Kickstarting Veronica Mars: A Conversation About The Future of Television (Final Installment)

Suzanne Scott:

Thanks, AJ, for doing the heavy lifting by synthesizing the tensions emerging out of this conversation, and for tackling the industrial context. You’re absolutely right, fans and producers both know the score, and I think it’s vital to acknowledge fan agency in this discussion, despite my qualms about how the campaign frames fan participation and labor.  That said, I’d add a couple of corollaries to the core tensions you’ve identified above, drawing on the framing of fans across the past few exchanges.

First, I want to revisit Maurício’s point about the ultimate “winner” of the shifting power dynamics between media audiences, producers, and distributors being the story itself.  Both Maurício and Henry make a strong case for the how this emerging model might be most beneficial for liminal producers and properties, those that don’t fall neatly into the categories of “mainstream” or “independent” production.  But there’s a catch with fan-funded stories, and it’s already visible in the discourses around the Veronica Mars Kickstarter.  It’s baked into the FAQ’s nod to shipping and fan expectations (see image), and it’s directly addressed in this remark from Thomas after the success of the campaign:

“I had some desire, as a filmmaker, to take Veronica in a slightly new direction and do something adventurous with her. Or, there’s the ‘give the people what they want’ version. And I think partly because it’s crowd-sourced, I’m going with the ‘give the people what they want’ version. It’s going to be Veronica being Veronica, and the characters you know and love. Certainly, I think I can make a fun, great movie out of that, and I’m excited about that, but it was a creative debate I had with myself, and I finally made the decision that I’m happy with it, to go with, ‘Let’s not piss people off who all donated. Let’s give them the stuff that I think that they want in the movie.’”

 

It’s the “give them the stuff that I think they want” that troubles the notion that story emerges the clear “winner” in this particular case.  Whether Thomas is justifiably hedging his bets in response to the intense scrutiny that has accompanied the campaign’s success (“If the movie ultimately sucks, don’t blame me, my vision was hindered by fan service…after all, they paid for it…”) is beside the point.  To return to the first tension AJ identified, fan “satisfaction” is clearly the central concern here, but it’s ultimately framed as a potential detriment to Thomas’ creative control.  There is something empowering about the fact that, in Maurício’s terms, we can now frame fans as studios.  But what I think might be getting lost here is the fact that fans are independent creators too, and it’s often their dissatisfaction with a story, or the industrial structures and strictures that limit it, that drives their textual production.  Henry’s right that fans will always be read, first and foremost, through an economic lens.  But, fans aren’t just storybuyers, they’re storytellers.  They make their own satisfaction.

 

On a second and related point, you all make a compelling case for how distribution on Netflix, or similar platforms, might help reshape industrial investments in media properties, encourage experimentation with transmedia or non-linear textualities, and cater to pre-existing fannish consumption patterns such as binge watching. Our conceptual understanding of what “television” is (who produces and distributes it, and where, when and how we consume it) continues to be radically reimagined in the post-network era.  Within the Netflix television model, the television temporalities of seriality and seasonality are effectively eradicated. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but I do wonder how these new “telelvision” models might fundamentally alter our conception of television fandom.

 

If fans produce their richest work in the gaps and margins of a television text, they’ve also historically used the temporal gaps and margins between episodes and seasons to their advantage.  I return, time and again, to Matt Hills’ Fan Cultures and his useful notion of “just-in-time” fandom to describe how fan practices have “become increasingly enmeshed within the rhythms and temporalities of broadcasting” (178).  Moreover, Hills cautioned (back in 2002, no less), that eradicating time lags function “ever more insistently to discipline and regulate the opportunities for temporally-licensed ‘feedback,’ and the very horizons of the fan experience” (179).  So, what happens when we begin to reconceptualize the afterlife for cult television series strictly as films, or in one large seasonal installment with no lag time between episodes?  The pleasures of television fandom are deeply tied to its form, and the impact of these shifts deserves further consideration.

 

My concern here isn’t just the horizons of the fan experience, but the horizons of the industrial and cultural framing of fans and fan participation. Whether we’re talking about fan-funded film extension of a cult television series, or an entire new season of a cult show dropping on Netflix, these temporal horizons are potentially less generative for fans, which in turn might make it increasingly difficult to discursively shift our understanding of them as producers of anything but capital.  If I’m being totally honest, as a Veronica Marsfan, what I really want is another season of Veronica Mars.  And as an Arrested Development fan, I will absolutely binge watch the new season (and, let’s be real, I’ll binge watch the prior three seasons as an amuse bouche the day before the launch).

 

Understandably, we all want to focus on what we’re gaining.  I’m admittedly more interested in what’s potentially being lost or overlooked, but I don’t want that emphasis to be mistaken for a lack of enthusiasm about these developments.  I do think they have game-changing potential, particularly as the beginnings of a creators’ rights movement.  I just worry that fans’ legacy as creators in their own right will once again be obscured in favor of celebrating industrially sanctioned modes of fan engagement.

Mauricio Mota:

From all of our contributions so far, the ones that mostly intrigued me were the ones related to roles (fans, producers, distributors) and business models.

And both rely on a discussion that, if not well explored, can become a “chicken or the egg” equation.

Some questions to provoke that discussion:

Would Veronica Mars raise all that money on Kickstarter if it was an independent movie from a new director with an unknown actress about an unknown character?

Do we really need algorithms to figure out that BBC Format + David Fincher + Kevin Spacey + Washington politics is a success formula for House of Cards?

Is 60 thousand people as a Box Office number for a movie a sufficient number for a studio to green light to produce it?

When fans “invest” or donate for IP development and or production they are looking for some sort of creative control or ownership or just wanting the story to come to life?

We are entering – with or without the help from the Studios – an era of what we like to name as  “Grassroots Blockbusting”: where IPs are nurtured to the ground up and more independent of the “normal” way of becoming a success. All Studios have what we name “Dormant IPs” – stories that have already a whole world built, good story arches and some sort of audience built through generations. But very few of these IPs (and even less Studios) are being developed in a way that allows them to become something profitable and successful.

Unfortunately it is still naive to come to a studio or any big show runner in town and tell them to “hand over IP”. This is not only a conversation about studios focusing on blockbusters and mainstream stories because of shareholders. They are also investing on their libraries and keeping as much control of that IP as possible. Their framework is built around owning as much % of the IPs as possible since the same framework is built around giving more power and control for the part that invests more to make a story happen. And although roles are blurring,  very few creators can say they can make their own shows without a major investment from a studio.

In Brazil, the Government is making an immense effort to grow our TV industries by creating a new law that makes every cable channel to invest massively on original content produced by Brazilian companies (like mine). It is a huge achievement but it has also been very tricky and challenging for the producers to convince studios and networks ( still the most important distribution channels) to give up on a big percentage of an IP they would air because of that new law. Simply because it forces them to not own majority of brazilian original content. So, better said than done.

However, there are independent funds – in the US, Latin America and Asia – that are starting to invest into new green IPs or buying turnaround scripts from studios/production companies to re-start them from the ground using transmedia and the digital tools to start them small and sustainable. Like I said before, lines are blurred, roles are confused and money and knowledge about what works is more democratized.

The existing cases we have been discussing are actually good starters for a possible different model where fans and creators are closer by sharing a common dream and making it happen. And by doing so more and more the Studio system will then have new competitors among the same people they see as consumers. Which is a good thing since humans and companies tend to pay more attention to things and people that threat them than to people that they take for granted. And to AJ’s points looks like creators and fans are paying more attention to what is happening around them.

 

Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian is an assistant professor of communication in the Media, Technology and Society program at Northwestern University. His manuscript, tentatively titled Off the Line, Independent Television and the Transformation of Creative Economy, explores the politics and value of the web series market. He edits a personal blog, Televisual, has been published in the academic journals Continuum, Transformative Works and Cultures, First Monday and Cinema Journal, and in the popular press in Slate, Indiewire, The Wall Street Journal and The Root, among others. For more information, visit his site.

Suzanne Scott is a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Digital Learning + Research at Occidental College.  Her work on fandom within convergence culture, transmedia storytelling, and fanboy auteurism has been published in the anthologies Cylons in AmericaThe Participatory Cultures Handbook, and A Companion to Media Authorship, and the journal Transformative Works and Cultures.  She blogs at Revenge of the Fans and tweets @iheartfatapollo.
Mauricio Mota is one the founders of The Alchemists, Entertainment Group responsible for building original transmedia narratives and content for studios, publishing companies, fans and brands. Some of their clients include Coca-Cola, Petrobras, TV Globo, CW, Elle Magazine, NFL, Nextel and the Brazilian Ministry of Education. He was responsible for bringing the concept of transmedia storytelling to Brazil and implemented the Transmedia Communication Department for Globo Television (4th largest network in the world).

 

Kickstarting Veronica Mars: A Conversation About the Future of Television (Part Three)

Henry Jenkins:

Suzanne, I share some of your concerns about the ways that fan power is being evaluated here primarily in terms of economic capital. Interestingly, the Veronica Mars campaign was preceded by another effort — David Fincher’s effort to raise funds to produce an animated film based on Eric Powell’s cult comic book series, The Goon. This project had set a goal of raising $400,000 in order to fund a story reel as proof of concept for a proposed feature film, and instead, they raised 441,900 from 7,576 backers, which was, as of November, a record-breaker for the micro-funding company, now dramatically surpassed by the Veronica Mars juggernaut. At the time, there was considerable pushback from fans who felt that these funds should be raised by the studio through traditional means rather than tapping the fan network for investments that would be repaid through merchandise but not through either revenue or creative control.  As Cartoon Brew’s Amid Amidi wrote at the time:

“Should the film be made by a corporate film studio, that company just saved themselves half a million dollars on the backs of dedicated animation fans who believe they’re funding an indie project, when in reality they’re funding a mainstream Hollywood feature….while I’m sure Fincher and Blur Studios are well intentioned in their desire to make an animated feature, their approach of mixing their fans’ money with those of media corporations, the latter of whom will receive all the profit from a Goon feature, leads to an uncomfortable situation that is contrary to the entire spirit of Kickstarter. Artists should use the generosity of backers in crowdfunding campaigns to fulfill a creative vision, not to help corporations make money, as The Goon Kickstarter is currently set up to do.”

These are, to my eyes, legitimate concerns in both of these case but these projects also potentially represent a transitional point in the degree of creative control which cult producers may yield in this still emerging system. Neither The Goon or Veronica Mars were likely to be produced in the absence of a strong show of audience support; both fall into an awkward category of production that is neither fully mainstream nor fully independent. They are both genre series that gain strong support from a substantial niche that is too small to move the levers to greenlight a project under traditional industry logics. Yet, this is why the recent developments seem to me to be game-changers, both in terms of the ways they strengthen the hands of creative producers and of the ways they allow fans to exert a greater influence on production decisions.

I see this as especially true when coupled with the new systems for content production and distribution we are seeing emerging in recent months via the web. We have talked so far about Netflix funding both original programming (House of Cards) and rescuing orphaned cult series (Arrested Development).  Hulu has also announced similar plans and is already importing imaginative content from Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom as exclusives for their subscribers. YouTube has recently developed a system for funding content production. And Amazon has announced that they will be presenting fans with a range of pilots later this year, both comedy and children’s series, and asking consumers to weigh in on which ones should be put into full production.

These alternative arrangements offer much to program producers, starting with the fact that with the exception of Amazon where they are introducing content to consumers at an earlier point in the negotiation process, they seem to be making upfront commitments for entire seasons of programs, allowing them to exert creative integrity over entire story arcs, rather than subjecting them to the uncertainties of the ratings, where they might well get cut off after the first few episodes, never resolving any of the enigmas they have set into play. One can be successful in these platforms with a much lower viewership than network television, creating a space for programs that can command a strong niche of intense support, as opposed to the diffused viewership that gets rewarded on the major networks. These programs can have a more unique perspective because they are never designed to appeal to everyone.  Some producers may be much better served in this context: this may no longer be right for Joss Whedon who is turning down Star Wars to keep working with Marvel, but it would certainly be true for someone like Bryan Fuller, who is already revisiting Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls in the wake of the Veronica Mars news.

The example of The Goon above is an interesting one in this context, since The Goon is a creator-owned comic book series, that has been successfully sustained since 2002. In comics, a creator’s rights movement in the 1990s helped pave the way for more sustainable models of content creation: creators now have multiple options for publishing their own work, with or without the challenges of self-distribution. We are seeing some top talents move project by project between the mainstream publishers to self-publishing models and now, through Kickstarter, crowdsourcing models. Kickstarter now ranks just below DC and Marvel as the number three source of comics funding in the United States. And even artists who work with the majors have somewhat greater creative control than before and have been able to cut better deals as a result of the option of going independent.

The space of indie comics, as opposed to underground and alternative comics, has long been smart and original genre content — pushing comics beyond the superhero genre that dominates DC and Marvel, but also having broader appeal than the more experimental space represented by alternative comics. This seems like the niche that is apt to be filled in this new world of crowd-funding and web distribution that is taking shape week by week before our eyes right now. In such a world, there might not be a need for Rob Thomas to depend upon Warner Brothers to distribute his content, or perhaps, there might be a chance for him to retain more of the IP rights going into his negotiations so that there are more options for series which gain a hardcore audience that is too small to sustain broadcast. Netflix’s decision to release all of the episodes at once, allowing for binge viewing, also seems to point towards this kind of program production — i.e., allowing for more intricately woven stories, which reward this kind of intense viewer commitment.

Such arrangements would help get us out of the paradoxes of these current cases, where producers are appealing for fan support, but ultimately have to work within a system which gives most of the rewards to the same studios who have always controlled production decisions. Clearly, what we need is a creator rights movement for television, which learns as much as it can from the creator rights movement in comics, which is still struggling to fully achieve its goals.

Of course, the costs of television production dwarf those of comics production, meaning that it is unlikely to see fan-support television be fully realized in the short term. Veronica Mars may work as an early example because it is going to be a lot less expensive to produce than some of the cult science fiction or fantasy series that have been mentioned alongside it this week. But, part of what’s interesting to me is that Veronica Mars has a fandom that I would describe as mid-level intensity: there are shows out there with much more dedicated and active fan bases. And so, if they can raise the funds, there is apt to be many other series which could, in theory, command this same level of support.

The reality is that in a capitalist-mode of production, fans are always going to be read first and foremost through an economic lens. The old model saw us primarily as a commodity — eyeballs — that could be sold to advertisers. More recently, Web 2.0 has treated us primary as a source of creative labor — for which we are never directly compensated. And now, this model treats us as investors, who may gain some greater creative control as a consequence of advancing gifted producers money they need to get their dream projects into production. For me, the key thing is that the relationship here needs to be transparent: fans need to understand what is being offered and what role they can or will play in the process. In most cases, fans are not seeking to take creative control away from the producers whose work they admire, but they do hope to prevent series from being “retooled” in order to broaden their support, often at the expense of cutting out elements that drew fans to the program in the first place.

Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian

Whew, this is enthralling!

It sounds like we’ve zeroed in on a couple key tensions. One pits creative control for producers and satisfaction for fans against the profit-focused motives of the conglomerates. Another pits their impulse to mainstream against the increasing popularity of indie and digital production, from television to comics.

We can’t resolve these tensions here, but I’ll give it a go! To start, some context. And the most important context is the financial health of the studios and distributors. As Mauricio said, it is hard to be a studio, and media executives have always worked in tense environments permeated with fear.

But the truth is the studios are richer now than they’ve been in a decade (after the heyday of the 1990s). Movies are still popular. People watch almost as television as they ever have, albeit across more devices and technologies. Media stocks have joined the broader market rally after lows in late 2008 and early 2009. From that low, ViacomComcastand Lions Gate stocks have quadrupled. News. Corp has quintupled. Time Warner and Disney’s have tripled. There are lot of reasons for this, but the underlying factor is there is much more power in distribution these days. Since there are so many niche markets, distributors with resources can grab our attention. Everyone knows when the next Star Wars is due.

Studios seek market share to keep stocks afloat, and that’s why they’ve been spending hundreds of millions marketing new film franchises. And now web networks are taking a cue, hence Netflix outspending legacy TV with House of Cards. These investments in franchises pay off. They are rich, even as they underfund niche markets (Viacom cable channels Logo and BET, for just one example, are criminally under-resourced, with some shows actually written by freelancers!).

Which brings us to our conundrum, and the tensions above: clearly fans and producers know what’s going on. They know, instinctually, studio money is being funneled to bigger and bigger “mainstream” products, as companies reach for market share amidst the tidal wave of digital production.

As Derek Johnson argues in his new book, we have to view bottom-up dynamics in the context of the growth of franchising, the studio’s (logical) way of responding to complex market dynamics. As Suzanne rightly noted, crowdsourced projects really are a message to distributors from fans and producers to studios that they’ve gone too far, channeling investments in IP higher and higher. Why, even with the lowered production costs of digital, have mid-range projects dried up? As Rob Thomas has noted, the $2-$20 million film is struggling, but there’s no reason it should be. Veronica Mars is an important reminder, if an ambivalent one, since Thomas also noted they need Warner Bros. to work out gifts.

In this environment, mainstream distributors are both essential and inadequate. Focusing on the breadth and depth of bottom-up efforts at value creation points the way to reform: producers and fans are already leading, but they can only go so far on their own. Their efforts, niche-driven, are largely unseen, because they are sporadic. Individual scholars and journalists are aware of the robust growth in indie production in gaming, comics, film, music, television (web series), radio (podcasting) and publishing (blogging to e-books). These are all markets dominated by conglomerates, in various ways, and yet we rarely talk about them in conversation (Henry’s work a significant exception).

Which is why it’s good we’re having this conversation! Can we imagine a different system than what we have now? I think we can. And it starts with independents.

Why, for instance, don’t studios have internal mechanisms for nurturing franchises from the ground up? Studying web series has shown me how we can think of TV development differently: certain niches can nurture small but passionate fan bases for budgets well under the cost of marketing Avatar or ambitious series that flop like Terra Nova or Smash. And it’s not just in low-fi comedy; special effects heavy series like Video Game High School indicate there’s a lot of value yet to be mined. The indie comics Henry mentioned are an excellent source.

All of this activity can be streamlined and aggregated. The studios could market one less blockbuster a year and incubate dozens upon dozens of projects, with enough to support union (read: trained, skilled) labor from the oversupply of art/film-school graduates. They don’t do this because they have to report quarterly to shareholders, so they think short-term. It takes years to grow such projects, but the pay-off could be huge. Projects that prove successful at a smaller scale could argue for more resources and broaden narratives with fans in conversation. “Bombing” rates could go down.

Conglomerates do support small-scale projects, but not consistently. Veronica Mars is only a higher-profile example;The Goon is another. Of the web series I’ve tracked that have been picked up for television – like super-grassroots YouTube series Fred and The Annoying Orange, which spent years cultivating millions of fans – most are successful enough to go beyond one season. Now cable networks are looking to artier showrunners like Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, creators of the brilliant sketch series Broad City that Comedy Central just picked up to series (with a little help from Amy Poehler, no stranger to YouTube). I’m running a series of essays on “Indie TV Innovation” on my blog next month, with contributions from Jane Espenson (Husbands), Glazer and a dozen others, to show how there’s a lot of value being generated in these spaces at very low-cost.

The problem is these examples are scattered and dispersed. The effect of studio neglect is we get a small number of outrageous case studies like Veronica Mars that present ethical conundrums because there aren’t structures in place. Under-investment also means, even if projects can generate fans, they often do so at lesser quality, which perpetuates the myth that indie projects are artistically impoverished.

We are indeed in a capitalist mode of production that privileges conglomerates and publicly-traded companies, and the culture in Washington suggests that won’t change anytime soon, which is fine. But the takeaway from Veronica Mars et al. should be a call for distributors to: invest in the growing segment of smaller and mid-range projects, hand over intellectual property and creative control (something web series creators like Felicia Day have been fiercely advocating for years) and nurture more fan-driven projects before producers face the crowds. They have the money. It’s better for business, for workers and the culture at large.

Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian is an assistant professor of communication in the Media, Technology and Society program at Northwestern University. His manuscript, tentatively titled Off the Line, Independent Television and the Transformation of Creative Economy, explores the politics and value of the web series market. He edits a personal blog, Televisual, has been published in the academic journals Continuum, Transformative Works and Cultures, First Monday and Cinema Journal, and in the popular press in Slate, Indiewire, The Wall Street Journal and The Root, among others. For more information, visit his site.

Suzanne Scott is a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Digital Learning + Research at Occidental College.  Her work on fandom within convergence culture, transmedia storytelling, and fanboy auteurism has been published in the anthologies Cylons in AmericaThe Participatory Cultures Handbook, and A Companion to Media Authorship, and the journal Transformative Works and Cultures.  She blogs at Revenge of the Fans and tweets @iheartfatapollo.
Mauricio Mota is one the founders of The Alchemists, Entertainment Group responsible for building original transmedia narratives and content for studios, publishing companies, fans and brands. Some of their clients include Coca-Cola, Petrobras, TV Globo, CW, Elle Magazine, NFL, Nextel and the Brazilian Ministry of Education. He was responsible for bringing the concept of transmedia storytelling to Brazil and implemented the Transmedia Communication Department for Globo Television (4th largest network in the world).

 

Kickstarting Veronica Mars: A Conversation on the Future of Television (Part Two)

 

 

Suzanne Scott:

Hi everyone, I’m looking forward to this conversation.  I’ve been attempting to work through my ambivalent response to the Veronica Mars kickstarter for the past few days, particularly where it bumps up against my unadulterated fannish glee that Netflix Saved Our Bluths.  Two of my favorite cult TV series are being revived.  It should feel like a win-win, but I can’t shake this sense that the Veronica Mars Kickstarter (or fan-ancing generally) sets a problematic precedent for what constitutes fan “participation.”  Or, to AJ’s point, my concern doesn’t stem from the kinds of value producers and fans generate from television, or even the value that fans are generating from this kickstarter campaign, but how producers are increasingly and strategically generating value from fans.

 

My work broadly engages with industry-fan relationships within convergence culture, and how those relationships are gendered.  In particular, I’m interested in which types of fans and modes of fannish engagement are valued, normalized, or incorporated, and which remain marginalized or are subject to containment.  I’ve written in the past about how industrial efforts to engage fan culture often function as re-gifting economies, or planned communities that strive to “repackage fan culture, masking something old as something new, something unwanted (or unwieldy) as something desirable (or controllable, or profitable).”  I’ve also blogged about the problematic legitimization discourses that surround industrial efforts to co-opt fan practices and retain ownership over fan texts.  Many, myself included, are inclined to view the Veronica Mars Kickstarter as a prime example of fan empowerment (or, in Henry’s terms, as a techno-realization of a longstanding fannish frustration with audience measurement metrics, and a desire to revive media properties that were cut down in their prime).  But, I still worry about what it means to discursively celebrate fans’ power in purely economic terms.

 

I’m a frequent donor to Kickstarter campaigns, especially those like Womanthology or Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games that are attempting to make a transformative intervention into media industries and fannish subcultures that can be unwelcoming to women.  I’m also all for using Kickstarter to launch creator-owned projects.  For example, I get why Batgirl writer Gail Simone, who was recently fired and rehired by DC Comics after a massive pushback from fans, would want to kickstart a graphic novel where she’ll have full control over the creative direction and, more importantly, the intellectual property rights. I’ll probably pull the trigger and donate to the Veronica Mars movie before the days tick down to zero…or, let’s be realistic, probably before the end of this conversation.  But it’s not because I want a t-shirt, or a digital download of the finished product from Flixter, Warner Bros.’ proprietary video platform.  What I want is information, however filtered through Warner Bros. publicity brass that it might be, about how this grand experiment is playing out, and to see if fans are addressed primarily as partners, or promotional agents.

As AJ rightly notes above, crowdfunding may not be the great equalizer, but it is a vital emergent tool that allows minority voices and audiences that are too often underrepresented by media industries to carve out a space to be heard.  The figures that you’re tracking on your blog are vitally important.  They aren’t just dollars, they’re pointed messages sent to media industries by media audiences.  Can we view the massive success of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter as a call to television executives that there’s a market to be tapped for programs with compelling, complex young female protagonists?  Hopefully.  Would I feel better if Rob Thomas had Kickstarted an original web series, where the profits would be funneled into developing the next Veronica Mars, rather than into Warner Bros.’ coffers?  Absolutely. It’s the slippage between crowdsourcing and outsourcing financial risk here that I find troubling.

Mauricio Mota:

Ok, here comes the black sheep-capitalist storyteller from Brazil 😉

I was born – literally – at the intersection between Academia, Commerce, Storytelling and Marxism. While my parents were academics and Marxists during the 70-80’s, my mom was a fiction writer trying to figure out how to keep working, teaching, studying, paying bills and finally get picked by a publisher to bring her words to the world. The funny thing of that intersection is that till I was 8 I thought one of my grandfathers was Karl Marx – because of a picture my parents had in the home office. But actually my grandfather was considered the Latin-American Shakespeare.

That mix of backgrounds, struggles and opportunities trained my eyes and perceptions (with some scars and learnings) to always pay deep attention to the relationship between Creators (Storytellers), Distributors (Storysellers) and Readers (Story…buyers?) and to keep on the pace around one of the most fascinating dynamics ever. In the past, the roles were so clear, the imposed status quo was so comfortable/a given and people in general were just having fun with their stories that the Veronica Mars/House of Cards models were impossible to imagine.

Kickstarter didn’t invent crowdfunding for storytelling. Neither did Felicia Day or Joss Whedon. The most efficient systems of crowdfunding for storytelling that I ever seen in my life are the Catholic and the Evangelical Churches. People have been funding saints, bibles, sagas, music concerts, souvenirs or tokens for more than 2000 years. In Brazil, the evangelicals own one of the top three tv channels (where they air religious programs, produced telenovelas and bought series from the US like Veronica Mars). So the whole conversation about “exploring” fandom or using fans to fund a movie owned by a big studio is a little bit strange for me because generally people want to watch and share an experience around a story: be it that story about a guy who could regenerate fast (no, I’m not talking about Wolverine, I’m talking about Jesus), Veronica Mars or about an elite group that uses people’s trust to do whatever they want (I’m talking about House of Cards).

The line between owning something and owing was completely blurred when the Veronica Mars kickstarter campaign started. Many fans donated something because they feel such an emotional connection to that cannon that gave them so many good times that they feel the owe something to it and they want more of the pleasure that story gives — with or without having something material back (a shirt or equity). It is the difference between Profit Sharing and Sharing Collective Value.

The roles are also blurred, thanks G’d — both on Veronica Mars and House of Cards. And today I’m able to fund the stories my company creates from different sources: fans, non-profits, global advertisers, studios, networks or a toy company.

Because the Veronica Mars campaign is like advance money given by fans to the creator that implicitly says: “Hey, here is the money I would already buy for this and that, so now go make that extension so I can have the storytelling experience that no money nor a shirt can give me. Oh, I can also make it with my Mastercard and don’t need to wait for someone to decide to fund it?”. Instead of investing money on the IP after it airs, fans are doing it before.

Everyone, on the House of Cards case, was mesmerized by two things: launching 13 episodes at once on Netflix and the fact that some of the decisions to produce were based on algorithms. In the end of the day, the “series marathon” culture is something that is part of the fabric of pop culture consumption; Kevin Spacey is a great actor and amazing villain; politics brings eyeballs, fans add value whenever they watch something and the British version was already really good. If we build it, they will come. And with David Fincher behind, maybe (just maybe), the execution will be good. 😉

By the way, The funders behind House of Cards are also “outside” the regular model as the Kickstarter examples: Goldman Sachs, WPP Group (one of the largest advertising groups in the world) and AT&T.

Netflix move to offer exclusive content at once was brave and risk taking strategy in a town where networks kill shows on episode 3. VOD changes the importance of focus groups and research to a level that makes me love where all this is going. Because so many amazing pilots or shows would have survived if Netflix, Amazong, Hulu and Kickstarter existed and gave that opportunity to fans, creators and last but not least, studios to make a decision.

Yes, studios.

Because everybody loves to blame the Studios for Hollywood’s lack of innovation. Being a Studio is HARD. Crowdfunding is also hard. But what happens next is the point I’m trying to make.

The Veronica Mars case will show how sending the gifts and tokens for all the 50k+ backers (including movie sessions into remote cities) is really, really, really hard to accomplish but a Studio knows how to make something like this happen. And before the tomatoes come, the discussion is not if the studios do it well or not, but they make it and they have a system. If fans, indies, academics and writers believe there are improvements to be made, fight for it or kickstart a project and start your own Studio. It is about re-allocation of power and responsibilities and not resetting a whole organism that has brought to the world amazing stories – including Veronica Mars.

The Studios used to have the formula of success. Using Henry’s recent book as a reference, the formula was “If doesn’t get picked by studio it is dead”. Now it probably would be “If doesn’t get picked, lets talk to the fans and other distribution channels” (not so charming as “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead” but really fascinating).

Now nobody has is total control, decision-making power is more shared. But Studios/Networks still have the most efficient marketing and logistics machine in the world and they deserve their share. Fans and storytellers that know how to build their own micro-networks also deserve a share.

Fans are now Studios. Advertisers are Studios. Amazon is a studio. Netflix too.

So, the roles are not only changing, they are blurred and the winner is the story. Because generally we don’t know what we want until a story is in front of us and we say: I want more of that. And I will pay with my time, my emotions, my network of friends and my money.

Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian is an assistant professor of communication in the Media, Technology and Society program at Northwestern University. His manuscript, tentatively titled Off the Line, Independent Television and the Transformation of Creative Economy, explores the politics and value of the web series market. He edits a personal blog, Televisual, has been published in the academic journals Continuum, Transformative Works and Cultures, First Monday and Cinema Journal, and in the popular press in Slate, Indiewire, The Wall Street Journal and The Root, among others. For more information, visit his site.

Suzanne Scott is a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Digital Learning + Research at Occidental College.  Her work on fandom within convergence culture, transmedia storytelling, and fanboy auteurism has been published in the anthologies Cylons in AmericaThe Participatory Cultures Handbook, and A Companion to Media Authorship, and the journal Transformative Works and Cultures.  She blogs at Revenge of the Fans and tweets @iheartfatapollo.
Mauricio Mota is one the founders of The Alchemists, Entertainment Group responsible for building original transmedia narratives and content for studios, publishing companies, fans and brands. Some of their clients include Coca-Cola, Petrobras, TV Globo, CW, Elle Magazine, NFL, Nextel and the Brazilian Ministry of Education. He was responsible for bringing the concept of transmedia storytelling to Brazil and implemented the Transmedia Communication Department for Globo Television (4th largest network in the world).

 

 

 

Kickstarting Veronica Mars: A Conversation About the Future of Television (Part One)

Henry Jenkins:

When I was writing Textual Poachers in the late 1980s, I stumbled across a fascinating scheme being floated by fans of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series, Beauty and the Beast, a series with a very committed audience, but one that was small enough that the program was always in danger of being canceled. The fans were suggesting a plan where fans would pay into a fund that would cover the cost of the series production and then would received VHS tapes of episodes once they had been made. The fans rightly recognized that the Nielsen Ratings measured the scope of viewership but not its intensity, and that the scale of success demanded to stay on network television was considerably lower than what would be required to cover the costs of production. At the time, such plans were unlikely to succeed, given the nature of the media environment: they really did not have a robust method for collecting funds from dedicated fans, the producers would not have had a viable business model for proceeding under this unstable system, and the distribution of episodes via VHS was going to be clunky at best.

We flash forward two decades and recent events suggests we have moved dramatically closer to making such a scenario possible. First, we have seen Netflix become a producer and distributor of original television content — programs that look and feel like network television (actually like HBO or AMC programming) but which are distributed digitally without ever being broadcast. Netflix’s first venture in this direction was House of Cards, which seems to have attracted a very solid audience, and their second will be the relaunch of Arrested Development, a fan favorite series that Netflix has brought back after several years in limbo. We are seeing similar moves by Hulu and YouTube, both of which would like to get into the business of producing and distributing web-based television content.

And, then, we have seen Kickstarter emerge as a platform that, with the example of Veronica Mars, has demonstrated the possibilities of fan support pushing a once canceled program back into production — in this case for the big screen. And for the Veronica Mars scheme to work, we have to assume there were behind the scenes discussions between Rob Thomas and Warner Brothers (which still owns the rights to Veronica Mars) that would allow them some basis of proceeding. We now are hearing that a range of other producers and show-runners are starting to explore whether they might deploy similar tactics to gain a second chance for their passion projects.

This week, I have gathered together three friends, who bring different kinds of expertise to thinking about the short term and long term implications of these developments.

Aymar  Jean “AJ” Christian:

Hello!

It’s been fascinating to see relationships between producers, fans and distributors reconfigured in digital marketplaces!

About a year before Kickstarter launched, I was drawn into the world of crowdfunding through Felicia Day. Day was a working actress with credits on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer when she decided she wasn’t ever going to get a leading role and showrunner status unless she did it herself. Intermittently unemployed as so many workers in Hollywood are, she wrote a pilot for The Guild, about a group of gamers, based on her experience playing World of Warcraft in between gigs. She and a skeleton crew produced most of the first season on a dime and then came to place a lot of indie producers find themselves: without funds to continue. But those few episodes had built a fan base, and, through a Paypal link on the show’s active website, she raised thousands to kick-start the rest. That early fan interest shocked the industry, distributors came calling, and The Guild found distribution through Microsoft, who was/is trying to build an entertainment platform outside of television. Day is now a huge source of inspiration within and outside the web television industry and a key brand ambassador for MSN.

In my years researching the “web series” or independent television market I’ve seen crowdfunding take a central place in show development (so much so I’ve tried to track it on my site). Series that built communities of fans early and quickly inevitably turned to crowdfunding. Soon shows targeting all sorts of groups dissatisfied with legacy television used sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to keep indie brands alive. Lesbian web series Anyone But Butraised over $30,000 for its third and final season; The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl ($56,000, nearly twice the ask) for its second; The Outs (over $20,000, many times the ask), a gay-led show, did it in two rounds; last year brought Black & Sexy’s The Couple ($32,000) and Latino-focused show East WillyB ($51,000), not to mention the prodigious work of Freddie Wong, whose canny, Asian-American-led Video Game High School has crowdfunded over $1 million to date (season 1season 2).

Raising money not only gave them funds to survive, and extra opportunities for press and marketing, they also let creators build a database of their strongest fans and supporters, who would then proselytize the show on social networks. This sometimes led to distribution and development deals with both online and on-air networks.

In short, crowdfunding causes us to rethink relationships in media industries, and think very specifically about the kinds of value producers and fans generate from television, as a number of scholars are exploring, from Jason Mittellto Michael Newman, to your work in Spreadable Media. For independent producers, crowdfunding rewards creators with a clear pitch to specific communities, who are in turn rewarded with a show conglomerates might be reluctant to green light. Of course, this kind of value is hard to sustain in our media landscape, and the fact that Veronica Marsraised several times more than most projects before it in 24 hours speaks to the kinds of value conglomerates are able to generate when they have already invested in marketing properties.

 

Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian is an assistant professor of communication in the Media, Technology and Society program at Northwestern University. His manuscript, tentatively titled Off the Line, Independent Television and the Transformation of Creative Economy, explores the politics and value of the web series market. He edits a personal blog, Televisual, has been published in the academic journals Continuum, Transformative Works and Cultures, First Monday and Cinema Journal, and in the popular press in Slate, Indiewire, The Wall Street Journal and The Root, among others. For more information, visit his site.

Suzanne Scott is a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Digital Learning + Research at Occidental College.  Her work on fandom within convergence culture, transmedia storytelling, and fanboy auteurism has been published in the anthologies Cylons in AmericaThe Participatory Cultures Handbook, and A Companion to Media Authorship, and the journal Transformative Works and Cultures.  She blogs at Revenge of the Fans and tweets @iheartfatapollo.
Mauricio Mota is one the founders of The Alchemists, Entertainment Group responsible for building original transmedia narratives and content for studios, publishing companies, fans and brands. Some of their clients include Coca-Cola, Petrobras, TV Globo, CW, Elle Magazine, NFL, Nextel and the Brazilian Ministry of Education. He was responsible for bringing the concept of transmedia storytelling to Brazil and implemented the Transmedia Communication Department for Globo Television (4th largest network in the world).

He began his career as an entrepreneur at the age of 15, when he developed a story-creation platform with writer Sonia Rodrigues. Used in over 4000 schools, it was licensed 8 times and used as a tool to facilitate innovation and creativity for  many top 500 companies and the UN.

 

Comics, Comics, Comics…

A while back, I announced that alternative comics creator C. Tyler was coming to USC to give a talk about her life and work. Tyler was part of the group of women who contributed to the important Twisted Sisters anthology series; she worked closely with Aline Kominsky-Crumb (not to mention Aline’s husband, Robert) and has been married to Justin Green (another key figure in the underground comics movement) for several decades. She has always produced bracingly honest, beautifully crafted, autobiographical stories, often centering around her experiences of low-paying jobs and the challenges of motherhood, but deeply embedded in a sense of family and gender politics. Tyler has justly gotten new acclaim and interest as a result of You’ll Never Know, a three volume series of graphic novels focused on her father and mother, who were World War II veterans, and what they passed down to subsequent generations.

People who attended her talk at USC found it a remarkable experience: she was so fresh and authentic and down to earth about herself and her art; she shared enormous insights into her tools, her raw materials, and her process, and she was so generous in engaging with our students, many of whom were young women who want to make their own creative contributions to the world. The program flew by with never a dull moment. So, I am very proud to finally be able to share the video of this event with my readers.

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On other fronts, I’ve wanted for a while to do a shout-out to the wonderful work being done on a new web comic series, My So-Called Secret Identity.

Here’s some of the background about the project they provide online:

My So-Called Secret Identity is what happened when internationally-acclaimed Batman scholar and popular culture expert, Dr Will Brooker, decided to stop criticising mainstream comics for their representation of women, and show how it could be done differently; how it could be done better. Working with professional illustrator Susan Shore and PhD in superhero art, Dr Sarah Zaidan, Brooker assembled a team to build a new universe, close enough to the familiar capes-and-cowls mythos to offer critical comment, but distinct enough to strike out in a whole new direction and offer a story unlike any other superhero title. The costume designs and character sketches for My So-Called Secret Identity were created by established names and fan favourites, from Lea Hernandez to Hanie Mohd. These very different artists offered very different takes on the characters and their styles, but they had one thing in common. In a deliberate reversal of mainstream industry conventions, almost all the creative team behind MSCSI are female.

And here’s a bit about the series’ main character:

All her life, Cat’s been taught to be little, learned to keep herself small, tried to avoid attention. Don’t be too full of yourself. Don’t show off. And most of all, don’t let people know how smart you are, because they don’t like it. But Cat really is someone special. Cat is the smartest person in Gloria City. She remembers everything she reads; she knows how everything connects. And she’s getting tired of pretending, of hiding, of acting dumb to save other people’s feelings.

My So-Called Secret Identity is, to put it in technical terms, wonderful. You can tell from the first page how much thought has gone into this story, the development of its protagonist, the visual treatment of the material, and the way to share this tale with readers. Brooker brings to this project a life-time of thinking deeply about the genre conventions of the superhero comic, but he also brings with it a sensitivity to the many different ways where the world strips young women of their self-esteem and teaches them that they should not be so “confident” in the ways they speak about themselves and their work.

Cat, she of many names and many identities, she of great power and intelligence, is struggling to figure out who she is and where she belongs. She is working to piece together her mission and to come to grips with her power.

Susan Shore and Sarah Zaidan’s visual style is warm and soft, standing in contrast with the garish look we associate with superhero comics, and there is a strong sense of place here as Cat shares with us some of her favorite nooks and crannies in Gloria City. This is one of the strongest first books in a new comics series I have read in a while and I can’t wait to see more. The creators are raising funds as they go,so if you like what you see, make a contribution.

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I also wanted to give a shout-out to a new blog, started by William Proctor, a comics scholar at the Center for Research in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sunderland, who was nice enough to play host to me this summer when I was visiting his city. His blog, Infinite Earths, intends to bring together a community of academics, fans, and artists, who want to talk seriously about comics, especially British comics, and so far, it has lived up to any expectations. So far, he has published an autobiographical essay by the above-mentioned Will Brooker discussing his childhood fascination with some of the ground-breaking Vertico titles and the first part of an extended rumination by Bryan Talbot, one of my favorite British comics creators, about the thinking that went into his now classic A Tale of One Bad Rat, as well as Proctor’s own notes about a recent Talbot lecture on the history of anthropomorphic animals in comics. I have already promised Procotor an interview about my own current comics research, but regardless, I plan to keep close eye on this blog in the months ahead.

 

Kickstart This!: Is The World Ready For a Nigerian Superhero?

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Like many of my readers this week, I am enormously excited about the ground-breaking success of the Kickstarter campaign to get Veronica Mars into production as a feature film and what this means about the future relations between fans and producers of cult media. Next week, I am planning to run a extended conversation with some key thinking partners placing the Veronica Mars campaign (and Netflix’s venture into original television content) into some perspective.

But I don’t want us to forget that Kickstarter has been as powerful if not more so in helping to provide seed funds for independent artists of all kinds and as such, it has become a key vehicle for increasing the diversity of cultural production. My co-authors Sam Ford, Joshua Green, and I discuss Kickstarter in our book, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, alongside a range of other developments which are creating stronger bonds between independent artists and their supporters — from pre-production through release.

Today, I want to put my weight behind an independent media property — Spider Stories — which was brought to my attention by a USC undergraduate, Charles Agbaje. The Agbaje Brothers (Charles and John) have been publishing independent comics under the Central City Tower label for several years now, and they are seeking funds to take their efforts to the next level — developing a cartoon series which has its roots in traditional African folktales and myths, but which speaks to the genre expectations of our current pop cosmopolitan generation.

Here’s how they describe the basic premise:

Spider Stories follows the tale of Princess Zahara who is thrown into hiding after the royal family is overthrown by a corrupt neighboring kingdom. While traveling with a misfit caravan of merchants she meets a wandering drummer griot who introduces her to the spirit world. Armed with a mystical staff, the fearless princess embarks on quest to reconnect with the spirits, reunite her homeland, and reclaim the throne.

We are developing an 11 minute animated pilot for a fantasy adventure series called Spider Stories. Your pledges will go towards funding a team of animators to get it done at a professional level of quality.

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 They argue that fans of superhero comics have grown up on Norse myths (Thor) and Greek myths (Hercules); we are starting to see Japanese and Chinese folktales making their way into anime and manga, but that comics and animation have so far done  little to tap into the rich cultural traditions of Africa (with the possible exception of the recent revamp of The Black Panther at Marvel). The Agbaje Brothers have expressed concern with the fact that African-American youth are often cut off from their own cultural traditions and all of us receive a single-dimensional understanding of Africa (which many westerners see as a country rather than a continent with many diverse national traditions). However, they are also concerned that so often stories by and for African-Americans get cut off from the cultural mainstream and thus do not reach the largest possible audience. So they very much want to create something that speaks across racial and cultural divides.

If the art work and proof of concept videos they share on their Kickstarter page are any indication, this has the potential to be a spectacular project, and it is precisely the kind of production that Kickstarter was designed to support — one which is unlikely to get very far with mainstream animation or comics producers unless they can demonstrate a broad range of support and can show the world what they can do. Let’s see if we can give them their chance.

In some of their promotional materials, the brothers talk about how their experiences growing up together had shaped the kinds of stories they want to share through their work. I asked Charles to tell me more about these formative influences on their work:

The stories we made growing up span all kinds of sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero tales. We were first inspired by the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, and you can see early on we invented several mutant animals of our own. Later we were influenced by the wide variety of anime that hit in the late 90s, particularly shows that made their way onto Toonami. Dragonball Z, Gundam Wing, Tenchi and more were among our favorites. As video games became more sophisticated RPGs and Adventure game story-lines such as The Legend of Zelda also influenced our style. Throughout, the complexity and action in the DCAU such as Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and Justice League also contributed to our sensibilities.

We have our fair share of costumed superheroes such as the Storm Surfers, mutant animals like The Frogs, and classic swords and sorcery in Crimson Knight. Even though a lot of these characters started off fairly simple, some we’ve had in our minds literally since we were 5 years old, and the stories have since grown and matured.

Starting with Project 0 in 2010, we moved away from our old ideas and began to synthesize them into new properties that couldn’t be so easily labeled. This also helped us as story tellers. In creating new stories we were able to critique them objectively without the nostalgia lens that would only really make sense to us. Project 0 is a mix of fantasy, sci-fi and adventure taking cues from a lot of our previous original properties, to as diverse sources of inspiration as Digimon and The Matrix.

Though we still plan to revist several of our age old stories, we are now moving forward with another new series called Spider Stories.

Spider too takes cues from a lot of our old ideas, and then more modern fantasies such as Avatar The Last Airbender or Nintendo’s Fire Emblem. It takes the same grand scale epic appraoch to world building and story telling that fans around the world love to see. But it does it in an African inspired backdrop which, while there are a few out there, have never really been acknowledged by mainstream audiences. We’re doing a lot of homework on African mythology and history. And we are always sure to consult our cultural experts, our parents, to make sure it stays authentic.

So often the depiction of blacks and Africans in the media is one of poverty, corruption, or ignorance. At its most positive, black characters are often sidekicks or best friends to the lead, and black culture is typically framed through an other-ed lens. Even when it isn’t, such shows and movies are often relegated to niche markets and targeted so narrowly as ‘black entertainment’ that it may be alienating to non-black audiences.

We want Spider to really be a universal story. While it takes on African aesthetics and sensibilities, it is written to be accessible to all audiences regardless of ethnicity. It’s pure fantasy, not historical fiction or an adaptation of an existing myth. We hope audiences will be able to relate to the characters as people first. The nods to culture and history should spark interest in fans to seek out and learn more about Africa on their own. Art is often a launching point for cultural exposure, and the more it’s seen, the more normalized it becomes.

T is for Transmedia…

T is for Transmedia from Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

Today, the Annenberg Innovation Lab at USC and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center announced the release of “T is for Transmedia: Learning Through Transmedia Play.” The report is written by Becky Herr-Stephenson and Meryl Alper, under the supervision of Erin Reilly. This paper provides a much-needed guidebook to transmedia in the lives of children age 5-11 and its applications to storytelling, play, and learning. Building off of a review of the existing popular and scholarly literature about transmedia and children, this report identifies key links between transmedia and learning, highlights key characteristics of transmedia play, and presents core principles for and extended case studies of meaningful transmedia play experiences.

“We really have two goals for the report,” says co-author Becky Herr-Stephenson. “Our first is to get educators thinking about how they might incorporate transmedia play into activities, lesson plans, or projects. Our second goal is to put the design recommendations before media makers in the hopes that the principles will reinforce the good work people are already doing as well as encourage others to bring play and learning to the forefront of their transmedia projects.”

“T is for Transmedia” is embedded below and is also available for download here.

I know that this report is going to generate a lot of interest from the transmedia enthusiasts and new media literacy educators who constitute this blog’s most loyal readers, so to give you a taste of what to expect, I am sharing with you the introduction I contributed to this project.

There’s a Monster at the End of This Report

There is a monster at the end of this report (well, maybe there is, but you won’t know for sure until you turn all of the pages and read what we have to say).

But, it is telling that most of you probably recognize this phrase as a reference to a classic children’s book, written by Jon Stone, illustrated by Michael Smollen, released in 1971 just a few years after Sesame Street debutted on PBS, and “starring lovable, furry old Grover.” Much has been made of the ways that Sesame Street reinvented children’s television, embracing rather than running away from the properties of its medium, incorporating tricks from advertising, parodies of popular culture, songs and skits, into something which encouraged the active engagement of its young viewers. Yet, far less has been made of the fact that Sesame Street from the very start encouraged its young fans to follow it across media platforms – from television to records, books, stuffed toys, public performances, feature films, and much more. Certainly, the then-Children’s Television Workshop’s steps in that direction were cautious, given the anxieties many parents have about the commercialization of children’s culture. But, over time, much of the American public came to embrace those experiments in transmedia storytelling as part of what made Sesame Street such a powerful learning system. In a 2007 online poll, the American Education Association voted The Monster At the End of This Book onto a list of “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children,” and a few years later, the School Library Journal gave it a prominent spot on its list of the Top 100 picture books.

Part of what makes The Monster so compelling is that it is as reflexive about the nature of the printed book as a medium as Sesame Street was about our experiences of watching and learning from television. Reading this book becomes a kind of play as children scream with a mixture of fear and delight as we turn each page, wondering when the scary monster is going to appear, only to discover that it is “lovable furry old Grover” who is the monster we warmly welcome at the end of the book. Grover tries to do everything he can to block us from turning the pages, from tying knots to constructing brick walls, from begging to harranging us, yet the desire to read overcomes all of the walls he might try to erect. The children’s book has long been a site for domestic performance, as parents and children alike try out different voices, make sound effects, respond with mock emotions, to the pictures on the page.

This book had effects which go beyond the printed page: Grover emerges as an early fan favorite on Sesame Street as his personality took shape across platforms. When young people pick up The Monster, they already know who Grover is, they know his back story, they understand his motivations, they identify with what he is feeling, and as a result, there is an immediacy about our experience of this book.

Predictably enough, Monster has in recent years evolved into a digital book, an interactive experience children on their iPad. We certainly do not want to exclude adults from the fun – reading books together across generation is perhaps the most powerful way to foster a deeper appreciation of the pleasures of reading. But, Sesame Street has always understood that children do not enjoy equal opportunities to learn. Some children are left on their own while their parents work long hours. Some parents do not have good models for active reading with their children and look for prompts that might allow them to learn how to play and perform and speculate around the printed page. The experience of an e-book version of Monster will ideally supplement and scaffold the experience of reading the traditional picture book, not replace it, but it also adds a new layer to the ever expanding “supersystem” which constitutes the world of Sesame Street. So does The Putamayo Kids Presents Sesame Street Playground, a CD/DVD set which shares with children songs from the many versions of the program which have been localized to languages and cultures around the world, and video clips featuring the original casts in India, Mexico, Russia, or South Africa. And Sesame Street, the longest street in the world, just keeps growing.

Today, we might describe Sesame Street as a transmedia experience – that concept did not exist in 1971 when Monster was first published. Transmedia is an idea that has come into sharper focus over the past decade, having emerged from active conversations between academic researchers, creative artists, policy makers, fan communities, anyone and everyone interested in the future of entertainment and storytelling. Transmedia, by itself, means “across media” and it describes any number of possible relationships which might exist between the various texts that constitute a contemporary entertainment franchise. Marsha Kinder (1991), a media scholar who has written extensively about children’s media, coined the term, “transmedia,” to refer to the “entertainment supersystem” which had emerged around characters such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Muppet Babies, or the Super Mario Brothers, as personalities and characters that move across media platforms, encouraging their fans to follow them where-ever they appeared. In my own work (Jenkins, 2006), I extended her concept to talk about transmedia storytelling, which refers to the systematic unfolding of elements of a story world across multiple media platforms, with each platform making a unique and original contribution to the experience as a whole.

Monster at the End of the Book builds off what we know of Grover on television but it creates a new kind of experience that takes advantage of the distinctive affordances of the printed book, which is designed to be read aloud in the child’s bedroom or playroom. Follow that Bird expands upon the time we get to spend with Big Bird while watching the television series in order to flesh out his backstory, situate him within a quest narrative, and suggest how much he means to the larger Sesame Street community. Neither example builds on extensive narrative information that must be remembered across different texts — that would not necessarily be appropriate for younger viewers — but it does reward fans who apply what they learned in one context to each new appearance of the characters.

Each of these texts, thus, contributes something to our knowledge of this fictional realm, and each takes advantage of those things their respective medium does best. We want the depiction of Oscar or Cookie Monster or the Count in a Sesame Street game to be consistent with what we see on television, but we also want the game to provide us with an interactive experience that is only possible in digital media. By combining media with different affordances, we create a more layered entertainment experience. Or at least, that’s the theory. A good transmedia narrative uses these various cross-platform extensions to flesh out the world, to extend the time line, to deepen our familiarity with the characters, and to increase our engagement.

With an educational property like Sesame Street, transmedia does something else – it reinforces the learning both by encouraging us to reread and re-experience a particularly pleasurable narrative (something, as we all know, kids are often inclined to do with little or no adult encouragement) and because they are invited to connect together pieces of information across multiple installments. In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell (2000) describes the original Sesame Street as “sticky,” suggesting that young people become so drawn to its vivid characters that they keep coming back for more and in the process, these repeated encounters reinforce what they learn from its curricular design.

Transmedia encourages additive comprehension. We learn something new as we follow the story across media. This distinguishes it from cross-media, which refers to the use of these other media platforms as simple delivery mechanisms for the same old content. So, if we watch Sesame Street online or on a DVD and change nothing else about the content, that’s cross-media. We might also distinguish transmedia from multimedia. Multimedia might use multiple kinds of media – words, pictures, sounds, videos – which are brought together in a single package: so, in the old days, there might be a CD-ROM developed around Sesame Street, where clicking a button opens us up to a range of different kinds of media. In transmedia, there’s something powerful about how the reader is incited to search out dispersed content and reassemble it into a meaningful mental model.

In a hunting society, children learn by playing with bows and arrows. In an information society, they learn to play with information. That’s part of why we think transmedia learning is such a potentially transformative concept. A science fiction writer has to construct a world which can extend across media platforms, but there already exist many rich worlds – the world under the sea, the universe beyond the Earth, the ancient world, the people who live on the other side of the planet — which are central to our desired curriculum. Perhaps, the best way to learn about them is to explore their stories, their environments, across media platforms, much as we acquire a deeper affection for Grover through repeated encounters.

Like any other kind of storytelling, transmedia is something which can be done well or badly. You can be attentive to the possibilities of expanding a story in new directions or you can simply slap a logo on something and pretend like it’s part of the same franchise. Transmedia can be enriching or exploitative, can be motivated by the crudest of economic motives or shaped by the most cutting edge learning science. But, when transmedia is done well, it creates a deeply engaging, immersive experience, which multiplies the number of learning opportunities.

Young people do not simply consume transmedia narratives; rather, transmedia encourages playful participation. In my book, Convergence Culture (2006), I talk about attractors (things that draw together an audience) and activators (elements which give the audience something to do, especially in a network society, ways to interact with each other around the shared content). Narrative-inflected play is hardly new. Go back and reread the great children’s books of the 19th century. There’s Meg in Little Women developing a backyard game based on Pilgrim’s Progress. There’s Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain’s novel pretending to be a pirate or Robin Hood. There’s Anne, she of the Green Gables, who re-enacts the story of the Lady in the Lake. Each of these books remind us that children before the era of mass media actively engaged with stories told to them by adults and transformed them into resources for their own creative play.

In the 20th century, mass media displaced many traditional forms of storytelling, but children’s play with narrative remained meaningful as a way of trying on adult roles and expanding core stories that matter to them. And this is what this report means by transmedia play. Certainly, adults have some legitimate worries about commercial media “colonizing” their children’s imaginations, but keep in mind that the human imagination feeds upon the culture around it and children show enormous capacity to re-imagine the stories that enter their lives.

Transmedia encourages this kind of creative reworking. The scattered fragments of a transmedia story are like pieces of a puzzle; they encourage curiosity, exploration, experimentation, and problem solving. Transmedia’s process of dispersal creates gaps which require our active speculation: some call this negative capability. Transmedia processes show us that there are more than one way to tell story, that there is always more we can learn about the characters and their world, and that represents a provocation to imagine aspects of these characters that have not yet made it to the screen. Young people make these stories their own through their active imaginations. The stuffed toy becomes their avatar: they use it to work through their problems; they use it as a vehicle for their emotions; they project their own personality onto the plush or for that matter, they use it a a stand in for some other powerful figure in their life. For a short moment, as they are reading about or manipulating Grover, they become the monster, and again, that’s a valuable experience. The child psychologist Bruno Betellheim (1976) tells us that young people need to read stories which acknowledge the darker sides of life, because children know that they are not always good and they need resources for thinking through how they should respond to the things that frighten them in the real world.

So, there you have the core concepts of this report – transmedia stories, transmedia play, transmedia learning. Put them all together and something magical happens.

Transmedia is not the monster at the end of the book; it’s not something you need to be afraid of encountering. So far, we know more about transmedia in entertainment and branding contexts than in relation to learning. That’s not a reason to take off running down the street. That’s a reason for people who care deeply about insuring the most diverse learning opportunities for our children to take transmedia seriously, to try to understand how to link multiple media together to create new pedagogical experiences, to be ready to explore how we might play together around the materials of a transmedia franchise, to invite children to explore what it means to read a story across the borders and boundaries between different texts and different media. This report offers some rich exemplars of groups who are doing well by children through their creation of powerful and transformative transmedia experiences, and it offers some design principles so that educators and producers might generate more meaningful, even mind blowing, transmedia experiences for the coming generation.

When Did You First Play the Binding of Isaac?

What does it mean to play a game?

At first glance, the question is simple, straightforward, and rather mundane. But, in this piece of experimental game criticism, USC iMAP student Adam Liszkiewicz pushes us to think deeper about the range of different encounters and experiences we have with games in contemporary culture. Liszkiewicz was a student in my “Medium Specificity” seminar last fall, and he wrote this essay as part of working through his responses to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s writings about defining games in Philosophical Investigations. I found this response provocative and wanted to share it with my regular readers. It’s taken me a few months to pry it from Adam’s fingers, but here it is. I’d love to know what you think.

For me, the essay marks the logical next step in what has been called “the new games criticism,” a mode of analysis which owes much to the “new journalism” movement of the 1960s, especially in its reliance on first person perspectives and evocative rather than descriptive prose. From the start, game critics have struggled with their object of study. Some wrote about games as texts, yet it was clear that each player had somewhat different experiences with the game depending on the choices they made. We got into hot water when we tried to describe games in terms of narrative or game play mechanics. We’ve tried to talk about the affordances of platforms. For the New Games critics, the key concept is experience. Each player has a different experience with the game, and so we might best start by offering as detailed and as informed an account of what happens when we play a game. This route led for example towards Drew Davidson’s outstanding series of Well Played anthologies, which has smart players describe their process of working through key games. But, the key idea in this essay is that the same player might have multiple experiences of the same game and that the process of discovery and experimentation is ongoing, even when we think the game is played out.

 

When Did You First Play The Binding of Isaac?
by Adam Liszkiewicz

*
A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably. [Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philisophical Investigations,  115]

*

I first played the game The Binding of Isaac sometime during the winter months of 2011. This is to say that I watched one of its trailers, a short cinematic animation which explained the videogame’s backstory. Which is to say I watched the introductory cinematic cut-scene of The Binding of Isaac and mistook it as an advertisement. I have no memory of this viewing; it is merely implied by other memories, and other images. Perhaps these images are inaccurate?

*
No, that is not what it means. And I should not accept any picture as exact, in this sense. [PI 70]

*
I first played the game The Binding of Isaac in late January or early February 2012. My two best friends were visiting from Buffalo, NY, and both had become enamored with the game. I remember glancing at their computer screens from time to time, while they sat playing on my couch, each on their own laptop. The game looked interesting, by which I mean I largely ignored it and focused on schoolwork. (My spring semester had already started.) Then my friends showed me the opening cut-scene again. I remember feeling stunned: someone had remixed Chapter 22 of Genesis as a videogame about child abuse, evangelical Christianity, and schizophrenia. The game looked fantastic. I knew I had seen the opening cut scene before, but had no memory of its content. But how could this be true? How could I have seen the trailer but been entirely unaffected by it?

*
In the sense in which there are processes (including mental processes) which are characteristic of understanding, understanding is not a mental process. (A pain’s growing more and less; the hearing of a tune or a sentence: these are mental processes.) [PI 154]

*
I first played the game Binding of Isaac on Friday, May 18th, 2012 at 9:55 PM PST. My wife and I went with some friends to a theater in North Hollywood, and caught the premiere showing of Indie Game: The Movie. The film follows Edmund McMillen, the designer and artist behind The Binding of Isaac, as he and his friend prepare to release their game Super Meat Boy to the XBox platform. I cannot remember if the film mentions or depicts The Binding of Isaac at all. But as I watched the film, I thought, “Oh yeah, The Binding of Isaac!” I believe I bought the game soon thereafter. Thanks to my email, I am certain of the date and time of the film.

*
What is common to them all? Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games'”, but look and see whether there is anything common to all. For if you look
at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look! [PI 66]

* 
I first played the game The Binding of Isaac on Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 sometime between 1 and 5 PM PST. I was attending a session of “CNTV 600: Medium Specificity,” a graduate-level course taught by Prof. Henry Jenkins in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. The theme for that class session was “Medium Specificity in Game Studies,” and as a student who studies and designs videogames I was asked to introduce a few notable contemporary games to the class. I began by screening the opening cinematic from The Binding of Isaac. When the clip was finished, someone asked me a question about what the game was like. I remember thinking: “How the hell should I know?”

*
But have you a model for this? No. It is just that this expression suggests itself to us. As the result of the crossing of different pictures. [PI 191]

*
I first played The Binding of Isaac on two separate occasions between early October and mid-November 2012. During that period of time, I was preparing three new videogames for a gallery show at USC; I worked long hours most days. I hadn’t played a new videogame in months, and I needed to try something new so I could write a short paper for CNTV 600: Medium Specificity. Twice, I tried to take a break from design work, and I launched The Binding of Isaac. I don’t recall what happened the first time, but the second time I fell asleep on my keyboard during its opening cinematic.

*
The fundamental fact here is that we lay down rules, a technique, for a game, and that then when we follow the rules, things do not turn out as we had assumed. That we are therefore as it were entangled in our own rules. This entanglement in our rules is what we want to understand (i.e. get a clear view of). [PI 125]

*
I first played The Binding of Isaac in late November 2012. My gallery show had just ended, and it was time to take a short break from work. I remember sitting down at my desk–it must have been Sunday, November 18th–and playing Team Fortress 2 for about ten or twenty minutes. I have played over 800 hours of Team Fortress 2 over the course of the past four years; it is a kind of habitual action, a comfortable pattern of thinking, like shooting baskets alone at a park. This is why my wife told me to stop, when she came into the room. She said it was time for something new. So I launched The Binding of Isaac.

*
What is your aim in philosophy?—To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle. [PI 309]

*
I first played The Binding of Isaac on Sunday, November 18th, 2012. I was hooked almost immediately.

*
What I do is not, of course, to identify my sensation by criteria: but to repeat an expression. But this is not the end of the language-game: it is the beginning. [PI 290]

*
I first played The Binding of Isaac on Monday, November 19th, 2012. I’d played the game for hours the day before, but somehow it felt like I was playing a new game again. In part, this is because of the freshness and volume of the game’s content, much of which cannot be accessed until it is unlocked through successful gameplay. Different content appears in different playthroughs, so you never know what you’ll encounter in a given level. Moreover, the game’s levels are procedurally-generated; they are created algorithmically, via a set of instructions, rather than being pre-designed and static. This means that each playthrough of The Binding of Isaac happens in a substantially new space, with unpredictable configurations of content. This also means that there is no one version of the game world. Instead, the game reveals itself as a kind of mindset one brings to bear on arbitrary content in an unstable architectural configuration.

*
As is frequently the case with work in architecture, work on philosophy is actually closer
to working on oneself. On one’s own understanding. On the way one sees things. (And on
what one demands of them.) [BT, 300e]

*
I first played The Binding of Isaac throughout late November 2012. The game remained surprisingly fresh, despite hours and hours of gameplay. Each time I played, I saw new configurations of space and content. Too, I saw that space and content offer new configurations of the game’s central character. The Binding of Isaac is a “roguelike,” a colloquial term for a videogame featuring randomization in levels and content, as well as permanent character death. This means that roguelikes usually afford opportunities for character progression through a random distribution of power-ups and magical items. These items traditionally increase (or decrease) the underlying statistics that govern your avatar’s attributes, and thus its relationship to the surrounding level environments. The Binding of Isaac takes this an unconventional step further: the items Isaac picks up also change his physical appearance. Isaac is routinely changed by objects in strange and often profound ways. His body grows, shrinks, and changes color and shape; his costumes change him from Cain to Judas and back to Isaac again; sometimes he cross-dresses and becomes Magdalene or Eve; other times he is deformed by reactions to pills; he sprouts wings, becomes a cyclops, or grows a tumor on his head. In these and other ways, The Binding of Isaac becomes an ever-changing game defined in part through an unstable character, and it follows that the meaning of the game becomes equally unstable.

*
Let us say that the meaning of a piece is its role in the game. [PI 563]

*
I first played The Binding of Isaac in late November 2012. I can’t remember the exact date, but it occurred when–for no apparent reason–I felt like watching the opening cinematic again. To this point, I had always interpreted this introductory cut-scene quite literally: Isaac’s mother was an evangelical Christian who one day started to hear God’s voice; this voice instructed her to discipline Isaac for his sinful behaviors; eventually, the voice commanded her to kill Isaac, as a demonstration of her faith, and in true Abrahamic fashion she picked up a kitchen knife; Isaac fled to his room, and then to the basement through a trap door hidden beneath his bedroom’s carpet. This had long been my reading of the opening cut-scene. But the longer I played the game, the more troublesome my interpretation felt. When I watched the cut-scene, I noticed something new: Isaac’s thumb in the bottom-left corner of the frame. And then I saw the shadow of Isaac’s head, looming over his thumb. Suddenly, a cartoon fly buzzed through the frame. I was dumbfounded: how had I never noticed these things before?

*
It can be seen that there is a misunderstanding here from the mere fact that in the course of our argument we give one interpretation after another; as if each one contented us at least for a moment, until we thought of yet another standing behind it. [PI 201]

*
I first played The Binding of Isaac in late November 2012. I still can’t remember the date, but it was the day I realized that the game’s introductory cinematic was drawn by Isaac himself. The opening cut-scene was the same story it had always been, but the author and narrator had changed. And as I watched the introduction all the way through–perhaps for the first time ever–I saw Isaac hang his drawing on the fourth wall, as an invisible barrier separating him from me. It was then that I realized The Binding of Isaac is not a remix of Chapter 22 of Genesis; neither is it about child abuse, evangelical Christians, nor schizophrenia. In fact, it is not “about” anything. It is an habitual action, a commonplace pattern of thinking. The Binding of Isaac is drawing.

*
But when one draws a boundary it may be for various kinds of reason. If I surround an area with a fence or a line or otherwise, the purpose may be to prevent someone from getting in or out; but it may also be part of a game and the players be supposed, say, to jump over the boundary; or it may shew where the property of one man ends and that of another begins; and so on. So if I draw a boundary line that is not yet to say what I am drawing it for. [PI 499]

*
I first played The Binding of Isaac in early December 2012. Already, I had logged more than forty hours of gameplay. I had watched and listened to interviews with Edmund McMillen; I had read reviews and interpretations of the game; I had talked extensively with the two friends who had introduced me to Isaac. I had even played (and beaten) McMillen’s other big game, Super Meat Boy. In short, I had been a diligent graduate student, preparing to write a short seminar paper. My view remained that the game was best understood as a habit of drawing, and when I situated that habit in relation to the game’s imagery and cut-scenes (of which there are currently 14), that habit could be interpreted as a troubled child’s means of escaping reality. It was an interesting reading of the game, and I’d even found a blog post expressing a similar view, which McMillen himself described as “by far the most mind blowingly accurate breakdown of the over-arching meaning behind the Binding of Isaac’s ending”. Everything seemed to fit together. Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet purchased and installed the game’s expansion, The Wrath of the Lamb, which adds 80% more content to the original game. McMillen has recently described the expansion as a continuation of Isaac’s adventure, including “dream ideas” that didn’t appear in the original game. I had turned into a serious fan of both Isaac and Isaac; how could I not complete the adventure?

*
The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known. [PI 109]

*
I first played The Binding of Isaac throughout early to mid-December 2012. I installed The Wrath of the Lamb expansion pack, consumed as much new content as possible, and diligently worked toward some fuller understanding of the game. I found spare moments, in breaks between work projects; I slept a little less. I played for twenty more hours, bringing my total above sixty hours played. And after all that, I still wasn’t anywhere close to unlocking the true, final ending of the game. I was exhausted and running low on time, so one afternoon I decided to end the game right where it began. I gave up trying to win the game myself, and instead I simply watched the game’s final ending on YouTube. My intent was to finish playing The Binding of Isaac and start writing an interpretive essay about the game. Instead, the game’s final cinematic cut-scene revealed an entirely different game, and I had no idea how to play it.

*
A philosophical problem has the form: “I don’t know my way about”. [PI 123]

*

I first played The Binding of Isaac on an afternoon in mid-December 2012. I had just watched the game’s final ending on YouTube, and in a flash it had changed my understanding of the entire game. I tried to regain perspective, and replayed the game in my mind. The Binding of Isaac begins in Isaac’s bedroom, where the young boy is drawing pictures and telling himself stories about his impending death at the hands of his crazed mother. Isaac is constructing an adventure through his drawing practice, and that practice takes Isaac and you down through his home’s basement, down through caves and into depths where he must fight and defeat his mother. When she is defeated, the player unlocks a cut-scene (drawn by Isaac) showing Isaac’s victory over his mother. But this victory is short-lived, and Isaac must then continue “down” into his mother’s womb, where he must defeat his mother’s heart. Once he has beaten both his mother and her heart ten times–while inhabiting a number of biblical characters, each receiving their own unique “ending” cinematic scenes–his mother’s heart is replaced by a giant fetus. Concurrently, Isaac must travel down again into Sheol to fight the Devil, and then down (or up?) to a cathedral where he fights himself, and after these battles even more “ending” cut-scenes are unlocked. These scenes depict Isaac standing over his open toy chest, the chest in which Isaac has found rewards in previous “endings”, but this time Isaac is rewarded with perspective: he sees that he has been playing all of the characters in a fantasy world, and in reality he has been in his bedroom the entire time. Reeling and conflicted, Isaac steps into his toy chest and closes it. This chest constitutes the final level of the game, and once you beat the final level of The Binding of Isaac for the seventh time (at minimum), you are rewarded with the game’s final “ending”. And this ending completely changed my perspective on the game, as well as on my own perspective.

*
Thus I might supply the picture with the fancy that the smiler was smiling down on a child at play, or again on the suffering of an enemy. This is in no way altered by the fact that I can also take the at first sight gracious situation and interpret it differently by putting it into a wider context. [PI 539]

*
I first played The Binding of Isaac on an afternoon in mid-December 2012, while watching the game’s final ending. In a game dominated by grotesque cartoon imagery, this cinematic is startling in its simplicity and plainness: it is a sequence of polaroids, found by Isaac in the chest in this room. This sequence of snapshots depicts a loose retelling of important moments in Isaac’s life. The player is shown Isaac standing between his mother and his now-absent father; this constitutes his father’s first appearance in the game, and the entire trio is smiling in an outdoor setting. The next image shows Isaac’s mother with what looks like a young girl, in the same outdoor scene, again introducing a new character (a sister?) or a new perspective on old characters (mother and cross-dressing Isaac?) who are, again, smiling. Next, a few particularly open-ended images: Isaac photographing himself, unhappy, with a shadowy figure behind him; Isaac’s parents, looking happy together outdoors; Isaac alone outdoors, looking sad; Isaac leaning back against his chest, head hung down, hands covering his face. And then, the sequence ends with two stark, powerful, and totally ambiguous images. Next to last, an action shot of Isaac’s mother brandishing a knife, with absolutely no context in the image. Finally, a view from behind Isaac and his mother, as they watch what can only be the father walking down a road, and off into the distance. The plainness of these images contrasts powerfully with the game’s dark and disturbing comic-book aesthetic, lending an unprecedented feel of resolution to the game. That said, the ambiguity of the final images completely upends that resolution: At whom was the Mother brandishing a knife? Was she the monster we’ve seen depicted throughout the game? Or could she be a misunderstood, exaggerated fabrication of her son’s troubled mind? We are left with one strong clue: in the center of the final frame, Isaac’s arm is extended toward his mother, and his hand rests on her back. This opens up the game to an entirely different perspective, of a mother and son in a single-parent household, where Isaac has been struggling to understand what has happened between his parents, and who he and his mother have become as a result. Moreover, it presents the possibility that The Binding of Isaac was a powerful re-imagining of the original Genesis text all along: the Mother as heroic, knife-wielding defender of her son, who expels Abraham from their home. Here at the end, I felt another beginning, another game waiting to be played.

*
No; my description only made sense if it was to be understood symbolically.—I should have said: This is how it strikes me. [PI 219]

*
I first played The Binding of Isaac while I was writing this essay. The act of writing about the game has, in retrospect, presented itself to me as a kind of unwriting, an unraveling of the bindings of a videogame text. And I see my unwritten text as a parallel to Issac’s drawings: both are practices of composition oriented toward a kind of therapy. For Isaac, drawing was a therapeutic practice of assuaging pain; for me, composing this essay was means to break free from the hold of the game’s opening cinematic. For both of us, our therapeutic practices helped us to expose fallacies in our thinking, and to better understand our worlds and our places in them. Of course, Isaac is a conceptual container, a drawing that draws. For whom was he doing therapy?

*
But don’t you feel grief now? (“But aren’t you playing chess?”) [PI, Part 2, i]

*
I first played The Binding of Isaac at 9:18 AM on Thursday, December 20th, 2012. That was the moment I wrote this question: if videogames can promote a love of knowledge, are videogames philosophy?

*
The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to.—The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question. [PI 133]

Adam (A. J. Patrick) Liszkiewicz is a media artist and activist who designs experimental and socially conscious games. He is a co-founder of the award-winning game design collective RUST LTD., and a Provost’s Fellow in the interdivisional Media Arts and Practice PhD program at the University of Southern California. He is also the author of AFEELD, a collection of playful intermedia compositions that exist in the space between poetry and videogames. Beginning in Fall 2013, he will be the Game-Designer-In-Residence at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, and a Social Justice Research Fellow at USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity. You can reach him through twitter (@afeeld) or e-mail (liszkiew AT usc DOT edu).

Videos, Videos, Videos….

Today, I wanted to share with you some videos from recent events where I have participated as a speaker or moderator.

A few weeks ago, I took the stage at the Tim O’Reilly Tools for Change conference in New York City with two amazing thinkers and good friends — Cory Doctorow, science fiction and Young Adult writer and digital advocate and Brian David Johnson, the man behind the recent book, Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian and a Futurist Travel Through Steampunk into the Future of Technology (for which I wrote an introduction).  Inspired by the Three Tenors, we jokingly billed ourselvesas the Three Geeks. In the conference context, the exchange — which spanned across everything from digital publishing to science fiction — was frustratingly short. We were just getting started, really, when the timer went off. We are hopeful we can bring a much longer conversation to some other venue before much longer.  But, in the meantime, we hope you will enjoy this video of the exchange.

Also, this past month, I was moderator for a Google Hangout discussion of Interacting with Transmedia, part of the InterActs series sponsored by . The featured panelists were:

Marc Smolowitz, Director, Producer, Executive Producer, Documentary Filmmaker

Luisa Dantas, Director/Producer/Editor, Land of Opportunity

Jo Ellen Kaiser, Executive Director, The Media Consortium

Ingrid Kopp, Director of Digital Initiatives at Tribeca Film Institute

Danielle Riendeau, Blogger for KillScreen, Instructor of Interactive Storytelling at Northeastern University, Communications Officer for ACLU-NorCal

InterActs is a conversation series created in partnership between NAMAC and the Daily Dot. Over the next several months, these two teams will host a series of online conversations on creative expression in digital environments. Unlike many programs on transmedia that focus on Hollywood producers and franchises, this event was centered on what people have called the East Coast School of Transmedia, where there is often a strong emphasis on independent and public media production, and here, on transmedia for social change. If you enjoy this video, we hope you will consider joining us for this year’s Transmedia Hollywood event, coming up on April 12 at UCLA, where the focus will be on different models for promoting social change in a world of spreadablity and transmedia production.

This past weekend, Sam Ford, Joshua Green, and I took our Spreadable Media book to South by Southwest, where we gave a talk to a packed auditorium, but also did a range of interviews. Here are a few of the ones that have already appeared on line. We note in the introduction that Spreadable Media tries to address a range of different audiences, and these interviews give some suggestion of how these various groups are taking up our ideas.

 

Here, you can see the three authors, seated rather uncomfortably on a coach, talking to a reporter from Gen/Connect about the role of the audience in creating value in a networked culture

Here are Sam and I sitting on another coach, this time in a house set up for librarians to gather and talk about the future of media. This time, the focus is on the implications of our work for education with a strong focus on media literacy, old and new.

Part One 

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

Here, Sam and I participated in a podcast interview, speaking about the book’s implications for journalists and activists.

 

And here is me on a random street corner speaking to the folks from Leo Burnett: this time with a primary focus on what Spreadable Media means for brands and advertising.

#SXLB: Henry Jenkins, Author & Professor, USC, Pt. 1: Grassroots from Leo Burnett Worldwide on Vimeo.

We are on the road a lot these days, in various combinations, talking about the book and its implications for various audiences. I expect to share more videos before much longer.

As the Scarecrow says in The Wizard of Oz, That’s me … all over!

Filipino Theater and PostMillenial Pop: An Interview with Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns

I am just back from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, held this year in Chicago, where for the first time, we were able to display on the New York University Press table the books which we are publishing as part of the Postmillenial Pop book series, which I co-edit with my USC colleague Karen Tongson. Here’s how we describe the series on its website:

This series strives to publish work that reimagines scholarship on popular culture in the age of transnationalism, convergence and globalization. How does “spreadable” content, as well as media innovations and practices still in formation, reanimate critical approaches to a vast array of popular forms like music, television, video games, comics and movies, as well as emergent forms of popular discourse like blogs, micro-blogs and social networking sites? Conversely, how does the analog (in form and concept) persist, resurface and reinvent itself despite the fascination for “the new” or the “not yet”?

While the series focuses on contemporary popular cultures, the designation “postmillennial” is not meant to be a historical proscription. Instead, Postmillenial Pop encourages approaches that considers contemporary forms and popular practices within a broader matrix of political, cultural and affective histories of race, sexuality, gender and class. Furthermore, the series seeks to publish work that engages the ephemeral and interstitial archives of previous forms of global “re-structuring” and domination, including work that contextualizes the effects of empire, immigration, diaspora and labor movements on popular cultures.

For us, Post-millenial refers to a specific moment in time (and the cultural materials that come out from that moment) but it also describes an intellectual stance — one which is conscious of the multiple identities that we occupy as critics at this particular cultural moment, one which is committed, for example, to bridging across media and across disciplines, one which sees the importance of engaging in conversations that extend beyond the academy, and one which is aware of the importance of linking together different cultural communities in a conversation that looks towards future possibilities.

As the series has taken shape, it has come at the intersection between the different networks through which Karen and I travel, and as such, it is marked by what we hope are provocative and unexpected juxtapositions of different critical and theoretical traditions. We have, as of now, four books published in the series with more coming out in the current year. I hope to feature interviews through the blog with the series contributors as their books start to appear. Today, we are featuring an interview that Karen did with Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns, the author of the series’s first book, Puro Arte: Filipinos on the Stage of Empire.

The other books in the series so far are:

Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture.

Michael Serazio, Your Ad Here: The Cool Seel of Guerilla Marketing

Derek Johnson, Media Franchising: Creative Licensing and Collaboration in the Culture Industries

And forthcoming books include:

Aswin Punathambekar, From Bombay to Bollywood: The Making of a Global Media Industry

Mark Anthony Neal, Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities

And there are more in the pipeline.

Puro Arte explores the emergence of Filipino American theater and performance from the early 20th century to the present. It stresses the Filipino performing body’s location as it conjoins colonial histories of the Philippines with U.S. race relations and discourses of globalization.

KT: First and foremost, we’re thrilled to have published Puro Arte: Filipinos on the Stages of Empire as our debut title in the Postmillennial Pop series at NYU Press. I think the book does tremendous work in reconfiguring how we define “performance” in a contemporary, purportedly “post-imperial” age, at the same time that it taps into archives that may be more broadly understood in Filipino Studies, American Studies and Filipino American Studies, but not as widely considered when it comes to discussions of representation and embodiment in other popular and national contexts–though they are most certainly relevant to other transnational notions of “theatrics,” as you call them. I’m wondering if you could begin our conversation by sharing more about the origins and different implications of the book’s organizing phrase “puro arte” (literally, “pure art,” but in Tagalog, used as a way to describe “putting on a show” in many senses of the expression)?

 

LB: Thank you for having the vision to include this book as part of the new book series.  I didn’t realize this book is the first in your series. I feel honored.

 The book’s organizing concept, “puro arte,” finds its inspiration in several sources: through vernacular usage, through creative interpretations of Filipino languages by Filipino artists, and last but not least, through the tireless work of Filipino American artists struggling to create a community for themselves. I draw also on a poem by joel b. tan that plays with a series of Spanish words, including “puro arte” and “seguro,” whose meanings shift as they became part of spoken Filipino. From Spanish puro arte’s pure art moves to Filipino’s pure theatrics; from Spanish “seguro’s” surely shifts to Filipino’s “maybe.” I was really inspired by this creative “flippin” (to reference a collection of Filipino creative writing anthology Flippin, specifically as it foregrounds the play of the vernacular even as it embodies colonial histories.

I also owe much to my co-organizers of Puro Arte, a gathering of artists, community organizers, and academics in San Francisco focusing on the relationship between artists and community-based organizations. Alleluia Panis of Kul Arts, Inc, Professor Christine Balance (UCI, Asian American Studies), joel b tan (community liason, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts), and Olivia Malabuyo (Gerbode Foundation), were my kulaborators back in 2003 and have since then continued to help me explore these linkages.

Most importantly, I am particularly drawn to the worlds of potentiality within forms of puro arte, as places  of radical transformation and creativity, despite or because of colonial/postcolonial histories of violence..

 

KT: You do some wonderful work with photographs of Filipinos taken for, and made available on display at, the 1904 World’s Fair and other “exhibition” contexts. I’ve always been very moved by the work you’ve done with Filipino Taxi Dancers in central California and beyond, most noticeably as a means of crafting a historical genealogy for why Filipinos are regarded as “splendid dancers” specifically, and as consummate entertainers in a more general sense. Of interest to various media scholars who read this blog will be how you, as a scholar, transpose these images that proliferated globally in various mediated and colonial forms into an account of the “Filipino performing body’s” status as a moving archive of colonial relations, influence and discipline. Could you tell us more about your own process in choosing these images, and reconsidering them through the trope of “puro arte?”

 

LB: You’re right that the US colonial archive is replete with such provocative images. Equally invested in archiving these materials are Filipino/American communities. The images I discuss in the book are in some ways hegemonic images. The spectacularized photographs of Filipino performing bodies, of Filipino men dancing with white women in the chapter you’re referring to, have been made to represent this kind of social contact as one that transcends colonial violence and racism. I was definitely interested in choosing iconic images because part of what I work through in the book are the ways in which Filipino Studies/Filipino American Studies grapple with the rich afterlife of U.S. empire. Specifically, the images of white women and Filipino men at the 1904 World’s Fair are reproduced (in function and performance) in the photograph of a Filipino taxi dancehall patron and a white taxi dancer. By staging these two sets of representations side by side, I was attempting to gesture to the connections between the project of Filipino masculinity and the struggle for suffrage and emancipation of white women and migrant women.

 

KT: Martial Law was such a defining event for the production of Filipino art and performance; paradoxically, as you argue, the regimes of discipline and control that emerged in that dictatorial moment of Marcos’ extended reign became an incredibly generative, oppositional one, for numerous artists in literature, performance, and digital art. In this chapter, you also tackle the stage adaptation of Jessica Hagedorn’s celebrated novel, Dogeaters. Could you tell us a little more about how you decided to re-frame previous discussions of Martial Law and art through an adaptation like Dogeaters? What were your own encounters with the different productions of Dogeaters like? And to what extent did you, as a dramaturge as well as a scholar, become involved in that process or other productions related to this topic?

 

LB: Where to begin with Martial Law? It’s probably one of those moments I’ll keep returning to since I’m one of those Martial Law babies—I was born just as Marcos was conceiving Martial Law and I left the Philippines just as the Marcos regime was desperately crumbling, and the martial regime was lifted.

 

Here, I wanted to put in conversation theatrical projects that engage robustly and even belligerently with the violence of Martial Law. The chapter first looks at the social protest plays staged by a U.S.-based radical Filipino American political organization, the Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino (KDP/Union of Democratic Filipinos). Through plays performed in various community settings, KDP grappled with its anti-Marcos political agenda and its anti-racist politics in solidarity with other people of color in the U.S. By juxtaposing the work of Sining Bayan with Dogeaters, I wanted to highlight histories of anti-Martial Law activism by Filipino Americans through cultural work, especially because culture was such a battleground during the Martial Law.

 

Salamats to Jessica Hagedorn’s generosity and friendship, I had the opportunity to sit in on the first (and only thus far) production of Dogeaters in the Philippines, in Manila, in 2007. Because I was able to sit in during the creative process through the opening performances, I had the privilege of talking with the cast and the rest of the creative production team. I asked them directly what they thought of the play, what they think it brings to stories about the Martial Law. Some of them have created their own Martial Law performances, including a performer who is an Imelda impersonator. Of course all of them lived through the Martial Law. In many ways, it was these difficult and yet energizing conversations as well as the experience of going back to the Philippines through the writing of this book that compelled me to ask questions that push from a different set of concerns than ones that have previously framed Dogeaters productions in the U.S.

 

As I mentioned earlier, this is a period in Philippine history I will keep returning to, for personal reasons. Just this past summer I co-curated two nights of performance for Kul Arts, Inc. entitled “Make Your Own Revolution.” This event featured staging fiction and performance works engaging with state violence. I had the opportunity to translate a Martial Law classic protest performance, Ilokula II,, a Filipino street play written by UP Peryante (anti-Martial Law theater group in the Philippines). 

 

KT: Finally, I think one of the signature “crossover” chapters of your book is the final section on the musical smash, Miss Saigon, especially with all of they hype and hullabaloo surrounding the cinematic adaptation of the same French songwriting duo, Boubil and Schoenberg’s best known musical, Les Miserables. Audiences will be keen to learn more about how something like a stage musical fostered an entirely new set of economies, as well as performance practices in the Philippine provinces[lb1] . Could you share more with this audience about the “Saigonistas” and “Saigonista” training programs in the Philippines, and perhaps even speculate, at the end of your comments about how we might contextualize what happened with and through Miss Saigon in the Philippines, as a potential transmedia phenomenon now?

LB: Like any colonial undertaking, the search for Kim is well-documented, and ironically by the (colonial!) enterprise itself. The search for the lead Kim brought out many Filipino musical performer hopefuls not just in the Philippines, but also in cities in Canada and the U.S. The training programs, in varying formal and informal capacities, were set up to prepare Filipinos for the performance demands of a eight to nine shows per week, including two shows on some days. Though the Philippines has a long history of theater-making, it does not have the same economy that can support 8-9 performances per week, in a run that could last for ten years.

Miss Saigon produced a community of performers, who refer to themselves as Saigonistas, those who have been part of Miss Saigon productions world-wide. They attribute their skills that cross over to the global entertainment complex to their training as Saigonistas. In puro arte fashion, I consider this phenomenon as a site where dreams of the Filipino nation and dreams of the Filipino people converge and diverge.

Charice Pempengco, Arnel Pineda, and others may be more recent “discoveries,” but like any other “discovery” narratives, once you look into them, it’s not quite as original and isolated as claims make them out to be. I imagine such kinds of phenomenon will continue as various technologies of social media provide more opportunities to come into being, to seek out intimacy, and to express one’s dreams. Our friend Christine Balance’s forthcoming manuscript (Tropical Renditions) is really the source to go to for the kind of speculation of transmedia phenomenon you are looking for.

What is most interesting to me about these artists are the choices they make after having been a part of the global entertainment complex. I think about someone like Monique Wilson, one of the first Saigonistas, who has been head of an acting training program in England, who started New Voices, a feminist theater company in Manila, and is a vocal advocate of Filipina women’s rights. She comes to mind because even though she is not visible in the mainstream entertainment industry as some of her peers and even those who came after her, the choices she continues to make as an artist I find refreshing and inspiring.

 

Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns is the author of Puro Arte: Filipinos on the Stages of Empire. She is an associate professor in the Asian American Studies Department at UCLA. She is also a dramaturg.
Karen Tongson is a cultural critic, writer and associate professor of English and Gender Studies at USC. She is the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press, August 2011), co-editor of the book series, Postmillennial Pop (with Henry Jenkins), and co-editor-in-chief of The Journal of Popular Music Studies (with Gustavus Stadler). She is also the events editor for the journal, American Quarterly. Tongson’s latest book project, Empty Orchestra: Karaoke. Critical. Apparatus. offers a critique of prevailing paradigms of originality and imitation in aesthetics and critical theory, while exploring karaoke cultures, technologies, techniques and desires.