When Does Transmedia Make Sense?

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Simon StaffansBy Simon Staffans, Transmedia Developer

“What I as an author feel about this enormous change we’re undergoing? It feels like I’m tied to the front of a runaway train where the driver’s just had a heart attack, that’s what it feels like.”

— Author Philip Pullman, Enhanced Editions, on new ways of distributing stories

When does transmedia make sense?

Following up on “Transmedia and the Publishing Industry,” my previous post here at DBW, I will take a look at when transmediated content actually would make sense. Since author Philip Pullman might feel “tied to the front of a runaway train,” perhaps “never” would be the correct answer, at least while looking at the matter from a publishing point of view. But, Pullman goes on to say that it is a world with many possibilities for an author, so he’s not averse to new ways of thinking, and if there’s anything different about “now,” it’s that new ways of thinking abound.

From my perspective, as a cross- and transmedia format developer with an extensive background in newspaper journalism, radio, and television, I can see many occasions when it would make sense. Definitely not always, as many stories now published do just fine on their own and have no need to glance in a transmedia direction. On the other hand, there are stories, right now being told in print form only, that simply beg to be fleshed out and to give an eager audience the chance to touch the storyworld in a deeper and more engaged fashion.

Last spring Kassia Krozser wrote an excellent post on transmedia and the publishing industry, where she quite correctly argued that transmedia storytelling is not for every story. She also discusses three challenges facing the publishing industry with regards to transmedia – rights, business models, and technology and skills. I strongly suggest you take a look at the post, as it is very much up to date now, more than a year later. These are of course challenges that need to be met and not dismissed, but I believe transmedia and publishing many times are a great match.

But when?

A hypothetical example might be in order. Say that a writer has an idea for a great mystery story. It’s set in a small American town, not entirely unlike the Bon Temps of Louisiana where True Blood takes place, only perhaps more Midwestern. It is sprawling with interesting characters; the Geek, the Sporty Guy, the Cheerleader, and so on. The Geek is a central character in the plot, living a great part of his life on social media as well as more obscure forums (think 4chan and the like).

This early in the development, I would seriously consider bringing in people who can develop transmedia content. I would insist on the creator – the author – being in on this part of the process from the beginning, as her/his knowledge would be invaluable when building the world the stories should unfold in. The world and the mythology of the world would be described in great detail – more than would be needed for the novel – and the characters as well, including interesting side characters from the novel and even those that would never appear in the novel.

I’m not saying the author must do all of this. I’m saying the transmedia development team should do all of this, with the creator, the author, having the final say on what goes and what doesn’t. It all needs to fit together seamlessly, otherwise the cracks will show.

Now it’s up to the author, the team, and the story itself to decide what transmedia content would be appropriate to develop and produce. There are, naturally, many possibilities, and I’m sure you can imagine at least a dozen yourself as you read this. Perhaps it’s the story of the Geek’s closest ally in his World of Warcraft clan, told via social media and connecting to the story in the novel? Perhaps it’s the story of the Cheerleader’s sister, the black sheep of the family that moved to LA to make it big and that somehow is connected to the mysterious things happening in the small town, a story told via a third person who videoblogs his road travels on a WWII-era motorcycle, heading towards this small town with a shadow riding on his back.

The possibilities are nearly endless; the story and the storyworld decide which ones fit.

This does go both ways, though, which calls on a bit of courage on the part of the author. It is entirely possible that the way the stories on other media are planned to unfold will call on the novel to be adapted as well. Once again – it all needs to fit seamlessly. Cracks are bad. Illogical twists are even worse. The mirroring of all the parts of the development, the stories and the plots on the storyworld and the mythology is crucial.

Executed correctly, though, this would lead to an audience engaged in a fictional world where all the stories make sense. This world and the stories told there would bridge the gaps between the novels in the series, opening up for new stories, possibly even fan-based stories, encouraging immersion and increasing loyalty… and most likely provide the author with a well of ideas for coming plots and stories.

From my point of view, I love the notion of distant mountains. The notion that there is always something more to explore, something wondrous and exciting. The notion you have when you, with a sigh, put down a just-finished great novel, hoping you could pick up the next one in the series instantly.

What we need now are more examples of successful (and less successful, too) ventures into this field. I would be most eager to hear of examples from the real world, so please feel free to comment below.

Until next time!

Simon Staffans has a background in television, radio and newspapers, and has been working at MediaCity Finland as a developer of cross media and transmedia formats since 2005. He’s passionate about storytelling, family, fishing and football. And single malt whiskey.

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14 thoughts on “When Does Transmedia Make Sense?

  1. Yes to all of the above. Rich story worlds and characters need to breathe and unfold. I love distant mountains, too. And authors who can set wheels in motion and let others drive the cart are courageous and will reach many, many more people.

    Transmedia also makes sense when:

    aspects of story or character are better told in certain media than others (the goal being to take advantage of each medium’s strengths—eg, characters who Tweet)

    potential audience is scattered across media (eg., gamers don’t all read books and vice versa; 39 Clues, Patrick Carman titles)

    story world can cross genre/typical audience (eg, rom coms can reach men, as Alison Norrington found)

    natural cheese holes invite readers to contribute, collaborate (Inanimate Alice–having to stop at episode #4 out of 10 may have been what triggered the classroom boon in content!)

    fan base buys into a world and needs, craves more than any author or creative team can possibly provide.

    • Lorraine,

      absolutely. The key, in my opinion, is to be able to critically approach a property, a story, and see when one or more of the points you mention apply. Again – there is no need to apply transmedia principles in a case when they do not make sense.

      At the same time I believe it is important to evaluate one’s own position as well – do I have the resources (be it funding, time or know-how) to pull this off? If I’m lacking in one or more of those resources, how can I address that? Just as with any development project really, only the know-how is still quite hard to come by.

  2. You and Kassia raise valid points. Personally, I believe publishers have to view themselves as managers of storyworlds, not just merchants of stories. But these considerations aren’t limited to publishing.

    I think the next question after “when” is “how?” And that’s really where things get…interesting. Provided all of the above is true (and I agree that it is), exactly *how* should publishers move forward on IP they deem transmedia-ready?

    Good transmedia storytelling is hard. It’s more resource-intensive than single-platform/medium storytelling. It requires a larger set of skillsets. It’s not simply adapting “The Lord of the Rings” to film – it’s telling all new stories in non-fiction formats that happen to take place in Middle Earth. It’s taking a story and making a storyworld out of it.

    And at the Hollywood level, developing native transmedia properties is currently being hampered by the legal and logistical aspects of producing and rolling out multiple, simultaneous extensions of a single IP.

    I mean, we’re still trying to figure out guild rights and revenues in the U.S. as the digital landscape continues to torture the logic of previous contracts and mindsets where the content type (a TV show) was limited to one distribution channel (TV networks) and one platform (a television set). Ah, the simple days when a TV show was a TV show was a TV show. Good times.

    Setting that issue aside, there are few global companies with the internal resources to internally implement a transmedia property at Hollywood levels, so how does the legal and licensing pies get split up when you have a game developer, a movie, and a publisher all trying to launch a transmedia world simultaneously and seamlessly?

    Who’s steering the creative vision across all of the extensions (let’s be honest, you can only time slice one person so many ways)? Who will have what rights to any derivative content created by the individual companies? How will marketing efforts from the movie integrate with the publisher’s marketing? Out of whose P&L will all of the various expenses come from, especially when they need to (as you rightly put it) seamlessly flow together?

    These are the finer points in the business discussions that often trip up a property. As one of the speakers at the “Transmedia Hollywood 2″ conference earlier this year put it, there are few shops you can take a transmedia property to. Most studios can only execute on part of it, so they aren’t interested in content outside their focus/expertise (“hey, that’s cool that you already have the script, the TV pilot, the video game, and the novel trilogy all mapped out…but we just want to turn your script into a movie, okay?”). The result is a lot of IP gets implemented in a limited way, and only if the first iteration does well commercially is there any interest in exploring additional extensions in other mediums.

    Finally, I think it’s worth pointing out that some authors may have a transmedia-ready IP but are not interested in developing it into a transmedia property. As you have emphasized the need to include the author in the process, publishers should recognize when an author just wants to have their book published and not worry about all of the rest.

    True – transmedia storytelling isn’t right for every property. But even for the ones where it’s a natural fit, a good transmedia implementation is still a challenge. For publishers, the challenge is building the right partnership with agents and authors to allow them to collectively expand the network of resources necessary to extract maximum value from a particular IP using transmedia principles, whether that’s hiring development teams, contracting for specific skillsets, or partnering with other media companies.

    • Scott, yes, “how” is next step after “when.” Question:

      “some authors may have a transmedia-ready IP but are not interested in developing it into a transmedia property.”

      Not sure I get this. I’m an author/writer/editor with solid game design background, a rare combo. I’m creating transmedia-rich IP for that reason. You bet, I want to develop it, publish it, produce it, spin the web out there. And I recognize the need for close-knit team, deep pockets, and expertise and skill sets to cross the media. True, there haven’t been a whole lot of open doors for pitching transmedia, but that’s changed just in the last year. The field is young, growing up very fast.

      I could cop out and just write a book. But, been there, done that, dozens of times. The thrill of transmedia is in exactly all the challenges you cite—how to meld different-minded brains? How to find a publisher (okay, producer, okay, “new term”) who can properly and efficiently execute across multiple platforms? How to create a feedback loop that fuels the property in perpetual motion, even when it’s between roller coaster hills? (I’m thinking of Lance Weiler’s Pandemic, now building up to Pandemic 2.0…)

      You say:
      “For publishers, the challenge is building the right partnership with agents and authors to allow them to collectively expand the network of resources necessary to extract maximum value from a particular IP using transmedia principles, whether that’s hiring development teams, contracting for specific skillsets, or partnering with other media companies.”

      Why, sure. I say, there’s creative gold in those mountains, and it’s worth prospecting. We need to let go of an awful lot of traditional baggage to get up there. Those who are willing to do so are getting there first.

      • Lorraine,

        I like your analogy; letting go of the traditional baggage to get to the creative mountains of gold :)

        I would say that I understand what Scott is saying (I think :) re “some authors may have a transmedia-ready IP but are not interested in developing it into a transmedia property.” I think that many, if not most, would be interested in theory. In practice, that’s a whole other ballgame.

      • Lorraine: As you said, you’re a rare combo. I just wanted to point out that a lot of creatives still don’t even know what transmedia storytelling is. “Beware the Ides of Mar…er, the transmedia echo chamber.” : )

    • Scott,

      yes, it’s a challenge. ”How” to create transmedia is a valid question, for many of the issues you raise above. It does, I think, depend quite a lot on the nature of the project, the story and the world.

      I would, however, argue that it actually helps the development and production process if a story world and a mythology is developed with the creator/author at the core. This is something I think applies no matter how much or how little the story/stories eventually spread over different media. Even if the result is ”just another novel”, the work done according to transmedia principles will help in the development of that novel. So, if the resources and the will are there, why not?

      With regards to your concerns over who oversees the creative vision, I do agree that it has the possibility to be extremely taxing for one sole creator. Regarding this concern, and most of the others you raise, I believe our best bet is to try to develop best practices. We need examples to look at and learn from and to tweak to our own needs. Create the mythology and the world strong enough, and you will not have to be the dictator-creator-overseer; your colleagues will KNOW what fits into the creative vision for the property in question and you can come in at a later stage to add final touches instead of pouring over every last detail. Granted, this calls for certain traits in the author/creator as well; a will to let go to a certain extent, predominantly.

      The same goes for rights, marketing integration, deal policies etc. It’s only by doing that we can hope to learn. For one project, where multiple partners were involved, including rights issues left and right, the deal mountain seemed impossible to climb. Two weeks later, the deals were in place, helped along by a very strict deadline. It’s possible!

      • Simon: I’m probably guilty of impatience. You’re right about best practices helping the process, and they will definitely emerge over time (some already are).

        But about your other point.

        You wrote, “if the resources and the will [to build out a transmedia storyworld] are there, why not?” To which I reply, “well, yes, of course – if there are no limitations, why not, indeed?”

        But that’s rarely the case. Nine times out of ten, creatives and media companies *do* have resource constraints, even if the will is there. That’s the point I was trying to get at: when the creative desire meets the reality of resource allocation, how do you justify the expenditure to an executive? I think we’re still searching for those numbers and models.

        Or I may be completely off base, in which case, please tell me so. No one wants me to be wrong about this more than I!

        • Scott,

          you are unfortunately not at all off base. There are, and always will be, constraints and limitations, especially when we’re talking about new and emerging areas, such as transmedia. But I think we are talking about slightly different processes here.

          In the quote above – “if the resources and the will [to build out a transmedia storyworld] are there, why not?” – you will note that I’m saying nothing about producing for all these different platforms. I’m thinking of a creative team – or a single person, even if that is harder – fleshing out the storyworld, finding where new stories and new media platforms would make sense, and documenting this. Not necessarily producing all of it, or even a part of it.

          I know the financial clock is ticking as soon as you ask people to have a sit down and develop something; still, this can also be seen as development work on the story (the novel or whatever) already commissioned, and that’s something that often needs to be done anyway, no?

          • Good to know I’m not entirely crazy! : )

            I believe we’re on the same page but infusing each other’s comments with some presumptions.

            I wasn’t referring to producing the transmedia extensions, either, just the act of building out the world. When you wrote “with the creator/author at the core,” I took that to imply there were others working on the worldbuilding process. The other resources are the additional expenditure I was referring to.

            Maybe you didn’t mean that, but that’s what I interpreted.

            So, if you’re saying worldbuilding can help produce a richer story, I agree. Worldbuilding can get in the way of good storytelling if it takes over the process, but it’s a useful tool in the storyteller’s toolbox. And if the author is willing to do so (and a diverse skillset like Lorraine), so much the better!

            But it may be erroneous to say that worldbuilding is synonymous with what normally happens with a novel (the “development work on the story” as you call it). I can’t honestly say, though. Would love to hear from some editors about whether worldbuilding is already baked into the process or would be an additional expense.

            • Got it. I was probably too vague in what I wrote – I make no presumptions to know what size of a development team is needed to create and develop a world around a story; someone like Lorraine can perhaps do it all on their own, while others need other people with different skillsets. Many different scenarios, and yes, if new people are needed, expenditure will rise. On the other hand, this might fund itself in the long run, when creating additional content, hooking up with sponsors or brands, etc.

              Yes, I know, there are a lot of if’s and but’s. Still, I would rather stretch my resources and take some tentative steps in a transmedia direction with a story I believe would benefit from it, than say “nah, leave it be” and go the safe, traditional way.

              And yes, I’d love to hear from editors as well. Anyone? :)

  3. Just wondering if there are any transmedia titles out now or being developed that incorporate curriculum-related learning challenges into the storyline. For example, the protagonist must solve a math or logic-type of physics problem in order to advance the story. I see these appearing in video games, but I am waiting for a more literate, text-rich story that offers a variety of plot permutations. I’m looking for something that is more geared to learning and education than \Inanimate Alice.\ I am asking this question from a librarian educator’s standpoint.

  4. Ruth, I’m with you! I have a treasure trove of educational stories and games, originally published as teacher books for Scholastic, that I’m looking to shape and repackage into transmedia experiences, multi-platform (letting the content dictate the container). I’m glad to hear there are educators looking for this type of content.

    A true leader in this area is Laura Fleming, who is a promoter of Inanimate Alice but many other initiatives, too (her blog: http://edtechinsight.blogspot.com/2011/08/my-year-in-transmedia.html and a recent interview: http://silverstringmedia.com/2011/11/11/creative-voice-laura-fleming/). She has developed a transmedia learning experience around Westphalia—a LearningWorld, as she calls it. The interview describes this project briefly. She and John Connelly are writing a book on transmedia in education.

    Also keep an eye on Transmedia for Kids, a collection of resources and blog by digital storyteller Cynthia Jabar: http://www.transmediakids.com/ She’s is an advocate of conquering the digital divide, transmedia, DIY, and education, all centered in one convenient website.

    More specifically, Ko’s Journey is a game, that’s true, but it’s a story-based one that focuses on solving math problems in order to advance the plot. http://www.kosjourney.com/

    I’d love to know the answer to your question, so if you do find something you love, please share!

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