How to Ride a Lion: A Call for a Higher Transmedia Criticism (Part Two)

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2011 C3 Research Memos and White Paper Series

edited by Prof. Henry Jenkins, Prof. William Uricchio and Daniel Pereira

How to Ride a Lion:

A Call for a Higher Transmedia Criticism

by

Geoffrey Long

Futures of Entertainment Fellow

Alumni Researcher for the Convergence Culture Consortium (C3)

Author’s Note: Since this paper was originally authored in 2010, I’ve been delighted to discover an increasing amount of transmedia critics. Whose analysis of transmedia projects do you most enjoy? Please let us know in the comments! -GL)

PART 2 of 3

3. What Role Might Transmedia Criticism and Reviews Play?

If, as suggested in the last section, what is needed is an ecosystem that includes both transmedia criticism and transmedia reviews, then we need to explore both halves. First, what value can transmedia criticism and transmedia critics provide to the industry? Second, what value can transmedia reviews and reviewers provide to the public?

3.1. Educating the Industry: Transmedia Criticism and Critics

As David Bloom suggested in his 2010 Transmedia /Hollywood recap, transmedia criticism could provide some answers to the very real concerns of the entertainment industry – not just “What is transmedia?” or “Why should I invest in a transmedia project?”, but “What does real, measurable success for a transmedia project look like?” Transmedia criticism may not have all the answers – as noted, we desperately need better systems for transmedia ‘ratings’ and other metrics – but it may provide a jumping-off point for some qualitative analyses while we’re waiting for the quantitative ones to catch up.

Most beneficial, perhaps, is the role that such criticism can play in the shaping of a language of transmedia experiences, through the discovery of a set of standard best practices. By understanding these best practices – by speaking the language – creators and their sponsors can improve their chances of creating successful transmedia experiences. Once such an ‘open’ language is developed, individual implementations of, and strategic differentiations from, those best practices can result in highly profitable products and even new competitive advantages.

In their seminal text The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson describe the importance of standardization in the very early years of the cinema. Rather than reinventing the wheel with every film, Hollywood began to adopt standard techniques, formats, and practices that could be reused effectively in each production – which in turn led to a set of norms against which excellence could be judged:

Industrial standardization included uniformity in nomenclature and dimensions, simplification in types, sizes and grades, and safety provisions and rules of practice. Such standardization facilitated mass production. Standardization also included specifications, methods of testing quality, and ratings under specific conditions. The latter set of elements in standardization have another connotation: a criterion, norm, degree or level of excellence. Both the movement toward uniformity and attainment of excellence coexisted in the trend. The standardization process must be thought of not as an inevitable progression towards dull, mediocre products (although many may be that for reasons of aesthetic differences or economy in materials and workmanship), but instead, particularly in competitive cases, as an attempt to achieve a precision-tooled, quality object. Once established, the standard becomes a goal to be attained.[9]

Such desirable characteristics included “narrative dominance and clarity, verisimilitude, continuity, stars and spectacle”. Those of us in the transmedia space should be feeling a slight tingling of recognition at this point. Such a key set of standard, recurring elements in transmedia is already beginning to emerge, as outlined in Henry Jenkins’ keynote talk at C3’s Futures of Entertainment 4 conference, “Revenge of the Origami Unicorn.” Jenkins outlined seven principles of transmedia storytelling: spreadability vs. drillability, continuity vs. multiplicity, immersion vs. extractability, worldbuilding, seriality, subjectivity, and performance.[10] Jenkins’ observed principles emerged from his close analysis of multiple transmedia experiences, including The Matrix, the Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, Tori Amos’ Comic Book Tattoo project, the success of Susan Boyle, American Idol and so on. Such close readings provide the raw fodder for his high-level observations, which are then shared with the public and the industry alike through books, articles, lectures or blog posts. The same kind of standards-from-observation practices from theorists and critics like Jenkins was at play during the early days of cinema. Again, Bordwell et.al.:

Mechanisms for standardization included ones somewhat connected to the industry – trade publications and critics and ‘how-to’ books – and ones external to the industry – college courses, newspaper reviewing, theoretical writing, and museum exhibitions. Undoubtedly there are others, but these will suggest how standards were available to influence the company’s and worker’s conception of how the motion picture ought to look and sound. While these mechanisms presented themselves as educational and informative, they were also prescriptive. A how-to-write-a-movie-script book advised not only how it was done but how it ought to be done to insure a sale. In the case of reviewers or theorists, the references to established standards in other arts (theater, literature, painting, design, music, still photography) perpetuated ideological/signifying practices – although, of course, in mediated form.[11]

Bordwell points out that trade papers in the entertainment field (such as the New York Dramatic Mirror, Show World, the New York Clipper, Moving Picture World, Motion Picture News, The Nickelodeon and, of course, Variety) served as an important channel for these theorists and critics to influence their audiences. One such important influential was Epes Winthrop Sargent, a columnist for Moving Picture World:

Sargent began as a critic for music, theater and vaudeville in the 1890s and had been a scenario editor and press agent for Lubin before he arrived at the Moving Picture World in 1911. At that point he began a series of columns, the “Technique of the photoplay,” which included formats of scenarios and film production information primarily aimed at the freelance writer and the manufacturers’ scenario departments. Those columns appeared in book form in 1912 and in an extensively revised edition in 1913. Although other handbooks of film practice preceded his, Sargent’s work became a classic in a field that from that point on rapidly expanded.[12]

Bordwell goes on to quote an article of Sargent’s from December of 1909 as a sample of such prescriptive writing, generated from Sargent’s observation of emerging best practices in the form and, amusingly, what sounds an awful lot like comparative media studies:

The stories must have situations plainly visible, a clearly drafted story, and, with it, an opportunity for artistic interpretation. Dramatically, a motion picture story must be more intense in its situations than the spoken drama. It is often dragged into inconsistency but this is pardonable if the story is sufficiently strong to warrant it. The point of situation cannot be too strongly emphasized.

…We are told by our masters in short story writing and in drama writing that we must have one theme and one theme only. Too many characters will spoil the spell that grips us when we have but two or three people to watch. We are told to avoid rambling into green hedges off the roadside and to grip the attention of the audience from the very start. The complications should start immediately and the developments come with the proper regard for sequence.

…The period of action in a motion picture play is not restricted although it is best to follow the arrangement as depicted in the vaudeville drama. A single episode or incident which might occur within the length of time it takes to run the film is better than dragging the tale through twenty or thirty years. Too many notes and subtitles interrupt the story and detract from the interest.

…A motion picture play should be consistent and the nearer to real life we get the more is the picture appreciated. Complications which are too easily cleared up make the story unsatisfying, smacking of unreality, thus destroying the illusion that, as the producer faithfully endeavors to portray, the scene is not one of acting, but that we have an inside view of the comedy or tragedy of a real life. Let your stories, though they be strong in plot, be convincing, the situations not merely possible but probable. The producer will then have no trouble in making his actors appear to be real.[13]

If Jenkins chose to do so, he could write a trade column or a book specifically on how to apply his seven principles to transmedia storytelling, replicating the role of Sargent to this newly-emerging field. Close reading and analysis reveals learnable lessons, as any artist will attest; all authors, filmmakers, video game designers and other creative professionals spend years soaking up as much high-quality work in their medium as possible and tearing it apart to see what makes it tick.

Theorists and critics do the same, but they then write up their analyses and share it with others. In doing so, they begin to create a shared language with which to discuss these emerging best practices, which then becomes a linguistic shorthand for particular approaches and tactics, which then in turn becomes a shared lens for understanding how these things work. This is where terms like first person point of view, suspension of disbelief, unreliable narrator and so on come from – and, once those observations and tactics are internalized, they become accepted as tools by a wider creative audience. Once these concepts become tools, they become more commonly used in the creation of future experiences, thus reinforcing the acceptance of the concepts. Criticism becomes influential through dispersion, acceptance and implementation.

Jenkins’ ideas are already becoming widely accepted in the industry and his terms are becoming the terminology for this emerging space. The problem is we need much more of this type of work, and we need it quickly. Increase the number of really insightful, clearly-spoken and practically-minded theorist-critics and we accelerate the rate at which we come to understand what transmedia is really capable of. Again, to paraphrase Kochalka, “Transmedia criticism is a means we have of making sense of this new medium, focusing to make it clearer.”

The value in adopting the best practices that emerge through such transmedia criticism in order to increase a transmedia experience’s chances for success is apparent. However, there’s another key reason why an ecosystem of transmedia criticism would be incredibly useful to practitioners: the creation of strategic differentiation. In other words, to see where to zig when everyone else has chosen to zag. As Bordwell writes:

The emphasis on uniformity does not mean that a standard will not change in small ways. New technology, new products and new models are continually put forth as alternative standards for the field. One analyst of standardization wrote: ‘An innovation is successful only when it has become a new standard.’ That process is dynamic, with multiple practices creating the change. In fact, for the film industry, changing its product was an economic necessity. In the entertainment field, innovations in standards are also prized qualities. The economic reason is that the promotion of the difference between products is a competitive method and encourages repeated consumption. The phrase differentiation of the product is used to describe the practice in which the firm stresses how its goods or services differ from other ones.[14]

Much the same thing can be said for observing best practices in transmedia storytelling. By observing emerging norms for the medium particularly adventuresome, innovative storytellers can choose to do things differently in hopes of achieving strategic differentiation. Revisit Jenkins’ list of principles and imagine how they might be flipped on their heads in a narrative experience, resulting in a new and engaging type of transmedia story. As more transmedia criticism emerges, more crazy “what-if” ideas will be sparked, and even more experimental experiences will appear on the market. Those that work spectacularly well – think 3-D in James Cameron’s Avatar - will become more broadly adopted, pushing the cycle of significant differentiation into another iteration, and the medium will continue to grow as a result.

Between a shared language for transmedia experience design, a collection of best practices that will increase a transmedia experience’s chances of success, and a seedbed for accelerated strategic differentiation, the value of transmedia criticism to practitioners seems clear. However, transmedia experiences without audiences remain difficult to justify. This is where transmedia reviews come into play.

3.2. Educating the Public: Transmedia Reviews and Reviewers

…The way I experience and think about comics has a lot to do with the fact that I really enjoy them. I like figuring out how that pleasure works and describing it to other people so that they can enjoy them too, or at least enjoy them more fully than they would otherwise. And what I like (and want to pass along) about a particular comic can be the pleasure of pure spectacle, or of ingenious design, or of kinetic flow, or of characters’ psychological depth, or of a story that’s funny or engaging, or any number of other things. (Wolk 21-22)

Massive entertainment franchises – think long-running soap operas or comic books – frequently get a bad rap for being huge, intimidating monsters. Try picking up a random issue of X-Men or turning on a random episode of As The World Turns and figure out what’s going on. It’s important not to ignore the word ‘complex’ in ‘complex narratives’ or ‘complex entertainment’, and even more important to remember that transmedia entertainment serves as an exponential multiplier to that complexity. Yes, a transmedia franchise that spans comics, television, films and games can have each of its components serve as a gateway into the entire franchise for “native” fans of those particular media, but an Everest like Star Wars or Halo is a massive undertaking looming on a newcomer’s horizon. Such franchises aren’t just increasingly complex; they’re also increasingly time-consuming and increasingly expensive. You think it’s difficult deciding which movie is worth your twenty bucks and two hours on Friday night?

As of this writing, buying the canonical Buffyverse on Amazon will set you back over $400, and take weeks to consume. One can only imagine what it would cost in both time and money to experience every film, book, comic, video game, TV show and piece of ancillary merchandise that makes up Star Wars.

This is where a transmedia critic can play sherpa: a really good (there’s that word again) transmedia critic can give an interested fan-in-the-making maps to these daunting territories, even suggesting which paths they should take depending on their personal interests. Are they fans of Luke Skywalker? Watch the original movies, read these books, play those games. Fans of space battles? Watch these TV episodes, read these different books, play these other games. A single transmedia critic can’t create personalized recommendations for everybody, but that’s why we need an entire thriving community of transmedia critics sharing their opinions and providing maps like these.

The people who currently play these roles are the die-hard fans on fan websites, the people who live and breathe these franchises. Unfortunately, they’re frequently not the best ambassadors to the series. We need the John Clutes, the Pauline Kaels, the Gene Siskels and Roger Eberts, the people who can analyze and report back on multiple franchises to convince hesitant audiences that these heights really are navigable, that the best experiences really are worth the labor, and that, alas, some of the peaks are actually best avoided. Having multiple transmedia critics, and having those critics establish themselves as experts with distinct tastes across franchises instead of fanboys for particular franchises, will help make such massive, complex entertainments less intimidating – and thus more enticing to mass audiences. And if we’re serious about moving transmedia entertainment more and more towards the mainstream, this has got to happen.

Unfortunately, the viability of transmedia reviews – and, for that matter, transmedia criticism – suffers from the same Everest-level challenge. In a June 1, 2010 post to her blog called “A Criticism on the Lack of Criticism”, transmedia designer Brooke Thompson puts her finger on one of the biggest problems facing transmedia criticism – scale:

There are a number of challenges to writing critiques on projects, not the least of which is their complexity and length. It’s difficult to be critical once you’ve invested so much time and energy into a project – whether you’ve designed it or experienced it. Being critical seems harsh and, well, it might make you wonder if you’ve wasted a bunch of your time and who wants to think that? This is one reason why we may never have a Roger Ebert or Ben Croshaw – the commitment required to fully experience a transmedia project, especially one as complex as an ARG, is far greater than the commitment required for films and video games (or books or music or or or). To make transmedia critique a commitment on that level is difficult and, well, would require far more time than would be profitable. Which makes it a pursuit of passion or, perhaps, an academic exercise. Yet both of these color the criticism, that’s not necessarily bad, but in collaborative transmedia that ignores the “other side of the curtain.”

In the Comics Journal article “A Call for Higher Criticism” I cited earlier, Paul Levitz suggests that comics critics consider each issue in the context of the larger body of work, that “the time and effort we now devote to carving up a story should be devoted to carving up the universe in which the story exists” (44). This resonates with transmedia reviews, because, as Thompson points out, current reviews of transmedia franchises are usually limited to individual components – so a review of the latest Star Wars video game, instead of a review of Star Wars as an entire franchise.

Thompson hits the nail on the head when she writes, “the commitment required to fully experience a transmedia project… makes it a pursuit of passion or, perhaps, an academic exercise.” Being able to review Star Wars, Star Trek, Halo, or any of these other transmedia super-franchises at the franchise level requires thousands of hours to consume it, let alone analyze it and write intelligently about one’s findings. In a way, each of these super-franchises is in effect a lifestyle brand – and therein lies both a primary trouble with transmedia reviews, and why they’re so important. Imagine you’re trying to decide whether to engage with the Star Wars franchise for the first time. The sheer size of the franchise at this point is epic and must loom large in the eye of the potential audience member – again, an Everest on the horizon. This is why Marvel keeps launching new X-Men titles, reboots and alternate versions, attempting to give people an “accessible” version of the X-Men franchise. As Sam Ford writes frequently on the challenges facing new audiences to soap operas, longevity and drillability can be simultaneously a franchise’s greatest strength and greatest liability.

Further, there’s a chicken-and-egg issue at hand with massive franchises and geekiness: are geeky people attracted to excessively drillable subjects, or does excessive drilling make one geeky? It’s just as easy to become a sports geek as it is to become a comic book geek. The catch is that sometimes those people who are the most familiar with the topic, the ones who have done the most drilling, are also those who are the least valuable as the topic’s advocates.

From the outside looking in, there must clearly something interesting about Star Wars, soap operas, the Chicago Cubs, quantum physics, the Civil War, and so on, because so many people are so passionately interested in these topics. An outsider may want to engage with the complex topic enough to enjoy it without becoming “that guy”, at least until their interest reaches a sufficient level that they crest the tipping point and mastery of the topic becomes acutely desirable. In a way, transmedia reviews, or transmedia criticism for the masses,[15] should be the equivalent of a 101-level course – sufficient to introduce a lay audience to the highlights of a topic, loaded with directions on where to go next for further drilling, and so on. The trouble is that we need, as Thompson points out, a Roger Ebert of transmedia reviews providing a reliable viewpoint to bear on a new franchise every week, which is the equivalent of a rockstar professor teaching an entire Philosophy 101 course one week, a Political Science 101 course the next week, and a History 101 course the week after that.

As Jenkins has pondered for years, there’s a strange line to consider between fandom and scholarship – one needs a certain amount of fandom to motivate the epic amount of drilling required to become an expert in a subject, yet one must also remain sufficiently detached to retain an objective perspective. An Ebert who gave a huge thumbs-up to everything he reviewed wouldn’t be a very good critic, he’d just be a guy who never shut up about all the things of which he was a fan. A truly valuable transmedia reviewer/critic must be able to engage with multiple massive transmedia franchises and have enough dedication to consume, analyze and report on each of them on a regular basis, even those he or she doesn’t like.

Of all the responses to Paul Levitz’ call for higher criticism published by The Comics Journal, my favorite is one by Richard Howell and Carol Kalish. Their response contains a brilliant concise definition of what comics criticism should be, which can easily be applied to transmedia criticism as well:

We feel, however, that comic books share their major objectives with other mass media, [and] can and should be judged by similar standards. To wit: Capability – a familiarity with, and craftsmanship-like utilization of, the medium’s techniques, be they visual or verbal elements; Communication – a conscious and responsible manipulation of these technical elements in such a way as to transmit at least the bare storytelling elements (plot, characterization, and theme) to a responsive reader; and Commitment – the perception required to invest the product with a moral focus which can both enlighten and entertain and the dedication needed to broaden the craft repertoire of the medium.

Comic book critics must be prepared to both refine these standards to make them more appropriate measures of comic book products and to apply these rigorous, objective standards with perception and understanding to the industry. Only then can comics criticism assume its rightful position as both guide and guardian of the continual evolution of the comics medium.

This quote points to yet another complication: the issue of what is actually being criticized. If one believes that what is to be criticized is that which makes the franchise transmedia – the unique affordances and characteristics of transmedia as a medium, its aesthetics and mechanics – then a familiarity with just transmedia is clearly sufficient. However, a more idealistic but vastly more daunting approach is to truly and knowledgably criticize each component of the franchise as an example of its own medium. This is the same challenge staring down any transmedia artist, and illustrates the same gut-wrenching truth: something as complex as a piece of transmedia storytelling or transmedia criticism is only as strong as its weakest link.

Any time you have a combination of disciplines brought together into an art form, every element has to succeed for the work as a whole to function properly. A comic book that has beautiful art but is shoddily written will be tossed aside; a TV show that is brilliantly written but horribly acted will get zapped away. Clearly some particularly excellent elements can make up for some weaker ones – the cinematography in The Last Samurai helps make up for Tom Cruise being, well, Tom Cruise – but overall it’s how the entire thing hangs together that determines the overall valuation of the whole.

Under this logic, an ideal transmedia critic must be able to criticize the six films of Star Wars as a film critic, The Clone Wars as a TV critic, the Timothy Zahn Heir to the Empire novels as a book critic, the Force Unleashed games as a game critic, Dark Horse’s Star Wars: Legacy comics as a comic critic, and so on. This may seem harsh, but it’s important to remember that just as each component of a transmedia franchise serves as an entry point into the franchise as a whole, it must also serve as an ambassador to the “native” audiences of each medium.

Think of it as the Transitive Quality of Crap: if a Star Wars comic is a crappy comic, comic readers for whom that comic is their first point of contact with the franchise will likely assume that a similar low quality permeates the entire franchise, and thus assume that the games are crappy, the TV shows are crappy, the film is crappy, and the franchise overall is just one big steaming pile.[16]

I have seen some astonishingly lousy transmedia extensions that were clearly approved by people unfamiliar with that extension’s medium – countless tie-in games, comics and novels spring to mind – and/or by people who assume that the value of the franchise’s license is sufficient to overcome a lousy experience. This isn’t the case, and this is why video games based on film licenses are widely derided in the games industry: a video game based on a film is assumed to have blown most of its budget obtaining the license, was rushed to market to make a “day and date” simultaneous release with the film (and had its production started much, much later than that of the film, despite the fact that video games can sometimes take even longer than films to produce), was creatively crippled by strict oversight by the licensor, and so on.

So here’s the problem: a transmedia author needs to be well-versed in each medium being deployed in their franchise, so they know when something is sub-par and can fix that weakest link. A transmedia critic needs to be able to evaluate each component of the franchise so if there is a weakest link, they can point it out as something to be avoided – but still point out that the rest of the franchise shouldn’t be missed. For example, one of the best exceptions to the “lousy film tie-in” rule is The Chronicles of Riddick. Both Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick are Vin Diesel sci-fi movies with abysmal scores on Metacritic, but the tie-in game Escape from Butcher Bay has fantastic scores on Metacritic.

A transmedia critic looking at the franchise as a whole must be well-versed enough to be able to say what the films did poorly, what the game did well, what the connections are between the films and the game and how well those connections are crafted, and whether or not an audience must sit through the films in order to enjoy the game. There’s enough of a Venn diagram overlap between gamers and sci-fi nerds for game critics to be able to report that the game is better than the movies because they probably saw the movies, but it’d be almost unthinkable for film critics to say, “The films are awful, but the game is excellent – skip the films and play the game.” And yet that’s precisely what an ideal transmedia critic would be expected to do.

Being well-versed in just one medium does not qualify you to criticize another, for the same reason that gamers find Roger Ebert writing criticisms of video games dubious. A transmedia critic must have a rich, nuanced understanding of multiple media in order to speak authoritatively to audiences across media – to be respected by film buffs when reporting on film components, by comic fans when reporting on comic books, by the literati when reporting on films and by foodies when reporting on food. In a way, the ideal transmedia critic is a return to the Renaissance Man style of critic that drove the first waves of literary criticism in 18th-century England. The question is whether or not such breadth is even remotely feasible on the 21st-century Internet.

(Next: Conclusions and Next Steps)

Geoffrey Long is a media analyst, scholar, and author exploring transmedia experiences and emerging entertainment platforms at Microsoft. Geoffrey received his Master’s degree from the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, where he served as a media analyst for the Convergence Culture Consortium and a researcher for the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. Through his work with the Convergence Culture Consortium, Geoffrey authored “How to Ride a Lion: A Call for a Higher Transmedia Criticism” and “Moving Stories: Aesthetics and Production in Mobile Media”. His personal site is at geoffreylong.com, he can be reached at glong@geoffreylong.com, and he can be found on Twitter as @geoffreylong.

WORKS CITED:

[9] Bordwell et al. 96.

[10] http://henryjenkins.org/2009/12/the_revenge_of_the_origami_uni.html

[11] Bordwell et al, 106.

[12] Bordwell et al 106.

[13] Quoted in Bordwell et al, 107.

[14] Bordwell et al 97.

[15] I’m resisting ‘transmedia advocacy’ because I believe that term should be reserved for advocacy done across media; see Lina Srivastava’s excellent work on transmedia activism for more on this.

[16] Again, Rule One.