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by Dana Harris
March 15, 2011 6:54 AM
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This Is Transmedia; or, We Went to the SXSW Transmedia Panels So You Didn't Have To

In a SXSW venue over the weekend. Photo by Brian Brooks.

"Transmedia" has had a difficult birth as a buzzword of academic-conference panelists and digital-era visionaries. But in the last few years, it's become a staple of film industry jargon and even popular culture. It describes the way that creative content -- from the mythology of Star Wars to the life's work of Justin Bieber -- circulates among multiple platforms: movie theaters, social-media websites, television and even (yes) books.

This year's SXSW Festival offered a number of overlapping Film and Interactive panels that explicitly addressed transmedia. While each of the speakers had a unique set of concerns and critical vocabulary, several issues resurfaced across the panels and provided 2011's Film-Interactive nexus with a few unofficial themes.

Reverse-Engineered Versus Homegrown Transmedia

Cross-platform franchises have been Hollywood staples since the classical era, when movies were regularly turned into radio programs. This tradition has only accelerated in the last few decades of blockbuster tie-ins and straight-to-video sequels. But as the once-dominant term "ancillary media" implies, things like novelizations and television spin-offs were often creative afterthoughts and cynical attempts to exploit a creative success for no other reason than profit.

At the panel "Can Transmedia Save the Entertainment Industry?," Walt Disney creative exec Louis Provost explained that the studio approached "Tron" in a different manner. Before the film was released to theaters this past December, the screenwriters mapped out a mega-storyline much more comprehensive than the film's screenplay, a "canonical" mythology that would inform the entire franchise going forward. In the past, studios typically licensed property rights to other companies and these secondary storylines often contradicted the original or failed to match it in quality. But from its inception, the "Tron" story was planned as a transmedia world. That may not guarantee quality storytelling (especially if the tentpole film itself is dramatically weak), but it does show that studios are shifting priorities and adopting new workflows as they adapt to the digital age.

Proprietary Control versus Viral Spreadability

Inspired by cult favorite website Homestar Runner, Beni and Rafi Fine of Fine Brothers Prods. registered a few URLs, contracted with white-label web platforms and created their very own, fully customized flash-animation websites. What they soon learned: If you build it, they will (sort of) come. But put that same material on YouTube and it can reach an audience one, two and even three orders of magnitude larger.

As the brothers explained at the panel "Decision Trees: YouTube's New Breed of Interactive Storytellers," distributing videos on YouTube has meant creative control limited by the YouTube user interface. They've found clever ways around the site's technical constraints, including hacking YouTube's annotation system (the red, text-box pop-ups that link to other videos) to create elaborately structured Choose Your Own Adventure storylines. These networked narratives often involve dozens of videos and the brothers have been able to get over 100 million views for their work. But the ability to scale up had come at a cost (literally) as they've had difficulty monetizing their vast YouTube viewership. Their advice: "Keep one foot in traditional media" and you'll have an easier time translating viral success into material profit.

Passive vs. Interactive Media

Panelists on "The Last Broadcast: Entertainment is Social – What’s Next?" grappled with the future of television as the age of network broadcasting comes to a close. In one small but memorable moment, Intel Corp. futurist Brian David Johnson referred to "television," cut himself off and said, "We should really find a new term." It spoke to the difficulty of discussing a technology-specific mode of production when the technologies themselves are in rapid flux.

Johnson's prediction for the future of television (and yes, "futurist" is his official title): It will evolve into a mix of video, games and social networking; users will transition from passive viewers of content into active participants in interactive media environments, for example co-viewing and live-commenting with friends. "We've been co-viewing for years," he said. "We just haven't been in same room."

Panelist Gary Wheelhouse, head of social media at Harvey Norman (Australia's largest retail chain), related an anecdote about his young child poking at the family television as if it were a touch screen. "Passive" video displays, Wheelhouse explained, will soon be a thing of the past.

Early adopters at SxSW enthusiastically agree.

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