This past week, Amsterdam played host to Cinekid, the annual international film, TV, and new media festival for young people. The festival also provides separate sessions for professionals working in these entertainment media. One of these sessions, the Junior Cross Media Market, brings together producers of transmedia content for children with international financiers and co-producers, including broadcasters, networks, and entertainment companies.
The Junior Cross Media Market was held on October 28th, and while ARGNet was unable to attend the Market in its entirety, we were able to attend and report on Jeff Gomez‘s transmedia masterclass.
Gomez has made quite a name for himself in the field of transmedia. He’s the President and CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, a company that has been developing cross- and transmedia strategies for big Hollywood companies including Disney and 20th Century Fox along with other major brands such as Coca Cola, Hasbro, and Mattel. Most recently, SRE worked on campaigns for the Tron, Transformers, and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises.
Gomez has been on the advisory board for Cinekid for a few years, and was invited to speak on the subject of transmedia with the specific goal of educating an international audience of professionals in the television and movie industries about transmedia storytelling techniques and devising a transmedia strategy for specific brands or products. Monique de Haas, one of the driving forces behind From Story to Legend, introduced Gomez, remarking that Gomez was a key player in the push to arrange accreditation for transmedia producers with the Producers Guild of America.
Gomez started his presentation by broaching the topic of building blockbuster worlds. Gomez explains that we are on the verge of something amazing: three years ago when he spoke at Cinekid, the discussion about transmedia was much more of an conceptual and academic one. Now, it’s here and it’s actually happening: major movie studios, television networks and gaming studios are all embracing the notion of transmedia storytelling, and Jeff Gomez is about to tell us why.
An ancient proverb states that the shortest distance between two people is a story. And in ancient, tribal times, when we had much less of a grasp on how the world worked and why it behaved the way it behaved, people turned to the wise old men in their tribes to explain it to them, by telling them stories. Gomez explains that back in those days, storytelling was sloppy and sprawling, without character development, just an ongoing narrative. Yet the storytellers knew that if they failed to engage their audience, they could get thrown off a cliff, so to keep the audience satisfied they would mix emotion with the story to engage and acknowledge their audience. These days we find we have much more powerful tools to do those same things to stories.
So, what is transmedia storytelling? Gomez defines it as the vanguard process of conveying messages, themes or storylines to a mass audience through the artful and well-planned use of multiple-media platforms. It’s a philosophy of communication and brand extension that broadens the life-cycle of creative content. Gomez quickly clarifies that brand can also be interpreted as “original IP.”
The result of successful transmedia storytelling, according to Gomez, yields intense loyalty from your audience: long term engagement fosters the consumer’s desire to share the experience, encouraging the extension of a property’s lifespan beyond normal retail windows, leading to substantially increased revenue.
The traditional pattern was such that when you develop an original IP such as a movie, you were quick to supplement that release with related game or novel, yet the whole was usually less than the sum of its parts. Perusing video game aisles, it is all too easy to find examples of games based on movies that add little to the storytelling experience. But recently, Gomez claims that producers are seeing that movies, books, games, and other products can act as “puzzle parts” that fit together, making a whole that is more satisfying than the sum of its parts, because the audience finds euphoria in collecting and connecting the pieces. It feels engaging to try and assemble the parts of a story and if it manages to make the story feel more real, then it creates the impression that the people behind the production care about people as both members of the audience and as individuals in their own right: this is what really connects people to a story.
Transmedia is not here to supplant traditional media. To explain why this is, Gomez draws upon a musical analogy: listening to individual musical instruments can be endlessly entertaining. Played together in an orchestra, they can form an amazing, engaging symphony. This does not mean, however, that individual musicians do not manage to attract an audience: the musical world can sustain both soloists and symphonies. Having said that, Gomez remarks that he is looking forward to the day when a “Rembrandt of transmedia” emerges, taking the industry to the next level.
So what are the criteria for a successful transmedia franchise? Gomez argues that a successful story is told in a deep, rich, fictional world that has a defined past, present, and future. The world that consumers encounter in a novel, movie, or television series should exist beyond the boundaries of that one medium: successful examples of this include George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga. Storylines should also be compelling, and there has to be an overarching story supported by smaller stories that develop within the umbrella of that arc: Gomez praises Lost for its mastery of this storytelling model. Transmedia also has to have a convincing presentation that takes its viewers seriously, like Disney’s treatment of Pirates of the Caribbean: the level of detail of the world provides a convincing albeit historically inaccurate world that viewers can believe in, allowing audiences to accept the franchise’s crazier and fantastic moments. The world should embrace its internal logic and remain consistent throughout, which is one of the strong points of a movie like The Dark Knight, as well as a flaw of the Spiderman films. Spiderman 3 disappointed a number of fans when it abandoned the story’s underlying mythos by first establishing Peter Parker’s spider-sense and then repeatedly subjecting him to assaults from behind.
Transmedia worlds need to include timeless themes that are simple but artfully presented like The Wizard of Oz while cultivating, validating, and celebrating the fan base like Star Wars does. Gomez asks developers to include something extra for the most fanatic audience members who feel most connected to your story: give them something more to dig for. Gomez warns to be careful with market segmentations, because doing so risks may alienating a story’s core audience.
Attention to detail, quality, and coordination is key, a concept that Disney and Pixar’s Toy Story franchise embraces. Details matter: the churn rate in young children’s television consumption is increasing, and kids might not stick with an animated show for as long as they used to because there is so much out there to choose from that they don’t have to stick with endless reruns of one show. All too often, IPs and their storylines are so simple, there are only a handful of characters and the story never expands further. This does not create an engaging experience and only makes for a limited number of elements for licensing and product lines. The more detail and richness you insert, the deeper and broader the viewing experience becomes.
So, now that we know what elements our transmedia production should have, how do we actually do this?
First of all, and this is a major point throughout Gomez’ presentation, creative visionaries need to function as IP stewards. Good storytellers are relatively rare and we should cherish them, but they also need stewards who will defend and protect the narrative universe as it expands across different platforms. These should be people who fundamentally understand the vision behind the narrative and the characters and can make sure that vision is adhered to. Gomez continued his discussion by examining a number of recent franchises, commenting on how employing brand stewardship to the transmedia efforts could benefit the properties.
There are several examples of protected, or ‘locked’ properties: JK Rowling only allows licensing of products that are based on the narrative between the first and the last page of the Harry Potter novels: she wants to control the quality of the story. But that means the world of Harry Potter has a self-imposed expiration date: there’s only so much you can get out of a limited universe. Jeff Gomez wonders out loud what Warner Brothers will do to keep making money off the Harry Potter universe after the last movie comes out.
Stephenie Meyer has made the same choice for the Twilight universe, and Gomez questions Meyer’s decision, exclaiming,“Come on! It’s not Shakespeare! Twilight can only be improved upon!” Gomez is certain that if you were to appoint an IP steward, the universe of Twilight could very successfully be expanded and branched out in a way that might appeal to a different audience (“Dudes,” Gomez smirks).
Gomez remarks on the Marvel Universe as an interesting case, as it used to exist as an open, community-based set of franchises that embraced audience participation through fan-fiction. That has stopped, particularly with regard to the movies. The X-Men movies, for example differ from the comics and the animated series which have different storylines and different characters all together and thus creates multiplicity; different versions of the same characters. This is not bad per se, it’ll do, money will be made. But it forces the fans to choose. If you’re a fan of the movie and want to know more about these characters, there’s no place to go.
Star Trek‘s recent cinematic reboot attracted women for the first time ever with the latest feature film. They go online, but there’s nothing to expand upon the Star Trek characters. Viacom, the owners of the Star Trek IP, has different divisions that worked on the different aspects of the story world’s commercial empire, and these divisions now fight about which of the Star Trek franchises they want make money on and expand upon. This creates confusion in the marketplace and is keeping Viacom from making huge amounts of money, especially with the release of each new movie.
Gomez moves on to examples of open properties, like Avatar, Star Wars, Tron or MTV’s Valemont University. Gomez also notes that video games have offered new types of open “sandbox worlds” where there’s a universe and a storyline within it, but it’s not static and non-linear. This is expanding into the realm of traditional storytelling with television and movies as web series and webisodes are developing.
Some of Gomez’s tips on working out a successful storyworld franchise follow, the first and foremost one being: if you are not the storyteller, get the storyteller on your side. Gomez relates that whenever he comes in for a first meeting with a company, the first thing he asks is “how much contact do you have with the creator of the show/director of the movie?” Almost always the answer is “none, we are marketing.” This aspect of the industry needs to be repaired because without the creative visionary, you are just guessing.
Every storyworld has several archetypes that form its soul. Successful brands/IPs draw on responses to such archetypes as the hero, the outlaw, the magician, ruler, etc. They are psychic imprints, and give meaning to your property.
You need a theme: truly compelling stories come not out of a mission statement but rather from the depiction of the complex, conflicted individual personal decisions that must be made at individual times in individual places. Dealing with physical and emotional challenges is good for us, strengthens us, develops our characters, and so you want these challenges to be present in your transmedia world too, to strengthen and develop its inhabitants.
Another successful aspect are hierarchies or skill levels that can be mastered. People want to gain experience, grow, and ultimately become masters in the world they explore. Consider how this would work for Pirates of the Caribbean: if you could experience the world from the perspective of different roles, say from cabin boy to crew member, first mate and ultimately captain, that would give you both a richer experience and something to strive for.
Aspirational Drivers are next and Gomez gives us some examples and stories they have been applied to:
- Inner pride (Clark Kent / Superman, Dexter)
- Outer appreciation (Spider-Man)
- Accomplishment, mastery (Star Wars)
- Belonging (X-Men / Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
- Nurturing (Twilight)
- Security (Batman)
- Overcoming fears (Harry Potter)
The final component to successful franchises according to Jeff Gomez are “distant mountains,” a term based on Tolkien’s work: when Gandalf is leading the Fellowship through Middle Earth, he can point to some mountains in the distance and tell the group in detail about the backstory related to those mountains. This removes the feel of walking through a “cardboard set” to get to the next plot point. Instead, we experience the richness of the world, it peaks our curiosity and makes it feel more real. It also plants seeds that may or may not grow into new plot points or future branches of the franchise.
Gomez reminisces about a line from the original Star Wars movie: “‘You fought in the Clone Wars?’ ‘Yes, I was a Jedi Knight, same as your father.'” For twenty years, people have wondered about those Clone Wars, and ultimately it gave George Lucas the opportunity to expand on his original universe. Other examples of distant mountains are Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, the bumps on the foreheads of Klingons in Star Trek and the hat and whip of Indiana Jones.
Now that we know the key ingredients of a successful storyworld, Gomez provides some examples of what he considers failures and elaborates a little on why they failed. First is The Crow. Its creator said that “the Crow is an anthology: it should be up to the creator to reinvent the character over and over again” and while there might be something to be said for this, it is not going to make you a lot of money. It left the fans with a fractured property as the second movie broke all the rules of the first one, and there was no effort to retain consistency.
Second, Godzilla: when Sony brought Godzilla to America, it changed the way he looked, what his abilities were, and abandoned the core themes and messages of the original IP. The Godzilla storyworld wasn’t taken seriously, so its audience didn’t take the movie seriously either.
Next, The Matrix. While the first movie was a hit, the second and third movies formed a convoluted and unsatisfying follow-through by introducing many new characters the audience didn’t know and thus did not care about paired with clues and story extensions that were hidden in ancillary platforms like the videogame and the much more obscure Animatrix series. While transmedia elements were in play, the audience didn’t understand that they had to collect all those puzzle pieces, nor were they given a reason to care to do so.
As a last example, Gomez presented Star Trek: the franchise’s recent developments ignored continuity and failed to validate fans. It represents a persistent drift away from the brand’s essence in exchange for drama and action while purposefully dropping franchise hallmarks like the franchise’s iconic theme music. The core fan base went away, and the more mainstream fan base is unlikely to stay for much longer.
So how do we prevent all these pitfalls and dangers? How do we maintain canon and believability? How do we enable the IP stewards to successfully do their work? Storyworlds need a blueprint, and Gomez call this the franchise mythology. While the audience has the luxury of enjoying the universe without necessarily knowing why, the producer or developer must make a commitment to developing an appreciation for the finer art of the franchise, as well as its mythic underpinnings. It’s not just about fine characters and beautiful settings. It has to stand up to scrutiny and deep analysis. It needs to be rich and worthy of being explored. This is what creating a franchise Concept Document, Story and Style Guide, Bible, and ultimately a Mythology is for, and this is what seems to comprise a lot of Starlight Runner’s success stories.
A mythology prevents narratives from becoming fractured by interpretation of third parties. It often gets compared to television’s show bible, but there’s a difference: for network television, there’s very little incentive to look beyond one season or even one episode. There are very different pay structures that define what a story arc will look like. Shows like Heroes and Lost ran into trouble: there was not a lot of incentive for the writers and producers to think about the grand narrative or how to end the story or at least bring it to a satisfying conclusion. That is changing nowadays: networks are starting to compensate writers to think about where their story is going in the long run.
On a personal note, this made me think about Daniel Knauf, the creator of Carnivale, who went to HBO with his idea of a six-season show telling a complete story that pretty much met with all of the above-mentioned storyworld elements, yet HBO pulled the plug after two seasons because the show didn’t do well enough. Knauf was then prohibited by HBO from reclaiming his IP for developing the story across other media such as a book or graphic novel. I certainly hope this attitude is indeed changing in TV-land, and looking back on Jeff Gomez’ presentation, I think it really was too bad that he didn’t elaborate a little on what these apparently new pay structures are or will be.
So, how to go about creating such a mythology? Gomez provides a list of essential documents to develop. First, start out with the franchise logline: it defines the attributes of the IP, both in terms of status quo and thematic underpinnings, so we understand what the property is. A franchise logline should be one or two sentences that describe the entirety of the storyworld.
Then, it should give an overview of the universe, a summary of the world and its historic context, a profile of your lead hero(es) that summarize the life of the character from their perspective. Don’t be afraid to provide statistics and/or core data on the character, skill sets, proficiencies, etc.
Next, describe the profiles of the supporting cast and villains and include a bestiary: creatures, monsters and other entities that inhabit your world. Then, provide profiles of locations featured in the franchise and a survey of beyond (a hint at some distant mountains).
Include an extensive section on the magic and/or (super) science of your world: the fantastical aspects of the world are explored and explained with parameters. You have to think about what the principles that govern the impossible in your storyworld are, because the moment you say “well, it’s just magic” your audience starts losing interest, especially a younger audience. The job of kids is to ask questions of the narrative. If you fail to answer these questions beyond “it just is”, you create a disconnect and fail to bring a sense of logic to the fantastic.
Continue with archetypes, messages, and themes – this is the brand essence chapter. Gomez tells us that Starlight Runner used to put this chapter first when pitching to clients, but they often thought it was intimidating, calling it “academic stuff.” It is very important to have though, and Gomez provides an insightful example as to why: Disney commissioned a writer to make a Pirates of the Caribbean novel, but ultimately turned it down because the writer held strong beliefs towards taking Jack Sparrow’s character in a more graphic direction than the mythology indicated. Sparrow’s factsheet focuses on the character as possessing the “traits of the trickster,” always struggling to balance good and evil.
Finally, include a chronology: a timeline of major events in the story world and areas for further exploration. This can be used for different future endeavors, but also just to give more authenticity to the story. Some get fleshed out and can become referenced in ancillary IP. You can derive narrative chase elements from this: story hooks or cliffhangers.
A nice example is the stairwell that was built into the set of Doctor Who’s new Tardis. It seemed to go nowhere and made the more dedicated and fanatic audience wonder about its presence. In the Doctor Who video game, players can actually go up that staircase and discover that it leads to an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Elements like this make it advantageous to “surf” the storyline from one medium to the next.
This, in a nutshell, was Jeff Gomez’ inspirational presentation on making transmedia work for you. At some points the presentation took a very strong business approach, focusing on increasing and maximizing revenue, but because it was nicely balanced with a rather strong view on the creative aspect, it made for a very interesting and practical outlook on transmedia and its prospective development.