Transmedia film experiences: my talk at Ignite London 3

Cross-posted on the Made by Many blog.

Two weeks ago, I spoke at Ignite London 3 on transmedia film experiences. I decided to restrict it to film, though there are brilliant examples in TV – Lost and Dexter to name just two – because of the format of the evening: 20 slides that auto-forward every 15 seconds, with 15 seconds per slide. There’s only so much you can cover in that time (15 seconds is almost the equivalent of a long breath, if you think about it). A lot like Pecha-Kucha, actually.

I started with a clip that everyone is familiar with from watching Warner Brothers’ movies. The experience of sitting in a darkened theatre is amazing for any true movie-lover, but it’s not just about box-office receipts anymore. With the advent of transmedia storytelling, the story now often starts way before the movie releases, and continues long after. For transmedia newbies, I explained that the phrase was made popular (not invented, mind!) by Henry Jenkins, and refers to the telling of a story through multiple platforms, allowing the viewer to enter the story ‘through dispersed entry points, providing a comprehensive and co-ordinated experience’, as Jenkins says.

Star Wars was one of the earliest examples of transmedia storytelling, albeit in a dispersed rather than co-ordinated way. Beginning in 1977 and continuing till date, fans have got acquainted with the characters and the story in a variety of ways: videogames, books, animated short films and of course the actual films themselves. Through all this, Lucasfilm was able to maintain absolute creative control – a lesson that Hollywood can really learn from.

Whether or not the Wachowski Brothers had heard of Jenkins before, they absolutely did maintain creative control over the Matrix franchise. Ivan Askwith says in his Salon piece that the single unified narrative ‘offered a new model for storytelling in the detail-obsessed, information-saturated digital age’, and it is often used as an example of early co-ordinated transmedia storytelling by advocates and academics of the subject.

In 2008, the Dark Knight was released, but the story started in May 2007 for real fans, who discovered and (the sites are no longer active). At Comic Con a couple of months later, attendees were handed out $1 bills pointing them to, which led them on a scavenger hunt across almost 50 sites on the web, including the Gotham Times and the Joker’s equivalent, the Ha Ha Ha Times, finally leading them to a place where they found a cake with a cellphone baked in, which would give them directions to a special preview of the first 7 minutes. As Dan O’Brien says, the film led to ‘geekdom entering the mainstream’.

Then in 2009, one of my favourite examples, Watchmen, released. Daniel Light has a brilliant post that explains the strategy and execution of the transmedia story that backed the film. The interesting thing about it was that it leveraged social media in a way most other movies till then hadn’t: the New Frontiersman, the newspaper of the alternate world that was part of the story, had its own TwitterFlickr and Friendfeed channels, for example. But they weren’t used just because the channels existed – it was, as Light says, about ‘building a community of common interest around the back-story’.

If you look at the dates when different technologies/services were built, and compare them to the dates of release of the films mentioned here, you’ll notice a couple of years lag between the technologies coming into existence and becoming part of the transmedia stories. So if you pay attention to what’s going on now online, you’re likely to see it in the movies not too long from now.

But transmedia storytelling isn’t something restricted to huge production studios with multi-million dollar budgets, like Paramount, MGM or the Warner Brothers. Lance Weiler made Head Trauma in 2007 on $126,000, and he decided early on that ‘social’ would be his film’s USP. A number was displayed in the opening credits, for example, which when people texted, resulted in phones ringing in the middle of the movie. On the film’s website, depending on what people clicked, they had phones playing back their words and were eventually dumped into a conference chat. ‘Head Trauma’ had a limited run but always sold out.

So what’s next? All this is brilliant and I love the fact that films are coming to us in our channels rather than expecting us to go to the theatre like before, but surely there has to be more that transmedia storytelling can do.

The Harry Potter Alliance is a good example: they are a group of people who call themselves Dumbledore’s Army and raise funds for charitable causes. They even won $250,000 in the Chase Community Giving Challenge not too long ago.

And most recently, there was Conspiracy for Good, from NBC’s ‘Heroes’ creator Tim Kring. Kring calls it ‘social benefit storytelling’, where the line between fiction and reality blurs. The story starts online with a fictional villain, but people took it forward on their phones or the web, resulting in them meeting in real life at a few events in London this summer to take action against environmental injustice, which was part of the story. As Kring says, what if your involvement in a film or story can result in actual change in the world?

From dispersed storytelling with Star Wars to co-ordinated story-telling with the Watchmen and social benefit storytelling with Conspiracy for Good, transmedia projects have changed our experience of film and TV – but I can’t wait to see what’s next.