A Critical Shortfall: Who Rates the Transmedia?

If TV critics won’t sift through the “Lost” online universe to rate it, who will?

Yes, it appears that pigs can take at least short domestic flights, and Hell is facing some moderate climate change.

At least that was my thought this week when the top-ranked, highly competitive film schools at USC and UCLA collaborated on a conference on “transmedia,” the buzzwordy concept of creating related content for ardent fans across multiple media platforms to flesh out a particular story world or narrative universe (think Star Wars or Batman).

The conference mixed academics from two continents with the creative minds behind transmedia projects tied to “The Blair Witch Project,” “Harry Potter,” “Minority Report,” “The Dark Knight” and “2012” movies, the “Lost” TV series, the “Medal of Honor” videogames, Nine Inch Nail’s most recent album and more.

“We're in the middle of a Cambrian explosion” of diversity, said Richard Lamarchand, lead designer for Naughty Dog Software’s “Uncharted 2: Drake’s Revenge,” the 2009 game of the year for many critics. “There are all kinds of controllers, mobile devices. There are so many experience opportunities.”

Fans are eating up all the cryptic, dystopian alternate-reality game experiences and spinoff comic books and book-length novelizations, participants said. But just as importantly, what once were just marketing-driven afterthoughts now often are aesthetic achievements that stand on their own. The only questions, and they’re big ones, are deciding what counts as a success, based on what criteria, and judged by whom.

“This can be where the art lives,” said Steve Peters, a partner in No Mimes Media, which created an elaborate alternate-reality game called “The Threshold” for tech superpower Cisco Systems.

For these cross-media creators, building a riveting story universe that can attract fans on more than one medium also means picking the right platform for a given story, and story world. Some worlds are complex and interesting enough to contain a lot of stories, on a lot of platforms.

“Transmedia is about storytelling today for all the media we live on,” said Diane Nelson, CEO of DC Entertainment, the venerable comic-book unit cum idea bank for many kinds of Warner Bros. projects. “We may want to create a web property or game before swinging for the fences with a feature film.”

“Sometimes you find an idea and say, ‘That's a great game but it's never going to be anything but a great game.’ And that's okay,” said Nils Peyron, EVP and managing partner for Blind Winks Productions.

Transmedia’s roots are in marketing, typically for movies, as with the leftover bits of film and surrounding “mythology” that panelist John Hegeman and the creators of “The Blair Witch Project” deployed so successfully 10 years ago to drive that indie film’s huge success. But given transmedia’s marketing-driven roots, not everyone agrees on what counts as a win.

One audience member tartly observed that, “Anything that is concerned with ROI (return on investment) isn’t art.” Yes, he clearly hadn’t talked to a studio executive in a long time (despite saying he was in the middle of post-production on a science-fiction film).

But his point went to a core question of the day, one panelists didn’t really answer: how do you evaluate a transmedia project’s success? Is it artistic/aesthetic? If so, is it judged on its own merits, or just on how it connects and fleshes out the connected “mothership” project, typically a film or book?

Should it be judged on financial terms, like a stand-alone book or movie or videogame? If it is financial, is that based only on what the project cost? Or do you have to figure out how to measure what it did for the mothership? How do you value a transmedia project that keeps fans engaged in a major franchise during the lulls between new mothership arrivals? What Hollywood suit is equipped to pencil this one out?

And, in the wake of widespread layoffs by print publications of their film, music, TV and theater critics, who’s qualified to make any judgments on aesthetic or financial grounds (ahem, Variety, we’re looking at you, again)?

If, as with some recent projects, it’s an elaborate creation that ties together multiple web sites, phone numbers, video material, documents, puzzles and more, who’s going to work through all that, and decide how it rates?

One TV critic at the conference, the LA Times’ Robert Lloyd, seemed considerably less than enthused about evaluating transmedia as part of his work. Given the opportunity to write about, say, the elaborate online material created around the dense back story of “Lost,” he said he’d probably just stick to the show that spawned everything.

Lloyd is far from unique, I suspect, particularly among what’s left of traditional entertainment and media critics. 

Few are ready to begin judging the ambitious, genre-creating stuff that transmedia is becoming. A college career spent in film studies, watching “Rules of the Game” and “Raging Bull,” followed maybe by a few fruitless years writing screenplays, has ill prepared traditional critics to puzzle their way through a complex alternate-reality game tied to a summer blockbuster.

Other conference conversations suggested it may be a while before a new generation of transmedia critics is created, armed with the adequate historic, technological and aesthetic tools to adequately judge this stuff.

And never mind the fiscal considerations (One panelist, Kingston University Associate Professor Will Brooker, confessed on stage that he didn’t know what the term “R.O.I.” meant). Business schools and marketing programs have a lot of work to do too.

Yes, academics such as conference co-creators Henry Jenkins (USC) and Denise Mann (UCLA) have been doing yeoman work understanding franchises, transmedia and the relationships fans have with them.

But so much of this is still so new, chances are, even as transmedia become ever more transfixing, it’ll be a while before we have thinkers who can translate what it really means, as art or commerce.

David Bloom is a Los Angeles-based writer and consultant in communications and social media. He can be reached at davidbloom@earthlink.net and followed on Twitter @davidbloom