#Transmedia: Using the whole toolbox for storytelling
During the last 20 years or so, there has been a cultural sea change in how media makers are using technology and the directions in which audiences are using media. And this has had a profound effect on everything from major feature films to TV series, commercials, education, and the distribution of information. And yet, while all this radical technological and social change is going on in almost every form of entertainment and marketing media, it still, as it has for thousands of years, comes down to one fundamental element: story.
Technology is not a motivator when it comes to media creation, but it can inspire creativity with its enticing tool sets, as users ask, What can I do with this? In the last decades of the 20th century, a whole new toolbox became available to content creators. Computer graphics, personal computers, and the Internet revolutionized the world of media at every level. Consumers went from getting their media entertainment and information through one of a handful of delivery systems –- such as television, cinema, radio, print, or live performance – to a vast river of them.
At the heart of these changes – in games, movies, TV shows, social media experiences, and more – is the emergence of new forms of storytelling. A large and growing part of the audience is no longer content to simply sit and watch. They want something more. Something interactive. Something demanding. In a way, transmedia is a natural consequence of the endless joys of surfing the Web and playing online games. Now you have something to search for, to track down, and, best of all, via the fan interaction points of contact, in transmedia you have something in which you can actively participate, a community you belong to.
Designed for the modern world, transmedia continues to offer storytelling’s ancient primary purpose: to bind communities in a common history through the bright new world of multiple media delivery platforms.
World building, creating story worlds, MMO games, and now virtual-reality display systems are all appealing to the audience’s burgeoning desire to immerse itself in media experiences. Games instigated this change and have played a major role in evolving media, especially in the way we receive it. They have done the “donkey work” to drive the programming and hardware developments of the past 20 years in terms of media creation and distribution. Games have been, and still are, a powerful force in the growth and improvement of the Internet.
Professor Henry Jenkins of the University of Southern California was among the first to use the term “transmedia” in articles and, later, in his book titled Convergence Culture (2006), though his colleague at USC, Marsha Kinder, originally coined the word in 1991. Jenkins provides a comprehensive, academically phrased definition of the concept: “Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.”
There are two fundamental models of transmedia production. The first is known as the “mothership model,” which is the marketing tool version. The second is a community entertainment approach I call the “circus model” (more on this later).
The Mothership Model
Jenkins has used the term “mothership” as a metaphor for a product, movie, TV series, game, or brand that is at the heart of the assembled fleet of additional alternative media, though his particular focus was on how this model works in contemporary Hollywood. This central product is the one at the heart of the transmedia project – it is the one that will make the money and drive the transmedia campaign.
Anrick Bregman is a transmedia professional at Unit9 in London, working on a variety of output for marketing clients. The company specializes in mothership model transmedia projects. “Brands nowadays are probably the biggest sponsors of content on the Web. Advertising creatives look at the same stuff online that you or I, or anyone, looks at, and they go, ‘That’s cool. I could use that in a pitch.’ So I get more and more briefs that are trans-media related, where they say the content goes here and it also goes there.”
Bregman points to last year’s Chipotle campaign in the US, lauded as very successful by many transmedia blogs.
“They did what is considered to be a very successful transmedia campaign, in the sense that they had a game, which was an app, and they had a TV ad, and then they had a website experience,” he says. “All of them lived in the same world –
they made a 3D animated world, not that dissimilar to the LloydsTSB campaign on TV here [in the UK]. That world they built lived on three different media, so that’s technically transmedia.”
In transmedia, as in games, “immersive” is a key word. The audience wants to be immersed in the story world being presented. One studio created Twitter accounts for all the characters of a film – long before people knew who they were. It piqued interest and elicited social media responses and questions.
In another somewhat darker example, indie artist and VR news pioneer Nonny de la Pena, senior research fellow at the USC, made a version of Guantanamo Bay in Second Life, where avatars could experience life as a prisoner there. “It was a very powerful way of using a tool that wasn’t designed for that purpose, to give you a message about something you might have read in the news. It’s an article in a newspaper, but it’s an experience in Second Life,” says Bregman.
In a mothership transmedia campaign, there is a quasi--entertainment connection with audience participation, but it is essentially a marketing exercise seeking ways to engage with potential consumers of the product. All of it is an extension, rather than a mere reflection, of the central product.
There is a particularly good and renowned example of this, though it was something of a miscarriage inasmuch as the transmedia experience far outshone the mothership: the Ridley Scott movie Prometheus and its transmedia campaign in 2012. It involved the website (www.weylandindustries.com) of an invented corporation called Weyland Industries, a company that dominates the economy and social life of the film’s story world.
Here, you can read about what the company is doing as it makes its way through the year 2094. You can apply for jobs or look at images of fantastic machines, planned or in production; you can read company news about its many off-world projects or about the recent appearances of Sir Peter Weyland, the ruthless, ambitious, brilliant founder and CEO. It’s very detailed. You can even watch Sir Peter Weyland give a TED Talk in 2023 (
Unfortunately, the film was not received well by the critics. No matter. The transmedia experience was brilliant, a milestone, and remarkably successful, while the film did well at the box office. And there have been millions of followers and visitors to the website and other media outlets.
Running with the Stars
Jeff Gomez, CEO/founder of the New York transmedia company Starlight Runner, has often worked with the mothership model. The company has been responsible for the transmedia campaigns of several major Hollywood movies as well as many other branding and marketing campaigns over the years. Gomez has his own phrase for what Starlight Runner does: “integrated transmedia production” (ITP), a practical methodology for integrating multi-platform planning, development, and production into the motion-picture production process.
“There are specific techniques to world design, so it is in service of the core scripting and core character arcs,” explains Gomez. He says that to succeed in the field he occupies, you need more than filmmaking skills; you need to have an understanding of history, traditions of narrative, myth and legend, and literature – though it doesn’t have to be on the level of Tolkien or George R R Martin.
At Starlight Runner, “the goal is to derive the essence of the story world, its fundamental messages, and then we innovate,” says Gomez. The facility generates a project bible, guidelines and definitions, character profiles, world history, all the details required to create a convincing and immersive story world. “Then we [determine] how the narrative can operate in different media, in a concerted fashion,” he adds.
Early on, the company took a consultative role in working with the project producers, but lately this has developed into a co-producer role, a result of their transmedia expertise.
A Case Study –
Transmedia is the production pattern for the future. Essentially, it is commercially impossible to bring any product to the public without a mothership model transmedia campaign to structure, strategize, and market it. In the best-planned launch campaigns, a transmedia company would be present at the very earliest production meetings. This is not yet industry practice, and according to Gomez, “they [still] put it together piecemeal.”
The transmedia presence of the television series Downton Abbey is an example of a transmedia campaign that began somewhat fragmented but soon was organized into a full-fledged transmedia campaign when the production company realized the series’ potential.
Before the series was released in the US, NBCU, which owns the series’ production company Carnival Films, began putting in place a broad and sophisticated media marketing campaign that has become a true transmedia event. Prior to its last season, the show was broadcast in more than 220 territories, reaching a combined audience of about 330 million.
Charlotte Fay of Carnival Films says initially no one at Carnival foresaw Downton Abbey’s huge success. As a result, the marketing strategy grew alongside the series, enlarging its reach as the audience increased and diversified, and the transfer to America reinvigorated the entire marketing strategy.
According to Fay, apart from the extraordinary scale of the series’ fan base, a major factor driving the expansion of the Downton Abbey transmedia experience “was the change in how audiences consume media. Second screens have become commonplace in homes, and as fans watched
Downton Abbey, they wanted to talk about the show with others via social media platforms. We identified this as an opportunity to build awareness and engagement with the show, and in order to do so, we had taken on the services of a specialist company that creates and manages the content for the social media presence – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and so forth.”
For instance, the #TeamServants hashtag was something that was tried after analysis showed that although fans loved the upstairs characters and that world, they mostly identified with those below stairs – the carrying out of chores and the like. The social media team identified this as a way to increase fan engagement by creating a character they could speak to and share the experience with, Fay says.
“Analysis of data and feedback from fans has seen the expansion of the different strands introduced. More strands have been brought in, and others have been branched outward to be more inclusive and to give fans more sense of ownership, which, in turn, encourages and boosts engagement,” explains Fay. “For example, the #DowntonNights hashtag proved incredibly popular when it launched – this is where fans could take a picture of their evening watching Downton. Some of those were then chosen and used in the picture messaging to continue promoting the strand and encourage the audience to make a
Downton appointment to view the show on television.”
Another strand that developed through demand was the fan recipes. Initially recipes from the show were output via social media, and fans were encouraged to give them a try. “The response was incredibly good, and the fans started to share their own favorite recipes,” says Fay. “We made the fan recipes into its own strand where people submitted them and one was chosen to be featured on the official social media and turned into a visual asset with the Downton branding.”
Well over two million people have “Liked” the Facebook page to date. There is a touring exhibition in the US of Downton Abbey costumes. There is also a board game and card game. But, not everything has won favor with the audience – an app had to be withdrawn after failing to entice followers. According to Carnival’s own statistics, the core audience of the show is women in their ’50s – typically not big social media users, which may explain the lack of interest.
Meanwhile, the author of the Downton Abbey books, Jessica Fellowes, has toured the US and the UK, giving talks on the TV series and on the history of the period, attracting audiences of 2,000-plus. Although unfamiliar with the term “transmedia,” she says that in talking about how the
Downton community has developed, “my books and talks are specifically about tapping into that. Ditto Twitter and Facebook. The show had grown in success in tandem with those elements of social media, and it’s definitely a big part of its story. I would live-tweet during episodes, and it was plain that people had enjoyed talking about the show together as much as they enjoyed watching it. They often arrived at my talks dressed in 1920s outfits – it’s all part of demonstrating the community they felt they were in.”
Fellowes believes the audience led the way. “As social media has grown, the more online our lives have become, the more audiences crave the IRL (In Real Life) experience,” she says. “We’ve seen it in the music industry, it’s growing in the publishing industry, and with this TV show, there’s more they can do than just buy the T-shirt.”
(The Downton Abbey transmedia presence can be found on websites such as
and on Facebook and the links provided there.)
The Circus Model
In contrast to the mothership model is
what I call the circus model because it reminds me of an atmosphere where audience and performers come together to create an event. Without an audience, a circus performance is simply a rehearsal, and without the performers, the audience is bored. The circus belongs to everybody – audience and performers alike –
and that is the nature of circus model transmedia.
Circus model transmedia begins with no main focus on a single medium – rather, the approach is different on all media. Circus model transmedia hovers on the balance of art, entertainment, and the need to make a dollar.
Nuno Bernardo’s company beActive in Portugal focuses on audience participation and the different ways to connect the audience to the story. BeActive is certainly different from most transmedia companies in that they actually create the initial property and the subsequent transmedia projects. BeActive’s core business is to initiate the production, to write the main story and develop the characters and scenario, to plan the marketing of the product, and to develop the strategies they will need for spreading the product across different platforms. Essentially, they build a potential future audience for the main money spinner by creating a well-bonded social media community attached to the project. They create the fan base, and then they give them what they want. If the end product is a game, “we partner with a game company,” Bernardo says. “Likewise if we have a film or TV production.”
Bernardo recalls his first project, whereby each small webisode always ended with the lead character telling the audience, “I have a dilemma, and tomorrow I could go left or I could go right to solve it,” and the next episode would reflect the option that got the most votes. “So the story on a daily basis moved according to the audience’s votes,” he says. “This is one way that we ask the audience to participate.”
For another project, the audience was given a block of templates describing the main story and the main characters, and they were asked to write more side stories and give their views on specific events and specific characters. “One of the characters was a barmaid, and each week we shot in a real bar and the bar was open to the public. So if you were following the story, you could go to the bar on a specific day and there would be a party being filmed that would be used in the series. You could meet the cast and crew, and take photos,” says Bernardo. “We used that to make a more meaningful connection with the audience because they could experience the story for real, like a live-theater piece.”
Varying Degrees of Input
Bernardo notes there are many levels of interaction depending on the story, the target audience, and the goals. About two years ago, beActive worked with a sci-fi story that had an associated novel, iPhone game, TV series, social media, and digital comics, and finished with a theatrical movie release (Collider).
“We asked the audience before the movie came out for their ideas, and it was like a crowd-sourcing movement. We were not asking the audience to give us money, we were asking them to do a list of tasks, and these tasks were related to the promotion of the movie, so sharing our trailer would give you X amount of points; if you shared our poster on your Facebook page, you got more points,” explains Bernardo. “The top 200 fans with the most points in [specified] territories had their names placed in the movie credits.”
For another project, beActive filmed a documentary in the Middle East about the Arab Spring uprisings, where participation was different and probably more intense. The crew encountered many logistics problems while traveling around the region and would ask followers online if they knew of someone in the area who could help them, in essence making them part of the filmmaking process.
“There is a plethora of ways for interaction. And when you are engaged, whenever you do one of these things – a vote affecting the next episode, having your name in the credits, or helping the filmmakers enter Libya or Syria – then that piece of content, that story, becomes yours,” says Bernardo. “The deepest connection we can have with our audience is when the audience feels that the story is theirs, and then they will do everything – follow, watch, recommend – and they will be the biggest advocates for your work. Transmedia can bring the audience closer to the story, closer to the characters.”
BeActive’s projects are complex, and the work usually starts in-house. “We write scripts, we write stories, we write blogs, back stories, character profiles…lots of material,” Bernardo says. They start with a proven community, which will be the audience for the eventual money product, be that a movie, TV series, books, comics, or so forth. Social media is also important, as it builds community that will provide feedback, a fan base, and media PR.
“So, for instance, in three years’ time, we will have a feature film in cinemas,” says Bernardo. “We start very small, maybe with a Web series or a blog, to test the waters, to see if there is an audience. The idea is that each step is something bigger.” If there is no feedback, beActive pulls the project. At any one time, the company typically has five or six projects at various stages in the works.
Sometimes beActive challenges the audience to make contributions. For Beat Girl (a 2003 Emmy-nominated coming-of-age film), the company invited six fans to write side stories to run alongside the main story – which provided insight into where the audience wanted the story to go.
A Storytelling Evolution?
Transmedia is a direct descendant of those first cave dwellers, painting on the walls to illustrate their descriptions of the hunt, while the others shouted and clapped and banged things and made animal noises to go along with the images. The whole community joined in.
It is much the same in transmedia productions. The creators and the community they have gathered around the project all participate in the overall event. But now it is global, and it accesses the entire 21st century cornucopia of media delivery systems. Audiences are counted in millions, but still everyone joins in.
Plus ça change....
Rory Fellowes (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a consultant to the VFX and animation industry following a career in film and TV animation using stop motion and CGI.