Do Fans Generate Transtexts: An Interview with Melanie Bourdaa and Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz (Part Two)

 

There has been an international conversation amongst fans, producers, and academics about the nature of transmedia entertainment over more than a decade now. What do we know now that we did not know a decade ago? Why is now the right time to publish a new book on this topic?

Bourdaa: We are in a more mature time to analyze transmedia productions and strategies. A decade ago, production teams were experimenting, trying to find the good balance between expanding stories, the use of the right platform to tell their stories and engaging the audience. When projects blossomed a decade ago, there was this sense that transmedia was all about marketing and digital production. I am thinking of the interactive platform NBC launched, called NBC 360, to enhance the stories of their TV shows. Now producers realize that transmedia content could be deployed on different media platforms and non-digital ones, such as comic books, novels, billboards, radio podcasts for example. Moroever, Jeff Gomez introduced the term Transmedia Producer in the Producer Guild of America, creating a job with rules to develop extended universes.

This book is published at a perfect time for scholars to look back and take a step back on transmedia projects. They have the background to know what worked, what didn’t work, they had time to delve into the strategies, play with them, engage in the stories, go from one platform to the other to unravel new contents. They played the role of the fans, and that gives them the legitimacy to analyze the strategies from within, giving new insights on practices both from a production point-of-view and an audience one.

 

Early definitions of transmedia placed a strong emphasis on the “coordinated” and “systematic” unfolding of content across media platforms and thus on the central role of the author, not necessarily an individual but a creative team or design network, in insuring consistency and continuity across the story world. Reading fan works as transtexts, alongside the commercially produced paratexts and intertexts, requires us to adopt a different model of transmedia authorship. What do you see as the implications of this shift towards a more participatory account of how transmedia takes shape around a fictional property?

 

Bourdaa: When you coined your definition Henry, it was around a Hollywood IP, The Matrix Trilogy, and the case study has some specificities, besides an obvious marketing one: the use of multiple platforms to tell chunk of an overall story, bridges between those platforms to form a coherent whole and the creation of a coordinated narrative universe. The goals were to extend the stories and to engage and immerse hard-core fans in the storyworld, hunting for clues and moving from one platform to the next. This is what Brian Clark called the West Coast model, based on a franchise property, where ancillary contents are created around a mothership. Your definition was a bit restrictive in terms of effectiveness and feasibility for production teams and you developed 7 principles to soften it.

With the integration of fans’ works, of paratexts and intertexts, we are in a more flexible definition of transmedia strategies. The term Transtexts as we explained earlier and in the book considers both production strategies and fans’ tactics in the creation of a common, bigger, more shifting narrative universe. Of course, this requires from the production to include spaces to welcome fans’ creativity and opportunities to participate and collaborate in the narration. Transmedia strategies are very effective around entertainment strategies with a solid fanbase, as fans will create and produce their own content and own meaning, and they will engage in the collaborative spaces required by the production design. I am thinking of ARG (alternate Reality Games), which are participatory storytelling, asking for a huge collaboration between players to advance in the storyworld and discover clues and Easter eggs, on media platforms and in the real world.

One of the basic principles of Transmedia Storytelling or Transtexts is the creation of a narrative universe, a process called world-building. The stronger the world-building, with reliable characters and imaginative places, the more audiences and fans will play with it, will create around it, will discuss it. This is the key to a successful transmedia strategy.

 

Derhy Kurtz: Of course, industrial transtexts (or transmedia storytelling) need to be coordinated by someone, or an intellectual entity in relation to the copyright owner; this is why, for instance, the Marvel strategy is a coordinated one, with the various transtexts forming one storyworld, while one could not have a transmedia strategy with elements from BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary, even though both programmes revolve around the character of Sherlock Holmes; indeed, most of Conan Doyle’s stories being part of the public domain now, there is no way to coordinate or oversee one version, one universe of Sherlock Holmes (a strategy could be made around the Elementary version, specifically, however, as one could exist around the Sherlock one).

When it comes to fan-made extensions, such transtexts can – and, from the fans’ perspective, are meant to – be seen as paratexts, surrounding the main text(s), the source text(s) as I call it/them, and completing them in the way desired. Similarly, other fan-made transtexts can take the role of intertexts, shaping the meaning of industrial transtexts, often (with so many fanfictions, fanvids, etc.) to give a slightly different interpretation than originally intended by the producers (for example, imagining a romance between two characters, or saving a character implied (or shown) dead, etc.).

In that sense, the model of media authorship that we can adopt should be a collaborative model, where industry and fans collaborate together, although not one along the other, and thus create a number of transtexts around one central piece, the canonicity of some being often up for discussion (or not, as most fantexts are often considered as non-canonical by fans, which gives the latter no less pleasure in producing and ‘consuming’ them). As a result, this model is quite complicated and paradoxical, as the relationship is not reciprocal in the majority of cases: while fans make transtexts around the institutional ones, the industry typically does not make transtexts revolving or acknowledging fan-made ones (although some exceptions exist). While this overall, mutually-constructed universe (by industry practitioners and engaged audiences alike) should be considered and acknowledged, and while fan-produced extensions developed across different media must be recognised as transtexts as such, this non-reciprocity in terms of interaction between the two types of transtexts incites one to make that very distinction: consider them as two types of transtexts, revolving around, and within, one common (initially industry-built) universe.

Part of what had initially interested me about transmedia storytelling was that we were seeing the kinds of textual expansion, backstory elaboration, and development of secondary characters that I had long associated with fan fiction but being incorporated officially into the franchise and thus becoming part of the canon. Although I appreciate the intellectual rationale for doing so, I also worry that our ability to make meaningful distinctions about the status of different textual extensions may get lost in your more expansive concept. What do you see as the continued value of canon and fanon in this transtexts paradigm?

Bourdaa: This book offers a new perspective in Transmedia, as it was so often analyzed from a production point of view, i.e. studying the canon and authentic texts produced by the industrial and executive team at work.

Canon productions and fanon ones have to be both distinct and yet, if we think in terms of transtexts, they have also to be linked together in a shared storyworld. When I quoted Geoffrey Long earlier on negative spaces, I think we have here the core aspect of transtexts: those space left by the production teams are inevitable going to be filled by the creativity of fans. A dialogue, a co-creative process have to be envisioned by both parties. The extended universes have to be built by both the production teams and the fans.

Of course, that can create monsters and controversies like for example Star Wars, the paragon of extended universe. The Star Wars stories are augmented by hundreds of novels and comic books, video games and TV series (animated or not). And fans complete this huge narrative universe with their own productions, sometimes creating alternate universes within the canon. When Disney bought the franchise, before launching Star Wars 7, they created a clean slate for the canon, keeping only a few ancillary content such as The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels for example. But the fans’ texts are still out there, still part of the storyworld. To control fans’ productivity and play with the canon, J.K. Rowling created the interactive website Pottermore, which contains original content from the Harry Potter universe, thus extending the stories. But the author, wishing to regain control on the fanon productions and especially on the proliferation of slash fictions, created a creative space where fans could write their own stories but would have to follow some rules if they wanted to be published on the website.

 

Examples here from Hunger Games and Doctor Who suggest ways that fans and other audiences actively accept and reject bids for authenticity and canonicity rather than taking all commercially produced texts at face value and we’ve seen with Star Wars that the producers, themselves, may actively retract the canonical status of particular transtexts if they block potential future developments in the franchise. On what basis do fans arbitrate and resolve these conflicting bids on what constitutes the canon? Why does it matter if we have an agreed-upon sense of what constitutes the canon?

 

Derhy Kurtz: To go back to the origin of the term, canon, of course, initially refers to what is considered as ‘officially part of the “story”’ by a legitimate figure of authority, with the Rabbis deciding on which texts to include in (and reject from) the Old Testament (Tanakh), twenty four books / texts in total, and later on the Church, making slight adjustments to the list of texts from the Old Testament and making a new selection for the New one (with, interestingly, a number of variations: the Samaritan canon only retaining the Pentateuch and the various Christian denominations having certain dissensions on the final version of the canonical Bible). From this, we see that decision on what is considered canonical or not comes from the authoritative figure, rather than from the ‘audience’.

As developed in the chapter that I wrote about canonicity and transtexts, institutional figures still have a major role in whether a text is recognised as canonical or not when it comes to, as you say, the commercially produced texts. In many cases, once they weigh in, fans would not typically challenge the ‘official version’ (I’m still talking about transtexts from the same ‘universe’ here; not, say, adaptations). When things are left unsaid, however, without the show-runner, the channel, the writer or whichever authoritative person, everything is left to discussion, and fans can engage in heated debate over the status of a given transtext. In such cases, issues of credibility and consistency with the rest of the canonical texts arise, and, when such elements are debatable, long debates are sure to ensue.

As for why it matters to have an agreed upon sense of what constitutes the canon, I guess this comes back to the historical original sense of the term and purpose thereof: for the community to have a collective understanding of the ‘story’ in question so as to bring consistency and togetherness to its members with regards to a shared culture and ‘myth’, to know what did ‘happen’ and what did not; what is, what was, and what could be.

Bourdaa: When it comes to fans’ creations and works, there is often, if not always, a tension between what is considered by the authoritative production as canon and what is considered by fans as fanon. Fans play with the universe in the sense that when they produce their videos, write their fanfictions, draw their artworks, they poach what they think is interesting and re-work it into something new. They produce a new meaning, new contexts, new relationships.

In the Hunger Games case study, fans went against the authoritative canon of the movies because they thought it was not faithful enough to the books. The marketing campaign and the movies were glamorizing the stories and characters, thus weakening the purpose the books. So, they “took back the narrative” and organized themselves to build a transmedia activism, on multiple media platforms and social networks, and make something positive out of a negative narrative. This form of “resistance” from engaged audiences and this activism can be cultural, social or even political. A more recent example: the science-fiction show The 100 (broadcast on the CW) killed off Lexa, a lesbian character in episode 3×07 and a fans’ favourite, by a stray bullet, continuing the Bury Your Gay trope, that is infamous among LGBTQ fans. This trope shows how gay characters can be killed off to make a straight character’s arc move forward (see Buffy The Vampire Slayer, The Walking Dead, The Vampire Diaries for example). In this case, LGBTQ fans felt betrayed and enraged but they chose to re-direct their energy towards a good cause: raising money for the Trevor Project and bringing awareness on lesbian and more largely on LGBTQ representation on TV and media. Moreover, fans created their own alternate universe with fanfictions and tumblrs in which Lexa is still alive and still in her relationship with Clarke, her lover. These fanon productions and creations do not match with the canon since Lexa is dead but give fans an opportunity to make Lexa live again and build their own imaginative storyworld, emphasising on a positive representation that is lacking now in the canon.

 

Melanie Bourdaa is an associate professor at the University of Bordeaux Montaigne in Communication and Information Sciences, and a researcher in Transmedia Storytelling and fan studies. She ran a MOOC entitled « Understanding Transmedia Storytelling » in France. She created the GREF, a research group gathering scholars working in the field of Fan Studies.  She co-created the CATS, a consortium on Transmedia Storytelling, gathering researchers and professionals in this field of expertise. She runs the research program “MediaNum”, dealing with the valorization of Cultural Heritage via Transmedia Storytelling, funded by the Region d’Aquitaine.

Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz teaches at Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris 3), Sciences Po (IEP) and Ecole Polytechnique (X), as well as at various communication and business schools. He created undergraduates/postgraduates courses, including on Transmedia, and holds experience in marketing and in institutional/promotional/political communication and consulting. His PhD, at the University of East Anglia, explores ‘success’ in the TV industry.