June 3, 2008
Talking Transmedia: An Interview with Starlight Runner's Jeff Gomez (Part III)

This is the third and final part of an interview with Jeff Gomez that I originally ran on my blog.

How important do you think hardcore fans are to the success of genre entertainment? How do such fans create value around your properties?

As exemplified by the efforts of many recent genre producers, the cultivation, validation and celebration of fandom are vital to the success of any genre rollout. It's interesting to note that two major genre releases in 2007, The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising and The Golden Compass were both released with either limited or no transmedia components designed to immerse a potential fan base into the fantastical worlds of the films--no one was indoctrinated into the fiction--and both failed spectacularly.

Genre fans are passionate. Passion is the least expensive and most powerful driver behind any endeavor. Passion can punch holes through the wall of noise that is media culture, it generates curiosity and leadership, and the passion of a base of fans can help to keep producers and creatives "honest"--forcing them to remain true to the core messages, themes, mythology and characterizations of the story world. Passion generates value, because it draws attention and is often quite infectious.

What do you see as the downsides of generating such passionate consumers?

On the other hand, passion can be blind and judgmental. Fan zeal can threaten to "box in" a property, potentially stunting its growth. It can generate negative "buzz" around a project, which can leak into media coverage and plant seeds of doubt in the general audience base. Despite the attachment of a well known director in George Miller for Warner Bros. upcoming Justice League super hero production, for example, many fans have expressed doubt around casting and story issues that have leaked to the fan media. These have raised concerns in the studio strong enough to postpone the start of production until after the Writers Guild of America strike ended. The delay allowed for the production to take a lower profile and for script and casting choices to be amended. Whether or not this will help the production remains to be seen.

As some of these genres have become more commercially viable, the San Diego Comic Con has emerged as an important media marketplace. Can you speak to the role this gathering plays in the marketing of your properties?

Comic Con International in San Diego plays a more and more pivotal role in heralding, marketing and launching new genre efforts. In the midst of negotiating with executives at The Walt Disney Company for a job working with one of their largest franchises, Starlight Runner took them on a tour of the Comic Con exhibition floor. Many of the "worlds" we helped to develop were on spectacular display: Mattel's Hot Wheels universe, the fantasy realms of Magic: The Gathering, high priced back issues of Valiant Comics, and the announcements for new video games and comic books based on Turok and our own "Team GoRizer" at Disney's own booth! Suffice to say, a deal was quickly sealed!

Each year, Comic Con attracts well over 100,000 "gatekeepers," fans of niche, cult or genre entertainment who make it their business to spread the word about the newest and coolest content to their friends and acquaintances both in their home communities and on the Internet. It used to be that one of these gatekeepers would have a circle of five to ten contacts back home to whom he or she would convey what was best about the convention. Now in the age of social networking and pop culture web portals, that number has multiplied exponentially. Add to this the mass media coverage given to Comic Con and content producers can reach untold millions through it.

The Christian community might be read as another kind of niche public for media properties -- often alienated from mainstream content, deeply interested in providing alternative forms of entertainment for their families. What are the challenges of reaching these consumers, and can their tastes be reconciled by the demands of the mass audience?

Like any niche audience, the Christian community wants to enjoy entertainment that reflects their values and sensibilities. Interestingly, the classic Hollywood ethos reflects Judeo-Christian values: good usually wins out over evil, the hero triumphs after embracing the just and moral path. The problem is actually rooted in how the studios choose to communicate with them.

When Disney and Walden Media reached out to the Christian community to promote The Chronicles of Narnia, what was interesting was that this was a property filled with supernatural beings, witches, magic and violence. However, the studio played up the film's allegory as evocative of the stories and themes of the New Testament.

Quite the opposite happened with The Golden Compass, another children's film that also portrayed supernatural beings, witches, magic and violence. Instead of bravely strategizing a plan and communicating to the Christian community that the film could be used as a tool to discuss vital issues such as faith, false prophets and the abuse of religious power, New Line Cinema chose to downplay those elements of the film and avoid contact with religious leaders. The result was suspicion and distaste for the film among smaller Christian organizations that leaked into the mass media, creating unease with the film among the general population. The film failed in North America.

In short, the entertainment industry is still grappling with how to properly market broad content to the Christian community niche, let alone content specifically designed to appeal to their personal experience.

To extend the religious metaphor of "cult media," do you see cult fans as playing a particularly important role in proselytizing for the content, "evangelizing" the brand?

Fan "apostles" often play an instrumental role in spreading the word and drawing attention to niche content. Many studios and publishers of genre entertainment are currently developing programs to secure relationships with the fan community (or various subsections thereof). While this is not easy to do and often brings on headaches large companies would rather avoid, it is becoming inevitable. After all, without evangelists, how can new religions (or tentpole franchises) spread?

Some have suggested that media producers with strong niche followings might be able to develop alternative distribution models for their entertainment content, marketing their properties directly to the public through subscriptions or downloads, rather than negotiating with networks or film studios. How realistic do you think this scenario is within the current marketplace? What do you think are the obstacles of establishing such a direct relationship between producers and their fans?

There has never been a better time to explore and establish alternative distribution models for niche entertainment content, but these opportunities are still not easy to exploit and may not last forever. It takes a cocktail of money, talent, timing and pure luck to build a major head with direct digital distribution of entertainment content, particularly if your resources are limited compared with those of a Hollywood studio or entertainment firm.

Of course, we've seen recording artists (Coldplay), independent filmmakers (The Blair Witch Project) and amateur content producers (Ask a Ninja) do just that, but it's still a long shot and remarkable resourcefulness is necessary to cut through the noise enough to generate global distribution that generates a reasonable return.

Starlight Runner views alternative distribution models as a means to launch a new property, particularly one with "cult" qualities, in an effort to build buzz, develop a fan base and establish proof of concept. This is a killer combination that can help producers leverage more equity and creative control over their properties after larger partners such as movie studios or media conglomerates move in.

The Nickelodeon smash TV series The Naked Brothers Band, for example, started out as a low-budget indie film making the rounds at small film festivals, before the producers established a web site that offered the film's songs as downloads and sparked a modest but intensely loyal fan following. Nickelodeon took note and granted the production a sweet deal in return for the rights.

Even now, tools and models are being devised that will more readily enable niche content producers to connect directly with their potential audience. Fans want to participate and express themselves, and producers must accommodate them with structures that will allow for guided user-generated content, story material that dovetails with the current storylines set in-canon, and perhaps one day, the opportunity to touch and interact with the canon itself.