May 4, 2010
Where Is Our Transmedia Mozart?

Back in April, I attended the MIT Business in Gaming conference, where I sat in on a panel called Hollywood, Music, & Games, from which I posted my notes here: The Now and Future of Games in Hollywood.

Chris Weaver, one of the panelists and a consulting researcher with the Consortium, made an interesting and critical comment that I've been thinking about for the past few weeks: We have not yet seen our transmedia Mozart. What he figuratively stated was that in the (American) entertainment industry, especially in the professional studios of Hollywood (here, a word that both evokes the geographical filmscape and also represents a metonymical substitution for the major players in each industry of film, gaming, etc.), there have been no creators of transmedia works that have been able to successfully construct a unified project that harnesses the power of each medium (whether through the producer's skills or collaboration with other creatives) to its largest potential.

Since I last read Convergence Culture a few years ago, especially Henry's chapter on transmedia storytelling, I have always explained the concept of transmedia with the example of the Wachowski Brother's The Matrix (1999 - 2005).

Henry writes, "No film franchise has ever made such demands on its consumers" (94). The remainder of this statement's paragraph elucidates the complex plot of the film trilogy, which bleeds out into a video game, animated shorts, and comics. What Henry pinpoints yet concurrently avoids discussing is the involved chain of media with which consumers are required to interact. Yes, they must understand all of these story arcs, but they must also be able to consume them. While Henry explains, "The Matrix is entertainment for the age of media convergence, integrating multiple texts to create a narrative so large that it cannot be contained within a single medium," he might also have highlighted that The Matrix is entertainment in an age of media literacy: audience members must possess the capabilities of dealing with texts across mediums.

And, the most important goal of the transmedia producer: the audience member must enjoy the product.

However, the trend in the industry that we are seeing right now is thus: transmedia franchises are profiting, not from the praise of fans for the creativity of the franchise, but from the money of fans purchasing uninspiring cross-platform tie-ins. Similarly, we are seeing more and more peripheral media of an initial text not act as related-but-separate story arcs, but capitalize on the extended experience of the audience.

Engaged your interest? Read more after the jump.

Although transmedia storytelling exists in Hollywood as a verifiable movement in media creation, we are beginning to see splits in methodology, along the lines of the following rubric:

To illustrate the four-part square above, I will use the following summations:

Creativity: Intends to flex the muscles of the creative staff, reflecting or innovating upon prior styles.
Influence: Aims to garner numbers in terms of audience (equating to monetary gain).

Storytelling: Expands the plot and story of the original text, unified across multiple media forms.
Experience: Capitalizes on engaging audience with related story (but not essential to original text).

Now, there is a(n obvious) direction of bias along each axis: although money is necessary to fund future projects, the development of interesting, original ideas is also an important part of the production process. It may seem, then, that [ creativity > influence ] and [ storytelling > experience ]. However, the extremes of each axis represent intentions fulfilled by goals of the producer, and while the result may not generate a "good" (in the eyes of the consumer) franchise, we must not discount it as "bad" media.

In a way, if we were to look at certain elements of transmedia narratives, we could fill in the square with the following:

The alternate reality game, although ultimately garnering interest in an original text, thrives on the creativity of staff and participation of the audience. Toys, on the other hand, are meant to be bought, although they allow the fulfillment of a narrative to be placed in the hands of an individual, to flex and warp as much as the mind can handle. The movie trailer, for example, is an established form of storytelling, though its purpose is purely for promotion. Alternative advertising, on the other hand, while it also promotes an original text, expands the world of a franchise by innovating on the medium used (eg., the bench from District 9).

If we were to return to the MITBiG conference panel, the pushback from many of the panelists (representative in my notes; link above) was that Hollywood, using the film as the original text of the transmedia franchise, is producing poor peripheral media. Ian Davis, from Rockstar Games, complained that most video games are redos of the original film. Even attempts to make "original" attempts at games to expand the film's experience failed, like James Cameron's recent Avatar: The Game. Most of the panelists agreed that working with Hollywood executives to produce games for films is not the perfect business opportunity right now, especially with the goal of making "good games."

Now, if we examine the Avatar example, we might envision the rubric as thus:

Top: Where the game was intended to succeed. Bottom: Where the game ended up in the market.

The game, while not a direct ripoff of the movie's plot, lets the participant explore the world of Pandora as if the gamer were the protagonist of the film, allowing basic interaction in the plot's completion (though some have complained that this basic interaction does not allow enough decisive choice on the part of the player). Obviously games are a medium unto themselves: they are entirely interactive, unlike film, which prospers from its sit-back, take-it-all-in format. But the developers of the game failed at their goal of recreating an experience like that of the movie: immersive, 3D, experiential. The technological failures (gameplay too simple, errors with controls, not enough users of 3D televisions, etc.) ultimately created a poor experience for the player. However, that disappointment was particularly heightened when compared to the film, which capitalized on the form of the film (while the game, which could have utilized the form of the video game to its maximum potential, did not).

So what's been happening with transmedia over the past ten years? Why have we only seen one major transmedia project, The Matrix, succeed by triumphing with all of its peripheral media?

And the media didn't even have to be good, as long as we take into account that both the storytelling and experiential elements equate to a comprehensive enjoyment of the franchise. For example, Enter the Matrix did not achieve high ratings, but it was innovative enough in its storytelling capacity that it succeeded as one element of the total franchise. Ultimately, the aims of Enter the Matrix, as well as the subsequent Matrix video game, Path of Neo (which replays parts of the films, while Enter the Matrix lets you play as secondary characters to the movie's protagonists), were to succeed on both the creative and influential sides of the production process.

Both games occupy different narrative spaces while remaining engaging and financially successful.

Chris Weaver's statement that we will eventually see a transmedia Mozart is true: the younger generation, having grown up with media and the skills to both consume as well as create them, will be able to conceptualize a suitable convergence of mediums across which story can be told.

But I believe that it also takes an individual growing up in this mediascape, who has understood the function of certain elements of specific media (such as the wide range of aesthetics possible in video games -- from NES to PS3 graphics -- or the participation of engaged audiences -- from LOST fans figuring out clues online to IRL involvement in the Why So Serious ARG) and how they can be applied to engage as many audiences as possible. I do not believe that those working in the transmedia industry at the moment utilize the necessary breadth of mediums and understand the required depth of media history to absorb all varieties of viewers, participants, and fans.

And yet, I foresee that young creatives will eventually utilize minimal elements of mediums to create an independent transmedia industry. For example, if a student group were to create their own film, the group could easily take an original game that exploits minimalist aesthetics but benefits from novel gameplay.

We might see the Braid of a transmedia franchise soon enough.

Additionally, I want to push back against the statement of Henry's in one of his recent blog posts. He writes:

Think about how the generation of "movie brats," such as Spielberg and Lucas, influenced the American media. For generations, directors emerged from one or another of the guilds, bringing with them specialized skill sets. Robert Wise was an editor; William Cameron Menzies was an art director; most of them knew how to work with actors, but few of them had an integrated perspective on all of the technical skills required to produce a movie. With the rise of film schools, we got directors who knew the full vocabulary of their medium, who knew how to speak to workers with more specialized skills (who often trained alongside them and spoke a shared language) and who knew the history and genres that constituted their tradition. As Hollywood begins to embrace transmedia, a common concern is that there are few people who fully understand how to tell stories or create entertainment experiences in more than one medium: comic book people don't know how to think about games, say, or television people have limited grasp of the web. My own hope is that the Film Schools will once again be the space where future media makers get exposed to a broader range of different kinds of media and also develop the social relations and vocabulary to meaningfully collaborate with others who have specialized in different modes of expression.

I want to disagree with his statement that Film Schools are the space in which transmedia design should flourish. Yes, film students should be taught to collaborate across mediums and with other entertainment sectors. But Henry insinuates that the film, the movie, the cinema is the fundamental building block of a transmedia franchise. I believe that as those with digital skills in video games, mobile computing, web design, etc. gain footing in the industry -- or decide to pursue independent ventures of their own passion -- that we will see transmedia move away from the movie theater to formulate original texts in underutilized mediums. Especially when 1) games are pulling in profits that rival if not best those of feature films, on top of 2) a growing generation of media-savvy youngsters who prefer interactive media (video games, ARGs, direct-input mobile media, concerts) over passive media (film, television, listening to music), I believe this shift will occur in the next couple of decades.

Be sure to check out the notes that I linked to at the beginning of this article: there are some pieces of gold laying in that rubble of text.



Hi Alex,

thanks for a very thoughtful post that I very much agree with. One question - are you defining 'influence' as a largely commercial phenomenon? I might want to push back on that...

I would also add artists as likely producers of truly rich, layered transmedia content. This may mean that we see smaller scale projects that are not produced at the level of studio/network productions, but that are stretching and innovating in terms of how stories can be told & played with, and extended - by fans & core creators. I intentionally use the category 'artist' broadly, as I think we're going to see artists from all media shifting into exploring the potential of the web & digital media



Thanks for the comment! When I was conceptualizing the rubric, I considered influence instead of "finances" because influence, as you say, does include non-monetary elements. The square assumes, of course, a distinct width between creativity and money (which is not always the case and might be a very controversial statement on my part).



I think it's a 3 dimensional graph, actually, with money being the z axis. You wouldn't get AVatar without x amount of money, as it would be a different film/experience with either more or less of it.