Talking Transmedia: An Interview With Starlight Runner’s Jeff Gomez (part one)

Jeff Gomez, the chief executive officer of Starlight Runner entertainment, spoke at Futures of Entertainment last fall as part of a panel discussion on Cult Media, which also included transmedia creator Danny Bilson, Heroes executive producer Jesse Alexander, and Gordon Tichell from Walden Media, the company which produces the Narnia films. Not surprisingly, given I was moderator, the session quickly became a geek out festival mostly centered around issues of transmedia entertainment. You can enjoy the podcast of the event here.

As we were preparing for the session, we distributed a set of questions to the speakers, some of which were covered during the panel, some of which were not. Gomez recently wrote to send me his further reflections on many of those questions in the hopes to continue public conversation around recent developments in transmedia entertainment.

Here’s a bio on Gomez:

As the Chief Executive Officer of Starlight Runner Entertainment, Jeff Gomez

is a leading creator of highly successful fictional worlds. He is an expert

at cross-platform intellectual property development and transmedia

storytelling, as well as at extending niche properties such as toys,

animation or video game titles into the global mass market.

After establishing himself in the tabletop adventure game industry, Jeff

helped to develop the super hero universe of Valiant Comics, adapting its

characters and storylines into videogames for Acclaim Entertainment. Jeff¹s

first transmedia effort was for the Wizards of the Coast trading card game

Magic: The Gathering, where he dramatized the mythology of the cards in an

elaborate storyline across a series of comic book titles, web sites and

videogames.

Jeff conceived and co-produced one of the most successful transmedia

storylines of the decade with Mattel’s Hot Wheels: World Race and Hot Wheels

Acceleracers comic books, video games, web content and animated series for

television. He has gone on to work with such blockbuster properties as

Pirates of the Caribbean and Fairies for The Walt Disney Company, James

Cameron¹s Avatar for 20th Century Fox, and Happiness Factory for The

Coca-Cola Company.

Jeff has also spoken at M.I.T.’s Futures of Entertainment conference and

given his seminar, Creating Blockbuster Worlds: Developing Highly Successful

Transmedia Franchises, to the Game Developers Conference, New York State Bar

Association, International Game Developers Association and the Producers

Guild of America, as well as to such corporations as Disney, Fox, Microsoft,

Coca-Cola, Scholastic, Wieden+Kennedy, and Hasbro.

Jeff Gomez can best be reached at jeff@starlightrunner.com.

Let’s start by examining the concept of “cult media.” What does this phrase mean to you, and do you think it accurately describes the kinds of projects you’ve worked on? Why or why not?

To me “cult media” is exemplified by the slow crumbling of traditional media content aimed at huge swathes of the population, down to the more contemporary approach of designing content to engage subsections of that population or even smaller “niches.”

My company Starlight Runner works on “cult media” in that we work on projects that already have mass appeal or have the potential to reach mass appeal, but what those projects always have to begin with is a specific genre appeal that almost guarantees an extremely loyal core “niche” audience.

Starlight Runner also consults with movie studios, comic book and fiction publishers, and videogame developers to take their niche or “cult” content and prepare it for extension across multiple media platforms. In this case, we are acting as transmedia storytellers, developing and producing “cult” properties for exposure to a much larger audience.

The idea of cult media historically referred to films that appealed to a fairly small niche of consumers. But many genres, which once were regarded as cult — fantasy, science fiction, superheroes — have emerged as increasingly mainstream. What’s changing? What accounts for the mainstreaming of niche media?

There are five factors that seem to be contributing to the “coming out” of cult media:

  1. Baby boomers and gen-X’ers weaned on the explosion of pop culture spurred by the proliferation of television and movies in the aftermath of World War II have come of age and taken control of the entertainment industry. Naturally, they have a strong desire to recreate what they loved and share it with others who’ve had similar cultural experiences.
  2. Genre product such as science fiction serials and horror films, which had been relegated to Saturday matinees and second or third billing in movie theaters, could now be given A-list treatment. The new moguls and visionaries could now apply top grade production value to this content, and hire marquee talent for it, secure in the knowledge that genre fare is more than likely to turn a profit. In the international market, a growing hunger for action and genre content could boost domestic failures into profitability.
  3. Attention to quality extended to storytelling. Filmmakers, comic book writers, genre novelists and their ilk were better educated and more interested in stories that conveyed better character development and stronger verisimilitude. Star Wars was fueled by the work of Joseph Campbell.
  4. Genre content became more reflective of the mood and politics of the time, and therefore resonated more powerfully with mass audiences. Note the nuclear spawned monsters of the 1950s, the “acid trip” sci-fi of the ’60s, the terrifying “evil children” of the early ’70s, the “gee whiz” hope ofStar Wars and Close Encounters later that decade, the political morass and moral ambiguity of Battlestar Galactica currently.
  5. Like no other time in history, devotees of this type of content have complete access to one another via the Internet. Fans whose imaginations are fired by these stories make a deep and lasting connection with them. They become “specialists,” intensely knowledgeable of the property, the way that sports fanatics memorize the accomplishments and statistics of their favorite teams. These fans become “apostles” for the property, devoting time, effort and creativity in celebrating the story and characters, collecting ephemera and licensed extensions of the brand, celebrating it with others of their ilk. They form the property’s core fan base, which in turn fuels the continued success of the brand.

What do you see as the challenges of generating content that appeals to both niche and mass publics at the same time?

Like any good story, content designed for genre-lovers or niche markets should contain strong characters, evocative issues and clear, accessible throughlines. Story arcs must be designed from the outset to feel complete and deliver on their promise.

Also importantly, the audience needs to be able to appreciate and enjoy the content as it is presented solely on the driving platform of the trans-media production. With Heroes, for example, the driving platform is the television series. Much of the success of the franchise hinges on the audience finding the show exciting, intelligible and complete.

What the producers of Heroes are doing quite well is in providing fans of the show with a far more expansive experience of the fictional universe of the show on the complementary or orbiting platforms of the trans-media production. This additional content is presented in the form of web sites, graphic novels, prose fiction, etc., and this material all takes place within the canon of the Heroes chronology. So fans are provided with the level of depth, verisimilitude, sophistication and complexity that they crave, but casual viewers are not required to seek it out to enjoy the show.

When the two approaches cross over, we have seen the potential for pop culture phenomena. The media’s coverage of “The Lost Experience” for example, conveyed the fact that there was a greater architecture to the fictional universe of the Lost TV series than was originally suspected. The excitement generated by the trans-media components of the show helped to boost broad interest in it. The same can be said of similar approaches for both the Batman: The Darknight and Cloverfield feature films.

Also powerful on the home front, as families gather to watch Heroes, a teen fan of the show might recognize a peripheral character making her first appearance on a given night’s episode as one he originally read about in the online comic. So our fan takes on the role of gatekeeper for the show, filling in family and friends on the backstory of the character, and giving them a greater appreciation of the show with his “exclusive” knowledge, and making the whole experience more entertaining.

In short, depth and complexity are built around the show, rather than weighing it down by presenting it front and center.

What kinds of trade-offs have to occur in order to broaden the appeal of media properties?

Studios and entertainment companies are now learning that fewer and fewer trade-offs are necessary to broaden the appeal of niche or “cult media” properties. Contemporary audiences are now primed for high quality genre entertainment across all media platforms. So long as marketing efforts place focus on a driving platform, the launch platform and complementary content can be used to build anticipation, educate audience “gatekeepers” about the property, and enrich the overall experience.

There may be trade-offs, however, when it comes to the level of depth and complexity of the core property and how interdependent the driving platform content is with complementary content. The Wachowski Brothers ran into difficulty with the mass audience reception of the second and third Matrix films, because the films were hard to understand without a working familiarity with the characters and storylines of the orbiting platforms (graphic novels, video games, direct-to-video animation). Hence, at this point in the evolution of transmedia storytelling, it is still vital to present a full and complete entertainment experience within each component of the rollout.

It should be noted that niche productions such as alternate reality games don’t tend to bother with these distinctions, trusting the sophistication and intense loyalty of their audience to follow plotlines and story nodes back and forth across multiple media platforms almost indiscriminately. I believe that some day soon, web-based alternate reality games and experiences will evolve into much more accessible and dynamic productions, playing a vital role in transmedia storytelling.

What are the risks involved in alienating the base of your audience?

Franchises are built on the energy and loyalty of their hardcore fan bases. While these bases are often a fraction of the size of the total audience, they are indispensable, because they are vocal, passionate and active. A tiny fraction of the genre television series Jericho sent tons of jars of peanuts to the network that had just cancelled the program–moving them to reinstate the series. A small group of fans that gathered at conventions and shared amateur publications centered on the original Star Trek series managed to bridge the period between that series’ cancellation and the Star Wars-inspired relaunch of the franchise in the late 1970s.

When the producers of the television series Enterprise publicly stated that the show was being designed for a much wider audience than previous incarnations of Star Trek, and exhibited this intention by altering the shows music cues, pandering to sexual titillation and (perhaps most egregiously) ignoring at will the established continuity and thematic tone of the fictional universe, the result was a gradual erosion of the franchise’s core fan base. Without the approval and loyalty of “Trekkers” there would be no reason for the greater audience to stick around.

The original Crow graphic novel and feature film generated an extremely loyal fan base. But with the second feature, producers chose to ignore the fictional rules and tenets set down by the original work, and so the franchise experienced the first of what would become many fractures. Dubbing the property an “anthology franchise” that could be wildly altered based on the vision of individual artists and storytellers, the producers continued to build and deconstruct The Crow into smaller and smaller pieces, each with its own dwindling following. They chose to place the needs of their artists above the integrity of the mythology of the universe–a mythology that the fan base deeply cared about. The property now languishes in limbo.