Transmedia is a clunky and frankly unsatisfying word that describes a total revolution in how we look at and prepare content. As much as I hate the term transmedia, I am completely excited about the possibilities it offers storytellers.
Traditionally, filmmakers thought about a film as a single, stand-alone silo. They might have imagined some merchandising spin-off in the long run, if they were really lucky, but mostly the focus was on telling the story through film. I guess that may seem duh, obvious – but actually it is no longer the case. Transmedia takes that single film and explodes its various themes, stories, characters and messages, extending them across range of different platforms and opportunities in a variety of complementary NEW ways, and creating a bigger, more unified and more coordinated entertainment experience. Transmedia uses each platform to add something new to the narrative, perhaps by offering background stories, or by changing the perspective on an event or character through different viewpoints, or by continuing a story arch that was left off in another medium. In fact, the best transmedia narratives deliberately use the unique properties of each platform to help the consumer experience the different parts and perspectives of a story in the most meaningful ways possible.
Transmedia Extensions may function in a number of different ways towards a number of different ends. It can be applied to:
- To keep fans engaged – During almost a decade in which no new television episodes of Doctor Who were produced, the BBC kept audience interest alive with a series of radio dramas.
- To provide insight into the characters and their motivations:
- To bridge between events depicted between seasons or sequels – USA Networks produced “A New Day,” an interactive graphic novel, a 12-issue downloadable comic book intended to bridge the action between seasons four and five.
- To boost audience outreach and introduce people to the movie who might not otherwise have encountered it through new platforms – like the Sandra Bullock movie The Blind Side which made online sermons based on the movie available, for free, with clips that could be used in those mega-churches equipped with video screens. About 23,000 churches downloaded the sermons, laying an exceptionally strong base for the film.
- To market the film – the movie Chronicle created three life-size flying men to zip through the New York sky to promote the (SA shot) sci-fi. The movie Carrie filmed a video stunt of an apparently telekinetic woman in a coffee shop that went viral (it’s been seen more than 63 million times on Youtube alone.)
- To flesh out aspects of the fictional world – check out the website for entirely fictional Jurassic World, which comes nevertheless with feeding times and park cams and information on how to get “to Costa Rica” – “with American Airlines” – and where to stay when you get there – plus interesting facts and figures about actual dinosaurs. Or
- To add a greater sense of realism to the fiction as a whole, such as the documentary films and cd-roms produced by James Cameron to provide historical context for Titanic – or in the excellent TedTalks of 2023 conducted by Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce in full character) to promote his exciting vision for space exploration for Promotheus. Remember, this Ted Talks does not appear in the film at all, it’s simply works to put the movie’s big ideas in a credible context (and TedTalks benefits too, by being associated with future thinking brilliance.)
Transmedia can be simple, across a few low-tech media platforms. It can break down the barriers between the story and reality by bringing the narrative out into the real world, in the form of complex and exciting alternative reality games (ARGs), where participants engage with narrative elements and characters using real world locations as part of the storyworld. So what makes up this transmedia arsenal? Well, anything really, but including:
- Graphic Novels
- Books, Novelisations
- Live Events
- Toys and Games
- Video & Online Games
- Online Quizzes & games
- Branded clothing
- Social Media
- Sermons, Lectures and Factual Presentations
- School Materials
Transmedia really lends itself to stories that have a lot more to say than can be told in 90 minutes. Often, the best transmedia examples are based on complex fictional worlds that can sustain multiple interrelated characters and their stories, rather than individual characters or specific plots. The website for the Capitol in the block buster Hunger Games, Catching Fire is a classic example of this. It is styled as the Citizen Control Center of Panem, complete with a “.pn” URL ending (that’s the Pitcairn Islands usually, but). As users enter the site, they can use Facebook or Twitter to login and to create a Panem government ID and become a Citizen of Panem. As a citizen, you can sponsor victors, check up on weather and news, and follow activity levels in the different districts. Another official Capitol medium – Capitol TV – features a section entitled “District Citizen Reels“. In this section, fans are once again called upon to participate in the form of fan vids that are then featured in the official Capitol TV channel. This process of world-building encourages a very human desire to dig down deeper into the content and find out more – an activity that is much easier now with embedded links and the internet at our full disposal. Even holes and dead ends in the transmedia story are positive since they encourage fan fiction to “fill in the gaps” they have discovered.
The best Transmedia storytelling is fully participatory, where the audience becomes actively involved, elevated to social and creative collaborators. The unfolding story design creates the motivation to engage with other participants, seek out other parts of the story, and contribute to the narrative by adding content. In fact, transmedia storytelling is an ideal aesthetic form for an era of collective intelligence – the term created by Pierre Levy to describe the new social structures that enable the production and circulation of knowledge within a networked society. Because transmedia storytelling requires a high degree of coordination across the different platforms, Transmedia guru Henry Jones says it has so far worked best either in independent projects – where the same artist shapes the story across all of the media involved – or in projects where strong collaboration (or co-creation) is encouraged across the different divisions of the same company. In other words: smaller companies have the edge.
So: stop filmmakers need to stop talking about making a film, singular, and start conceiving of a holistic transmedia property, right from the outset, with complementary extensions that build audience engagement.