Creating Transmedia: An Interview with Andrea Phillips (Part One)

Over the past few years, there has been a minor publishing industry emerging around books which seek to explain the aesthetics and economics of transmedia or crossmedia entertainment production. Among them: Drew Davidson (from Carnegie Melon University’s Entertainment Technology Program) contributed Cross-Media Communication (2010); Wired Magazine’s Frank Rose (2010) published The Art of Immersion; Nuno Bernardo (2011), a Portugal-based transmedia producer who has done work in Canada, Europe, and the United States, published A Producer’s Guide to Transmedia; the similarly titled A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling: How to Captivate and Engage Audiences Across Multiple Platforms  is the work of Andrea Phillips (2012), whose clients have included HBO, Sony Pictures, and Channel 4, and Max Gionavagnoli (2011), an Italian based transmedia producer and teacher who has organized the Ted X Transmedia events, recently published a more theoretical work, Transmedia Storytelling: Imagery, Shapes, and Techniques. It is not simply that these books come from both industry and academic sources or that they come from both the United States and Europe, but the individual authors also often straddle borders, as creative producers who work sometimes in academic settings, or as producers who work in multiple national contexts. These books engage in what might be described as speculative aesthetics, theorizing future directions in transmedia, alongside pragmatic advice for would be producers.  

As someone who teaches courses in this space (and regularly hears from other faculty who are developing such classes), it is great to have such a rich array of texts to use to instruct and inspire our students. I am committed to using this blog to run interviews showcasing this projects: so far, I have run interviews with Davidson and with Rose, and now, I am happy to share this exchange with Andrea Phillips.

Phillips is one of the most thoughtful writers working in this space today: she manages to hit the right balance between pragmatism and vision, between describing the conditions under which transmedia producers work today and spelling out the long term potentials of this still emerging form. She has the weight of hard experience behind her, but she is also deft at exploring theoretical and aesthetic dimensions of her project. I learned a ton from reading her book, and I learned more from her response to some potentially challenging questions I threw her way. I hope you enjoy this interview which I will run across the next few installments. I am very much looking forward to meeting her in person at the Futures of Entertainment conference at MIT next week. (And, shameless plug, it's not too late for you to register to join us there.)


I was delighted to see such a strong emphasis on the audience in the title of your book. Many people want to see transmedia as centrally about textual practices or about technological affordances. What model of audience underlies the approach you take in your book?

I come to the creation of transmedia narrative as an audience member myself, first and foremost. As a result, I'm absolutely militant about making sure that the story has value to my intended audience, even across a spectrum of consumption styles. This approach arguably has as much in common with software design as with other kinds of storytelling: use cases and user flows become just as important as emotional texture and pacing.

There's an interesting piece of mental gymnastics required when you're thinking explicitly about your audience. On the one hand, the audience is made of multiple individuals who will each have different experiences of the narrative, depending on factors like mood and context you have no control over. And for many people, that individual experience is all they'll have.

On the other hand, your audience is made up of individuals who talk to one another -- on forums or other digital communities, on social media, in person. Just as your work is hopefully greater than the sum of its parts, so too is the audience. It's smarter than the single smartest person. It's a living organism that makes decisions about how to engage with your story on behalf of a huge share of your audience.

You have to be able to hold both of these ideas in your head, and plan both for the individual and for the hive mind simultaneously. That can be a tricky maneuver. It's easier to design simple for a single-player experience or assume every audience member will be experiencing your story through the lens of a collective. But it's much better practice to take both angles into account.


Your first sentence tells us, “there’s never been a more exciting time to be a storyteller.” Why? 


We're in the middle of an epochal shift in how human beings communicate with each other. There have been other disruptions in the past, of course. The printing press and television were both incredible disrupting technologies that totally altered our communications landscape. But the internet and the mass availability of the tools of production have for the first time put the power of one-to-many and many-to-one communications in the hands of just about everyone. (Gibson's unevenly distributed future notwithstanding.)

The result is a revolution in how we view and consume news, in how we engage politically, how we promote and fund businesses, how we spend our leisure time. And more to the point, it's completely altered the landscape of the possible for art and for artists. We have new tools and new ways to reach audiences -- and that's amazing.

But the part that gets me incredibly excited is that we're experimenting with new forms, too, or changing old ones into something breathtakingly novel. We're making new kinds of art that can exist only in the intersections between media, not just taking old media to new places. It's not every generation that gets to feel like you're shaping a whole new art form.


You write in the book about the East Coast and West Coast Schools of transmedia design philosophy. How important do you think these geographic distinctions have been in the ways transmedia has evolved over recent years? And what happens when we open transmedia to a more global perspective? Surely, East and West Coast mean something different if we are talking about Europe, Latin America, or Australia, each of which has made innovative transmedia properties.

In a way, I regret codifying that West Coast vs. East Coast ideology in the book, because the distinction I was addressing has much more to do with philosophy than with geography -- it's meant to underline a cultural difference created by different underlying industries and mechanisms of productions. Of course Los Angeles transmedia is heavily influenced by Hollywood and the TV industry that exists out there -- many of the people coming into transmedia in that region happen to come in already having that skill set, and it's wise to use the skills you have.

Meanwhile, New York has a very strong live theater community, and a strong network supporting independent film. So it makes perfect sense that works in that region would be influenced by proximity to those artists.

I find it extremely frustrating that a perception exists that big franchise-style intertextual works and very personalized independent works can't both be transmedia at the same time. It doesn't need to be a value judgment. Removing either one cheapens the whole of transmedia and what's possible under that umbrella.

Of course there are tremendous transmedia works coming out of Canada, Australia, the UK, Scandinavia -- and it's not easy to slot those into East Coast vs. West Coast. They all have their own distinct style and flavor, because of varying local factors. Canada, for example, has a world-class presence for transmedia documentary and nonfiction, as a side effect of how its funding bodies operate.

As we open our eyes to even more work being done globally, we'll find more interesting variations in approach than even that. In fact, I'd put down money that distinctions in that work already exist, but they haven't yet been thoroughly documented in English. What's the state of transmedia in Bollywood? What strides are occurring in the Korean MMO community?

It would be remarkably arrogant to just assume there are none -- it's a better bet to imagine there are marvelous works being created that the English-speaking transmedia community simply hasn't encountered yet. This is doubly true when you consider how many creators in English have independently stumbled into transmedia by making it before they ever heard the term.

From the start, transmedia has been caught in the competing pulls of marketing and storytelling. But, is this really different from any other form of commercial or popular entertainment form, which have historically been described in terms of the tension between Art and Commerce? What’s at stake in seeing transmedia as a form of storytelling as opposed to a form of marketing?

It's not a brand new thing, or unique to transmedia, not at all. This is the same old song and dance that early film went through, in particular. We have to navigate a tangled web of issues ranging from the credibility of art and artists, the need to make a living, public perceptions of the form, and the filters that audiences use to view any given work. The net result, though, is that being viewed solely as a potential marketing vehicle is very definitely a huge risk to the development of transmedia storytelling as an independent industry.

These risks are threefold. First, it means transmedia is on the hook to produce successful marketing outcomes in order for ongoing production of new projects to continue. This is problematic because transmedia isn't inherently a particularly good or efficient marketing vehicle. Transmedia marketing campaigns projects have created some amazing press buzz, to be sure, but the efficacy of a transmedia marketing campaign varies tremendously. And even in the areas where transmedia marketing excels (creating depth of engagement, for example) it's notoriously hard to measure how A few high-profile, expensive failures could chill any client's appetite for transmedia work. It would be a tragedy for something like that to smother the industry in the cradle.

And it means that audiences approaching a transmedia work will always be trying to ferret out the hidden brand message. Worse, it means that the creators are beholden to stay on message, limiting the scope of possible work enormously. A marketing client may place limits ranging anywhere from a mild "no swearing" to something as confining as "no responding to Tweets or comments." These limitations can hinder the viability of individual projects. But they're invisible to the public -- all they'll see is a transmedia marketing campaign that just doesn't quite work, and before you know it, transmedia itself is written off as an unviable mode of creation.

But equating transmedia with marketing, not storytelling, also means that independent artists have a more difficult time with winning grants, for example, or even generating press coverage. This does rise from that tension between art and commerce you mention; there is a myth that real artists don't sully their hands with concerns about mere money, the romanticizing of the starving artist in a garret producing purer work. Meanwhile, some of the finest art of our time is created as design work for advertisements. But it's not considered "art" in the purest sense because it was commissioned for a commercial purpose.

Ultimately, the credibility of transmedia as an art form is on the line, and therefore the willingness for programs to permit it as a course of study, for funding bodies to award money, or for investors to contribute will all suffer.

Andrea Phillips is an award-winning transmedia writer, game designer and author. Her book A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling is published by McGraw-Hill. Her work includes educational and commercial projects such as The Maester's Path for HBO's Game of Thrones with Campfire Media, America 2049 with human rights nonprofit Breakthrough, Routes for Channel 4 Education, the independent commercial ARG Perplex City, and The 2012 Experience for Sony Pictures. These projects have variously won the Prix Jeunesse Interactivity Prize, a Broadband Digital award, a BIMA, an IVCA Grand Prix award, the Origins Vanguard Innovation Award, and others.