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Transmedia and the new art of storytelling
The most prominent writers, directors, and strategists in transmedia discuss the possibilities and difficulties of balancing multiple mediums.
There’s more than one side—and one way to tell—every story. The Internet has brought with it entirely new possibilities to capture the essence of that presence.
Transmedia—the technique of telling a single story across multiple mediums—is bigger than ever. Numerous Web series have turned to social media and other storytelling platforms to enhance their narratives, while major media franchises from Heroes to The Hunger Games have modeled their marketing campaigns around the idea of engaging fans on multiple levels, both on the big and small screens.
But what exactly is it? That seems to be a question with as many different answers as there are storytelling platforms. Not to mention that the more platforms you tell a story with, the more challenges you have.
In order to learn more about these narratives and how fans interact with them, the Daily Dot recently brought together a distinguished panel of transmedia experts for a special round table discussion. Here we present the highlights from this chat about what transmedia is and how different stories can use it in different ways.
Bernie Su, executive producer, head writer, and director of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a popular vlog-style retelling of Pride and Prejudice that utilizes Twitter, Tumblr, Lookbook, and various side-vlogs to tell different, brand-new facets of an old and familiar story.
Alexandra Edwards, transmedia editor for The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.
Flourish Klink, head of the fan culture division and chief participation officer for The Alchemists, a transmedia development and production company with offices in Portugal, Brazil, and Los Angeles.
Ana Serrano, director of the Canadian Film Center Media Lab and producer of Prison Dancer, a stage musical and Web series inspired by the viral video of inmates at a Philippine prison dancing to “Thriller.”
Veronica Heringer, transmedia strategist at transmedia development company Smokebomb Entertainment.
- Steph Ouaknine, associate producer for Smokebomb. Heringer and Ouaknine are currently developing the transmedia fantasy The Path for Web platforms.
Daily Dot: What exactly is transmedia? Let’s hear some definitions.
Klink: Telling a story across multiple platforms wherein each platform brings something special to that narrative.
Edwards: Our Transmedia Director Jay Bushman calls it “platform agnosticism,” which is the idea that it doesn’t matter what platform you use as long as you successfully deliver content.
Su: I don’t know that that’s an effective definition, though, because every platform brings different things to the story that you’re telling!
Serrano: Transmedia is a business and creative strategy for storytelling that lets authors and creators design a story world across multiple platforms for different audiences. I think transmedia is both a business and creative strategy. We all want audiences. So it’s about how we create this extended story experience so that we can tap into audiences across different media.
Heringer: The key concept I’d throw in is that your story world has to be insanely good so that I want to live inside it. So there’s an aspect of balance. If it’s a quick fix storytelling, that won’t engage the audience further.
DD: Does internationalization affect how you do your work? How?
Serrano: Yes, absolutely. Prison Dancer is inspired by the dancing inmates of Sebu, so we originally thought that our audience would be primarily LGBT and Filipino. But we discovered that we actually had a large audience in the Philippines itself, so our focus has become, in part, how can we reach them when they use totally different social media platforms? We’ve explored a variety of different things, and we’re actually looking into doing live mall performances, because that’s where a large portion of our audience lives.
Klink: We’re currently producing a short-video telenovela about a bunch of Latino kids in an L.A. high school. So we have to consider our target audience when we choose our platforms. People don’t often realize, not only that different platforms mean people want different things, but that different social media platforms themselves mean different things depending on where you are. Being on Platform X in Brazil says something different than being on that platform in the United States. It says different things about the character based on who’s looking.
Serrano: In the Philippines, what we realized is that most people were viewing things on mobile devices, so our annotations for the videos wouldn’t work. So something that we’ve thought of is putting out a DVD of our YouTube videos—you just have to be nimble. There will always be a point where you make the wrong strategic decisions, but you’ll learn from them. You can never get everything right because there are just too many layers when the audience is involved.
Su: Our audience has specifically asked, when this is done, can we get a DVD? So you definitely adapt as you go.
DD: Are there specific transmedia projects that you admire?
Klink: The Lizzie Bennet Diaries!
Serrano: Wigs. It’s just such a great idea to start with all these female archetypes and start spinning out stories from that. The other seminal project for me was The Truth about Marika. That’s a great example of a dramatic series and a news show, and the news show is where they did the responsive content development, because they were pretending that the series was based on a real event.
Su: Lonely Girl 15 really did influence us a lot, at least me. Hank Green, our co-creator, was a huge fan of it, and knowing how they planned anything was really amazing. I’m not sure everything they did was effective, but it was really interesting.
DD: Do you ever feel hampered by the difficulties of working with all these different mediums?
Su: We started with Tumblr, and we knew what the personalities on Tumblr were going to be, but then the fans really wanted a Tumblr [for the character of Charlotte Lu], and so we had to develop a Charlotte Tumblr and think about what she was going to be. So she posts trailers about documentary films, and it’s true to her as a character. I find that fascinating—and a little handcuffing.
Edwards: Our fans are so passionate that they’ll jump on anything the moment we post it, so we have to walk a fine line of not putting too much content out there, because the more you put out, the more content fans will want, and it becomes a balancing act.
Serrano: Getting that balance right is difficult at first.
Su: It was definitely a learn-as-we-go experience.
Heringer: For our project, The Path, we actually wanted to reach our audience before we even started to tweak the creative side of things. When we started looking to how the fan culture worked and what the fans we were trying to reach actually wanted, we started seeing their whole social experience: the conversations they were having, the fanworks they were creating. So we realized that we needed a regular storyline but also a fandom hub to make that story interactive. We want the fans to experience a hub that will bring them together in conversation with the creators right from the beginning.
Ouaknine: The barriers are coming down between fans and The Powers That Be [a fan term for creators and producers]. We reached out to existing fandoms like Once Upon A Time and Veronica Mars and involved them in the process.
Klink: Something I’ve been enjoying right now is that previous to forming The Alchemists, my business partner Mark Warshaw did transmedia for Smallville and Heroes, and his perspective is totally different from the perspective of anyone on this roundtable. It’s not enough for him to think that he knows what the balance is, even though he’s done it before, because online-only audiences and television audiences are so different in so many ways.
DD: How does a larger transmedia property like Heroes differ from smaller properties?
Serrano: I think for some people transmedia equals augmented reality gaming (ARG), period. No one ever said that. No one ever said that transmedia is only about extending your entire fictional universe where audiences are required to play along with the conceit, suspend their disbelief, adopt a role and act as such throughout the experience. I think that’s the main difference between the larger studios who’ve often used ARG techniques to create their transmedia strategies and the smaller properties who have used used other models to create their storyworld experience.
Heringer: I completely agree. What is the definition of “media?” The behavior your character will have on their Twitter feed will be completely different from their scripted actions in a webseries. All of that will be completely different and they will need to be different on each platform. I think some people think transmedia is A, B, or C, and it must be one or the other. But that risks making your story very gimmicky.
Klink: It’s not just the smaller properties that need to know this. The Hunger Games tried a transmedia marketing project for the film and it didn’t really work well because they didn’t really focus on the narrative properties of the story itself.
Su: I had actually never read the books so I loved the film, and I wanted more info about the other Tributes! And I found a book one day, a tie-in to the movie, that purported to have more information about the Tributes, and I excitedly picked it up only to find that the characters were literally labeled “Tribute #4,” etc. It was a giant missed marketing opportunity.
Klink: It’s such a gift to be able to do this with a movie, and you’d think that they wouldn’t waste those opportunities; but I think part of it is that they don’t understand what their audience wants, and they think it’s about endless world building, rather than helping the audience know more about what’s already there, engaging with the characters and plot on a deeper level.
Su: I’m from that mindset of wanting to know more and wanting to go find it.
Serrano: There are so many different ways to give more about those characters to the audiences, without having some wacko scavenger hunt and a wormhole of plot loops. You could do something as simple as a Tribute website with videos from each of the tributes saying goodbye to their loved ones.
But the hitch is this: You can’t do it forever because it’s too prohibitively expensive. So what’s the best way to give Bernie what he wants?
Klink: Well, look at what Wattpad did with One Direction—they collaborated with Sony, went to the fandom, and extended their marketing with a fic written directly for fandom. It was cost-efficient and it worked.
DD: How do you all feel about that collision of fandom and corporations?
Edwards: It can be frustrating to see fans getting so into the series that they really bash Caroline Lee, who’s the main “villain” of the series so far.
Ouaknine: It’s great to see fandoms developing around digital properties and Web native IP and transmedia, not just broadcast media.
Su: I was doing a presentation about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, and I was going over statistics, talking about how immersive and engaged the fanbase is. The VP of sales told me, “I just had my mind blown.” From my my side, I’m seeing a lot of promise. When transmedia properties do well, they drive audiences to products. It’s a win-win.
Klink: When brilliant people in the organization get it, they really get it. Sometimes there’s no one in the orginization who has a clue except for that intern who’s reading the fanfic. But now people are realizing that there’s this whole fan universe out there.
Serrano: When I started the [CFC Media Lab] in 1999, there was no YouTube, no Twitter. And the big question was how we were going to negotiate the universal desire of authors to control their stories in lieu of an interactive audience. It’s still the same bloody question, although people are more open and there are more models about what that relationship should be; but the dramatic Web series form is suffering from similar problems about what that website should be.
We have the Independent Series Production Fund in Canada, and what happens with that kind of money is that you forget about the interactivity with the audience as you go because you’re so busy creating things. But really it’s about this marriage with a dramatic series with a weekly vlog, which I think is going to become the norm. That’s why The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is so fantastic, because they’ve figured that out. So the next series that we’re building has that kind of responsive attachment from fans.
Su: Pride and Prejudice is our greatest weapon, actually, because we have this tried and true story that we know is a great story. The rest of it is us trying to modernize all of these things and making it fit into the setting and the vlog format.
Klink: The majority of East Los High is a scripted, standard fictional universe. At certain point, one character peels off and does vlogging. For us, we had to do it all, scripting and vlogging, and it was a challenge. How do you embody the character as a believable Latino teen on Twitter? It’s challenging, and it’s getting more so as social media progresses.
Heringer: The Path came from the writers. But we really wanted to acknowledge the fandom that already exists, and we went out and talked to the OAT people, etc. Our approach started to change when we looked at the fandoms and what they were writing about. The fans helped to advance the project to that second stage; the whole social media aspect was related to us going out and talking to people. Our whole model changed because we had to figure out how to fit the creative team we had into the online communities that already existed. It’s important for you to know if there’s an audience for your idea before you pitch anything.
Ouaknine: A lot of our hits came from Legend of the Seeker and Once Upon a Time fandoms. Just by engaging with those communities we got lots of hits and reblogs. We went to those communities and created things that they could identity with instead of wasting money on a massive marketing budget.
Su: Just because there are all these platforms out there you can play on, doesn’t mean you should. Could Mary Bennet have a Spotify account? She could! But it gives us absolutely nothing for us to do that. A lot of the projects that don’t work spend way too much time trying to build up threads on different platforms, but that quickly becomes insanity for us. Lydia’s cat episode was just me asking Mary Kate Wiles to film her cat on her phone. It cost no money to make but it was extremely popular. Find a way where you can be cost-effective.
Also a lot of people think money is the major challenging factor, but it’s really time. The third one is creative bandwidth. A lot of people go to Twitter because they think it’s free—but the writing isn’t.
Heringer: Do your research before throwing things out there. It’s not that hard to figure out where people are. You just need to strategize, talk to your creative, and figure out what platforms work for you. The transmedia play is a process. It’s so sad to see great creative going to waste because they don’t find their audience.
Klink: Give fans more of what they want, not more of what they don’t want.
Screengrab via Prison Dancer
Aja Romano is a geek culture reporter and fandom expert. Their reporting at the Daily Dot covered everything from Harry Potter and anime to Tumblr and Gamergate. Romano joined Vox as a staff reporter in 2016.