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by Karim Ahmad
May 15, 2014 9:22 AM
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Attention Filmmakers, Here's Why You Need a Storyworld for Your Film

"Futurestates"

"Futurestates," the series of online digital shorts from ITVS (Independent Television Service) returned for its fifth and final season today. The eight new sci-fi stories take place in one immersive futuristic story world. Below Senior Digital Content Strategist for ITVS, Karim Ahmad, the creator and producer of "Futurestates," explains why filmmakers need a storyworld. Check out "Futurestates" here and read more about the series here.

"Any great story is populated with not just one interesting character, but a host of them."

No one needs to tell you it's damn hard to launch a film. Even if you’ve never done it before, you probably know that it’s harder than ever to both garner support on the front end, and draw viewers on the back end. The way I see it, these are two sides of the same coin, and it boils down to community. How are you creating a community around your work, and how are you sustaining that community through continuous creative dialogue?

We live in an age of abundance of content. I add to my various queues far more often than I consume from them. That means I always have something good to watch in my back pocket. And every creator knows that ubiquity of content makes it harder to get noticed by the masses and build community. So how do you do it?

Right about now, you might notice I’m not using the word audience. That’s not an accident. The word audience implies a one-way communication flow. That you are the supply, the audience is the demand. The problem with that is, the overflowing marketplace I mentioned earlier creates a supply that is much bigger than the demand. In other words, it’s a buyer’s market. So you need to level the playing field by making the first offering – a gift to your community. And that gift is more content.

Consider: your film exists in a storyworld. The time, the place, the characters; you’ve created all of it already. A community of stories, ready to be told. Your feature film may be the defining story of this world (and if it’s not, it should be, because why else are you telling it?), but it’s not the only story. Any great story is populated with not just one interesting character, but a host of them. They all have defining moments as well, and if I’m exposed to those defining moments in a compelling way, your investment of creative energy and resources to create that side-story is returned to you with my emotional investment in your story - and it might be enough to get me to invest my money in seeing your movie. If it’s good. But even if it’s bad, it works a hell of a lot better than just telling me to please go see your movie on Facebook for the umpteenth time. Storyworlds create exponentially more access points to your content. The more access points there are, the more chances I have to discover your story. Remember, every viewer is a curator now, so give them more content to share.

So what exactly am I talking about when I refer to additional storyworld content? Shorts? Absolutely, make a short related to your feature. Better yet, make a series of shorts. Prequels, side stories - unburden yourself from linear storytelling. Think laterally. Think non-linear. What about interactive storytelling? Can you manifest your storyworld online somehow? An immersive website to offer storyworld context and new narratives in visually arresting ways? Can your characters engage with your community on social platforms? Can you offer opportunities for your community to add to the storyworld with UGC? Or can you stage live events where your storyworld literally enters the real world? I’m talking about a vast ecosystem of content that allows you to really engage with your community instead of just selling to them. Really explore the emotional core of your storyworld in a myriad of different ways with your community. All those little nuanced aspects of your story’s sub-themes or social context that you didn’t have time to bring to the forefront in the film? Those can come front and center in the different content extensions of your storyworld. 

Read More: Indiewire's Ultimate Guide to Transmedia Storytelling

The other great thing about this approach, if you can implement it early on in your process, is that it allows you to speed test your ideas in the marketplace, with real people. You don’t have to wait for permission to tell your story. You can take a lesson from our fellows in the software industry and iterate it. Find what works and what doesn’t, and rebuild it better with each new aspect of the storyworld.

This all may sound pretty daunting, but I think we can all agree that filmmakers need to reinvent new ways of working. I look at the above list of creative opportunities, and even though some of them would be completely new to me, I see a sandbox. I think we all could stand to work more outside our comfort zone.

"You don’t have to wait for permission to tell your story."

Case in point, look at how we just rebooted our FUTURESTATES series. We at ITVS are driven by our mission to tell untold stories of consequence, to foster diversity, and stimulate discourse on urgent social issues. Usually, that means funding and distributing docs, but in order to create dialogue in new ways, we created an anthology web series of sci-fi shorts, each of which comments on today’s issues by telling stories about the future. It allowed us to work with a lot of great directors around a lot of subjects, and it began very successfully. But after our fourth season, it was clear we needed to do something new to continue to engage our community.

So we went well outside our comfort zone and rebooted the whole thing. We embraced radical collaboration with a diverse group of indie filmmakers and digital storytellers and collaboratively created a single futuristic storyworld to house an interconnected and nonlinear set of short films. We created access points on multiple platforms, extending the narrative to Twitter and Tumblr. We made the whole thing interactive and immersive through a radical new site design. It’s a puzzle for you to figure out – a puzzle filled with content that asks you to think about the future and what you’re doing to build it better today.

But it wasn’t cheap. And right about now is where all the filmmakers reading this start asking, who is going to pay for this kind of strategy for their projects. Once we start talking about creating pop-out shorts, web series and interactive websites, costs can add up quickly. So how do you get it done? The hard answer is, again, radical collaboration. Something I’ve found many filmmakers are open to in theory, but not always in practice. That has to change. You have to relinquish some creative control. It’s not easy, but that’s the only way to make this strategy work. Why? Because 1) you simply don’t have the time and energy to do everything, 2) no one wants to be your code monkey. So give your collaborators some creative freedom, some artistic license. I guarantee, that passion they’ll bring to your project will outweigh the money you can’t always pay them.

There’s an easier answer too. There are already a few support systems in place to help you create this kind of work: New Frontiers, IFP, TFI. For our part, my colleagues and I just launched a brand new program called the ITVS Storylab. It’s a one-of-a-kind development initiative designed to incubate and prototype new immersive web series concepts for potential production funding from ITVS and distribution via our public media partners. And many of our applicants were proposing series built around features. You can read more about it here. It’s kind of a crazy process, but it’s requiring makers to completely rethink the way they create and distribute their content. In other words, working way outside their comfort zone to engage communities with their stories. There are some big challenges. But the upside is huge.

Bottom line is that every single story has the opportunity for some kind of narrative extension. It may be just one short film or it may be a whole portfolio of transmedia content, it’s entirely up to you. But if you can reboot your approach to story creation, and listen to the ancillary narratives that are most organic to your story’s world; if you can embrace collaboration – real true collaboration; and if you can accept imperfection and embrace iteration, you have the opportunity to create many more access points to attract followers that are more than just interested in being your audience, they’ll be your community.

Karim Ahmad is the Senior Digital Content Strategist for ITVS, where he oversees the organization's digital content funding initiatives, portfolio development, and alignment to institutional objectives. He is the Creator and Producer of the acclaimed digital series FUTURESTATES, recently reinvented as an immersive storyworld experience at futurestates.tv, and the ITVS Storylab, a development fund/incubator of next generation web series for public media distribution. He is also an independent cross-platform writer and producer, currently developing a portfolio of feature films, comic books and interactive media. He can be found on Twitter at @the_karachi_kid.

1 Comment

  • Clemency | May 16, 2014 7:23 PMReply

    Gross.