[Brooke Thompson, an experienced ARG designer (and a very nice person from what I can tell), wrote a provocative piece recently entitled Transmedia is killing Hollywood will kill Transmedia that sparked a rash of commentary from a lot influential voices in the multi-platform storytelling space. Her gripes, and those of many others, are legitimate and quite well thought out. They are also representative of an ongoing, seesaw battle among “members of the community” to somehow gain control over this thing called “transmedia storytelling”, or, quite simply, to dismiss it and themselves from the conversation in how to advance storytelling as a discipline that can permeate different areas of industry. Personally, I think it has escalated into a bunch of nonsense and seriously fails to look at the bigger picture. Here is an expansion of my comment on her blog.]
THIS MAN IS CONFUSED. HE IS A TRANSMEDIALIST. HE MIGHT AS WELL BE YOU.
[image credit: Stinja, from DeviantART]
Brooke, thanks for writing this.
Transmedia Storytelling is a term that has been popularized by some very smart folks and for good reason – there’s lots more to do with stories, audiences, technology, experiences and media than we take them for.
Scott Walker, just today, likened this emerging discipline to “stories with experiences”. This makes a lot of sense. Whether we call “it” this, or something else, such as “multi-platform storytelling”, it should always up for debate, and we should gut-check ourselves in our pursuits to innovate, provided that the conversation is supportive, and healthy... And fun.
Unfortunately, we stopped having fun with this conversation.
So I’d like to offer up a somewhat harsh but healthy dose of context, and I hope that it is received with the best of intentions, because I am really frustrated and disheartened to watch so many talented, inventive people get hung up on stuff that just doesn’t matter.
Specifically, I'd like to expand on Brian Clark's insight that "intent is nearly all that matters", especially as the definition loop is giving me a major fucking headache.
In case you haven’t noticed, we don't make enough movies, let alone good ones (a subjective opinion, but more or less fact). Most, certainly not all, TV shows really, really suck (hello, reality fare!). Most news is sensationalist drivel (fact). Most "commercial" music sucks (fact). Most games don't teach people how to behave better (strongly debatable). We all like good stories, and for some reason, we just don't seem to have or provide enough good opportunities to tell them or share them.
"Media" has become a dirty word in and of itself. Ask most people about "games" and they probably wouldn't even be able to tell you about a first-person shooter, let alone an ARG or a LARP, other than the fact that their kids are becoming anemic and/or diabetic while plastered to the couch as they blow up their friends in the Nth version of Halo or GTA.
So never mind the notion of "consumerism" or "brand" or "franchise" or "pervasive" or "transmedia" for a moment, and consider that our global economy is in the dumps, the world is more or less at war, our educational systems run on fumes, and culture at large is being led by dullards, bean-counters and politicos that only care about spreading their fanatical messages and manipulating people into corners predominant within browsers, PDAs, set-top boxes and beyond.
And all this talk about “Hollywood this” and “Hollywood that” -- what’s the issue, folks?
First of all, I’m not even sure what “Hollywood” is anymore, but as a physical place, arguably a cottage industry, it’s a blip on the map! India’s media business, for example, is eclipsing “Hollywood’s” at a steady clip! Do we honestly think that we’re going to “reform Hollywood” by barking at a bunch of monkeys in suits? Why are we giving “them” any sense of power over a talent pool that is globally pervasive?! Even worse, very few executives in “Hollywood” seem to know how to make money anyway! There are also a good number of folks within the ranks that really do get it, so why the hell aren’t we finding better ways to empower them? (Hint: they need help.)
Meanwhile, major corporations (in other words, brands) have the marketplace equity and the economic means to now own their own media ecosystems... to basically help shake up the veritable Ponzi tree and bear fruit that resembles stuff of real value.
Are we going to bicker about what constitutes a viable element within an ARG or a storybook world or an ad campaign so as to validate it as part of being a "transmedia story"? Does it really fucking matter? Do "consumers" even care? What is a “consumer” anyway? (Call me one, and I’ll punch your lights out – I’m a person! A fan! An empathic gorilla!)
What about those transmedia producer credits? Can we trade those in for cash? Can we buy cows or vegetable crates in Farmville? (Jeff: bear with me, just trying to be cute...)
And who are the "true" transmedia storytellers anyway? Did the ancient bards, minstrels or Griots take such issue with each other? Didn't their stories, and the stories shared by the people they shared them with, transcend times, places and modes of delivery? Isn't this more or less how we got here as a civilization? Isn't this how the Bible was created?
Isn't the Bible a form of transmedia storytelling?
Don’t answer that.
Gee, I forgot there's real money at stake now (especially in Evangelism), as though this wasn't the case, say, 25 years ago, when companies like Apple tried to align with the major publishers and the major studios to enable "multi-platform storytelling" under the umbrella of this thing called "interactive media" and a discipline specifically called "writing for interactive media" (not so ironic when you now think about the tablet wars, which of course have nothing to do with story... but I digress).
I saw this firsthand: my mother was an exec, a “suit”, an earnest hustler at the studios trying to put these deals together. What happened? She got stonewalled by all the jibes, sexually inappropriate remarks and fits of stupidity exhibited by the other suits who were more worried about cashing out on their stock than building marketplace value. And what happened to the suits who did care and really got it? They got forced out.
So goes evolution.
All this descension translated to was a fight for what would become largely unenforceable ownership not only over IP (ideas, not assets), but media and marketing disciplines. Yet, today, we still have the same problem: only a few are really profiting off of stories and storytelling practices in our "commercial" media landscape... Hence all the in-fighting, and ridiculous efforts of numerous, said "transmedia production" entities to protect their so-called "proprietary" storyworld frameworks and IP. As if people haven't been implementing transmedia-like initiatives for years with the intention of making good stories, so that we could co-create experiences that were not only culturally relevant, but contextually sound as we built modern history. As we’ve endeavored throughout history to make stories actually mean something.
But don't forget: "transmedia" is an adjective!
Admittedly, I wasn't thinking about any of these “transmedia” barriers when we architected pre-visualization software and gaming engines back in the late 90s and early 00s, or when we were creating some of the early, immersive, multi-touch, live event experiences for major brands like Nike... We just wanted to use people as role players in a story arc that was bigger than themselves... And us, for that matter. We wanted to use interfaces as modes of expression, and narrative as the catalyst for enriched experiences. We didn’t call it “Transmedia (blank-blank)”, we didn’t have “Alternate Reality Games”, and we didn’t really care about who was pioneering what – we were just building stuff and trying to break old paradigms. Fathom that.
I’m sure a lot of you out there can identify with this next part.
Like many other people who were writers, producers, and/or directors, I stopped developing screenplays not because I couldn't get paid, but because none of them could get made. When it became a matter of finances, I stopped creating “webisodes” (remember the iFilm days?) because there was no money and no real upside in “short-form content”. Never mind TV shows — you only got to make those if you worked at the network (which I did, but still...), or, you went to Harvard and wrote for the Lampoon (umm, no thanks).
As for indie films, well, those eventually got overshadowed by the bigger studio vehicles; case in point: Sundance became a meat market for the name players, not so much rising talent. As for studio films, I can’t tell you how many friends of mine – really talented people – couldn’t even get their commissioned projects made (some that were even greenlit) because the scripts were stuck in development and fed like livestock, or, even worse, production budgets would run dry, and this circus was typically run by folks who either didn’t have the foresight, the imagination and/or the literary and logistical chops to know what “good” even looked like.
Don’t even get me started on the music business (I’ll tell you about my uncle’s story some time – it’s a good one!).
As for games, an even lovelier paradigm developed... Time! I’m not even talking about those fancy ARGs, I’m talking about a 3-5 year minimum to produce a console game, which meant that they had to be really, really fucking good (whatever that means...)because the margins – contrary to popular belief – really weren’t all that great, and only the big blockbusters would produce the revenue to sustain these businesses. Sounds eerily like the movie business or the music business, doesn’t it?
And guess what? All of these dynamics, for the most part, still run these industries today! What’s really changed in the last, say, 16 years??? Not much!
Now, we, as in the “industry mavens”, talk about things like “the death of the microsite” and “ubiquitous computing” as if we’ve mastered the art of “delivering content across platforms”. Really? Because we’re so good at making stuff? Because we’ve liberated media channels and respective disciplines in the so-called Modern Age to include all ubiquitous forms of self-expression and communication... And dare I say, “storytelling”?
Are you kidding me?
Try this on for size: narrative as the structure, story as the form (thank you for the reminder, Stephen Dinehart).
Also try this on for size: narrative as a business model. Read: “franchise” or whatever designation you want to give it. And if it includes action figures, so be it, as long as it moves people, inspires them to think and gets them off of the fucking couch at some point in their day.
But here’s the even bigger problem: we “creative types” don’t think enough about business models or how to scale our cool little storyworld franchises, or whatever we choose to call them. No, we’re often too caught up in the process of “being creative” and fighting over terms like “transmedia storytelling” to see past our own noses. Then what do we do? We pound on the golden gates of the studios, networks and brands with our rusty iron fists and expect to be let in; meanwhile, we bad-mouth the gatekeepers. Why? Because they need to make money? Because we want their money?
And you know what else? It isn’t just “Hollywood” that feels this way. Nobody in their right mind can invest blindly in ideas. Unfortunately, we’ve reached a day and age where we need to inform our instincts with things like, umm, data and research and, umm, sound business practices. That requirement is held up by every major corporation in the world for good reason. After all, they’re the people with the media and production budgets.
Which begs the bigger questions:
What are we really willing to do to right this ship?
Are we willing to build a replacement platform for, say, ASCAP?
Are we willing to get into bed with all the pertinent government regulatory agencies over IP protection, copyright and privacy law?
Are we going to turn Kickstarter into something OTHER than a pyramid scheme?
Are we willing to hand-hold all the vulture capitalists and hoity financiers that are supposedly getting in our way?
So you want to make “transmedia stories”, do you? This is where it all starts and it all ends. At least for now.
Sorry, but we can’t reform storytelling practices if we can’t reform business and legal practices. And it isn’t endemic to one industry: we have the same problem in advertising as we do in publishing as we do in entertainment or any other form of media for that matter. That’s why we created sporks like “branded entertainment” -- in the hope that we could somehow fool “consumers”, and ourselves, into thinking that what they were watching wasn’t actually an ad, or a product placement, or a page takeover. (No -- it’s a spork!)
I almost forgot about “branded content” or “content marketing” or “content optimization”. “Social media marketing” is like a bad rash that won’t go away. With all the community managers struggling with spellcheck as they flood online environments with bad diction and vapid conversation (OMG, you are, like, so funny!!!), it’s no wonder many of the great writers and journalists of our time have drowned themselves in rivers of alcohol.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with social media or this stuff called content, we just seem to be too busy talking about the channels rather than making good stuff that can go in them!
And in all fairness to us members of the “creative community”, it’s time to get real about the way we operate as corporate cultures.
So, back to story.
Ask most marketing or studio execs about “storytelling” and they’ll probably blush and politely shrug you off. Ask them about “transmedia storytelling” and they’ll look at you cross-eyed and start convulsing. Chances are, they’re losing sleep over the Facebook page they don’t know how to manage or that mobile app they paid some random shop to produce that has, like, three downloads. Oh, and next week, they’ll be launching a new AR game, although they have no fucking idea why or what they plan on doing with it going forward. They don’t have time for slick stories or experiences, they need to sell, sell, sell!
Meanwhile, their jobs are on the line because they never bothered to understand their own business, or truly understand “consumer” behavior, or what actually makes people happy in their everyday lives (hint: it’s usually not your “brand” and all that “targeted messaging” you want to sling at them). And some of them really have tried to understand these things, but haven’t been equipped to ask the right questions. Maybe because some of us storytellers have been too busy opining amongst ourselves.
No wonder we have so many “experts”... With enough opinion, we can continue to... Opine!
But again, now what?
What about all of us who have eaten royal shit in the trenches, with small wins and some big wins along the way, trying to pursue this thing called “storytelling”?
Can't we all just get along (don’t vomit yet) and find ways to make good stuff, you know, together..."transmedia-esque" or not...with the intention of advancing stories? Can’t we create media artifacts that can be remixed, shared and relished as pieces of history... Things to be proud of for generations to come? So that we can sell stuff (if we need to) and actually feel good about it?
I’m not suggesting that we join a Holist commune or a nudist colony (although, maybe that might help...), but I am suggesting that we elevate the conversation to a far more productive place.
Look, I don’t see the storytelling mavericks of the world – the Scorceses, the Manns, the Coelhos, the Krings, the Del Toros, etc. -- bitching on each other’s blogs about whose “storyworld is more awesome” or whose “ARG is more immersive” or whose “LARP is standalone” or whose “canon is bigger” or whose “film is more pure” or “why participatory narrative isn’t really transmedia” or any of the other endless rants people have been engaging in (like the one I’m engaged in right now...).
No, the successful ones are too busy making stuff in spite of the system. And yes, they have power and money, but there was a time in their careers – for some, not too long ago – when they didn’t.
Bottom line: they worked their asses off and put story first. Like a lot of us, just that some of us forgot.
So no, I don't think the term "transmedia storytelling" flew the coup per se, I think we did, you know, as a community.
All of this to say that we should NOT dismiss, rather we should fervently SUPPORT, the nuances of storyworld creation or canonical dynamics or audience composition or fandom or game mechanics or propagation theory – these things are all IMMENSELY IMPORTANT. We need to ask ourselves the tough questions, and push ourselves, and even explore semantics in the process.
But we have a lot of work to do in understanding how to liberate our media ecosystems from the inanity and rigid complexity of the institutions feeding into them and sucking off the teete of unsuspecting “consumers”. We also need to do a way better job of learning from each other.
As for all the new, self-proclaimed “transmedia experts” out there who are doing jack shit to advance storytelling practices in their respective fields, IGNORE THEM. They will weed themselves out, trust me. Just like all the other media mavens who came and went over the years. They’re not the doers, and they sure as hell won’t be the shakers.
And by the way, just because you’ve created a cool game or a storyworld doesn’t make you better than anyone else, either. If people don’t adopt and actually do the stuff we do and talk about within this whole “transmedia storytelling world” thingie, then there is no marketplace for “us” anyway.
And without a marketplace, you can also forget about investment. Talented people like the folks at Fourth Wall Studios are anomalous in this game — and while they have a nice pile of money with which to stretch those big brains of theirs, they sure as hell can’t change the media world by themselves.
So for those of us who have invested our lives into this thing called storytelling, it’s time to buck up and start figuring out how we’re going to build the marketplace, together, so that we can actually make sustainable careers using our skills and so that our kids actually have something to look forward to.
So you don’t curse the “franchise” that produced the action figure your kid is drooling over; instead, you click the link that brings you into an immersive game, one that enables you to spend more time with your kid, and develop a new appreciation for the company that manufactured the product that got you there.
And if that’s what a “relationship with a brand” means, then so be it.
Read: social responsibility, a.k.a. "good intentions".
Also read: good is more profitable than greed.
Also read: let’s get our collective shit together.
So now what?
P.S. -- this will be the very last post I write on the subject, because, well, I have lots of work to do.