mythology of the universe--a mythology that the fan base deeply cared about. The property now languishes in limbo.