Brian Clark on Transmedia Business Models (Part One)

This week, I am going to be sharing a series of five guest blog posts by Brian Clark which are based on a lecture which he gave to the students in the Transmedia Entertainment class I have been teaching in the USC Cinema School. If you follow transmedia closely, you probably already know who Clark is. If you don't, check out some of his astute contributions to this panel from the 2009 Futures of Entertainment conference at MIT. (There are still a few seats left at this year's event which is bring held Friday and Saturday in Cambridge). MIT Tech TV

What I admire about Clark is that he cuts through the crap. He's got a track record as someone who has worked across the entertainment industry and knows what's involved in creating and sustaining transmedia production. He brings street cred as someone who emerged from the worlds of indie music and filmmaking and who helped to create IndieWIRE. He has the pragmatic streak of someone who runs his own business and has to pay the bills, even as he enjoys the visionary speculations that excite many of us about the new forms of creativity that are emerging at the intersections between old and new media. And he's wickedly smart.

When he spoke to my class, he brought all of that and more: this was a provocative presentation which described an array of different business models that might support the production of transmedia content as a challenge to the current economic and creative constraints which stem from the industry's reliance on promotional and advertising budgets as the primary driver of creative innovation in this space. I encouraged him to put the core ideas behind this lecture into writing and am happy to share this provocation with my readers in hopes that it will push all of us to think about what needs to be in place before our exploration of transmedia experiences can be sustainable.


by Brian Clark

In September 2011, media scholar Henry Jenkins invited me to deliver a guest lecture to his transmedia class at the University of Southern California to explore with his students some of the issues raised in an epic Facebook thread my friends and I engaged in back in May called "Reclaiming Transmedia Storyteller". Henry asked me to focus on exposing his students to some of the transmedia business models "beyond the mothership franchise model" -- a dichotomy I jokingly referred to in that Facebook discussion as the "East Coast / West Coast" contrast in the transmedia community.

I spent a couple of months noodling with how to focus all of that conversation among practitioners deep in the trenches for an audience of media students. It seemed important to provide something practical, not just abstract. It seemed equally important, there in the shadow of Hollywood, to bring the perspective that I share with most of my closest cohorts that we inherited from the independent film community of the 1990s: entrepreneurial independence.

So I decided to focus my lecture on one key concept: that the next wave of innovation in transmedia storytelling is going to be about business models rather than storytelling forms. I started by dissecting the existing transmedia business models to illustrate how the three major communities of creators (media property extensions, brand marketing and issues-oriented activism) all relied, in essence, on the exact same business model -- the one derived from patronage and commissions. That provided a launching pad to talk about all of the other ways those business model challenges can be solved just based upon the examples we can find in the independent movements of the last century (focusing on eight different business model clusters).

Scott Walker did a really tremendous job of outlining the presentation at his blog, but in retrospect I probably tried to cram in way too much territory in a two-hour block. I would have liked to dwell deeper on examples of each of those independent business models and point to cases from which we could all draw inspiration. Fortunately for me, Henry was kind enough to invite me to rectify those shortcomings of my first trial run with his class with a series of guest editorials here at his blog.


During the last two decades that interactive technologies have been changing storytelling in surprising new ways, one debate has been completely settled by practitioners in the trenches: the question of form. The answer to the question, "Could you tell a story using foo and bar?" is always "yes" no matter what foo and bar are. Once you get past that novelty of form, practitioners spend a lot more time talking with each other about business models.

Let's consider the business model issue from the point of view of a creator, a storyteller, a person whose goal is to make a living making a story. From a highly reductionist point of view, we've got five key challenges to making a model that works in the modern media age:

  1. FUNDING: Where am I going to get the money to make this?

  2. RETURN: What do the funders expect to get back for that funding?
  3. SUSTAINABILITY: How am I going to pay my personal bills as a storyteller?
  4. AUDIENCE: Is there an audience for what I want to make and who are they?
  5. PROMOTION: How will get this work out to this audience?

More traditional art forms have clearly marketed and well-worn paths of solutions through those questions, and then some kind of vibrant community choosing (or left) to find other paths because they don't have access to that "established system". They are richer artistic communities because of that-- the independent film movement exists in great part because Hollywood exists, and both are (often) richer for that, at least in a healthy art form.

On the surface, these new forms of storytelling that span multiple modalities of media might seem to have either no well-worn path (there is no Transmediawood to prompt an indie-transmedia) or nothing but old-media paths (just reproducing the big media versus little media dichotomy of the past.) Underneath that, though, is something far more interesting -- that the well-worn path of patronage models might be what we should be reacting to, as patronage models are always just the earliest models an art movement goes through. And as we'll see in the next installment, right now is all about patronage -- and that there's a danger in just being tactically useful.

Brian Clark is the founder and CEO of GMD Studios, a 16-year-old experience design lab based in Winter Park, Florida. He lives in New York City and occasionally tweets as @gmdclark