Posts Tagged ‘transmedia storytelling’

What Will They Do? Transmedia Producers as Narrative Architects

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For a long time, this blog has been dormant. While I have been busy writing elsewhere, regrettably I never felt compelled to post my thoughts here. That is, until this week when the Producers Guild of America officially announced the “Transmedia Producer” credit. The news inspired a revelation, an awakening, an epiphany of sorts. It suddenly hit me: this is really the future and I need to be more active in shaping it.

There are many exciting implications about officially sanctioning a transmedia profession. Beyond legitimizing an area of personal interest, I can now finally point to a job description and say, “this is what I want to do when I grow up.” In that regard, I am very grateful to people like Henry Jenkins, Christy Dena, and Jeff Gomez (and others) who, by promoting knowledge abundance in this area, helped provide storytellers all over the world with a new kind of career aspiration.

There are also a lot of questions swirling around the transmedia producer buzz. What will the transmedia producer do that the traditional producer doesn’t already? Why do we need a new position that overlaps with the function of marketing executives and show runners? (there’s also the question about the role of independent producers, but that’s for another post)

It’s true that some producers oversee the development of narrative extensions as they relate to their property. However, there are also many producers who are either better at management and financing, or whose expertise pertains solely to a specific medium. Not every traditional producer knows the transmedia environment. Not every marketing executive knows how to tell a story (in one platform or multiple) The transmedia producer thus holds a different type of skill set, one that draws connections across media forms and one that involves conceptualizing, analyzing, and designing experiences at the macro-level. It is a person that does not just dive into the transmedia realm with a laundry list of media to explore, but actually has a deep understanding of the relationship between content, context, and culture.

Though incomplete and over-generalized, I like the metaphor of an architect for several reasons. First, architects are in the business of merging theory with practice to make art. Jeff Gomez has argued all along that transmedia storytelling, in its purest form, is a technique. Just as an architect aims to design something to be marveled at,  transmedia producers specialize in bridging narrative materials, sculpting intriguing mythologies, and embedding satisfying revelations for those who want a closer look at the details. Thus, the main difference between traditional producers of today and transmedia producers of tomorrow is that the former tends to understand transmedia in terms of preserving business-as-usual, while the latter will approach transmedia on its own terms, creating its own set of aesthetics and modes of engagement.

In addition, just as architects must consider the limitations and affordances of every material in order to ensure a sturdy, functional building, transmedia producers must understand the unique storytelling potential behind each media platform. Certain stories lend themselves to particular media and vice versa. And as more narrative complexities threaten to impede comprehension , transmedia producers guard against blatant inconsistencies and contradictions. The narrative structure they design must be durable and organized, all while allowing room for future construction and additions.

The best architects draw on a range of influences, disciplines, and perspectives, taking into account history, theory, and criticism to develop innovating concepts. Likewise, I see a similar approach to the emerging field of transmedia studies, which cannot be limited to a single historical era, country, genre, style, or industry. Transmedia producers possess storytelling talent, yes, but they should also appreciate the complex relationship between story and game, author and audience, openness and closure, art and commodity. They are as well versed in any sector of the entertainment industry as they are in popular culture and fandom as a whole. In other words, as story architects, transmedia producers understand how their IP edifice, whether a high rise or low rise, will fit within the larger cityscape.

Finally, when they’ve done their job right, transmedia producers design spaces not just for people to admire, but also to interact, play, and collaborate.  It seems so celebratory and cliche to talk about this now, but the transmedia producer will have an incredible knack for activating communities and rewarding collective intelligence. As the influential architect Philip Johnson once said, “All great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space.” While we could argue all day about whether transmedia storytelling empowers or exploits, for me, recognizing the transmedia producer is a major step towards realizing the potential for great, masterful architecture.

I hope this means I’ll be back blogging again. Thanks for reading!

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The 39 Clues: The Future of Children’s Stories?

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Once upon a time, there was only one way for children to dive into worlds of wonder, magic, and fantasy, and that was to read books. The beloved tales of The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Golden Compass brought hobbits, witches, and dæmons off the page and into millions of children’s imaginations. These popular childhood adventure novels, once intended to be pure literary works, now exist as major multi-platform franchises, spanning films, videogames, web pages, social networks, fan fiction, mobile content, and merchandise.

In the digital age, our youth has come to expect these kinds of multimedia dimensions out of their favorite books, especially on the Internet, and publishing companies have noticed. On September 9th, Scholastic Media will release The Maze of Bones, the first installment of the highly anticipated “The 39 Clues.”

The series is Scholastic’s follow up to   the mega hit Harry Potter. Except, unlike  Harry Potter, which evolved into a transmedia powerhouse after the books’ rising popularity, The 39 Clues will be a massive multiplatform adventure right from the get-go.  In fact, on Scholastic’s homepage a message appears next to The Maze of Bones: “WARNING: This book could take  over your life!”

Aimed at kids ages 8-12, The 39 Clues will be a 10 book series with a single story arc. It will be released over two years with each book written by a different best selling author. The franchise will be about uncovering the secrets of the most powerful family in the world, the Cahills, of which Benjamin Franklin, Mozart, Napoleon and Houdini are relatives. It all begins when the Cahill clan matriarch, Grace, changes her will five minutes before she dies, giving her descendants the choice between $1 million or a clue. Amy, 14, and Dan, 11, the series protagonists, are two young Cahills who must compete with other branches of the family to uncover the 39 clues and discover the family’s ultimate power.

Here’s an excerpt from Rick Riordan’s The Maze of Bones (you can read the first two chapters online here):

“The children are old enough.  They are our only chance,” Grace said to William, her attorney and closest friend for half her life.  “If they don’t succeed, 500 years of work will have been for nothing.”  And with that final statement, Grace Cahill closed her eyes for the last time.

 On Sept 9, when 500,000 prints of The Maze of Bones hit bookstores simultaneously in the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the official online interactive game will launch as well. This multimillion dollar marketing campaign features a contest where kids will follow the clues and hunt for answers. Scholastic promises more than $100,000 in prizes during the duration of the series. And participants who find all 39 clues and uncover the Cahill treasure will compete for the $10,000 grand prize.

To assist kids on this epic scavenger hunt, Scholastic will offer hundreds of collectible game cards as well as websites containing thousands of pages of background information, blogs written by characters in the story, online games, maps, treasure hunts, and numerous geographical and historical videos.  Needless to say, this will be a much different childhood story than Nancy Drew.

Remember when it took decades for the most popular childhood adventure stories to successfully hit the big screen? (Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia) Over the last decade, technological advances have made it possible to bring classic children’s novels to life with stunning visuals. Now children’s series become film adaptations before anyone has time to finish reading the books.  Sure enough, before The 39 Clues could hit bookstores, Dreamworks acquired the film rights, signing Jeff Nathanson (The Terminal, Catch Me If You Can, Indiana Jones 4) to write the first installment and possibly Steven Spielberg to direct it.

Spielberg told Variety in a statement that The 39 Clues takes “creative leaps to expand the story experience from the pages of the books to multiple stages of discovery and imagination.”

It seems as if the future of children’s publishing is headed towards multiplatform experiences.  And Scholastic isn’t the only company hoping to cash in on the trend. Fourth Story Media has teamed up with HarperCollins to launch the The Amanda Project, an interactive mystery series targeted at girls ages 12 to 14 that is told across books, web sites, social networks, and blogs.  CSI creator Anthony Zuiker has signed a deal with Dutton, a division of Penguin Group (USA), to write “digital novels” in addition to an interactive Web site. And Simon & Schuster will release “Spaceheadz,” a series of books coauthored by Jon Scieszka and Francesco Sedita which also relies heavily on Internet sites.

Sciezka, the National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature, told CNN in this article:

“In the past we’ve made the mistake of demonizing other media, saying all TV is bad, all computers are bad, and all books are good. Kids know that it’s not true; there is great television and there are great games. I just also want to make sure that we don’t forget what’s unique about a book, losing yourself in an extended narrative.”

The question is, does transmedia storytelling encourage children to read books? Rick Riordan thinks so. He’s crafted the narrative in The Maze of Bones to stand on its own while also recognizing that the complimentary game helps to expand the expierence. As a result, Riordan hopes to attract both readers and gamers. As he points out in this New York Times article:

There’s a lot of commonality between what makes a good game and a good book. Whether you’re a gamer or a reader, you want to feel immersed in the story and invested in the action and the characters, and you want to care about the outcome and you want to participate in solving the mystery.

Some kids are always going to prefer games over books. But if you can even reach a few of those kids and give them an experience with a novel that makes them think, ‘Hey, reading can be another way to have an adventure,’ then that’s great. Then I’ve done my job.

Riordan’s comments highlight a fundamental change in the way children engage with fictional universes. Increasingly, children immerse themselves in literary stories not only by mentally constructing how characters and events might look but now also by interacting and participating with them. At times, they are hunters and gatherers in an effort to expand their understanding of the world, other times they are directly contributing to it.  Children have taken a much more involved, community driven role, thanks to the Internet. Without a doubt, transmedia storytelling is revolutionizing children’s imaginations, redefining how they access storyworlds and how they interact with them.

Yet the Huffington Post asks an important question, “can a phenomenon be conceived by a publisher rather than created by the public?” Manufacturing a Harry Potter-type blockbuster is an enormous risk. Although, one could argue that  the 39 Clues is more like a kid’s ARG than a literary series. Each book will come with six collectors’ cards that can be used to find further clues in the online game. Now we don’t know how prominent a role the contest will play in the franchise, but clearly Scholastic assumes their multiplatform approach will be a mega-hit. And if it is, how much of that success will have to do with the gaming and prize components? I mean, even The Maze of Bones’ cover instructs us to “Read the book. Play the game. Win the prizes.” That should almost be followed by “See the movie. Buy the merchandise. Make us rich.”

Is that what it takes to get kids to read? Do children really need a more involved, active experience in their literature, or is that just something publishing houses say in order to make the big bucks?  How has multiplatform entertainment changed the role of the novel? Does it make kids more eager to participate in someone else’s storyworld (the publisher’s) rather than creating their own?

There are many more questions than answers when it comes to The 39 Clues. But I am excited to see how the franchise develops. I will be following the clues, not just in the context of the story, but also in observing how transmedia storytelling affects the children story experience. This could very well be the next Harry Potter, but whether that is decided by the publishers or the fans remains to be seen.

Note:

Just to be clear, Rick Riordan has clarified this on his blog, The 39 Clues has no magical or fantastical elements. It is a realistic adventure, though it holds plenty of mystery and wonder.

Here’s Riordan explaining the series:

New Media Narrative and Gemini Division (coming soon…)

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Last Friday, I was lucky enough to be invited to the Gemini Division preview screening and phone conference with executive producer and creator Brent Friedman. After watching the first two episodes (which are now posted on the website), I got a chance to ask Brent some questions about the show’s narrative structure and aesthetic value. More on that later.

Set five minutes into the future, Gemini Division is the story of Anna Diaz (Rosario Dawson), an NYPD undercover cop, who investigates a global conspiracy involving “simulated soldiers.”(kind of like replicants) These SIMs were created to fight in the Iraq war but then mysteriously went AWOL. The Gemini Division is an agency formed to hunt the renegade soldiers and destroy them…before it’s too late. Meanwhile Anna, after discovering her fiancé was not human, becomes caught in the middle of the war.

It is too soon to tell whether Gemini Division will actually be any good. The first two episodes had their highs – seamless product integration, stylized CGI effects, and of course the stunning Rosario Dawson – but also their lows – the cliché creepy-stalking-stranger and some objectionable acting from Justin Hartley. Gemini Division has been labeled the ultimate test of web video because it boasts all the ingredients for success – big time celebrities, high profile advertisers, and a major studio distributor. As NewTeeVee writes, “if a web show like Gemini Division fails, why bother investing in online video at all?”

Yet whether Gemini makes or breaks web video history will not come down to any of aforementioned ingredients, but something far more essential to the final product – the story. Without a compelling story, there is no breakout hit. And Brent is very conscientious of that.

In my next post, I’d like to focus on the Gemini Division’s narrative construction (it may be too early to do so, but I will update as the season moves forwards). Because web video is very much in experimental form, there is no precedent to follow. As a result, the show is a blend of old media and new media, a mixture of narrative ingredients already proven to be effective and new Internet-based elements yet to be mastered. Gemini Division can thus be seen as an amalgamation of narrative devices from a variety of media, including comics, video games, novels, and TV Shows, all of which allow the show to potentially branch out into any of those platforms. For Gemini Division, the web series could be the perfect incubator for a transmedia franchise. But like I say, it all comes down to story.

I’m going on vacation tomorrow so I won’t be able to return to this post for a little while. (Consider this the teaser trailer) Until then, if you want more info on Gemini Division, head over to Prime Time For Change, where Tim provides a nice summary of what went on in the Q&A with Brent.

On a completely different topic, I plan on blogging about this article from the Boston Globe, which I found quite interesting. Bye for now!

The Dark Knight: Transmedia Brilliance Part 3

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The Dark Knight ARG took just over two months to return after Heath Ledger’s death. When it did, perhaps as a response, the game shifted dramatically from the Joker and his pranksters to Harvey Dent’s political campaign.

In March, Ibelieveinharveydent.com was updated so players could submit contact information. And again, the game did not slouch on realism. Harvey Dent’s page resembled a politician’s homepage in every way: detailed descriptions of why to vote Harvey, his trademark slogan “take back the city,” downloadable campaign materials, a road map of the Dentmobile, a van that toured the county and held rallies (much to the chagrin of the actual police), hundreds of photos of Harvey Dent and his supporters, and dozens of videos promoting the Dent campaign.

Hear Harvey Dent introduce his campaign:

Watch the Harvey Dent campaign team:

As Dent’s campaign expanded, so too did his opposition. The site Concerned Citizens for a Better Gotham attacked Dent as arresting innocent officers to gain media publicity. The site sent members of ibelievinharverydent.com a half-burned Dent campaign button in the mail. (furthering the allusion to two-face).

Later in March, through more issues of The Gotham Times, new websites emerged: Danaworthington.com (Dent’s competitor), Trustgarcetti.com (the incumbent DA) Maidenavenuereport.com, JosephCandoloro.com, Citizensforbatman.org, Rossisdelicatessen.com, and Gothamcablenews.com.

It wasn’t until April Fool’s Day when the Joker would make his full return. Owners of the Joker cell phones descrambled a secret letter, which brought them to a new scavenger hunt on Clowntravelagency.com. The hunt called for players to go to bowling alleys around the country and collect green and purple bowling balls.

See the news report: (warning…worst lead-in EVER)

The Joker then directed his followers to Acmesecuritysystems.com/delos. However, the site turned out to be a police set up. Once the player submitted his/her information, James Gordon busted them:


James Gordon then sent the player an email which launched Operation Slipknot. The mission: work for the Gotham Police Major Crimes Unit and hunt down the corrupt cops (who also organized the ConcernedCitizensforaBetterGotham website). Players called The Gotham Hotel and re-routed packages intended for the cops. As a result, 27 of the 30 officers were arrested. Gordon rewarded the players with a personal phone call.

The Joker, not to be out done, sent an email to his mailing list to not worry about Gordon. He also distributed a new whysoserious link displaying Jokerized political figures. Then through more scavenger hunts in major cities, players unlocked the new movie poster, the second theatrical trailer, and the Jokerized film reel.

At this point in the game there were three story lines running. Harvey Dent’s campaign, supporting Dent in his run for DA; Gordon’s Operation Slip Knot, following intel and various clues to catch the remaining criminals, and the Joker’s campaign of chaos, helping the Joker terrorize the city. Here the ARG really took off and it is impossible for me to go through it all but here are the major happenings:
-Players found a Citizens for Batman Underground forum within a Gotham Pizza website. The forum members discussed becoming vigilantes themselves. The pizza website contained a hidden link to Whysoserious.com/Myhero, containing a first glimpse of Two-Face.

The Gotham Cable News launched the show Gotham Tonight, which asked people to submit photos or videos of Batman. Later, these submissions were posted on the show. Gotham Tonight ran for six episodes.
-In early July, Joker cell phone owners went to another whysoserious site. A game of “operator” between the cell phone owners began, with one player calling another with a code word, that player calling another player, and so on. When the puzzle was finally solved, the new poster for the Dark Knight was revealed.

Through the information on a variety of sites, participants then decoded the organization of an event on July 8th in Chicago and New York City. Sure enough, on that day, the bat-symbol appeared on the Sears Tower and the Woolworth Building:

Web users were able to see it through live-streamed video. Two days later, Joker cell phone owners were pointed to a word puzzle. Beating the puzzle depicted a bomb, which days later, exploded on the Internet, Jokerizing every website in the game. Even the bat signal was not spared:


Finally on July 14th, Joker cell phone owners were rewarded for their participation with free tickets to the Dark Knight film. For other players, the final episode of Gotham Tonight led directly up to the movie’s explosive beginning as Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhert himself) discovers on live TV about a bank robbery. And. here. we. go!

As I have said before, part of the reason for the Dark Knight’s success was its meticulous attention to detail and dedication to realism. Exploring the ARG’s videos, websites, and storyline all confirm that hypothesis. People were completely immersed in Gotham because it meshed so seamlessly with the real world. For a movie that prides itself on its grittiness and moral complexity, the game supplemented it perfectly.The Dark Knight was certainly a powerful, authentic experience, but does it hold up as successful transmedia storytelling? Let’s return to Chapter 2.

1.) The domination of mainstream media outlets by corporate conglomerates makes maintaining a crossover market relatively easy. I counted this statement as a potential advantage although I recognize this process only works in theory, not in practice. Time Warner utilized its control over the mainstream media to promote the movie across multiple platforms. From the cell phones to the branded widget to the HBO special, The Dark Knight took center stage. Promotional partnerships with Dominoes, Kmart, General Mills, Got Milk, Comcast, Xbox, and MySpace also added to the publicity. Even the media seemed to be part of the campaign as they ran story after story: Can Batman live up to the hype? Is Heath Ledger’s performance career defining? Is this the best superhero movie ever? Apparently, if a news headline is in question form, it’s news, not advertising. But that’s for another blog post.

In the midst of all the mainstream hype, the ARG provided an alleviating alternative. Fans were able to actively participate in the marketing campaign, instead of passively consuming its branded content, and Warner Bros. profited immensely as a result. Hopefully, other major blockbusters with existing fan bases will learn from the Dark Knight and balance their overwhelming promotions with original, engaging experiences.

2.) Transmedia stories cater to fragmented audiences, increasing the chance advertisers will reach their target consumer.
Comcast, for example, acted as the creator/distributor of Gotham Cable News and Gotham Tonight. Advertisements on these sites read “GBC: A Comcast Network.” The Gotham Tonight episodes, chronicling the campaign of Harvey Dent, were available online and broadcasted to Comcast subscribers’ TVs. Thus, the Internet service company was able to advertise within the diegesis of the story. Comcast not only presented itself in a non intrusive manner, it actually enhanced the fictional world by adding its brand. In addition, players (who spend a lot of time on the Internet and TV) may even begin to associate Comcast with Batman.

3.) Transmedia stories offers different entry points, expanding the potential market. As I will continue to emphasize, transmedia storytelling is the process of world building. Consumers have entered the Batman universe through many different platforms – the TV show, comics, movies, merchandise, and now the ARG.

A successful transmedia story is a delicate process of asking questions, providing answers, and then asking questions again. One transmedia text I have not covered yet was the animated movie that came out before the Dark Knight.

The Batman: Gotham Knight anthology went directly to DVD and featured six animated shorts. These stories occur between the events of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Unlike the Animatrix however, the DVD was not required viewing in order to understand the movie; instead, it added depth by providing back stories and new characters. I have not seen the shorts so I can’t comment on how canon they are, but seeing as how they are PG-13 for bloody violence and injury, I suspect they fall in line nicely with the gritty films.
Additionally, the animated shorts were well received. One fan wrote on the World’s Finest Online:

“The writing found in Gotham Knight is some of the sharpest and darkest pieces to come out of the Batman world. On top of the writing is some of the most visually stunning animation that you’ll likely ever see the Batman character take part in.”

Watch the trailer for Gotham Knight:

Clearly the beauty of the Batman franchise is that a consumer can enter through whichever platform they prefer. The anime fan can watch the Gotham Knight. The ARG player can play the Dark Knight. And of course, the film buff can see the movie. When these people become intrigued by the story, they are more willing to seek out other transmedia texts and increase their emotional and financial investment in the franchise.

4.) Expanding platform for content also brings in a larger global audience. Unknown. I don’t know how many people followed the ARG overseas but I do know that the movie cashed in 128 million worldwide so far.
5.) Transmedia storytelling facilitates collective intelligence and enhances fan involvement. Here’s where the Dark Knight shines. I hope it has been clear how involved fans were in the Batman universe. The ARG was the perfect way to facilitate active engagement. But beyond a meaningful interactive experience, players saw the story from the ARG correspond with the movie beautifully. Their discoveries from the game were not wasted, not part of some marketing ploy, but interconnected with the film. The ARG wiki highlights all the intertextual references here. Although the Dark Knight film was the primary point of interest, the ARG and the DVD acted as jigsaw pieces to the same puzzle. For niche audiences, each text made a distinct and valuable contribution to the world of Batman. For mass audiences, each text stood on its own. Here we have the perfect balance between casual and loyal fans; Jenkins’ transmedia storytelling at its best — and box office records as a result.

P.S. As a side note, it has been interesting to follow the reactions to this op-ed in the Wall Street Journal:

\Film

Thompson on Hollywood

Huffington Post

The Dark Knight: Transmedia Brilliance Part 2

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In early October 2007, the WhySoSerious webpage contained merely a jack-o-lantern with a candle inside of it. The left side of the pumpkin appeared to be slowly rotting away with every day. (early allusion to Two-Face).

Finally, on Halloween, the pumpkin page transformed into a puzzle page and the Dark Knight ARG was officially underway.

On the page, there was a letter from the Joker instructing the players to take a picture of alphabetical letters at 49 different locations and send them in.

As I looked through the 49 clues, two things jumped out at me about the game – its massive scale and its complexity. The clues were scattered amongst almost every major US city, from Boston to Seattle. They were not obvious. For example, one for Detroit read: “Stand under the People Mover at Library & Farmer, and look away! Look away! Look away! From pup-petland.” Somehow, people found the Letter Y out of that. Clearly, a huge amount of coordination had to go into organizing this. And as the game continued, its extensive design became all the more apparent.

The 49 letters compiled to form the message:

After the code was cracked, the site displayed a photo from the film and a short audio clip. This kind of collective intelligence brings a new component to “gaming” in ARGs. No one fan could have traveled the country and found all the clues; the only way to continue the game was to work together. This fascinates me. Most games set in real-time either involve competition (Halo, Madden) or fantasy (Second Life, WOW). But players in ARGs don’t usually compete against each other, and they don’t play through an avatar. Instead, such games are driven by the challenge of puzzles, the collaboration necessary to solve them, and the reward of story information.

Jason Mittell and Jonathan Gray, in their essay Speculation on Spoilers: Lost Fandom, Narrative Consumption and Rethinking Textuality,‘ highlight the spoiler fans’ need to “to take control of their emotional responses and pleasures of anticipation, creating suspense on [their] own terms rather than the creators.’” The same may be said for the motivation behind playing The Dark Knight. Batman has been a long-standing and beloved franchise. The world of Gotham does not belong to Christopher Nolan and it certainly does not belong to Warner Brothers. It belongs solely and completely to the fans.

In an era where Geek properties are consistently being converted into mainstream ones (Superhero movies, Enterprise, LOST, Heroes), loyal fans require a sense of value and appreciation. For it is their love and dedication which sustain a franchise and it give it meaning. And that is exactly why such fans deserve more respect than to have the mainstream media not only tell them what to be excited about, but to tell them in the same fashion as they tell every other moviegoer. Thus, the Dark Knight ARG can be seen as one intricate spoiler. Participants of the game were able to look at all movie posters, trailers, photos, and movie clips before anyone else. Yes, this was partly to market the movie, but it was also to market it in such way which made it the fans’ movie. The ARG represents a shift in power from the commerciality of Batman to the originality with which the fans love. It is the loyal fans who built the world of Gotham, and through the ARG, they were able to engage with it on their own the terms.

To give you an idea of just how many fans were participating in this game, take a look at RorysDeathKiss.com. When the Joker asked people to take photographs of themselves in clown makeup by major national landmarks, hundreds of people uploaded their submissions. In return, they obtained…well…the Joker’s email address. That’s right: humanresources@whysoserious.com. Imagine the Joker checking his email. Maybe even updating his Facebook page.

In all seriousness however, the Joker never broke out of character. Players had to complete a personality test and an aptitude test before they could work for him. They had to solve online puzzles and prove themselves. After all this, the fact that the Joker had an email address was completely plausible. If you’re a super villain, you have to stay connected to your cronies nationwide somehow, right?

The Joker even tested his hard core fans by launching a real life carnival themed scavenger hunt. He placed packages at 22 different addresses around the country. Players who solved the clues and reached the packages first received a cake with a Joker cell phone inside.

Calling a number then got them free IMAX movie tickets to see the Dark Knight’s opening 5 minutes before IMAX screenings of I Am Legend. As I’ve said before, whether it’s free movie tickets or interacting with the Joker over email, the Dark Knight ARG recognized the importance of giving back to its hard core fans. And the fans gave back to franchise, telling their friends about their discoveries and hyping the movie.

The ARGs second set of clues came through The Gotham Times, (which was sent to all the RoryDeathKiss participants). Examining the fictional newspaper led to a plethora of websites, which either furthered the stories in the Times through puzzles and clues or provided backstory on Harvey Dent, Batman, and Gotham City in their efforts to clean up the city. I will not go into detail for each website since the Dark Knight ARG wiki does a fantastic job of that already. Here are a few of them:

Some of the highlights within these sites:

-A GPD wiretap operation headed by Gotham Internal Affairs at Betty’s House of Pies was streamed live at Gpdiad.com at 3 PM EST. The clip depicts the GPD internal affair dept officers arresting two corrupt cops who fled the scene of a murder.
-Players who submitted a phone number to Wearetheanswer.org received threatening calls from the corrupt cops on their Joker phones.
-One clever clue in the Hahahatimes had a link which provided a number of escape routes. When all the escape routes were plugged together they formed the message “Out of Time,” leading to a site where the Joker congratulates the player and posts the next clue on the corpse of a character from the newspaper.

Escape Route Clues

Escape route with all coordinates. Led to website: Whysoserious.com/Outoftime

– When one player studied a printed movie poster for the Dark Knight, they found the phrase “atasteforthetheatrical.” Players added .com to the phrase and got the first look at the film’s theatrical trailer.

Look carefully at the very bottom

At the end of 2007, the game’s activity exploded. Unfiction (the ARG forum) boasted hundreds of threads and tens of thousands of views as people worked together to summarize the plot, post their findings, and discuss the mysteries. Every clue was scrutinized, every phone call analyzed. But on January 22nd, the death of Heath Ledger brought the game to a screeching halt. How would the ARG respond to this tragedy when the Joker had played such a central role in the narrative and gameplay?

(all images courtesy of the Dark Knight Wiki)

The Dark Knight: Transmedia Brilliance Part 1

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I’m sure you’ve heard the statistics by now. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight poured in a record 155 million domestically in its opening weekend. It is now poised to reach the 300 million dollar benchmark after just 10 days. And some think it will overthrow Titanic as the highest grossing movie ever. It is indeed an incredible masterpiece. The stunning special effects, action-packed sequences, epic music, thrilling twists and turns, and of course a chilling performance from Heath Ledger all contributed to this powerful superhero movie. Not to mention the film’s critical acclaim, receiving a whopping 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. While all of these factors certainly created a “surround sound effect,” hyping up the movie in all directions, I’d like to examine another element driving the film’s success – its dedication to realism through extratextual content. (Before I go any further, I must warn you, I will draw on spoilers in my analysis…read at your own risk.)

As the Dark Knight got closer to its release date, Warner Bros. launched a “let’s give them everything we got” marketing campaign. There would be cool posters, exciting trailers, batman and Joker Peanut Butter Cups, partnerships with Dominoes, Got Milk, Comcast, Verizon, Kmart, General Mills (to name a few), and even a complete takeover of the mySpace homepage. All of these traditional forms of advertising certainly got people, and the media, buzzing.

But over a year before any of this, Warner Bros. collaborated with 42 Entertainment to launch an ARG (alternate reality game), so extensive, so compelling, that it made viral marketing efforts from Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project look like child’s play. Chris Thilk of Movie Marketing Madness, points out why the studio pushed an intricate online viral campaign in addition to its usual ‘branding barrage:’

“This separation is important since the two components are appealing to, if not drastically, at least partially different audiences. [Through the ARG] Online Warner Bros. has been able to activate a serious core of fans and Batman/comic enthusiasts who have reveled in being part of Joker’s army or in finding out what they need to do as part of the Gotham PD’s task force. But offline there is the larger movie-going audience that needs to be appealed to. So the elements that are crossing media need to not just be geared for audience that has “found” them through unlocking clues, but which sees them as part of the larger media landscape they live in.”

What Thilk is describing here is the movie’s remarkable ability to appeal to the casual fans and mass audience, who do not seek out online scavenger hunts but embrace the coolness of the trailer or the movie poster, as well as the enthusiastic fans, who may actively ignore traditional forms of advertising but revel in engaging, original content instead. And The Dark Knight’s ARG (check out the wiki) did not disappoint the latter.

It started on May 11, 2007 with the release of the official Dark Knight website. A week later, clicking on the bat symbol brought a user to the Harvey Dent campaign website, which simply contained Aaron Eckart’s picture and the slogan, “I believe in Harvey Dent.”

Meanwhile, in California, a comic book employee reported defaced Joker cards appearing in his shop with “I believe in Harvey Dent too! Hahahah!” stamped all over them.

Sure enough, when users went to ibelieveinharverydenttoo.com, they found a Jokerized Harvey Dent image.

Participants typed in their email address and  received their first exposure to Heath Ledger’s Joker.

So after only a week, fans realized a recurring pattern: As Thilk writes,

“Put up a mysterious site, promise something in return for enough participation, deliver on that promise and then shut things down with the message that there’s more to come. Across this online effort the reward is, more often than not, a piece of the movie’s traditional marketing campaign, be it a poster or a trailer or something like that. This puts the audience in a position of power – Getting a look at a new trailer or whatever becomes dependent on their activity or at least their alertness. They *need* to participate or the goodies will go away. At least that’s the perception that’s created through such efforts.”

This sort of interactivity is not only the essence of viral marketing; it’s also the heart of transmedia storytelling. When a studio provides mysteries and answers through cross media platforms, fans essentially become willing participants in marketing the movie. They embark on a puzzle solving quest, craving more information and comparing notes with each other to heighten the experience of the story world. The question remains however, are such fans participating in this hunting and gathering adventure on their own terms, or are they just puppets who are carefully guided through a pre-determined story for advertising purposes?

 At last year’s Comic Con, the Joker distributed “Jokerized” one dollar bills pointing people to WhySoSerious.com, a fgJoker costume website which told users to go to a certain location at a certain time. Hundreds of people followed the instructions. After the crowd assembled, a phone number appeared:


Those who called the number overheard a hostage message, solidifying the player as part of Joker’s crew and initiating the scavenger hunt. The San Diego participants collaborated with friends online, who would import the clues to the WhySoSerious website. In return, the ‘ground team’ received Joker masks and the online players got a first look at the teaser trailer for the movie.

Here in the second phase of the ARG, we see a level of immersion building. Fans joining Joker’s army were able to show friends their picture on the Rent-a-clown website, a fake clown rental company within the whysoserious game. Interestingly, participants in the ARG immersed themselves in the world of Gotham by working for the villain, a role not only much more realistic in the context of Gotham (Batman works alone) but also, arguably, more fun as well.

In retrospect, the focus around the Joker in the ARG fit the movie quite well. The Joker is so manipulative and conniving that in some ways, the fact that he instills chaos into real people makes sense. Players will do anything for answers (in this case information about the movie) and the Joker seems to exploit this within the ARG by sending participants around to solve complex puzzles, make phone calls, and go on real life scavenger hunts. In this way, the Joker demonstrates his power and his psychotic tendencies way before the film’s premiere–he has complete control over the players and the game. (it’s all part of the plan)

However, the blurring lines between reality and fiction have all kinds of moral and legal implications as well: do all of the players really know it’s all a game? Would they be tempted to break the law in honor of Joker’s “live in a world without rules” philosophy? As I examine the ARG further, you’ll see just how far players were willing to go.

to be continued…

P.S. Speaking of blurring lines between reality and fiction, could the ARG have had something to do with this recent incident?

Chapter 2…

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Before I look at some specific examples of transmedia storytelling and write a little less formally (and more succinctly), I’d like to get through my basic research first. In this next chapter, I discuss the risk of transmedia storytelling – how it can pay off beautifully or fail miserably. Henry Jenkins, provides much of these points in his extensive research on the subject, and you can read more about it on his blog here. To augment on Jenkins’ work though, I’ve organized various aspects of transmedia storytelling as an advantage or a disadvantage in an effort to show the dilemma many executives face when deciding to launch a transmedia story campaign.

Chapter 2: Advantages and Challenges in the Business of Transmedia Storytelling

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Transmedia storytelling is such a new concept; neither a concrete economic model nor an artistic model exists yet. This is both exciting and terrifying for entertainment franchises. The emergence of new technologies and new consumers has created a market primed for cross-media stories, but how to exploit these opportunities continues to be a question, one that the entertainment industry has yet to answer. Transmedia storytelling is a high-risk, high reward business. Many media companies simply cannot afford the risks involved with launching such a demanding campaign, both economically and creatively. But those who do break free of traditional business constraints, armed with an idea for a compelling world and a manner in which to present it, are often rewarded with a long lasting, flourishing franchise.

1.) Advantage: The domination of mainstream media outlets by corporate conglomerates makes maintaining a crossover market relatively easy. Through media consolidation and synergy, entertainment franchises have become increasingly marketable and sustainable. Large companies can attract diverse audiences into their franchise through various entry points – films, magazines, TV shows, news programs – and continue to barrage them with content in virtually every other medium. But rather than using this power for promotional purposes, why not encourage ‘hunting and gathering’ by distributing original content across platforms? That way, the ancillary content would not only promote the primary property, (film or TV show) but it would add depth to it as well. Fans are less willing to dismiss ostensible marketing content if they know viewing or interacting with it will add to their experience of the world. In short, the horizontal integration of the media lends itself to producing transmedia stories.

1.) Disadvantage: It is extremely difficult to coordinate and collaborate with individual sectors of a media conglomerate. Rather than working together to form a unified story, the major TV networks and movie studios place limits on what other media sectors can create. These constraints often do not take advantage of the capabilities a particular media form can offer. As Jenkins describes:

Even within the media conglomerates, units compete aggressively rather than collaborate.
Each industry sector has specialized talent, but the conglomerates lack a common language or vision to unify them. The current structure is hierarchical: film units set licensing limits on what can be done in games based on their properties. At the same time, film producers don’t know the game market very well or respect those genre elements which made something like Tomb Raider successful. We need a new model for co-creation-rather than adaptation-of content that crosses media. (Technology Review, January 2003)

Jenkins summarizes this nicely on his blog:

Most media franchises, however, are governed not by co-creation (which involves conceiving the property in transmedia terms from the outset) but rather licensing (where the story originates in one media and subsequent media remain subordinate to the original master text.)

It seems like media conglomerates don’t realize that a movie plot is not going to work well in a videogame. Each medium is designed to tell a certain kind of story. Using co-creation, each media sector can discuss what their medium’s strengths can do for a story rather than awkwardly fitting the story within the medium.

2.) Advantage: Transmedia stories cater to fragmented audiences, increasing the chance advertisers will reach their target consumer. Because loyals are willing to spend the time, money, and energy to investigate all kinds of media produced by one franchise, rather than casually explore many, advertisers increase the chance that they will reach their specific, target audience. For example, superhero merchandise can be advertised on the Incredible Hulk online comic. Or sports ads can be displayed before Friday Night Lights. Rather than pay 100,000 for a 30 second spot, advertisers can penetrate small interest communities. Thus, transmedia storytelling creates avenues for advertisers to increase control over who sees their commercials.

Of course, as a result of the fragmented audiences and the Internet, competitions arise not only between mediums but across mediums. NBC is not only competing against ABC for eyeballs but Google and YouTube as well. (Television 2.0: Reconceptualizing TV as an Engagement Medium (pdf) Askwith)

3.) Advantage: Transmedia stories offers different entry points, expanding the potential market. One type of niche audience may be willing to experiment with a different type of medium because it involves their favorite character or story. A Lost fan, for example, who would otherwise never be caught playing an alternate reality game (ARG), might decide to try out The Lost Experience because the game promises to answer some of the show’s mysteries. Cross platform franchises have great power to draw fans out of their typical media ‘comfort zones.’ In doing so, “if each work offers fresh experiences, then a crossover market will expand the potential gross within any individual media.” (Jenkins, Technology Review)

2.) Disadvantage: While entry points may entice a range of consumers, they also provide many points to push consumers away. If one text does not fit with the others or if it is just bad, it may be enough to turn many people away. Especially for transmedia campaigns designed from the outset, one mistake (a redundant or inconsistent text) can lose massive fan support. A bad movie may be endurable, but a bad transmedia story is a nightmare.

3.) Disadvantage: A.) With so many creators of content, it’s hard to understand the entire dynamic of a franchise. Creating a time frame for each touch point of a property becomes problematic since TV shows, movies, and videogames have such different production and distribution models. For example, producers must carefully plan when the video game will be released: either before, during, or after a movie’s time in theaters. Designing transmedia stories around television shows is even more dangerous, since the lifespan of a show is so unpredictable.

B.) With so many creators of content, it’s hard for fans to understand the dynamic of a franchise. Understanding a franchise is not only difficult for the producers, it’s hard for the fans as well. How can they distinguish between content that is canon with the franchise and content that is fan fiction? It is awfully difficult to keep track of what stories are official within a world and which aren’t, especially with all the inconsistencies out there. (Think Batman. How do the animated cartoons fit within the world vs. Christopher’s Nolan’s interpretation?)

Geoffrey Long, in his MIT thesis Transmedia Storytelling: Business, Aesthetics, and Production at the Jim Henson Company (pdf), proposes that there be a “Hub” which allows people to download and organize various aspects of the transmedia world, all in one place:

An official website would provide consumers with tools with which to track each component in the franchise…there would be software which digitally manages how each extension relates to every other extension, and where each one fits into the larger story world. (143)

He continues: Being able to download even the most obscure content quickly not only removes the stigma that is often attached with comic shops (giving people anonymity), but also opens up rural markets that might not be able to get that content from a local store and facilitates impulse purchases that trade on the instant gratification principle. (146)”

It may seem that having a central website is anti-thetical to the consumers’ desire to hunt and gather story information. Perhaps, there is some truth to that. Some people want that sense of discovery, as many ARG players do. They don’t want all the content to be placed in their lap. Nevertheless, I think Long’s Hub idea would work well for most consumers who want to work for their story information, but not work so hard they might miss out on crucial story information. Such a development would certainly fit well within the digital age.

4.) Disadvantage: “What counts the most is what can be counted.” – Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture.. As I have previously mentioned, executives who resist transmedia storytelling point to the lack of a consistent and dependable business model. How do you monetize a property with so many touch points? The complexity involved with formulating a transmedia experience makes dividing return of investment (ROI) difficult. How do you decide who deserves the credit for a franchise’s popularity when the content is all so interconnected?

In addition, no one knows what constitutes a successful transmedia project. Is it purely generated income? Is it fan enthusiasm? How do we know what works and what doesn’t?

4.) Advantage: Expanding platform for content also brings in a larger global audience. The Internet allows for people abroad to stay connected to their favorite TV shows, movies, and videogames.

5.) Disadvantage: A.) It is difficult to create a world suitable for transmedia storytelling. As I mentioned before, not every story can be transmediated. There is no artistic model in how to create a world, one that consumers will engage with. There must be a sufficient amount of open-endedness, however. Long draws on literary theorist Roland Barthes to describe the intertextual bonds between extensions. (I will provide definitions in italics)

In transmedia narratives, the key is to leave a number of the hermeneutic codes (elements in a text that introduce, further, and conclude mysterious elements running throughout the text) unresolved to serve as potential migratory cues (signals towards another narrative path in another medium) , relying upon the audience’s capacity for negative capability(gaps in the story to generate mystery and imagination), to fill in the gaps until an extension actualizes one or more migratory cues. (67)

By using these devices which invoke mystery, a transmedia story has many narrative options, many potential story lines. These stories can either be developed after a successful TV show or film (Long calls this soft transmedia) or planned out before the release of the central media text (hard transmedia). Hard transmedia often has more consistency but soft transmedia is less risky because it does not depend on the success of the primary media text.

B.) Balancing between hard core fans and casual fans is a daunting task. Transmedia storytelling has the potential to appeal to both, but it is not easy. The primary media has to stand on its own while simultaneously allowing for migratory cues, negative capability, and hermeneutic codes. The story must include enough for casual fans to understand but mysterious enough for loyal fans to want to know more. This is indeed a tricky balance.

5.) Advantage: Transmedia storytelling facilitates collective intelligence and enhances fan involvement. Because it inherently leaves gaps in the world, fans actively seek other forms of media to fill them in. They work together to solve mysteries and no one fan knows enough that he/she does not need to discuss their findings with others. I discuss the behaviors of these new kinds of consumers in Chapter 1.

As I will discuss in future posts, a transmedia story must incorporate certain aesthetic and logistical elements to be effective. I have touched on the basic advantages and disadvantages of transmedia storytelling but it is by no means all encompassing. If I think of any major ones, I’ll edit this post. All and all, one thing is clear: it is an exciting time to see transmedia storytelling develop in the digital age.

Transforming the TV and Film Industry in the Digital Age

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In today’s technologically savvy world, the role of the media consumer is evolving. The availability, mobility, and practicality of media convergence have enabled infinite possibilities in consuming media. No longer is it realistic for the media industry to deliver content through one medium and expect mass audiences to passively consume it. Instead, media executives must cater to a different kind of audience, one that has fragmented into millions of smaller interest communities and one that will not be satisfied in merely consuming, but also producing, sharing, and interacting as well. According to media scholar Henry Jenkins in the MIT Technology Review, “younger consumers have become information hunters and gatherers, taking pleasure in tracking down character backgrounds and plot points and making connections between different texts within the same franchise.” However, despite the strong economic incentives to embrace this “consumer 2.0,” many media companies remain hesitant to launch franchises reliant on transmedia storytelling. Certainly, the lack of a consistent and dependable business model makes constructing and executing a multiplatform story risky. But as long as media companies cling to old production and distribution practices, they will never reap the benefits from delivering more complex, interconnected narratives across multiple media to consumers who demand more involved, engaging experiences.

In this paper, I begin by explaining why the television and film businesses need to transform their business model to adapt new technologies and new consumers. I then argue that transmedia storytelling, when done correctly, successfully fulfills this need and promises many economic advantages. However, while a transmedia story franchise has potential to be highly lucrative, I recognize there are economic and creative challenges that remain problematic. I conclude by exploring what the entertainment industry can do to overcome these obstacles and benefit from everything that transmedia storytelling has to offer.

Chapter 1: Harnessing the technology and the consumer

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Undoubtedly, all of the entertainment industries—dance, theatre, gaming, comic books etc—have had to adjust to technological and cultural convergence. The music industry’s decline exemplifies the power of such phenomena. But the television and film industries, though primed to fully transition into the digital age, have neglected to make the quantum leap for two reasons. First, media executives have viewed the development of new technologies as threats to the industry, rather than gateways for new possibilities. And second, the television and film business traditionally expects the consumption of their content to be passive and non participatory, an assumption which sharply contrasts the socially connected, collectively intelligent, and increasingly empowered audience of today. In this chapter, I apply these criticisms to both the television and film industry.

Within the last ten years, the shift towards digital video, compounded with the proliferation of personal computers, iPods, and mobile phones, has allowed viewers greater autonomy in deciding when, where, and how they want to view their favorite TV shows and movies. A scary thought for television executives. No longer can advertisers be assured that consumers are up-holding their end of a long standing transaction. As Ivan Askwith describes in his MIT Master’s thesis Television 2.0: Reconceptualizing TV as an Engagement Medium:

At its core, the television business has always served as broker in an unspoken, but well understood, transaction between viewers and advertisers, wherein the advertiser provides free television programming, and the viewer agrees to watch commercials. Over time, the models have become more sophisticated, of course (leading to the development of Nielsen ratings, audience shares, viewer demographics, and so on) but this implicit contract has remained at the heart of the television business…Executives, advertisers, and audiences alike are beginning to realize that the conditions that once made this contract possible have all but collapsed. (Askwith, 14)

Askwith re-examines the term television itself ; as shows flow through a range of channels and devices, one must wonder whether we can still categorize an episode of The Office on an iPod as a ‘TV show’ in the traditional sense. With many network executives calling themselves not television producers, but content producers, it seems the television industry is adjusting and even embracing multiplatform technology. Well, partly.

The accessibility of the internet and its high speed, wireless connection has enabled consumers to stream and download content illegally at their leisure. Pirating and illegal DVD burning continues to be a huge concern. And of course, the television industry must contend with the dreaded digital video recorders (DVR). Not only can consumers easily acquire free content, but they can also store TV shows and films for subsequent viewings while dodging advertisements completely. Sounds like the apocalypse for the entertainment industry, doesn’t it? But just as television survived the VCR, so too has it endured DVRs. Jason Mittell discusses the effect of such new technology in his essay, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television:”

Using the new technologies of home recording, DVDs, and online participation, viewers have taken an active role in consuming narratively complex television…audiences tend to embrace complex programs in much more passionate and committed terms than most conventional television. (32)

To adapt to television as an active medium, franchises like Heroes and Lost encourage fans to seek, collect, and aggregate character and plot information through multiple media platforms. No longer do TV shows have to rely on re-runs and DVD sales for newcomers to catch up. Instead, time shifting technologies allow fans to fill in narrative gaps at their leisure. Beyond that, hard core fans make full use of their DVR or high speed Internet connection by scrutinizing shots lasting only seconds and re-watching crucial scenes. Nothing goes unnoticed. So while new technologies make it easier to tell serialized stories, the need to maintain a consistent narrative becomes all the more important.

To say the television industry has not adjusted to the digital age would be inaccurate: television companies have given consumers access to content via network homepages or iTunes, where they can download shows and movies legally. But rather than competing against DVRs and online downloads to persuade viewers to watch their TV programming in ‘real time’, why not embrace these technologies, utilize them as tools for consumers to explore more complex narratives and share their discoveries with fan communities? Henry Jenkins writes in Convergence Culture:

Right now, people are learning how to participate in such knowledge cultures outsides of any formal educational setting…the emergence of these knowledge courses partially reflects the demands these texts place on consumers (the complexity of transmedia entertainment, for example), but they also reflect the demands consumers place on media (the hunger for complexity, the need for community, the desire to re-write core stories).

Thus, while the framework exists for the television industry to escape their restrictive business model, the industry must experiment further by producing and distributing content which facilitates consumer ‘hunting and gathering.”

Another part of the problem is that networks rely so heavily on quantifying engagement and commoditizing it through one dimensional measurements (i.e. Nielsen ratings), that they fail to recognize the need for a new conceptual model, one more suitable for the multiplatform media environment. As Askwith writes,

The problem is that the industry is attempting to understand, define and express a new concept (viewer engagement) primarily – and in many cases, exclusively – in terms of its ability to preserve an old end (the advertiser-supported model of television). Engagement is not a process that happens in front of a television set. Nor is it a simple description of how a viewer watches television, or feels when watching television. Instead, engagement describes the larger system of material, emotional, intellectual, social and psychological investments a viewer forms through their interactions with the expanded television text. (153-154)

But with the traditional advertiser supported business model, the television industry fails to understand and take into account all of Askwith’s five logics of engagement: entertainment, social connection, mastery, immersion, and identification. Instead, it utilizes misleading definitions for engagement, such as the oversimplified Nielsen Ratings and the inconsistent Ad*VIZR New Media Audit, to determine whether a show is popular or not. Askwith concludes, and I agree, that the industry has largely viewed extensions of television as a means to promote a program’s scheduled broadcast, thus preserving the “old” business model, rather than regarding expanded content as an opportunity to generate new forms of engagement.

The Film Industry

While not as conspicuously in need of a new business model, the film industry certainly has room for improvement. Upon glancing at the MPAA 2007 Entertainment Industry Statistics, it may appear that 2007 was a historic year. After all, the domestic box office grossed a record 9.63 billion dollars. Twenty eight movies made 100 million dollars or over and four posted over 300 million. Yet when the report is examined more closely, other statistics jump out. Ticket prices increased 5% and there was no change in the amount of tickets sold from last year (1.4 billion). Thus, the record setting figures at the box office were not a product of more movie goers, but more expensive tickets. Not only that, it now costs an average of 107 million dollars for a major studio to produce and promote a movie in theaters, a record high. While I understand theater exhibitions are just one line of revenue for a studio, that is a lot of money to pay for a movie no one wants to dish out ten dollars to see.

Certainly I am not proposing that the film industry needs to lower its ticket prices, minimize production costs, or even make better movies. The studios are money bloodhounds. They know how to generate profit off their blockbusters at every level of traditional distribution (theatrical, home video, TV) and at every possible stream of revenue (including merchandise, videogames, book). In this digital age however, the industry has yet to maximize the power of the web community. Many, if not all, blockbusters today are an extension of a franchise with an existing, passionate fan base. (superheroes and children’s books.) I contend that movie studios can do more to produce online content which would generate excitement from die hard fans as well as provide entry points to those who may not be familiar with the story. Thus, just like television, the film industry must adapt to consumers who engage with content in very complex, different ways.

The MPAA Entertainment Report in 2007 revealed the enormous influence of the Internet on movie going:

A forthcoming study conducted by the MPAA and Yahoo! found that 73% of U.S. moviegoers use the Internet to conduct research before going to the theater. Also, moviegoers who research online are more likely to see a movie on opening weekend, go to the theater more often, and see some movies more than once in the theater. (9)

The report provides compelling evidence that the Internet is the primary source for determining whether or not to see a movie. Yet studios have responded half-heartedly, allocating only 4.4% of the ad dollars to Internet marketing. That is too small of a percentage considering that the average person spends more time on the Internet than any other medium, with the exception of TV. (24) This is especially true for people under 30, who are the movie industry’s target audience.

Of course, it would be easy if the film industry just had to pour more money into online advertising. The real problem is that they are funding marketing campaigns which are overly dependent on traditional advertising tactics. Studios toss movie posters and banners on popular websites while sometimes forcing users to watch a trailer before an online video. These display and pre-roll advertisements are too similar to offline forms of advertising (print, TV), which consumers already find annoying. The difference on the web however, is that users have more choices than any other medium and they exhibit little patience for anything that takes away from their desired content. An article from BBC in May, 2008 reported web users to be exceptionally task driven:

Now, when people go online they know what they want and how to do it, [Jakob Nielsen] said.

This makes them very resistant to highlighted promotions or other editorial choices that try to distract them.

“Web users have always been ruthless and now are even more so,” said Dr. Nielsen.

“People want sites to get to the point, they have very little patience.”

As with any marketing campaign, a studio’s goal is to generate word of mouth so that people voluntarily spread awareness of their brand. But unlike the one way street of the old business model, which relied on studios bombarding consumers with advertisements in traditional media, today, a successful viral marketing campaign can best be initialized and sustained via online social communities. Through online social networks, blogs, email, video hosting sites, virtual worlds and many other web related technologies, connecting to an online community is not only incredibly easy, it’s practically unavoidable. These social media make it possible for word of mouth to extend across a local and global platform, where fans can voice their excitement about a brand in public arenas and formulate discussions with total strangers.

Accordingly, to spark ‘word of mouse’, studios have recently realized that their web presence must consist of more than a simple poster, trailer, and website. Such advertisements do not take advantage of today’s active, technologically savvy, information-hungry consumer. Similar to Askwith’s criticism of the television industry, the film industry must improve their understanding of our convergence culture and the new ways in which consumers engage with media.

It is not enough for a studio to produce new media content. Branded content that fails to be compelling will quickly be written off as a contrived marketing ploy. I will tackle what makes a transmedia campaign a success or a failure later, but in general, it is safe to say that there needs to be a sense of discovery for the consumer, either to expand the movie’s fictional world or to reveal a hidden part of it. The content must leave people wanting more so that they search for other branded content, rather than the other way around. Effective viral marketing can only occur when a studio trusts their fanbase to do the marketing for them and generate hype themselves. If studios can provide intriguing content, then fans will gladly discuss, theorize, and report their findings with their online communities, thus forming a word of mouth tidal wave.

Chris Thilk, on his blog Movie Marketing Madness, comments on the remarks of David Kosse, President of Universal Pictures Interntion. While he commends the executive’s instinct to embrace audiences with online tools, he asserts that Kosse is going about it in the wrong way:

Kosse mentions the MySpace site for Knocked Up and a YouTube clip of Rowan Atkinson for Mr. Bean’s Holiday as two ways the studio engaged in a “two-way dialogue” with the audience.

Except that those aren’t really conversational executions. You can tell because while the visitor and viewer can leave comments and “friend” the page or add the clip as a favorite, there’s no reciprocal communication. The studio talks to the audience, the audience has a mechanism to respond and the conversation ends.

That’s not an engaging conversation, that’s call-and-response.

Thilk’s remarks highlight the way marketing has changed in the digital age. The power has shifted from the studios telling consumers what movies they should see to audiences deciding on their own. Imagine if you could communicate with a character of a movie on AIM or Facebook? Or if studios encouraged user generated content and contests for best trailer remix or fan video instead of sending ‘cease and desist’ orders for such work? Studios must engage in an online dialogue to give fans a reason to blog, email, and chat. They must become part of the community.

Perhaps I have gone too far. Communicating directly with fans may be too big a step for movie studios…but upholding their end of the conversation by providing valuable story information is not. To accomplish this, many movies entice fans by blurring the real world and the fictional world. Take for instance, Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Dark Knight. Transmedial content includes the WhySoSerious alternate reality game, The Gotham Times, and the Gotham Cable News. These marketing devices are completely consistent with the film’s realistic and dark tone. The content not only includes the real actors from the movie and sets up the core themes, but it also invites potential movie goers to discover background story information leading directly up to the film’s explosive beginning. In this way, consumers become immersed in Batman’s world; they experience his adventures as a citizen of Gotham City, rather than as passive observers of a fictional place.

Thus, to adapt to the digital age, studios must find a way to reciprocate their side of conversation and provide content which tells the consumer that their efforts to enter a fictional world will be rewarded with valuable background story information or character development. When studios do launch online campaigns, they either become too dependent on old marketing strategies or their new media content is unoriginal and tonally inconsistent, limiting consumer enthusiasm.

Chapter 2: “The Economic Advantages of Transmedia” coming soon…