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The Truth Behind Transmedia

Industry analyst Michael Gubbins explores the recent cross-media explosion, and contemplates what the future could—and should—hold for transmedia projects.

Transmedia is fast becoming one of those labels that is used and abused before it has any chance to establish any true meaning. It is hard to visit any film conference or festival that does not feature some sort of transmedia element, yet a coherent core concept rarely emerges. Indeed, it tends to be used interchangeably with ‘cross-media’ and ‘multi-platform’ and lumped under that amorphous subject heading ‘digital’.

And there, of course, it may stay.

Perhaps underneath all the youthful enthusiasm and vaguely radical language, we are merely talking about—admittedly big—adjustments to the distribution and marketing of film, or any other audiovisual media. Film will learn some new techniques and skills but, ultimately, it will assimilate those cross-media elements that boost the business and all that transmedia revolutionary talk will wither away. Yet transmedia promises something more.

Many of its advocates have aspirations for a revolutionary change in the relationship between audience and content, and perhaps the emergence of a new art form in its own right. This year has already seen the launch of a European transmedia network and the sheer ubiquity of the word means that, ready or not, transmedia is going to have found an agreed identity.

Perhaps the most obvious missing link so far is a piece of work that shows off the potential of the idea, as The Jazz Singer did with sound or Avatar did with the latest generation of 3D. Some films are occasionally retrospectively defined as proto-transmedia. Star Wars still offers an interesting case study if you are looking for previous multimedia storytelling around a core story ‘architecture’. The Blair Witch Project is also often cited as an example of how to mobilise an audience around a backstory before and beyond a film.

The latest poster boy of the transmedia crowd is Timo Vuoresnsola’s Iron Sky, which follows previous favourites including Four Eyed Monsters and Age of Stupid. The producers have been heavily promoting the innovative cross-media aspects of the film for a year or so, yet the launch into the general public realm was rather conventional. A film about a Nazi invasion from the moon in Berlin ensured publicity and (rather mixed) reviews from ye olde newspaper critics. Those critics and news stories judged it as a film with some interesting brand extensions, rather than as the harbinger of a new form of transmedia storytelling. That is not the fault of the filmmakers and Iron Sky does stand up as an object lesson in creating an active audience base—albeit that the crowd-funding element of the budget was somewhat overstated and really acted as a form of gap funding encouraged by smart merchandising.

Advertising agencies have been working on cross-media techniques to mobilise consumers for some time now and it makes sense to listen to them.

Iron Sky has perhaps been wittier in its online marketing than in the final execution, but it deserves to be studied. The marketing and the associated products—including games—are an intrinsic part of the story. In fact, Iron Sky has been consciously created as a brand which consumers can interact with in a variety of ways, and that does offer an interesting lesson to a beleaguered indie film sector.

That term ‘brand’ tends to raise hackles among filmmakers, at least among those who see their work as culturally significant. Creating brands is what Hollywood does with their franchises and star system. But perhaps it is time to be less snobby about the idea. If we believe that film plays a role in cultural diversity, then the relationship with the audience ought to be critical. Cross-media techniques allow filmmakers to find new ways to generate interest, capturing attention across the range of media that consumers actually use. Finding, aggregating and engaging audiences in the places they choose to meet, consume and interact does not compromise art, it gives it new life.

Advertising agencies have been working on cross-media techniques to mobilise consumers for some time now and it makes sense to listen to them. The cross-media work of Power to the Pixel has for some years been exemplary in highlighting the way that these ideas can and are being used to great effect. It is complacent or foolish for any filmmaker to ignore the pioneering work in this field; all should study the way that the Internet, social networks and the emerging platforms are changing the nature of demand.

Does all this activity point, however, to a specific transmedia form that will come to be seen as a new form of art or entertainment?

Well, it might. Out of all the work on cross-media techniques may emerge new forms of storytelling that transcend existing film and media. The work of ‘story architect’ Lance Weiler has been in the vanguard of experimentation with new ways of looking at narrative. Projects such as Pandemic and Collapsus point towards new forms of audience immersion, and the use of the term ‘experience design’ suggests that new forms of art may appear that begin with an understanding of the way that human beings interact with each other through a range of social networks, and that explore the interaction between the physical and virtual worlds.

The idea that we may be at the start of the first new 21st-century art form is obviously exciting but we remain at a very early stage of development. This form may emerge from work on cross-media developments of the existing media. Transmedia, however, is likely to go through a much less attractive stage before then. Given the lack of finance and infrastructure, not to mention skills, it is likely that a great deal of low-quality genre content will appear under the transmedia label. Lower costs of entry, the expansion of social networks, the proliferation of so-called experts and the erosion of the existing indie film business are all likely to accelerate the dilution and distortion of the transmedia label.

Even more of a problem is that many transmedia advocates base their ideas on a conception of consumer demand that owes more to wishful thinking than data. The issue of audience knowledge is essential to the independent industry if transmedia isn’t to become yet another form defined and dominated by Hollywood and the big businesses behind on-demand platforms.

Nonetheless, with all those caveats, independent filmmakers ought to closely follow transmedia developments. It may be that the debate throws up no more than distribution and marketing ideas for a market that is changing anyway. But when the fog of hype clears, there may be a new sense of direction in tune with the realities of today’s emerging world. •

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 27 (March/April 2012)

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