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

The last installment of my conference notes:

Fourth Panel: Who Let the Fans In? Next-Gen Digi-Marketing

In attendance were JD Black, Vice-President of Marketing in Sony Imageworks Interactive (2012, District 9), John Caldwell, Professor at the UCLA Department of Film, TV, Digital Media (author of Production Culture), Alan Friel,  Partner at Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon LLP, John Hegeman, Chief Marketing Office at the New Regency Productions (The Blair Witch Project), Roberta Pearson, Professor at the University of Nottingham (author of Reading Lost, Cult Television & The Many Lives of Batman), Steve Wax, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Campfire (HBO, True Blood Revelation, Art of the H3ist: And Audi Project).

John Hegeman and Steve Wax talked about the Blair Witch Project, the former was actually involved in the project, and the latter is the current partner of Mike Monello who produced the project. The following account is the accumulation of what they said at the panel and my interviews with Mike Monello and Brian Clark from GMD Studios:
Brian Fleming, a film director, went to Orlando to film the television segments for John Pierson’s show called Split Screen. He hired a local cameraman, Dan Myrick, who had shot some footage in the woods of Maryland to edit as a film. Pierson saw this footage during the three-day shoot. Quite impressed by it, he licensed the rights to show sections of it in his show, but when he did so, he claimed that the filmmakers of the footage had inexplicably disappeared. According to Brian Clark, the licensing fees for the footage gave Myrick enough funding to edit the film. As Clark recalls, once the sections of the footage aired on broadcast, John Pierson’s discussion boards exploded with people inquiring into the veracity of the footage. Inevitably, there were also those who claimed to be the missing filmmaker. Because of the online speculation that emerged from the broadcast of the footage on an independent film channel, the creators of the footage, Dan Myrick et al., decided to set up a Web site to create a fully-developed world for the film which they were about the produce. The Web site was set up before they started editing the footage and almost two years before they took it to Sundance Film Festival.  Originally, the creators of the film were going to be characters in the film and that the story would have been about them as filmmakers. It is the reaction of the online audience to the footage that led them to understand that the raw footage, in and of itself, could stand on its own, a realization which led them to change the way they approached the project. Accordingly, they took the portion of the story about the filmmakers who got the footage from the family, and turned it into the online experience. They also created another piece for the Sci-Fi channel called the Curse of the Blair Witch. These elements became the extension of the raw footage that they had initially shot in Maryland. The film, as currently available, is really just that raw footage which is the narrative that they had originally planned before the Web made much more out of it. What made it great was that there was 18 hours of extra footage to create transmedia properties from. The Web site being established two years prior to the movie, along with the fact that it was organized around social media, made it all the more compelling as a story.

Transmedia storytelling relies on crowd-sourcing which is an aspirational culture that wants to become professionals. So the main question is, how do you ensure a long successful content creation when taking into account crowd-sourcing and runaway content creation?

Technology has given us a broader range of content and opportunities (limitations as well, but we need to focus on opportunities). One of the panelists openly said that user-generated content competitions are bull shit. Part of the problem is that when brands encourage fan participation, they give them sandboxes in which they can create content so they don’t damage the brand, fans may not like the rules of the sandbox and see the industry decisions as evil, although this is not the case, industry decisions are what they are.

When creating transmedia franchises, mother ship is the primary text. You should always keep that in view. People in the humanities and the academy are more expert than those in the industry.
One of the participants in the audience asked what should the film schools be teaching students so that they are successful?

• A basic understanding of IP (intellectual property) and fair use.
• How they can learn to pay attention to the audience: who is your audience, how are you going to engage them? Also we need to be rethinking how motion images are being studied. You can’t understand moving images without an interdisciplinary understanding. You can’t put them into the departments of film and television studies. That needs to be re-conceptualized.

IP theft: There is an implicit resignation to fans who are going to take whatever they want to take to do whatever with this content.

One audience member asked what kind of conversations go on behind the scenes? To what degree you are going to let them play with your content. The answer was that this depended on the content. If the content belongs to someone else you have to be more careful. Negative buzz or activity happening what can we do to change their minds? Frequently, the community balances the negative feedback and manages it without any interference. For example, when dealing with ARGs, when some paricipants get upset on forums recognizing some designing mistakes and indicating that the experience is not real (which mostly happened when ARGs first started taking place), the rest of the community members either disregard these comments or tell the person to mind his/her own business. The liability issues in designing somewhat risky issues also came up. Steve Wax noted that Campfire paid a lot for insurance. He also explained that in Art of the H3ist they had to change the bad guy several times as a result of how players responded to the game. In other words, marketing campaign has to be really flexible and adapt accordingly. Things are constantly fluid. Responding to your core fan base is key to designing effective experiences. The beauty is that the Internet leveled the plain field so the audience’s voice is just as loud.

A long-awaited picture: Henry Jenkins & I

Jay Bushman, Burcu Bakioglu, and Jordan Weisman

Felix... Hollywood, traditional style!

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