Yes, Transmedia HAS a History!: An Interview with Matthew Freeman (Part Three)

Marsha Kinder’s Playing with Power introduced the concept of “transmedia” in relation to characters and not stories, characters that travel between texts without necessarily carrying large amount of backstory with them. Her examples were Mario Brothers, Ninja Turtles, and Muppet Babies. Is the same true for the earlier examples you discuss? Does a more character-centered notion of transmedia allow for a looser set of relations between texts and less dependence on audiences “catching them all,” seeing every installment in order to make sense of the connections between them? Might this suggest that what was distinctive about more contemporary forms of transmedia is precisely the tighter integration of story enabled by new networked forms of production, distribution, and reception?

 

I don’t think so. I would argue that there has been a tendency in some of the earlier work on transmedia storytelling to perhaps over-emphasise the ‘complexity’ of contemporary transmedia, suggesting – directly or indirectly – that the new era of digital convergence is somehow more effective at producing tight integrations of networked plots across platforms.

For me, such an assumption is to greatly undermine and to underestimate the storytelling prowess of the past. It’s true that characters are an important part of a story that transcends multiple media – if nothing else, they help to ‘link’ different texts together in the eyes of audiences. But that’s not to assume that the tight integration of interconnected storytelling across platforms wasn’t going on in the past, albeit in ways informed by largely different strategies and practices.

Here’s a nice example to show just how integrated and ‘complex’ the transmedia storytelling was in the past. Even in the face of industry experts that warned authors of the 1930s not to produce media stories across multiple platforms on account of the perceived risks that one version might compete against another versions, Edgar Rice Burroughs was especially detailed in his weaving of plot details across multiple media for his Tarzan adventures.

In one case, the words ‘red star’ were used to link a pulp magazine with a later novel, pointing readers across both texts. The novel then gave readers some added insight into how and why the pulp story’s plot occurred as it did. So the novel incorporated a new kidnap sequence, which explained how a particular map was attained by characters in the pulp story, whose own narrative began after the map had been stolen. New characters were added into the novel – one that was revealed to have kidnapped Magra, a character rescued by Tarzan in the pulp story. This story then continued over into the newspaper comic strip and the radio serial, which, crucially, were published and broadcast almost concurrently to one another. Thus in the first edition of the comic strip, readers were told that Tarzan had travelled to hold a meeting on the outskirts of Bobolo, a town on the Congo River hundreds of miles inland. But readers were not told where Tarzan had actually travelled from – until, that is, the broadcast date of the radio serial, when exactly four weeks later listeners were informed that Tarzan had in fact travelled from the village of Loango, a town which lies one hundred miles downstream the Congo River from Bobolo, thus interconnecting the tales of comic strip Tarzan and the radio Tarzan simultaneously.

All of which is my way of highlighting just how complex and ‘involved’ transmedia storytelling could be in the past. In this case, after all, Burroughs had crafted a quest narrative comprising of a large number of supporting characters, each in rival expeditions with hidden agendas, and with the audience’s careful following of small details of plot across pulps, novels, comics and radio all being crucial to the story.

 

You argue that of all the media, cinema proved most resistant to transmedia practices. Why? How might today’s “mothership” model of transmedia reflect the desire of contemporary transmedia producers to work around or work with the resistances of the film industry to a transmedia model?

 

Ah yes, the ‘trouble with the cinema’. Whereas some media forms – namely, comics – greatly afforded transmedia storytelling in the past, the cinema almost consistently militated against the telling of stories across multiple media. The problem with the cinema was not inherent to the medium itself and its mode of telling stories, but was instead related either to its cultural distinction from other media around the turn of the twentieth century or to the mode of vertical integration that had come to typify Hollywood by the 1930s.

With regards to my first comment, what’s important is that directing certain audiences to the cinema in the 1900s and 1910s was often difficult, since the audience composition that built up novels and Broadway was so different to that which made up the cinema’s audience: Whereas novels and Broadway belonged to the rising middle class, the cinema was still mostly associated with its lower class nickelodeon origins. And this lower-class perception was reflected in the price of buying a novel or attending a Broadway play compared to the cost of seeing a film: A nickelodeon entry admission was around five cents, whereas a novel cost around $1.50 and the average admission price to see a Broadway show was $1 to $2.

And in later decades, secondly, the system of vertical integration that came to characterise the major Hollywood studios meant that these studios occupied a producer-distributor-exhibitor model and had therefore grown accustomed to working internally. Without a regulatory influence forcing different media industries to work together, it was much more difficult for creative personnel to author storyworlds that crossed in and out of the cinema. That’s not to say it didn’t happen, but it’s certainly interesting to see that Burroughs’ Tarzan films were arguably the least transmedial of all of his Tarzan ventures in the sense that many of these films failed to connect with the plots occurring in other media, while DC Comics later resorted to producing many of their Superman films with relatively minor-status companies so that they could manage screenplays whose plots weaved closely into the plots of their comics.

 

Your conclusion makes some provocative suggestions about planned obsolescence in today’s transmedia as compared to the long-standing franchises from the early 20th century. Oz, Tarzan and Superman are still present in our culture in a way that The Matrix is not. How might you account for this shift in the life span of intellectual properties?

 

Interestingly, there’s a case to be made that the transmedia storytelling of the past century centered on a more individualistic notion of authorship compared to the more corporate ideas of authorship now associated with the franchised transmedia worlds of the contemporary era – and for me this difference is key to answering this question.

Today’s convergent media culture has certainly allowed transmedia storytelling to gain urgency as producers now make use of a host of internal corporate connections so to craft stories across media. But there’s a sense that the corporate scale of today’s industrial convergences breeds a form of ‘departmental’ authorship as transmedia storyworlds now pass through the hands of so many creative personnel, working across many sub-divisions and subsidiaries (and often farmed out to many different transmedia consultancy companies such as Starlight Runner Entertainment). As such, many of today’s transmedia franchises tend to be short-lived projects that come with a high turnover rate. We are perhaps more accustomed to the idea of the ‘reboot’ in today’s Hollywood cinema and popular culture than we’ve ever been before.

By way of comparison, my own exemplars of historical transmedia storytelling (Oz, Tarzan and Superman, all of which are still part of today’s culture of course) continued to be built for a substantially longer period of time – for twenty years in some cases. These historical cases, and unlike the conglomerate-produced cases of today, were typically produced by one author, or at least by a smaller number of creative personnel working together across media. For example, it’s quite remarkable to note that, with the exception of one instance, the basic story told in each and every Land of Oz text produced across novels, comics, theatre and films between 1900 and 1918 came from the imagination and the pen of L. Frank Baum. Though the same cannot be said of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the many Tarzan stories that emerged between 1918 and 1938, there is the sense that the most effective transmedia storytelling strategies to emerge during that period came when Burroughs carefully managed his various licensing contracts himself. And this was also true of DC Comics and their Superman stories between 1938 and 1958. Here, only a very small handful of creative personnel worked on Superman across multiple media forms.

Importantly, across my three cases of Oz, Tarzan and indeed Superman, almost all of the authors and creative personnel that brought these storyworlds to life often relied on the continued transmedial growth of their storyworld to make a living, with the need to find new revenue streams driving the desire to expand the story. What’s more, the fact that these authors depended so heavily on their respective storyworlds growing partly explains why many of the strategies used to tell stories across media in the past were so varied – revolving around everything from colour-coding to spectacle, from comic-strip characters to printed maps, from posters and reviews to licensing and franchising, from merchandising and sponsorship to propaganda.

The main reason for this more ad-hoc formation of transmedia storytelling in the past – in turn spanning such a diverse range of industrial and technological strategies – is quite simply because many of the strategies that underpinned how stories were told across media in the past were themselves emergent in nature, with the likes of Baum, Burroughs and DC Comics reacting to new developments as and when they arose.

Dr Matthew Freeman is Senior Lecturer in Media and Communication at Bath Spa University, and Director of its Media Convergence Research Centre. He is the author of Historicising Transmedia Storytelling: Early Twentieth-Century Transmedia Story Worlds (Routledge, 2016), the author of Industrial Approaches to Media: A Methodological Gateway to Industry Studies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), and the co-author of Transmedia Archaeology: Storytelling in the Borderlines of Science Fiction, Comics and Pulp Magazines (Palgrave Pivot, 2014). His research examines cultures of production across the borders of media and history, and he has also published in journals including The International Journal of Cultural Studies, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, and International Journal of Communication.

 

Historicising Transmedia Storytelling: Early Twentieth-Century Transmedia Story Worlds was published on December 6, 2016:

https://www.routledge.com/Historicising-Transmedia-Storytelling-Early-Twentieth-Century-Transmedia/Freeman/p/book/9781138217690