June 3, 2008
More Transmedia News

I've been meaning to do another post on this topic for a while and recently posted this over on my blog. First, I was inspired by a story in Fast Company, sent to me by Jesse Alexander, which described a gathering of Hollywood's fan boy elite to talk about the futures of cross-platform storytelling:

Tim Kring, the lanky, goateed guy at the head of the table, created Heroes, NBC's hit television show about superpowered people. To his right, in a black hoodie and narrow black-framed glasses is Damon Lindelof, cocreator of Lost, ABC's island-fantasy juggernaut, as well as producer of next year's eagerly anticipated Star Trek movie, directed by J.J. Abrams. Across the way is Lindelof's buddy Jesse Alexander, co-executive producer of Heroes (formerly of Lost and the pioneering she-geek hit Alias). Nearby is Rob Letterman, the self-described nerdy director of DreamWorks' next mega-franchise movie, Monsters vs. Aliens. He's chatting up video game creator Matt Wolf, who's developing a project with Alexander....The long-haired bearded guy pouring straight bourbon is Ron Moore, creator of the new Battlestar Galactica, the Sci Fi Channel's acclaimed reimagining of the classic series. The guy eating pizza on the couch is Javier Grillo-Marxauch, a veteran producer of Lost and NBC's paranormal series Medium, who's now having his own fantasy graphic novel, Middleman, turned into a series on ABC Family.

So, how come I never get invited to parties like this?

The article goes on to introduce the concept of transmedia entertainment and to suggest that it is one of the hotest topics in the entertainment world today:

"In five years," Kring is saying, "the idea of broadcast will be gone."

"Right," says Lindelof. "Instead of watching Heroes on NBC, you'll go to nbc.com and download the show to your device, and the show will be deleted as soon as you finish watching it -- unless you pay $1.99; then you get audio commentary. You enhance it. It's like building your Transformer and putting little rocket ships on the side." ...

In the analog era, such efforts might have fallen under the soulless rubric of "cross-promotion," but today they have evolved and mashed up into a new buzzword: "transmedia." The difference is that cross-promotion has nothing to do with developing or expanding an established narrative. A Happy Days lunch box, in other words, does nothing to advance the story of Fonzie's personal journey.

While such merchandising campaigns still exist, transmedia offers one big plot twist: X-ray vision. Today's audience, steeped in media and marketing, sees through crass ploys to cash in. So the Geek Elite are taking a different approach. Rather than just shill their products in various media, they are building on new and emerging platforms to expand their mythological worlds. Viewers watch an episode of Heroes, then follow one character's adventure in a graphic novel. They tune in to Lost, then explore the island's twisted history in an online game. It is this "transmedia storytelling," as Alexander puts it, that ultimately lures the audience into buying more stuff -- today, DVDs; tomorrow, who knows what.

The article offers a pretty good snapshot of where the industry's thinking is at in terms of transmedia properties and certainly offers an up date on my discussion of The Matrix in Convergence Culture.

This week, the New York Times reported on the plans to release a suplamentary dvd to more or less coincide with the release of the Watchmen movie next year:

The second film, tentatively called Tales of the Black Freighter, follows a side Watchmen storyline about a shipwreck and will arrive in stores five days after the main movie rolls out in theaters. The DVD will also include a documentary-style film called Under the Hood that will delve into the characters' backstories.

Those of you who have read Alan Moore's original graphic novel will recognize both of those titles as materials which are complexly woven into the narrative, offering us a glimpse into the way popular culture might have evolved -- towards pirate comics -- in a world where superheroes are real (Black Freighter) and a sense of the ways superheroes might be covered as cultural celebrities (Under the Hood). As the producers have striped down Watchmen for the screen, they have pushed these elements to the margins. In another era, they would have been left on the cutting room floor, but instead, they are becoming the backbone of Warner Brothers' transmedia strategy for the film.

The article also noted:

In addition, the studio plans a dozen 22- to 26-minute Webisodes to help make the complex story easier for the uninitiated to digest. Called "The Watchmen Motion Comic," it will be a panel-by-panel slide show of the graphic novel narrated by an actor.
Keep in mind that Warner Brothers was the studio which sponsored the Wachowski Brothers's transmedia development around the Matrix franchise.

All of this suggests how central transmedia entertainment has become to the thinking inside Hollywood today. So it is great to have a chance to share with my readers some insights from a real master of this practice.