Interconnected stories told within rich, shared universes could disrupt Hollywood and realize a future imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien
Before J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a word of “Lord of the Rings,” he imagined the world of Middle Earth. Tolkien developed races, languages, geography, songs, poems and even recipes that would all appear in the pages of his books. Only after creating a rich history did he write stories that could live in that universe.
Alex Amancio is the co-founder and CEO of a media company called Reflector. He’s just one of several industry players who has embraced the concept of a “storyworld,” a rich universe of interconnected stories across multimedia that’s not unlike the way in which “The Lord of the Rings” was realized. He and many others are telling stories across the many platforms and mediums that were never available to Tolkien.
Amanico is one artist attempting to lead the shift to storyworlds, centralizing a brand’s intellectual property to tell better stories and stay sustainable. But while not everyone can be the next J.R.R. Tolkien, many creators are hoping to make mainstream this special type of storytelling.
“It’s almost like a living organism. It’s got its own set of rules; it’s got its own mythology; it’s own characters; it’s self contained; it’s coherent, but it’s ever-evolving,” Amancio told TheWrap. “Most media companies, they see themselves and describe themselves through the lens of the medium that they define themselves primarily. It’s either a video game company, a film company, a publishing house; whereas, Reflector sees its principal product as the storyworld.”
The term storyworld is storytelling that “transcends” a single form of media. It’s not just a large franchise with sequels, spinoffs and licensed products. It’s an experience that has been designed beyond one medium and engages audiences in ways a single piece of content cannot.
While transmedia has for years been well known in the academic space, it has more recently entered Hollywood.
Tim Kring is the creator of the hit NBC show “Heroes” and a pioneer of transmedia. With “Heroes,” he tapped into a fanbase that wanted to engage with the world well beyond the confines of an hour of television.
“As a storyteller who came out of a traditional one-way street version of storytelling, you push content into the world to an audience, and you never hear back from them,” Kring told TheWrap. “It was a way to reach people where they were and send a story to them in that direction and then fold them back into the narrative in some organic way.”
In 2010, Kring developed “Conspiracy for Good,” a thriller where humanitarians throughout history are united under a single shadow organization. Fans engaged with the story by decoding clues on the web, playing games on their phones and even participating in real-world activities and scavenger hunts that helped to advance the story.
As it relates to transmedia, a storyworld tells multiple stories across different mediums that all live within the same universe. The rules, lore and perhaps even virtual space of that universe are all created first, and then a team of creators work hand-in-hand to tell stories that tie into an overarching narrative.
At Reflector, one of Amancio’s flagship projects is “Unknown 9.” It’s the story of nine ancient deities that govern the laws and existence of everyone on Earth from just behind the scenes.
But Amancio didn’t begin with a screenplay or a treatment; he built a bible that houses the storyworld’s many rules and characters. He then assembled creatives working across video games, film, publishing and more to brainstorm ideas that can take place within the world of “Unknown 9” and that also emphasize the strengths of their specific platforms.
“All of these projects should be standalone, but they should all be telling a meta-story, that if you do consume them all, there’s a thru-line and a theme,” Amancio said. “The book story has to be a book story; it can’t be a video game story that’s been shoehorned into a novel.”
“The goal isn’t just to have the same content delivered in different mediums and different platforms, but to really think of the attributes of what that platform is,” Kring said. “To just take linear content and put it on a three inch screen on your phone is not utilizing the attributes of this amazing mobile device.”
Most franchises are merely adaptations of a flagship project or don’t connect in a way that gets the audience involved. And many in entertainment have yet to crack telling stories with this ambition and scope.
Take “Star Wars:” George Lucas’s universe has a sprawling saga of books, games and TV shows. But Amancio and other transmedia advocates would argue these are spinoffs of the movies and merely “give glimpses” into Lucas’s larger universe. Everything began with the movies, and the world grew from there, not the other way around. And today, the creators of the games or books don’t necessarily collaborate with those making the movies, and each story doesn’t connect via a “meta-narrative” that Amancio hopes to accomplish with storyworlds.
“Most of these transmedia projects are marketing. They come out of a marketing and promo budget,” Kring said. “They’re not really designed from the ground up and designed to be complete experiences. They’re meant to draw you to the opening of a movie or to the opening weekend of a game release.”
Diana Williams and Morgan Kruger are the EVP of Creative and EVP of Operations at MWM Universe, a division of Madison Wells Media in which they’ve made their intellectual property central to both their storytelling and their business model.
“Do we like this world? What values does it hold? And also, how are we going to add to it to help build it with the creator,” Williams told TheWrap. “We’re working with creators so that the authenticity of their voice stays, no matter what media platform we go to.”
Using their series “Voyage to the Stars” as an example, Kruger says they don’t make movies or podcasts or shows, “we make franchises.” They view any property holistically so that they’re telling stories across platforms that best serve the story, but also to reach diverse audiences wherever they may be.
“We want to be associated with sustainability and projects that work for the creators and for the audiences and for the people that are making them,” Kruger added. “The fact that we are organized around a franchise rather than around a product really drives the long term view that we have.”
Much of the success in the transmedia space has come from brands that already have deep fanbases. Companies are using the strategy behind storyworlds in mapping out larger franchises that can reach fans more intimately.
One recent example is Jim Henson and illustrator Brian Froud’s cult classic, “The Dark Crystal.” In addition to the Netflix prequel series “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” the Jim Henson Company took pains to flesh out the world of Thra in regular brainstorming sessions.
The company produced a YA book series based on “The Dark Crystal” that preceded the show, a graphic novel and an upcoming video game, all of which tell their own individual stories but also interconnect to the larger themes found in the world.
“That beautiful world building, even within the different mediums, they kept informing each other,” said Halle Stanford, the president of TV at the Jim Henson Company. “I think if you are all connected in the company within the initiative, you are going to keep strengthening the world and that story.”
Stanford says this approach is used for all of Henson’s IP, and that the Henson Company’s creature shop helps position them to build both visuals and stories at simultaneously.
“World building takes time, really strong world building, and we give our world building at Henson a lot of love and nurturing, and it’s not something that happens overnight or that we do to fill a financial need,” Stanford said. “If a story needs to be told and there’s a world that needs to be built out within it, we are going to give it that time and dedication.”
At Hasbro, which has spun off entire franchises like “Transformers” and “My Little Pony” from toys and board games, the company develops “brand blueprints” that are designed to keep the IP central and top of mind in every decision. Stephen Davis, the EVP and chief content officer with Hasbro’s Allspark Pictures, echoed the mantra that Hasbro is a “global play and entertainment company,” not just a toy company that also makes other content.
“They want to be able to experience these rich stories and character worlds organically, and they don’t want a 22 minute commercial,” Davis said of their consumers. “They want to be able to engage with the story outside of the theater or outside of their living room or when they put their mobile device down. We provide those opportunities for the story to continue in other forms and formats.”
The reality, though, for many companies is that creating a universe for every project is not just time consuming, it’s expensive. Entire companies can live or die on the whether its IP can cultivate fans loyal enough to help it thrive.
“There’s a bit of a gamble in it working. If you’ve got this giant story world that exists across all kinds of platforms, the risk of starting with a big, giant $200 million blockbuster movie is we all know that many of those fail and have done miserably,” Kring said. “To have your entire storyworld die on the back of the first iteration that’s deemed a failure, that’s a problem. That’s why the most successful versions of this are extensions of something that already has a fanbase. It’s very hard to build the other way around.”
Amancio is taking that gamble. By structuring the company around its intellectual property rather than bank on the success of any one flagship project, the hope is that Reflector can have divisions of its company be loss leaders, so long as they’re coming under budget and feeding the pipeline of the audience for the larger storyworld. And Reflector has amassed an impressive, in-house team growing to 150 developers across divisions to meet that ambitious vision.
“What you need to do if you want to work in transmedia or a 360 world, you need to know all the different components, you need to have the Renaissance person in the way and how this may look on a certain media, how will this look as an app or as a web series or TV show and so on,” says Christopher Sandberg, one of Kring’s collaborators on “Conspiracy for Good.” “You have that in the back of your head, but you hope that you don’t have to produce all of it at the same time. You can feed it over a rollout plan. Otherwise, it’s really a complex risk taking.”
Amancio knows a bit about being that Renaissance man. Before starting Reflector, Amancio was a lead developer with the gaming giant Ubisoft, leading the development of two different “Assassin’s Creed” games, one of which is literally set in Renaissance Italy.
Though he declined to say which, he’s observed instances in which gaming companies committed to the transmedia model and planned a whole slate of projects tied to an IP, only to see all the “ancillary” projects get cancelled when the initial video game didn’t meet expectations.
“These other products could’ve been part of the ecosystem, and they could drive attention to the game, but it never got its chance to do that because they were always seen as sub-products of the game,” Amancio said. “This is what happens when you’re the head of a silo. Why would I, let’s say I’m the CEO of the publishing division, why the hell would I have red in my division so my colleague, the CEO of the game division, can be in the black?”
Kring added that a company that’s vertically integrated would be best suited for the top-down collaboration that storytelling within transmedia requires.
But while a storyworld can theoretically have many iterations and lifecycles, another challenge is making that story financially sustainable.
“You finish X piece of media, and you want to know more, and you provide that Y afterwards, instead of, here’s X, Y, Z and A, and they all tell separate stories for different audiences,” Kruger explained. “It’s less sustainable from a creative side and from the operations and business side. Someone should be intrigued and engaged and curious to check something out on another platform, but not feel FOMO.”
Amancio is convinced that if J.R.R. Tolkien had at his disposal all the resources of today, he would have manifested Middle Earth across every medium available to him, in part because he already did.
“Someone comes in and has such a redefining moment, that everybody else then has to go, okay, ‘What the hell are these guys doing, and how can we do that?'” Amancio said. “So long as someone cracks this nut and proves it, I think it’s ultimately good for storytelling and ultimately good for the fans. They deserve this new way of storytelling.”
For the record: A previous version of this story listed Stephen Davis as an SVP. He’s an EVP.