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Toolkit | 5 Lessons About Transmedia from The IFP/Power To The Pixel Cross-Media Forum

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 20, 2011 at 2:29AM

Last year, when the Producers Guild of America officially accepted "transmedia producer" as one of its Producer Code of Credits, the term "transmedia" suddenly gained a lot of currency in the entertainment world. For years, transmedia has been applied in a very general fashion to describe the process of stretching stories across several platforms.
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Last year, when the Producers Guild of America officially accepted "transmedia producer" as one of its Producer Code of Credits, the term "transmedia" suddenly gained a lot of currency in the entertainment world. For years, transmedia has been applied in a very general fashion to describe the process of stretching stories across several platforms.

Now, there are countless examples of transmedia projects enabled by social networking and other new technologies. While filmmakers come to grips with how this might impact their craft, events like Tuesday's Cross-Media Forum at the Film Society of Lincoln Center provide a few different answers. Co-hosted by IFP and the UK-based Power to the Pixel, the forum consisted of a daylong series of presentations from artists and innovators working in multiple platforms to tell stories in new ways. Here are a few takeaways from the event.

Transmedia Is Not Just Applicable to Entertainment

The primary mover and shaker behind the PGA's acceptance of a transmedia credit, Jeff Gomez, is the president and CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, a company that has designed massive story worlds for numerous Hollywood franchises, including "Avatar" and "Pirates of the Caribbean." (He was also central to the success of the nineties card game "Magic: The Gathering.") Despite these pop culture efforts, in a presentation titled "Building Aspirational Storyworlds," Gomez argued that transmedia can extend to more socially profound goals.

Citing examples such as the role of Facebook and Twitter during the Greek riots in 2008 and the more recent uprising in Egypt, Gomez emphasized the progressive potential of transmedia narratives. "Transmedia gives us a new way to sell stuff," he conceded, "but it also gives us a new way to control what we want to say."

The Concept Isn't Entirely New

Gomez explained how the early 1970s television program "All in the Family" hired a scientist to consult show creator Norman Lear to craft the show in a manner that would affect the national dialogue about race in a positive fashion. "The best stories are not those that are told to us," Gomez said, "but those that we share." Later, filmmaker-turned-"story architect" Lance Weiler delivered a presentation about his transmedia project "Pandemic 1.0," which played in Sundance's New Frontiers section, and alluded to the possibility that ancient religions formed early example of transmedia storytelling. GMD Studios CEO Brian Clark noted that Haskell Wexler's 1969 narrative feature "Medium Cool" was shot during the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. "The characters exist in a world where the riots happened," Clark said. That means the massive amount of media documenting those riots expand the story world of "Medium Cool," and vica versa.

The Living Room Has Evolved

Kevin Slavin, the chairman and co-founder of the influential game design company Area/Code Entertainment (acquired by Zynga in 2011) tracked the life and death of the laugh track in American television as indicative of the way audiences have evolved. "For 60 years of television, we faked the audience," he said, showing an awkward clip from "Friends" with the laugh track removed. "That era is waning. The real audience is becoming present." He showed a photograph from a Super Bowl party he attended last year, where two screens were present--the television and the laptop, which someone used to tweet about the game. "These screens are in direct dialogue with each other," he said. He cited the example of Anthony Bourdain's cooking show "No Reservations." Although it doesn't air live, Bourdain tweets during the broadcast and interacts with viewers. "The audience is becoming a part of the cast," Slavin said. "There's something para-socially interesting about being able to watch somebody onscreen and converse with them."

Experimentation Is Essential

Weiler's fascinating presentation tracked how his "Pandemic" project, which tells the story of a virus spreading across the United States, took over Park City while he was at Sundance. Establishing a 120-hour window for people to stop the spread of the pandemic, the game required people to unlock the locations of objects around Park City while interacting remotely with others who could call into the festival and reach any of the fifty phones donated to the project by Google. Utilizing a five-act structure, the "Pandemic" experience also included a short film that played at the festival and online.

In all, Weiler said his budget came down to roughly $20,000 in sponsorship and $4 - $5,000 from technology services, but he didn't think too hard about how to make a profit. "I wasn't so much concerned with it as a marketing devices as I was with finding a development tool for myself as a storyteller," he said. "I'm really thinking about it as how I can make the story richer. Out of that comes new opportunities."

Weiler added that he saw the current stage of transmedia as comparable to the silent film era. "We're at this point with the medium where there's a lot of disruption," he said. "It's really about exploration."

Transmedia Won't Kill The Movies

"You might be having a negative transmedia reaction now," joked Clark, the CEO of GMD Studios (a former publisher of indieWIRE). Clark mainly focused on assuaging the fears of filmmakers who feel that all this talk of transmedia has threatened their profession. He quoted documentarian Barbara Kopple's frustration when people told her she was a "transmedia storyteller" instead of a filmmaker. ("What the hell, Brian?")

Clark said not to worry; movies are safe. "The same tools you are using as a director can now be applied to a broader canvas," he explained to the crowd. He cited a broad group of directors--including Weiler, 1960's producer William Castle, Kevin Smith and "DIY Queen" Sarah Jacobson--as "inspiring heroes from the indie film tradition" willing to innovate in order to keep audiences interested in their work. "These tools are meant to empower you," he said. "They're not just an academic exercise."