Hollywood Goes “Transmedia”

“At the heart of the entertainment industry, there are young and emerging leaders (such as Danny Bilson and Neil Young at Electronic Arts or Chris Pike at Sony Interactive) who are trying to push their companies to explore this new model for entertainment franchises. Some of them are still regrouping from their first bleeding-edge experiments in this space (Dawson’s Desktop, 1998) — some of which had modest success (The Blair Witch Project, 1999), some of which they now saw as spectacular failures (Majestic, 2001). Some of them are already having closed doors meetings to try to figure out the best way to ensure more productive collaborations across media sectors. Some are working on hot new ideas mased by nondisclosure agreements. All of them were watching closely in 2003, which Newsweek had called ‘The Year of The Matrix,’ to see how audiences were going to respond to the Wachowski brothers’ ambitious plans.” — Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006).

I’ve been so busy dealing with end of term matters that I have not yet had a chance to publicly acknowledge here the extraordinary news that the Producers Guild of America has officially recognized the title of “Transmedia Producer.” Here’s how the official prose defines the concept:

A Transmedia Narrative project or franchise must consist of three (or more) narrative storylines existing within the same fictional universe on any of the following platforms: Film, Television, Short Film, Broadband, Publishing, Comics, Animation, Mobile, Special Venues, DVD/Blu-ray/CD-ROM, Narrative Commercial and Marketing rollouts, and other technologies that may or may not currently exist. These narrative extensions are NOT the same as repurposing material from one platform to be cut or repurposed to different platforms.

A Transmedia Producer credit is given to the person(s) responsible for a significant portion of a project’s long-term planning, development, production, and/or maintenance of narrative continuity across multiple platforms, and creation of original storylines for new platforms. Transmedia producers also create and implement interactive endeavors to unite the audience of the property with the canonical narrative and this element should be considered as valid qualification for credit as long as they are related directly to the narrative presentation of a project.

Transmedia Producers may originate with a project or be brought in at any time during the long-term rollout of a project in order to analyze, create or facilitate the life of that project and may be responsible for all or only part of the content of the project. Transmedia Producers may also be hired by or partner with companies or entities, which develop software and other technologies and who wish to showcase these inventions with compelling, immersive, multi-platform content.

To qualify for this credit, a Transmedia Producer may or may not be publicly credited as part of a larger institution or company, but a titled employee of said institution must be able to confirm that the individual was an integral part of the production team for the project.

By all accounts, Starlite Runner’s Jeff Gomez, a long time friend and a key thinker/creator in the transmedia space, has been a key player behind the scenes lobbying the Guild to accept this new classification. The specifics of the definition of transmedia is still being debated widely, including this interesting piece on the responses of people who would be eligible for the new title and this one from long time crossmedia advocate Christy Dena. The Guild is already saying that video games were excluded from the list of potential media by oversight and that it will be amended soon to include games. Dena has raised two important criticisms of the definition — the idea that work must straddle at least three media (disallowing projects which integrate in deep and meaningful ways only two platforms) and the emphasis on storylines as opposed to other potential kinds of transmedia experiences.

The reality is that our definition of what constitutes transmedia is still very much evolving, as can be witnessed from the various discussions of the concept at the Transmedia Hollywood: S/Telling the Story conference, which was organized in March by Denise Mann of the UCLA Producers Program and myself. As we brought together people from across the media industry to discuss these emerging trends, we found some included all forms of franchise entertainment as transmedia and others had much narrower definitions which insisted that the different media platforms be integrated to tell a single story. There was disagreement about the value of various proposed terms, including not only transmedia, cross-media, and “deep media.” There were recurring disagreements about transmedia as a mode of content as opposed to a mode of marketing. And finally, transmedia’s aesthetics was still being defined and with it, the issue of whether this is something really new or an expansion of long-standing practices. Around the edges, you could hear hints that transmedia should be extended from a focus on storytelling to a more expansive understanding which includes notions of performance, play, and spectacle that can not be contained within a more narrative-centric definition.

From the beginning, transmedia has been a site of experimentation, innovation, and exploration at the heart of the mainstream media. Many of us have seen the signs of transmedia practices emerging from some time — mostly taking shape around forms of marketing because that’s how such projects could get funded, mostly reflecting the logic of a more integrated media industry with strong economic imperatives for creating entertainment experiences across platforms. Yet, the phrase “transmedia” (and its various counterparts) have created a space where aesthetic and cultural concerns can re-enter the discussion. If media artists are going to be pushed to extend their offerings across platforms, shouldn’t they be thinking about how these practices can be exploited to create richer aesthetic experiences, to support the creativity and engagement of fans, to deepen the meaningfulness of the stories and performances they are staging?

As such, the transmedia discussion has always moved across registers and as a consequence, needed to be expansive, to include anyone who wants to engage with these topics and who is willing to put these ideas into practice. While the Transmedia Hollywood conference drew criticism from some quarters for having too elastic or “vague” a definition of its core concept, this very expansiveness is what allows us to bring many different voices to the table, to map diverse kinds of experiments, and to promote new innovations and explorations. From my perspective, there is a use within the academic world for clearer, more precise definitions, but there is also a value more generally for a more slippery conception, at least while we are still undergoing such rapid evolution. My hope is that the definition and borders of the concept will be debate everytime two or more transmedia advocates have gathered.

I respect the value of a Guild having a clear definition of what transmedia is, and from where I sit, the PGA definition is as good a one as we are going to get right now, but I also hope that we all do what Dena did in her blog post and push back on any attempt to too quickly formalize the limits or boundaries of this practice.

For those who missed the Transmedia Hollywood events, I am happy today to share with you the webcasts of the panels. We hope that these programs provide a useful resource for people in and around the media industry who are stilling trying to make sense of “all this talk about transmedia entertainment.”

9:45–10:00 am

Welcome and Opening Remarks

Denise Mann, Associate Professor, Producers Program, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts, Annenberg School of Communication, USC

10:00–11:50 AM

Panel 1: “Reconfiguring Entertainment”

Moderator: Henry Jenkins

Panelists: Mimi Ito, Associate Researcher, University of California Humanities Research Institute (Engineering Play: A Cultural History of Children’s Software; Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning With New Media; Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life)

Diane Nelson, President, DC Entertainment

Richard Lemarchand, Lead Designer, Naughty Dog Software (Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune; Uncharted 2: Among Thieves)

Nils Peyron, Executive Vice President and Managing Partner, Blind Winks Productions

Jonathan Taplin, Professor, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California; CEO, Intertainer.

John Underkoffler, Oblong, G-Speak (Technical Advisor for Iron Man, Aeon Flux, Hulk, Taken, and Minority Report)

12:00–1:50 PM

Panel 2: “ARG: This is Not a Game…. But is it Always a Promotion?”

Moderator: Denise Mann, Associate Professor, Producers Program, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

Panelists: Ivan Askwith, Senior Content Strategist, Big Spaceship (clients include NBC, A&E, HBO, EPIX, Second Life, and Wrigley)

Susan Bonds, President/CEO and Alex Lieu, Chief Creative Officer, 42 Entertainment (I Love Bees, Dead Man’s Tale, Why So Serious?, Year Zero)

Will Brooker, Associate Professor, Kingston University, UK (Star Wars; Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture; The Bladerunner Experience; Using the Force; Batman Unmasked)

Steve Peters and Maureen McHugh, Founding Partners, No Mimes Media (Watchmen, The Dark Knight, Nine Inch Nails, Pirates of the Caribbean II)

Jordan Weisman, Founder, Smith & Tinker (The Beast, I Love Bees, Year Zero)

3:00–4:50 PM

Panel 3: “Designing Transmedia Worlds”

Moderator: Henry Jenkins

Panelists: David Brisbin, Art Director/Production Designer (Twilight, New Moon, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Drug Store Cowboy)

Danny Bilson, THQ (The Rocketeer, Medal of Honor, The Flash, The Sentinel)

Derek Johnson, Assistant Professor, University of North Texas

R. Eric Lieb, Partner, Blacklight Transmedia. Former Editor-in-Chief, Fox Atomic Comics; & Director of Development, Fox Atomic (28 Weeks Later; Jennifer’s Body; I Love You Beth Cooper)

Louisa Stein, Head of TV/Film Critical Studies Program, San Diego State University (Limits: New Media, Genre and Fan Texts; Watching Teen TV: Text and Culture)

5:00–6:50 PM

Panel 4: “Who Let the Fans In?: ‘Next-Gen Digi-Marketing’”

Moderator: Denise Mann

Panelists: J.D. Black, Vice-President, Marketing, Sony Imageworks Interactive (digital campaigns for Surf’s Up, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, 2012, District 9, The Boondocks)

John Caldwell, Professor, UCLA Department of Film, TV, Digital Media (Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Film/Television Work Worlds; Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film/Television; New Media: Theories and Practices of Digitextuality; Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television)

Alan Friel, Partner, Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon LLP

John Hegeman, Chief Marketing Office, New Regency Productions (marketing campaigns for Saw 1 & 2, Crash at Lionsgate; The Blair Witch Project at Artisan)

Roberta Pearson, Professor, University of Nottingham (Reading Lost; Cult Television; The Many Lives of Batman: Critical Approaches)

Steve Wax, Co-founder and Managing Partner, Campfire (HBO’s TrueBlood, Audi’s The Art of the Heist; Discovery Channel’s Shark Week marketing adventure, Frenzied Waters).

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    Very enlightening. I am in film-school now and was curious about how to merge it with my interest in creating ARG’s. It seems this avenue is already being explored by the guild! Bravo!

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