Transmedia, Hollywood: S/Telling the Story (Part One)

Yesterday I attended Transmedia, Hollywood: S/Telling the Story conference organized by Henry Jenkins, who recently moved from the east coast (MIT, Comparative Media Studies) to the west coast (USC, School of Cinematic Arts) and Denise Mann who is currently at the School of Theatre, Film, and Television in UCLA. I would like to congratulate them on a well-done conference that brought together the cool people of the industry, the artists and artisans of geekdom, and the academics who were delighted to see to what extent their theories, models, and arguments described the actual media production. The conference schedule for those who would like to see who was in the line-up is here. The following are some of the sound bites from the day-long event that caught my attention. I don’t think any of these ideas are going to come as brand new to any of you, but they sparked interesting conversations between groups. Pictures will be added later when  I make it back to Bloomington.

Denise Mann & Henry Jenkins

First panel: Reconfiguring Entertainment

In attendance were Mimi Ito, Associate Researcher at University of California Humanities Research Institute, Diane Nelson, President of DC Entertainment, Richard Lemarchand, Lead Designer at Naughty Dog Software, Nils Peyron, Executive Vice President and Managing Partner of Blind Winks Productions, Jonathan Taplin, Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, John Underkoffler, Oblong and G-Speak (Iron Man, Hulk, Minority Report)

Possibly one of the most used words throughout the day in relation to creating transmedia storytelling was “authenticity.” The term branding was actually defined as storytelling. Mimi Ito noted that the distribution tools had become much more pervasive than it had been earlier. More important, she noted that the difference between how media is produced/distributed/consumed today and how it had been previously is that the “demand-push” culture turned into a “demand-pull” culture, implying that companies can’t push their content out there and hope for the best anymore, but rather, consumers prefer to pull whatever content they need, whenever they need it. Other panelists were quick to note that this distinction was lost on big media companies who were still functioning with the business-as-usual mentality. With this shift in understanding, some of the key concepts that have come to the foreground are “customization” and “interactivity.” These terms allow for heightened (and extended) engagement which is the holy grail of media production and, above all, branding. Mimi Ito also explained that a successful franchise has to design a social platform in which it becomes a social currency for its audience. I find the concept of social currency quite intriguing and useful when talking about franchises. The panelists all agreed that the most important challenge to creating synergy between different media in a transmedia initiative is the ability to make use of each platform in the most efficient way. Transmedia storytelling is a cultural, strategic, and collaborative thing, and because of that, it employs a different logic. Jonathan Taplin was quick to make a distinction between “transmedia,” which he perceived to be a “bottom-up” initiative, and “synergy,” which he claimed was an “top-down” endeavor and thus was more of an industry ordained concept that aimed to control how stories developed. Taplin noted that although big companies were inclined towards “synergy,” it usually never worked. I would argue, however, that while this distinction may be useful in simplifying some of the aspects of the existing cultural production, I am not sure if the separation between the two concepts is all that clear cut, nor that we can characterize “synergy” as merely as an “top-down” endeavor designed to impose control over story properties.

Diane Nelson, the president of DC entertainment, said that their merger with Warner was mutually beneficial enterprise where Warner had a library of amazing stories that it can provide various outlets other than print. For her, print is one of the many pillars of distribution. Also a distinction was made between sequels and franchises. While the former was a follow-up to a successful media production (such as a movie, videogame, etc…), the latter build a universe from which different stories can develop. The importance of avant-garde and indie productions in terms of generating unique voices of independent developers was acknowledged by all the panelists.
As the contemporary entertainment becomes a global phenomenon, the practical issues of localization (in which one has to tailor stories for different cultural contexts) and the specifity necessary for polished stories across distinct media were noted as the significant challenges to transmedia storytelling.
Getting funding for entertainment was, of course, on the agenda as well. One of the participants noted that the only piece of entertainment that was getting paid in Asia was WoW. So the main question is how could we engage people in an on-going basis so financing these initiatives become feasible? The understanding was that branding takes time and can only be build up over time with sufficient nurturing. With regards to the challenges of telling a story across cultures, the panelist agreed that cultural differences did not matter with great stories. Manga was given as one of the most prominent examples for a franchise that translates across cultures. The popularity of Manga in Western markets is amazing, mainly because the genre offers, as Ito noted, a breadth of content rich enough to offer something for a large variety of audiences. Manga, one of the panelists noted, is hailed as the ascendency of design culture. Most important, pushing your product into transnational markets enables the conventions of the genre to be easily broken in foreign imports, and as a result, the target audiences change. Ito explains that this is exactly what happened in the case of Manga. When the genre conventions are broken, creativity and innovation follow… and this is what the youth market responds to.
One of the interesting points that was made during the conversation was that the limitations of the technologies, or rather the interface, when telling stories. The genre to be born is held up by interface limitations. In this respect, the concept of transmedia offers some solutions. While the auteur theory was observed to be not “actionable,” “transmedia” was hailed as “actionable.”  And indie mentality provided the nimbleness required to invite innovation. The road to successful storytelling lies in understanding your brand, for sure, but also letting innovation in, and indie initiatives allow just that.
Diane Nelson warned the creative minds who are thinking of pitching ideas to entertainment companies against starting with a claim to “make it a transmedia experience.” For her, claims like these present a red flag suggesting to her that the team is overshooting for a quick success rather than investing the necessary time to nurture the story world to develop into a fully fleshed universe. She also noted that parallel success in different platforms in transmedia is difficult to achieve. She encourages the creative minds to start in one aspect, develop it sufficiently before jumping onto another platform. Harry Potter franchise, for instance, started kicking into high gear when the series was already into its third book. The success of the novels gave it the credibility it needed for the side industries to see it as a viable investment. By then, the world had a large set of characters, a rich story, and a social presence needed to develop into a social currency. More than anything, transmedia is about storytelling in our society today. Upon being asked the question of how story differs from narrative, Henry Jenkins explained “story” as a rich environment, a generative platform that has many narrative openings, and thus, can support many narrative lines. How these stories are being consumed is being problematized by transmedia. Transmedia opens up the possibility of telling different narratives to different audiences. In other words, it gives you the opportunity to tailor the mode of engagement towards different audiences. Richard Lamarchand, the lead designer in Naughty Dog Software, for example, remembered in an affectionately geeky manner the Star Wars cook book that he bought when he was a little boy that became his window to the world of domesticity. As he is primarily working within the gaming industry, he paraphrased Eric Zimmerman, one of the leading game designers, and that we are now in a ludic centric era (a century of play) whereby play is a method by which we come to apprehend our consciousness.

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