Transmedia: Why It’s Catching On

Part 1: Money, creativity and buzz have conspired to bring transmedia into the mainstream, despite — or perhaps because of — a testy flame war

First of three parts.

"Isaac Newton didn't discover gravity, he just named it," one TV writer-producer quipped during a recent conversation about transmedia.

And so it would seem, despite a testy flame war over the term transmedia—or perhaps because of it—the transmedia movement is catching on across the media business.

"Transmedia" is shorthand for a grab bag of production and distribution practices and audience engagement techniques that have emerged over the past decade, and when taken together, promise a new kind of media experience.

Along the way, practitioners and pundits have applied many terms to describe this type of production –– interactive or participatory media, cross-platform or multi-platform storytelling, deep or immersive media, experience design, story franchises, sequels, packaging, integrated media, 360 production….the list goes on.

What’s new here is the idea that storytellers can create deeper experiences for their audiences when they unfold a story and its world via multiple venues, and when they invite consumers to participate meaningfully in that world—especially when they do so from the outset of the project.

Whatever the nomenclature, the transmedia trend is gaining traction, fueled by some observable trends:

>> Demand. Today’s audiences expect their media to be social, participatory and customized for every device they use, especially the much-coveted hard-core fans who are especially drawn to properties which let them go them deeper into a story or discover something first.

>> Creativity. The formulaic is giving way to the innovative, as producers, including a new crop of digital natives, compete to engage fans in their stories over time and space with new approaches and on new devices.

>> Buzz. Transmedia is becoming the Next Big Thing both in Hollywood and on Madison Avenue with more press coverage, more blogs and websites, more panels at film festivals and commercial conferences and ultimately more pitch meetings.

>> Money. Big names in film, television, and games are placing bets on talent with transmedia chops. New studios have been capitalized to produce made-for-multiplatform properties, and proven creative services firms in the space are prepping their own original projects. Marketing dollars now routinely extend anchor properties onto additional platforms.

From Interactivism to Transmedia

I’m excited about all of this activity because for more than 20 years, I have helped artists and companies develop new forms of storytelling across many platforms (movies, music, TV, PCs, CD-ROMs, game consoles, mobile phones, set-top boxes, the Web). The programs I created at the American Film Institute attracted true believers who were fervently trying to reinvent Hollywood in the wake of the digital revolution, a movement that I called "interactivism."

Which is why I joined a transmedia panel at Digital Hollywood in May, and how I learned about the vigorous online fight over "transmedia" nomenclature, definition, and turf.

The hubbub dates to the April 2010 decision by the Producers Guild of America (PGA) to authorize a new credit: "Transmedia Producer." This credit was drafted primarily by Jeff Gomez, CEO of New York-based transmedia consulting firm Starlight Runner.

Sides were quickly drawn between supporters and detractors of the PGA move. Advocates believed that the credit provided legitimization and would stimulate more multi-platform production. Opponents felt that PGA’s definition was too narrow, and left out many forms of cross-platform projects. Among the most vigorous opponents were producers of Alternate Reality Games or ARGs.

"Why do we have to define it yet?" asks indie filmmaker Lance Weiler. "Why can’t we just continue to experiment?" Because, says TV writer-producer Jesse Alexander (Lost and Heroes), "You have to give it a name so people can talk about it. Isaac Newton didn't discover gravity, he named it."

Anger finally erupted at the 2011 SXSW interactive conference in March, and then spilled onto the public Internet where a flame war ensued. Take a stroll through some of the posts and comments to decide if the fight matters, or if it is/was a tempest in a teapot:

>> A history of tweets on the topic by Londoner Rachel Clarke, using the new Storify tool.

>> A play-by-play rundown of the fight from 4D fiction.

>> A blog post by Steve Peters, veteran producer of alternate-reality games, in which he swears off the use of the word.

>> Another post by Atlanta-based designer Brooke Thompson who rails against Hollywood snake oil salesmen.

>> The #antitransmedia hashtag which Peters established on Twitter as a rallying point for critics.

>> A Flickr image featuring the word "anti" spray-painted over Wikipedia’s transmedia entry.

>> An April Fast Company post entitled "Seven Myths About Transmedia Storytelling Debunked" by USC Professor Henry Jenkins, who had pioneered the term back in the early 00s. Jenkins said, "Companies are laying claim to expertise in producing transmedia content. But many using the term don't really understand what they are saying."

>> A Facebook post in May by GMD Studio’s Brian Clark, in which he parsed the competing tribes and contended that their real distinction was who had creative control. This one drew hundreds of comments and has been mirrored by other bloggers.

Ironically, the online kerfuffle has only heightened the buzz and helped to spotlight the breadth of the movement, feeding into a deepening appreciation within all segments of the entertainment community that transmedia is the Next Big Thing.

Part Two: Many Paths to Audience Participation for Transmedia Talent
Part Three: Tracking the Wild Beast