Transmedia 202: Reflexiones adicionales

Last year, I was happy to share the translations of some of my blog posts on transmedia into Spanish done by Mike Morell / Miguel Bernardo Olmedo Morell. You can see them here. Mike has returned with another translation -- this time of my Transmedia 202 post. If you want to see the original in English, you can see it here. Thanks, Mike, for all of your efforts to make some of these ideas more widely accessible in the Spanish speaking world!  

 

1 de Agosto de 2011

Transmedia 202: Reflexiones adicionales

Por Henry Jenkins

Translated by Miguel Bernardo Olmedo Morrell

[embed video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMSsYUBq8Z0]

El vídeo de arriba fue grabado por Scott Walker durante una de mis presentaciones en la Comic-Con de San Diego, en la cual hablé acerca de algunos de los puntos más controvertidos que ha habido alrededor de la definición de transmedia durante los últimos seis meses, más o menos. Me he mantenido, en su mayor parte, alejado de estas conversaciones, aunque puedes encontrar un muy buen resumen de estos debates aquí.

Me he estado centrando en otros proyectos, y también me he interesado más en las formas que toman estas discusiones, en lugar de intentar intervenir en ellas directamente, pero durante el verano, en varios campos, he estado en un tira y afloja con mis propias definiciones para intentar capturar mi propia concepción cambiante de qué es lo transmediático, especialmente porque estoy preparando una clase renovada sobre el entretenimiento transmediático en la USC. Hoy voy a intentar poner por escrito parte de este pensamiento aún en evolución con la esperanza de que ayude a otros a aclararse en este tema.

Gran parte de estas cuestiones están cubiertas en el vídeo introductorio, así que, si eres de los que procesan mejor el contenido audiovisual que el escrito, siempre tienes esa opción. He escuchado algunos rumores de que Jenkins iba a mostrar una “nueva definición” de “transmedia”: la verdad es que el cambio que propongo no es ni de lejos tan dramático, tan solo propongo algunas clarificaciones y rectificaciones en las definiciones. Esta definición aún cubre, más o menos, a lo que me refiero como narración transmediática:

La narración transmediática representa un proceso en el que los elementos integrales de una obra de ficción se esparcen sistemáticamente a través de muchos canales de distribución con el propósito de crear una experiencia de entretenimiento unificada y coordinada. Lo ideal es que cada medio proporcione su propia contribución original al desarrollo de la historia.

Así pues, considera lo que sigue como Transmedia 202, en honor a mi post anterior, Transmedia 101.

Dado el elevado nivel de gente que ha adoptado (¿y se ha aferrado, incluso?) lo transmediático, no nos debería sorprender que:

  1. Diferentes grupos de personas están definiendo un concepto aún emergente de forma diferente con diferentes propósitos para públicos diferentes en contextos diferentes.
  2. Algunos de aquellos que hablan de transmedia están menos sumergidos en los escritos y pensamientos anteriores de lo que sería deseable y por tanto pueden empañar en cierta medida el concepto.
  3. Algunos grupos están fuertemente motivados a expandir o difuminar el alcance de la categoría con el fin de autopromocionarse y alcanzar sus propias metas.

Así pues, empecemos desde el principio con el tema de la convergencia, que describo en mi libro Cultura de la Convergencia como un paradigma de pensamiento sobre el momento actual de cambio mediático, uno que está definido a través de la división en capas, diversificación, e interconectividad de diversos medios. La convergencia está en contraste  con el modelo de Revolución Digital, que asume que los medios antiguos se verían sustituidos por los nuevos medios. Ciertos aspectos de este modelo de convergencia están dando forma a las decisiones de los productores de medios, publicistas, tecnólogos, consumidores y creadores de normas, y por tanto la convergencia tiene muchos aspectos y consecuencias diferentes.

El concepto de transmedia, usado por sí mismo, tan solo significa “a través de diferentes medios”. Transmedia, a este nivel, es una forma de hablar de la convergencia como un conglomerado de prácticas culturales. Ten en cuenta que Marsha Kinder, en Playing with Power, escribía sobre “intertextualidad transmediática”, mientras que yo fui de los primeros en popularizar el término “narrativa transmediática”. La narrativa transmediática describe un tipo de lógica para pensar sobre el flujo de contenido a través de distintos medios. También podemos pensar en marca transmediática, representación transmediática, ritual transmediático, juego transmediático, activismo transmediático, y espectáculo transmediático, como otro tipo de lógicas disponibles. El mismo texto puede interpretarse desde distintas lógicas. Así, por ejemplo, podrías tratar a Glee como una narrativa transmediática en la que seguimos a los personajes y sus circunstancias a través de distintos medios, pero, más a menudo, las estrategias transmediáticas de Glee enfatizan una representación transmediática, ya que sus canciones se pueden encontrar en Youtube, iTunes, conciertos en vivo, etc., que podemos consumir conjuntamente para dar sentido al fenómeno Glee.

Hay gente que piensa que transmedia es una forma de expandir una marca: yo más bien diría que expandir una marca es algo que puedes hacer transmediáticamente, pero cuando hablo de narrativa transmediática, este no es el foco central de mi interés. Me estoy centrando más bien en las formas narrativas emergentes que aprovechan el flujo de contenido a través de los medios y las redes de reacción de los fans.

Alguna gente argumenta que transmedia es tan solo otro nombre para el franquiciamiento. Esto consiste en una estructura empresarial de producción mediática que tiene una larga historia y que, a través de dicha historia, ha intentado mover iconos y marcas a través de canales mediáticos, pero no necesariamente en un intento de extender la narrativa en formas que expandan su ámbito y significado. La mayoría de las franquicias mediáticas anteriores estaban basadas en la reproducción y redundancia, pero las obras transmediáticas representan una estructura basada en un desarrollo más a fondo del mundo narrativo a través de cada nuevo medio. Si quieres consultar una buena guía de la historia y las prácticas del franquiciamiento, espera atento al próximo libro de Derek Johnson, que ha estado investigando este tema en profundidad.

Gran parte de este franquiciamiento se ha establecido a través de los permisos de concesión, que dificultan el que los productores mediáticos añadan o cambien cualquier cosa más allá del texto primario. La narrativa transmediática auténtica es capaz de emerger a través de estructuras que fomentan la co-creación y colaboración, pero, tal y como apunta Johnson, cuanto más se mueva un productor mediático en esta dirección, mayor será el desafío de coordinación y consistencia.

A veces he hablado de la distinción entre adaptación y extensión como de algo fundamental para entender estos cambios. Básicamente, la adaptación toma la historia en un medio y la cuenta de nuevo en otro. Una extensión busca añadir algo a la historia ya existente al trasladarla de un medio a otro. Christy Dena desafía esta distinción tan clara. Las adaptaciones pueden ser altamente literales o profundamente transformativas. Cualquier adaptación representa una interpretación del trabajo en cuestión y no simplemente una reproducción, con lo que todas las adaptaciones, en mayor o menor grado, añaden nuevos significados al abanico que ya tiene la historia original. Tal y como señala Dena, los cambios entre medios significan que nos enfrentamos a nuevas experiencias y aprendemos cosas nuevas. Trasladar Harry Potter de un libro a una serie de películas conlleva pensar mucho más profundamente en qué apariencia tiene Hogwarts y, por lo tanto, el director artístico/productor de diseño ha expandido y extendido significativamente la historia en el proceso. Quizá sea mejor pensar en la adaptación y la extensión como parte de un continuo en el que los dos polos son tan solo posibilidades teóricas y en donde la mayor parte de la acción tiene lugar en algún punto intermedio.

El tema que pretendía abordar al hablar de la distinción entre adaptación y extensión es la comprensión aditiva, un término prestado del diseñador de juegos Neil Young, para referirse al grado en que cada nuevo texto aumenta nuestro conocimiento de la historia en sí. Así, la novela gráfica Falling Skies es una precuela que nos habla de la desaparición del hermano intermedio y, por tanto, ayuda a mostrar el trasfondo de los motivos que mueven a los personajes de la serie de televisión Turner. En este caso, la comprensión aditiva toma la forma de historia de trasfondo, pero la misma novela gráfica también nos ayuda a comprender mejor la organización del movimiento de resistencia, que podemos ver como parte del proceso de construcción del mundo ficticio. La mayor parte del contenido transmediático sigue una o más de las siguientes funciones:

  • Ofrece una historia de trasfondo
  • Delinea el mundo
  • Nos ofrece la perspectiva de otros personajes sobre las acciones que ocurren
  • Profundiza la interacción de la audiencia

Me ha resultado perturbador encontrarme con escritores que quieren reducir el concepto transmedia a la idea de múltiples plataformas mediáticas sin ahondar más profundamente en las relaciones lógicas entre dichas extensiones mediáticas. Así pues, si tienes que llevarlo a la práctica, es muy importante que tengas una definición que determine cuántos medios se pueden emplear, pero para mí, como académico, este no es un punto central. Cuando pensamos en definir lo transmediático, pues, debemos volver a las relaciones entre medios y no limitarnos a contar el número de plataformas mediáticas. Así pues, de nuevo, imaginémonos un continuo de posibilidades.

Podríamos empezar con la noción de serialidad. La serialidad implicaría el desarrollo de una historia a través del tiempo, normalmente a través de un proceso de despedazamiento (crear pedazos significativos de la historia) y dispersión (dividir la historia en entregas interconectadas). Un concepto central de este proceso es la creación de una historia con gancho o cliffhanger que motive al consumidor a volver para conocer más de la misma historia. Históricamente, la serialidad ocurre dentro del mismo texto.

Así pues, hemos visto a la televisión americana evolucionar con el paso del tiempo desde estructuras muy episódicas (más o menos autoconclusivas) a estructuras mucho más serializadas. La mayoría de programas, sin embargo, combinan elementos episódicos (una trama procedural que se puede resolver en un solo episodio) y seriales (la evolución de la relación entre personajes, una mitología que se desvela, una trama mayor en medio de la cual los episodios individuales funcionan como capítulos). El cambio hacia la serialidad en la televisión americana juega un gran papel en preparar al público para la narrativa transmediática. La mayoría de las historias transmediáticas son muy seriales en estructura, pero no todos los seriales son transmediáticos. Así, Bones, por ejemplo, es un drama parcialmente serializado que, en su mayor parte, permanece en un solo medio.

Pero podemos pensar en ejemplos en los que hay un movimiento entre textos o a través de estructuras textuales dentro del mismo medio. Describo esto en términos de “intertextualidad radical”. Así, por ejemplo, los universos DC y Marvel crean docenas de títulos que se ven como interrelacionados. Los personajes se mueven a través de ellos. Las tramas se desarrollan a través de ellos. Periódicamente, puede haber sucesos que se extienden a través de múltiples títulos, y parte del placer de leer algo como Marvel Civil Wars reside en ver el mismo evento a través del punto de vista de distintos personajes, que pueden tener perspectivas diferentes sobre lo que está pasando. Asimismo, Battlestar Galatica se desarrolla a través de varias series de televisión, mini-series, y películas autoconclusivas. Si Battlestar se limitara a un solo medio, la televisión, entonces sería otro ejemplo de intertextualidad radical. Pero, debido a que Battlestar extiende este proceso para incluir webisodes [episodios en la red] y cómics, que se entienden como parte del mismo continuo, decimos que se trata de una historia transmediática.

Así pues, llamemos a este nivel superior multimodalidad — un término acuñado por Gunther Kress para hablar de cómo el diseño educativo trata sobre las affordances [acciones posibles] de distintos medios instructivos, pero Christy Dena las aplica para hablar de narrativas transmediáticas. El punto central aquí es que los distintos medios requieren distintas formas de representación – así pues, Linterna Verde presenta apariencias distintas en los cómics, una película, un juego, o una serie de televisión animada. Cada medio tiene distintos tipos de affordances – el juego facilita formas diferentes de interactuar con el contenido que un libro o una película. Una historia que se desarrolla a través de distintos medios adopta modalidades diferentes. Una franquicia puede ser multimodal sin ser transmediática – la mayoría de aquellos que repiten los mismos elementos básicos de la historia en cada media formarían parte de esta categoría. Para mí, una obra necesita combinar intertextualidad radical y multimodalidad con el propósito de tener una comprensión aditiva para ser una historia transmediática. Por ello, reducir el término “transmedia” a “una historia a través de distintos medios” no logra más que distorsionar la discusión.

Hasta ahora, nada de esto implica que se deba usar ningún medio en particular para que algo se convierta en transmediático. Uno puede construir un sistema transmediático de alto calibre (una gran película taquillera o programa de televisión y sus extensiones) o un sistema transmediático de bajo calibre (una película de bajo presupuesto y/o independiente, un cómic o serie en línea que sirva de trampolín para algo que pueda incluir representación en vivo o narración oral…). Algunos han intentado argumentar que los videojuegos son un componente central de lo transmediático, pero no quiero priorizar extensiones mediáticas digitales sobre otras formas de práctica mediática.

Por este motivo, es posible encontrar antecedentes históricos para lo transmediático que anteceden a las redes computarizadas y el entretenimiento interactivo. No me preocupa la novedad de lo transmediático. El empujón actual de ello ha emergido gracias a los cambios en las prácticas de producción (moldeadas por la concentración mediática, en algunos casos) o prácticas de recepción (la emergencia de la Web 2.0 y los medios sociales), pero también procede de la emergencia de una nueva comprensión estética de cómo funcionan los textos populares (moldeados en parte por el alzamiento de los geeks y fans a posiciones de poder en las industrias del entretenimiento).

Las opciones disponibles para un productor transmediático hoy en día son diferentes a aquellas disponibles hace algunas décadas, pero aún podemos señalar a los antecedentes históricos que experimentaban con nociones de creación de mundos y estructuras narrativas modeladoras de mitologías en formas que pueden incluir tanto intertextualidad radical como multimodalidad. Desde este punto de vista, se podría decir que Frank L. Baum (en su enfoque en la creación de mundos a través de distintos medios), Walt Disney (en su enfoque en creación de marcas a través de medios) y J.R.R. Tolkien (con sus experimentos en intertextualidad radical) son los antecedentes de las prácticas transmediáticas.

Asimismo, he defendido que Obama es una figura tan transmediática como Obi Wan. No quiero decir con esto simplemente que nuestra vida diaria se guíe a través de múltiples plataformas mediáticas, aunque esto sea cierto. También quiero decir que tendemos a conectar estas piezas de información dispersas entre sí para formar una historia, que la historia que construimos depende en qué extensiones mediáticas nos basemos (Fox News vs. The Huffington Post), y que hay arquitectos que buscan coordinar y construir un abanico de significados que se adhieren a esa historia. En este sentido, la historia de Obama, construida a través de su campaña, incluye tanto intertextualidad radical como multimodalidad.

Cuando escribí Convergence Culture, me centré en la discusión transmedia sobre The Matrix, al tiempo que incluí una barra lateral que trataba sobre The Beast como un Alternate Reality Game [Juego de Realidad Alternativa]. Asumía que los ARG son transmediáticos, y que en ese campo es donde han ocurrido algunos de los debates más acalorados en los últimos años.

El modelo transmedia basado en Hollywood asume una historia contada o un mundo explorado a través no solo simplemente de múltiples medios, sino también de múltiples textos, que se pueden vender al público separadamente y que representan múltiples puntos de contacto con la marca. (Debe resaltarse, para aclarar mi definición, que no importa realmente si el texto forma una sola narración o múltiples historias situadas en el mismo mundo, ya que, en la práctica, la mayoría de las narraciones transmediáticas incluyen múltiples líneas argumentales que se pueden dispersar de distintas formas a través de las distintas entregas). El modelo ARG, sin embargo, asume que distintos medios pueden contribuir a una sola experiencia de ocio. Así pues, es más probable que hablemos de The Beast, I Love Bees, o The Lost Experience como textos completos por cuenta propia (así como, en los tres casos, como parte de franquicias de ocio mayores). Cada grupo tiene motivaciones diferentes a la hora de trazar líneas que distingan e integren estos dos modelos. Es importante entender qué están intentando conseguir cada uno, pero no me resulta tan importante definir en profundidad uno u otro modelo. Tan solo pienso que este es un espacio que merece un trabajo conceptual más profundo que el que ha recibido hasta ahora. Ambos podrían participar de mi  énfasis en la intertextualidad radical y multimodalidad y ambos pueden ser prometedores para alcanzar una mejor comprensión.

Otro debate que merece la pena observar aquí tiene que ver con el tema de la participación del público en el desarrollo de la propiedad transmediática. Estos debates se pueden resumir en dos puntos centrales. El primero tiene que ver con las diferencias que muestra en Convergence Culture entre interactividad y participación. Para mí, la interactividad tiene que ver con las propiedades de la tecnología y la participación tiene que ver con las propiedades de la cultura. Evidentemente, en la práctica, ambos pueden aparecer en el mismo texto. Así, por ejemplo, un juego de ordenador enfatiza la interactividad y, por tanto, experiencias de entretenimiento preprogramadas. La cultura fan tiene altos índices de participación, ya que los fans toman los recursos ofrecidos por un texto y los empujan en todo tipo de direcciones que no son ni preprogramadas ni autorizadas por los productores.

Cuando la gente afirma que la interactividad es un elemento central de la experiencia transmediática, me gustaría asegurarme de que están usando el término de la misma forma. Podemos imaginar un abanico de diferentes relaciones que los fans puedan tener con la propiedad transmediática. En un extremo estarían las prácticas de caza y recolección para encontrar las piezas de información dispersas y averiguar cómo se pueden juntar entre sí para formar un todo con sentido. En el otro extremo, podemos tener el jugar a través del nivel de un juego, superando diversos obstáculos, matando jefes, y recolectando objetos. Pero también podemos pensar en distintas formas de representación de los fans—desde el fan fiction hasta el cosplay— que son más participativas y abiertas y menos dependientes en las elecciones de diseño de los productores transmediáticos.

El segundo punto tiene que ver con la dicotomía continuidad vs. multiplicidad. La mayor parte de las discusiones sobre lo transmediático ponen un gran énfasis en la continuidad—asumiendo que las narraciones transmediáticas requieren un alto nivel de coordinación y control creativo y que todas las piezas tiene que estar cohesionadas en una narrativa o mundo consistentes. Ésta es una práctica bastante difícil de llevar a cabo a través de las múltiples divisiones del mismo equipo de producción, y resulta difícil para los fans contribuir directamente al desarrollo de una narración que pone un gran énfasis en la continuidad. De hecho, muchos proyectos que afirman emplear “contenido generado por los usuarios” lo hacen en formas que protegen la “integridad” de la continuidad a expensas de permitir múltiples perspectivas y una participación más abierta. Hacen que el autor o algún agente designado se convierta en un árbitro de lo que se considera canónico. Por otra parte, hay formas de transmedia producida comercialmente que celebran abiertamente la multiplicidad que surge de ver a los mismos personajes e historias contados de formas radicalmente diferentes. Este centrarse en la multiplicidad nos deja abierto un espacio para que veamos medios producidos por los fans como parte de un proceso transmediático mayor, incluso si entonces queremos intentar aclarar cómo diferentes elementos se marcan como canónicos o alternativas de los fans.

Siento que esto haya acabado volviéndose tan complicado, pero creo que parte del problema surge de que mucha gente está buscando fórmulas simples y una definición que sirva para todos los casos, intentando así delimitar lo que se considera como transmediático. Pero aún estamos en un período de experimentación e innovación. Nuevos modelos surgen a través de prácticas de producción y debates críticos, y necesitamos estar abiertos a un amplio abanico de variaciones de lo que significa el término transmedia en relación a distintos proyectos. Escribí en Convergence Culture que las prácticas de convergencia, en el futuro previsible, no serán más que soluciones torpes, intentos hechos con prisas para conectar distintos medios entre sí, mientras intentamos averiguar qué está pasando y qué funciona correctamente.

No existe ninguna fórmula transmediática. Transmedia se refiere a una serie de elecciones que se hacen acerca de cuál es el mejor enfoque para contar una historia particular a un público concreto en un contexto determinado conforme a los recursos disponibles a unos productores concretos. Cuanto más expandamos la definición, más rico será el abanico de opciones que tendremos disponibles. Esto no significa que debamos expandir lo transmediático hasta el punto en que cualquier cosa pueda valer, sino que necesitamos una definición lo suficientemente sofisticada para tratar con todo tipo de ejemplos totalmente diferentes. Lo que quiero excluir de esta definición son los proyectos “típicos” que no están explorando el potencial expandido de lo transmediático, sino que están simplemente adhiriéndose la etiqueta transmedia en las mismas prácticas de franquiciamiento que llevamos viendo durante décadas.

Para promover conversaciones sobre este tema, por favor enviadme vuestras preguntas, críticas, y otros comentarios a hjenkins@usc.edu, e intentaré responderos en futuras publicaciones.

Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television Conference Videos (Part Two)

Last time, I shared videos of the opening sessions of the Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television conference, recently hosted at UCLA, and organized by myself and Denise Mann (UCLA). I am grateful to David McKenna for his epic work in editing, mixing, and uploading these videos so quickly. Today, I am sharing the video from the final two sessions of the conference -- including my one-on-one exchange with Sleepy Hollow's Orlando Jones around the ways he has been using social media to interface with his fans and the politics of diversity and creativity in the contemporary television industry.

TMH5, Panel Four: Indie TV - Where Creators & Fans Pilot New Shows from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Indie TV: Where Creators and Fans Pilot New Shows

The Internet broke the network bottleneck. Through platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo, creators release series directly to fans who follow shows and share them with friends. Web-content creators can write stories in whatever length, style and genre they choose, on their own schedule, and with actors of their choosing. The result is a truly open television ecosystem, where creators, talent and fans work together to realize stories they want to see. Each of the producers on this panel contributes to this new vision of television by producing series for the Internet that are being shaped for traditional TV as well; (several of these web series are being developed for HBO). Issa Rae created The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl with a small team and expanded the show using a successful crowdfunding campaign. Rae went on to produce additional series, including Amy Rubin’s Little Horribles, which Rubin released via her own Barnacle Studios. In the process, Little Horribles has become a hit with fans and with critics at Variety, LA Weekly and Splitsider, among others. Dennis Dortch and Numa Perrier launched the Black & Sexy TV network to showcase indie comedy, releasing their own hit series The Couple, and releasing additional series created by other emerging Hollywood talent. Jay Bushman helped The Lizzie Bennet Diaries grow into a deeply engaging transmedia phenomenon, which prompted viewers of the Jane Austen-inspired series to follow characters from YouTube to Twitter and Pinterest. Raising tens of thousands of dollars from fans, Adam Goldman created and wrote two critically-acclaimed dramas, The Outs and Whatever this is, exploring the realities of being insecure in New York City. After showrunner Brad Bell co-created Husbands with Jane Espenson, the indie hit caught the eye of CW executives, who used the series to launch their new online network. As these examples convey, the Internet has become an incubator for talented, next-generation web creators and web celebs, who, in combination with fan followers, are reinventing television for the digital age.

Moderator: Aymar Jean Christian, assistant professor, Northwestern University

Panelists: Brad Bell, co-creator and star, Husbands Jay Bushman, producer and writer, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries Adam Goldman, writer and director, Whatever this is Numa Perrier, co-founder, Black & Sexy Issa Rae, creator and star, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl Amy Rubin, creator and star, Little Horribles

TMH5, Panel Five: Discussion on fandom and the future with Orlando Jones, the star of Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Fandom and the Future of Television Orlando Jones, Star, Writer, Producer, Sleepy Hollow with Henry Jenkins

At the opening of the panel, I share the story of how I first connected with Orlando Jones. Orlando, who is ever-present on Twitter, had referenced my book, Textual Poachers, which seemed to be a ready invitation to engage. I wrote back to say that I was following his new series, Sleepy Hollow, closely and enthusiastically. A few minutes later, I wrote back to see if he might be willing to visit my PhD seminar on fandom, participatory culture, and Web 2.0 the next time he was in Los Angeles, and within the course of 30 minutes, we had met, shared our mutual admiration, and he had agreed to do a guest lecture (already had his people working with me to pull this off). And of course, fans online were already speculating about whether there might be a Henry/Orlando ship forming (Horlando, perhaps?) and the answer is wouldn't you like to know. His visit with my USC students was captured on video and today, I am finally able to share it with you also, so for my fellow Sleepy Hollow fans out there, this is a double dose of Orlando's magic. And for everyone else, I hope you will agree with me that he is an extraordinary individual -- deeply respectful of his fans, outrageously funny at the drop of a hat, and deeply thoughtful about his craft and about the changing media environment a second later. I've learned so much from my two conversations with him so far and am very happy to be sharing these exchanges with a broader public via this blog. Enjoy!

Orlando Jones from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television Conference Videos (Part One)

Today, we are releasing the first batch of videos from our April 4 conference, Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television, jointly hosted by Denise Mann (UCLA) and myself (USC) and held in UCLA's James Bridges Theater. Special thanks to David McKenna for his epic work in editing, mixing, and uploading these videos so quickly. PANEL 1 Virtual Entrepreneurs: Creators Who are Reinventing TV for the Digital Future

In Fall 2011, Google announced plans to invest $100 million dollars to forge original content partnerships with a number of talented YouTube creators in order to enhance the production value of their work and their value to brands. This panel gives voice to two new types of virtual entrepreneur: Individual web creators who are reinventing entertainment for the digital age, and the CEO of a new type of web-based multi-channel network (MCN), which is forging deals with individual web-creators in exchange for providing them with infrastructural support in the form of sound stages, green screens, higher quality cameras and editing equipment, enhanced social media marketing tools and brand alliances. Early entrepreneurs in this newly commercial, digital economy include Felicia Day and Sheri Bryant (Geek & Sundry), Freddie Wong (“Video Game High School”) and Dane Boetlinger (“Annoying Orange”), each of whom has catapulted themselves into the top tier of web celebs with huge fan followings. Many of these entrepreneurial web creators have sought out deals with MCNs such as Fullscreen, Maker Studios and Machinima in order to expand their budding entertainment enterprises. However, other creators are chafing inside long-term contracts with MCNs, frustrated by what they see as onerous terms — the split of advertising revenues and intellectual property rights. Today’s panel debates the viability of these new creative and business models, asking whether they represent a radical rethinking of entertainment that puts power back into the hands of creators or if they are transitional systems that will eventually be absorbed by Hollywood’s big media groups.

Moderator: Denise Mann, co-director, Transforming Hollywood / associate professor, head of Producers Program, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

Panelists: Sheri Bryant, partner/co-founder, Geek & Sundry Allen DeBevoise, chairman and CEO, Machinima, Inc. Amanda Lotz, associate professor, University of Michigan George Strompolos, founder and CEO, Fullscreen, Inc.

TMH5, Introduction & Panel One: Creators Who Are Reinventing TV for the Digital Future from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

PANEL 2 The Programmers of the Future in an Era of Cord-Cutters and Cord-Nevers As consumers spend more of their free time online, viewing and sharing content on social networks such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Vimeo, Tumblr and Vine, what does this mean for the future of television? Cord-cutters and cord-nevers represent a very real threat to the current big dogs of digital distribution — the multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs), also known as subscription cable systems (Comcast, Time-Warner), satellite carriers (DirecTV, Dish) and telcos (AT&T U-verse, Verizon FiOS). At the same time, the MVPDs have been waging too many public battles with Hollywood broadcasters over their high re-transmission fees, resorting to theatrics by pulling favorite sporting events and sitcoms — behavior that alienates consumers and tests the patience of government policy-makers. These policy-makers are making little effort to curb the reckless deal-making taking place at over-the-top (OTT) premium video services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus and YouTube (as well as among other players such as Microsoft Xbox), as each makes moves to expand globally while freeing themselves from their dependency on Hollywood licensing deals. By creating their own libraries of critically-acclaimed original programming (Netflix’s House of Cards and Orange is the New Black; Amazon’s Alpha House and Betas) — the OTT services are creating legions of new, loyal consumers, paving the way for a future that may or may not include Hollywood’s premium content licensing deals going forward. Furthermore, the OTT services are attracting A-level talent by offering greater creative autonomy than their micro-managing counterparts at the studios and networks. Do these new programming and streaming options foretell the end of an era in Hollywood or the beginning of a revised set of practices for creators and additional viewing options for binging viewers? Only time will tell. Moderator: Andrew Wallenstein, editor-in-chief, digital, Variety

Panelists: Belisa Balaban, senior vice president, alternative and live programming, Pivot/Participant Media Jamie Byrne, director, content strategy, YouTube David Craig, clinical assistant Professor, USC, and producer, Media Nation Joe Lewis, head of original programming, Amazon Studios

TMH5, Panel Two: The Programmers of the Future in an Era of Cord-Cutters and Cord-Nevers from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

PANEL 3 Second Screens, Connected Viewing, Crowd-funding and Social Media: Re-imagining Television Consumption As the television industry has been remapping the flow of media content, as new forms of producers and distributors enter the marketplace, there has also been an accompanying effort to rethink their interface with media audiences. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a renewed emphasis on audience engagement strategies which seek to ensure consumer loyalty and social buzz as a way for individual programs or networks to “break through the clutter” of the multiplying array of media options. New metrics are emerging for measuring the value of engaged viewers and the kinds of social and cultural capital they bring with them when they embrace a program. So, for example, the rise of Black Twitter has been credited with helping to rally support behind new programs with strong black protagonists, such as ABC’s Scandal, Fox’s Sleepy Hollow and BET’s Being Mary Jane. Second-screen apps are becoming ubiquitous as television producers seek to hold onto the attention of a generation of viewers who are prone to multitasking impulses. The successful Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign opens up the prospect of fans helping to provide funding in support of their favorite stars, creators or series. Yet, for all this focus on engaged audiences, does the industry value some form of viewers and viewership more than others? Which groups are being underrepresented here and why? Are the new economic arrangements between fans and producers fair to all involved? Moderator: Henry Jenkins, co-director, Transforming Hollywood / provost professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education, USC

Panelists: Ivan Askwith, lead strategist, “Veronica Mars” Kickstarter Campaign Vicky L Free, chief marketing officer, BET Networks Stacey Lynn Schulman, senior vice president, chief research officer, TVB Sharon L. Strover, professor, College of Communication, University of Texas at Austin

TMH5, Panel Three: Second Screens, Connected Viewing, Crowd-funding and Social Media: Re-imagining Television Consumption from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Why Do Humans Tell the Stories They Do: An Interview with Lily Alexander (Part Five)

Throughout, you draw examples across a range of different media forms, including oral stories, literary texts, films, television shows, and drama, among others. To what degree is the art of storytelling (and its classic functions) indifferent to medium? At what point does the affordances of media enter into your analysis?

The more I think about it, the less I believe that “the media is the message.” Frankly, I think the message is the message, and content is king. There is a set of vitally important ideas that facilitate our advancement and survival. It is the responsibility of the artists working in various formats to find unique ways to convey the wisdom of life continuation.

In fact, it is the uncritical acceptance and superficial understanding of this well-know maxim that leads to embracing the inevitability of our gadgets becoming more important than our stories. This implies that we should not “bother” with content. We must resist the idea that the story is “out there, anyway, inside the machine.”

I was a graduate student in the 1990s, and of course this was the motto of the day. McLuhan’s paradoxical revelation was profound and timely. It also resonated with a similar one, “form is content,” proclaimed prior to McLuhan, as a new theoretical paradox and paradigm by the Formalists in the 1920s. This idea meant to explain to the confused contemporaries of emerging modernism that all these crazy paintings and poems had profound meaning and that their form functioned as content, and already had embedded and encoded ideas within visual and narrative representation.

The logic behind the idea that “form=content” aligns with the belief that “medium=message,” and is very familiar from the study of art theory. The most valuable insights of the Formalists’ and McLuhan’s maxims are the degree to which form/medium affects and defines content/message. The Formalists’ ideas were later developed by the Structuralists, who looked into the overall complex dynamics between form and content, which generate multilayered messages that affect us on conscious and subconscious levels.

When McLuhan’s maxim is not invoked as an excuse to abandon content, we may find some truth in this approach. In fact, in Fictional Worlds I followed the Formalists, the Structuralists (who effectively complicated this formula) and Turner, in detailing how each genre, and many story formulas, already have – or have encoded – a powerful content found innately within their construct.

The writer can unlock this symbolic content to achieve great impact on the audience. This embedded architectonics, when learned, can free a writer because the iron carcass of the “story form” allows the creator to experiment. Providing a structural “safety net,” the story form enables the author to go in any direction, employ fantastic beings, travel to distant islands/planets, as well as unleash on the fictional world dangerous crises and enlist diverse heroes with problem-solving skills. The logic of the form will make the Journey balanced and powerful. Yet, a certain amount of freedom remains in the hero’s journey formula, allowing even radical experimentation with “story logic.”

The influential and wise screenwriting guru Robert McKee, whom I highly respect, noted that he teaches form but not formula. I think it is his response to the “get-rich-quick” superficial use of the Hero’s Journey.” This trend, triggered by the success of Lucas’ Star Wars, has been evident among some aspiring screenwriters in Hollywood.

In fact, I argue that a thoughtful approach toward both the logic of “the ritual story” and the logic of “the dramatic arc” are very important for writers, and are interlinked. I explain these profound connections and propose creative writing methods based on formula and form in chapters 3-6 of Fictional Worlds.

The crux of teaching the dramatic arc is Fictional Worlds’ “golden rule of the three Cs” – encouraging writers to take maximum advantage of every decision-making situation and moment of choice (correct or flawed), at each dramatic crossroad. This, incidentally, is what unites drama and games. Extensive discussions of these issues in my classes led to the conclusion that dramatic form must boost the trajectories of choice in any story, while games will develop in the direction of multiple choices and roads (more forking paths). Instead of a “right” or a “wrong” move by a gamer, transmedia can offer a spectrum of crossroads and trajectories which may lead to many “right,” but diverse, approaches to the successful Journey. This is what the new generation wants, and this is what makes sense to me.

A fandom is often described as a community which self-organizes around their shared engagement with a story (or storyworld). What similarities or differences would you draw between contemporary fan communities and the older forms of“symbolic communities” you write about in the book.

There are many ways of looking at this phenomenon. I would highlight three angles: fandom as a spontaneous ritual-symbolic activity, as discursive communities, and as a social movement. These modes overlap.

If there is any “master theory” of fandom to be found (to refer to your dialogue with Mark Duffett), I suggest it will be in anthropology, in ritual theory. Symbolic anthropology also explains why “performed identity” is inseparable from “transformed identity” within the ritual framework, as I also argue in Fictional Worlds.

As a ritual-symbolic activity, fandom signals that many people seek transformation, adjustment and belonging to a new group. Since ritual activity per se is not practiced by modern societies and the media is only partially effective in meeting these cultural needs, the numerous un-initiated and un-adjusted take matters into their own hands and create networks in which they try to achieve initiation, transformation and social adjustment.

In fan communities, the divine Donor of New Knowledge is the Author who creates the environment of the transformative Journey in which adjustment is possible. The Initiating members of traditional rituals took the Initiands into imaginary mythic-symbolic lands. Many modern stories transcend textual boundaries and expand into fandom activities that come closer to such promise. Consciously or subconsciously, spontaneous fandom communities are, in essence, “initiating themselves.”

There will be mixed results because each fan group’s choice of Great Book or Cult Movie boxes them in, limiting “new knowledge” to that contained in the text. Similarly, “new values,” essential for the sacred Journey, may be defined by the “Initiators,” the leaders of this fandom group. Sort of “masters of ceremonies,” keen on seeing opportunities for power, they may advance themselves within the local fandom hierarchy. Despite such possible power games, fandom indicates that the need for ritual structures and rites of passage of all kinds is great, and the void is not filled.

Discursive community is one which is typically organized around a text. The fandom unit is a form of discursive community, focusing on a particular Book/Movie. While on the path to initiation, such fandom groups employ their chosen “sacred” text in place of the sacred myths which used to be communicated to Initiands within traditional ritual. Unlike the traditional Hero’s Journey with its thresholds at which the hero confronts ordeals and tests, fandom units select and reenact scenes from their Book/Movie for such threshold experiences.

As a social movement, fandom signals that there are a considerable number of people who are determined to seek new knowledge within a variety of “possible worlds” and to explore them as templates for social development. This also signals that they have more trust and interest in fictional worlds than in their familiar reality (the current state of society, law, ethics, politics, etc.), as exploratory fields for the future. Avoiding arguing with, or openly criticizing, society, “fandom crowds” turn to new, albeit fictional, side roads to examine possible futures.

On the dark side, there are pitfalls. I recall a student in my Writing for the Media class, a graduate course in which students were expected to produce an episode for television in any genre, with an option to write it as a pilot that they could submit to the networks. Most students elected to do a pilot, which meant that the quality must be better and the story more persuasive in order to entice a network to consider such a new series. After two months of studying the nuts and bolts of storytelling, the students submitted their screenplays.

One student chose a fan convention in a hotel as the setting of the assignment. Her screenplay project featured a fashionable bunch of Medieval-Gothic-Aliens, or something like this, drawn from a variety of comics, movies, and TV shows. Her play was about the protagonist (her alter ego) changing costumes – I can imagine! – and visiting different hotel rooms where others would comment on her costume and “like it,” and “accept her.” Then she would then go back to her room to change her clothing, and “repeat, repeat.”

There was no action and no story, just suitcases with costumes. I offered this student all kinds of storylines that might happen in such a (weird) “crossroad” place (in the tradition of the movie Grand Hotel). I explained that the play did not exist without a story, and she decided to choose one of my suggestions: that eager, costume-changing young parents do not notice that their toddler walks out of the hotel room and vanishes. This plot provided an instant chill, imagining how she wanders alone surrounded by the Medieval-Gothic-Aliens, each one scarier than the next. Then the crowds rush to find the girl; they are dressed accordingly and are unaware “who is who” (friend or foe; we have mixed elements of mystery, tragedy and farce). But, “our” glorious protagonist turns out to be courageous and smart enough – she’s the one who finds the little girl and saves her from the clutches of… (enter your villain type here). The student liked the idea and promised to make it work (a cliché really, but at least drama: a quest to find a missing child, peppered with some macabre visual irony and options for interesting quirky scenes).

Imagine how stunned I was when at the end of the semester the student removed all the elements of the story and turned everything back to “she changes costumes and people like her;” because “this was good enough,” she said. For her, just as in ancient rituals, this “mystic” changing of skins was a magical entrance into a mythic world. The rest was irrelevant.

Of course, some attitudes within fandom are not about the self or others, transformation, or even belonging. The focus is on a pageant or “ceremony,” a popular culture phenomenon already mocked many times, as in Little Miss Sunshine, Miss Congeniality, etc., where showing costumes – fashion – is the goal. Even the delicious monsters of this student’s story setting – such a rich resource for any magic tale! – were not employed to shape the story. They served as decorations. This is an example of fandom as a rather superficial activity. Yet, I do think that the author-protagonist really wanted the Heroine’s Journey, but she did not yet know it.

I was pleased, however, to recently discover a website which highlights fandom as a transformative activity: http://transformativeworks.tumblr.com/

Across cultures and eras discursive communities have always been present. They were organized at first around a sacred story, and later around a book, film, or artist. Some discursive communities moved beyond their chosen text, developing higher goals, new communal ethics and worldviews. They also fueled social movements, becoming effective symbolic communities and advancing their societies.

In the book, you argue that horror does not actually constitute a genre in the sense you are using the term here. Explain.

There is no question that horror abounds in screen culture and the media. But is horror a genre? If one accepts the functionalist approach of Fictional Worlds toward genre, and its anthropological genre theory, the answer is no. There is no cultural need behind, nor community-building or life-asserting function featured in, horror.

I argue that horror is a narrative “fragment” of something else (perhaps the “ritual story,” the one embedded within the structure of ritual); as asteroids are pieces of an exploded planet. Horror has many of the same elements featured within the ritual story such as “symbolic death” that ritual has, including pain, torture, murder and evil beings. However, a horror story abandons its characters and audience, as its “curtains fall,” just before the upward curve, while a ritual structure ensures rebirth and enlightenment. Horror originated from an incomplete ritual of “symbolic death-rebirth.’

Take a horror movie, find the hero – maybe a victim coming alive from paralyzing fear – give the screaming cornered prey guts and a sword, s/he will awake from victimhood, and defeat the deadly powers with panache. S/he will stop evil, fight to the death, survive and gain wisdom. You have a new adventure story.

Alternatively, take any good adventure or Journey story, stop it half-way – and it turns into horror. Take away from the hero the inner strength and determination necessary to avoid being a victim, and s/he will end up in the horror of the “dragon’s intestines.” Horror is an adventure with the hero deprived of power and courage. It is the storyline of the ritual of initiation broken in half. Thus death occurs and becomes a permanent condition; while death-rebirth will never take place, as it should in any mythic-ritual adventure story.

In horror, the antagonists, the dragons or other dark forces, “reverse” the story structure to become its evil-protagonists. (Consider the empowered vampires, who now demand every role in every story, from the lovers to the teachers of life). The focus is on the winners, whoever they are – zombies, serial killers, or the walking dead. And we accept their dominance, because they so convincingly win in the story.

These forms – adventure vs. horror – are mutually “convertible.” The question becomes where do screenwriters stand – are they trying to scare their contemporaries, or teaching them to overcome fear and grow? The writer endows his hero(ine) with courage, or takes it away. Similar elements are in place, but they are compositionally reconfigured and serve different social purposes.

Lets play devil’s advocate for a moment and suggest that perhaps horror stories are an early alert system, and their pessimism is therefore constructive. Indeed, in reality where a cheerful tone is set by Triumph of the Will, I’ll take the gloomy The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari anytime.

However, there is a “but.” First, the historically tried and tested genres of tragedy, mystery, crime drama, and recently film noir, though full of dark shadows, terrible twists and horrible events, do just this – provide an early alert – more effectively and in a balanced, reflective manner. They contain the mechanisms of revelation of the truth, dramatic resolution, the villain’s self-inflicted wounds, and unexpected endings that, as a whole, facilitate our contemplative response to the painful outcomes of the story.

Second, there is the notorious Kracauer question. In his seminal book From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer, German film scholar and refugee, asks the core question: whether the expressionist cinema, and Dr. Caligari in particular, was a warning to the Germans regarding the terrible things that were to come – the rise of Fascism – or did it “condition” them for submission to power? German expressionist cinema was about fear, but was it fear that leads to action or to passivity in accepting one’s fate?

For several years I taught a full-year Film History class, during the course of which the students in the filmmaking program and I had enough time to investigate the relationship between cinema and politics within world cultures. Among the topics proposed for the students’ course essays I included the Kracauer question. Many students chose to investigate it. Time and time again, individual students and I came to the same conclusion. The cinema of fear may serve a warning, but it also teaches surrender. And so does horror.

So horror may be an ineffective response to anxiety and crisis on the part of the audience. They flock to see it again and again, eagerly hoping for “death-rebirth” and catharsis; yet waiting in vain. On a social level, the troubling consequences of horror movies is that they create spellbound self-sufficient fictional worlds of masochistic pleasure, in which this horror world’s distorted meanings become the measure of all things, including reality. With one foot in this horror-world, there is no will left to fight when facing a real problem.

Horror’s “no-future” model is adverse to the exploration of possibilities. What happens with a self-organizing system when it creates an inquiry-model of the possible future?  It must internalize it to act on it. And what if this model responds in a robotic voice, “There is no future, only death”? Such a powerful signal, a signal system actually, would send the “structural order” to its end; it is a “stop being” command. Stop living.

To sum up: there is no cultural need behind, nor community-building or life-asserting function featured in, horror. If there is latent content that this form structurally conveys – it is a message “Surrender! Resistance is futile.”

Lily Alexander  has been teaching film, literature, media and screenwriting for fifteen years; the last ten years in New York, at NYU and CUNY. She received her masters in drama and film, and defended a dual doctorate in anthropology and comparative cultural studies, with an emphasis on narrative, in 1998. Alexander teaches her brand of courses, which uniquely combine theories of culture and storytelling with creative writing, hoping to enthuse new Tolkiens and Rowlings. Her most recent classes, at Hunter College, focus on world fairytale, folklore, myth, novel, short story, and science fiction as part of the framework of past and present storytelling practices. Alexander’s new book Fictional Worlds: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture was published in October 2013 (available on amazon.com). This text is also available in digital formats, as a set of Kindle books, and forthcoming as a set of iBooks for the apple platform. The four books of the digital sets are titled, Fictional Worlds I: The Symbolic Journey & The Genres SystemFictional Worlds II: Dramatic Characters & Dramatic ActionFictional Worlds III: Tragedy & Mystery; and Fictional Worlds IV: Comedy & the Extraordinary. Her website is storytellingonscreen.com. Email: contact (at) storytellingonscreen.com. Comments and questions are welcome.

 

Why Do Humans Tell the Stories They Do: An Interview with Lily Alexander (Part Four)

How might a reliance on mythic structures be vital in a world of transmedia stories?

I suggest that as part of the ritual-mythological system, itself a component of symbolic and modeling processes, mythic stories are useful in facilitating the adjustment of individuals, families, groups, and society at large. By means of storytelling, they provide exciting “settings” and “characters,” timeless and wondrous landscapes, and a bountiful choice of magic beings. Mythic-ritual structures can be very powerful in aiding the meaning-making process – our construction of current symbolic maps of the world – by employing, recombining and reinterpreting familiar mythic images.

However, an “evolution” of terms would be helpful. What used to be termed (and rightfully criticized as) “mythic structures,” was renamed and redefined by Turner and his school of symbolic anthropology as dominant symbols (as a result of collaborative field work, rather than the work of armchair philosophers), and later as dominant symbolic processes (Turner’s functionalist approach redefined all symbols as processes), and even more precisely as a system of ritual-symbolic processes. Mythology is part of such processes.

If we were to consider myths as a set of static or “frozen images” (as Eisenstein suggested could be employed to underscore visual irony), unrelated to specific time, they would have merely a “decorative” or “entertaining” effect on new stories or games, hence a quite superficial significance. Even worse, they could be used to fool us and “pretend” to be part of a true adventure.

In the study of “mythic structures” I argue that outdated approaches must give way to newer methodologies developed over the last sixty years. I consider myth as part of a symbolic process, change, functionality in/for society, and never-ending activities of re-interpretation and meaning-making. I suggest that myths may even be the substance of which our templates of hypothetical realities are made; they may have a biosemantic significance.

If we grasp the relationship between myth and process/change – viewing mythological symbolism in the context of society, how it can function to mediate the needs and conflicts of one’s historical time, and how societal crises affect the interpretation of key symbols – then we can make mythic structures work in full force for us in storytelling media, optimizing society and its ever-changing challenges and needs.

Much recent writing discusses the tensions which occur between the activities of world-building and traditional forms of storytelling. What relationship are you positing between worlds and stories?

These are relationships of mutual dependence, of a Mobius band type. I understand that media scholars today may emphasize the “autonomy” of world-building from the story. I accept this as a polemical stance, a hyperbola meant to attract attention to a new phenomenon. Yet, while world-building exists today in novel forms and on a new scale, it is not a new phenomenon, but an activity rooted in ancient cultural practices of humankind. I strongly believe that there can be no effective use for a fictional world without a story. A story is a call for “Action” for the “world”-screenplay (to use a movie set metaphor). The story is what activates the world, and lets it unfold.

Consider the entrances and the trigger-points of some notable fictional worlds. From the moment of their introduction to us, these worlds experience a loss of balance because of a disastrous event. In The Odyssey, a young husband is drafted into the army and must leave his family, perhaps forever. Alice loses equilibrium and falls into a wonderworld, through the “underworld.” So does Dorothy, but by means of a violent twister, propelling her through the air. Harry Potter leaves home for a school of magic – his risky adventures are fated. In The Lord of the Rings, evil forces threaten to rob various human and human-like species of their shared Homeworld. The Enterprise is always crossing boundaries into dangerous Unknowns, where “no man has gone before.”

Besides planting flowers in gardens along diligently-mapped rivers of newly-built worlds, something should happen so that this picture-perfect world comes alive and gears up for defense. In the most influential cases, we are invited into fictional worlds when change is about to threaten their foundations. We are astonished, feel sympathy, and eagerly look for solutions alongside their anxious populations.

Fictional worlds are rarely invented out of leisure, perhaps only in poems. A “harmonious” wonderland would hardly sustain a story. Wonderworlds are created to underscore trouble within Homeworlds, and to explore their symbolic “loss of balance.” Fictional World-Building is a Homeworld Improvement, inseparable from World-Saving. Such a feat often begins with one hero on a journey, who must transform himself in order to understand a problem and rescue his world.

A fictional world is a template of a possible future. We can only assess such a hypothetic reality by testing it in action, giving it a stress-test. We must observe what is happening within it at moments of conflict/crisis; what the outcomes might be; and what resources such a template possesses for problem-solving. Only then can we determine the essence of this fictional world-model, and decide if it provides a “good future” for us.

Fictional worlds are also dramas: the need to “build” them is an “alert response” to social breaches and other emerging forms of dangerous disequilibria, to hidden troubles which even wise elders cannot foresee. Fictional world-building is always a reaction to (latent) crisis. Dystopia – a form of tragedy displaying not merely a hero’s peril, but the entire community on the edge of survival – is a “negative” model showing outcomes we must avoid. Our dystopian world-building insists that we must try to fix a problem in the present, so that we may heal the future.

When it comes to the stories of ordinary people, whether in realism or fairytale, fictional worlds are always realms of survival. They are invariably wonderlands of possibilities and infinite choices. The more constrained social conditions are in reality, the more imaginative, intricate and unapologetic are the gifts of “second chances” in Wonderworlds. These much-needed fictional worlds are also very “motherly,” as if the she-goddess Mother-Nature is in charge; expectedly they are empathetic and compassionate. Assisted by all sorts of magic helpers – from Fate, smart aliens, strange coincidences, and the Fairy God-Mother with cooperative mice, to the art of pathos and reverse pathos provided by ritual wailers and modern-day storytellers on-screen – fictional worlds emerge as a support system and a template for the future, created by people like us, mass-men and women.

Unsurprisingly, these magic carpet-like fictional worlds are woven out of lanes and crossroads of infinite chances. Any pit can be avoided by pulling oneself up by the bootstraps; jails have tunnels leading toward the outside world of freedom; underdogs and orphans get lucky and become useful and proud women and men. Such stories/parables always close with hard-earned happy endings, and with justice and everyone’s dignity restored.

While I highlight the fact that the connection between worlds and stories is profound, the variable dynamics between them is very interesting too. The fictional worlds can be viewed as sites of “forever interaction” – places with no end in time, into which new visitors/heroes can step, and where their new stories can take place. This is clearly a mythic timeless dimension.

Conversely, a story is a segment, based on the cause-and-effect principle, happening in linear time, with time progression, which demonstrates a phase transition with some sort of reversal (Aristotle’s “from bad to good” or “from good to bad”). We expect to witness the transformation of a character, and of a (social) situation. In the process, some in the cast of characters change, so too do some in the audience.

What do these two systems – worlds and stories – have in common? Cycles. These are temporary segments with endings, which always repeat themselves. So it is expected that into fictional worlds ever-newer protagonists will go, repeating the hero’s journey and feats, embarking on new adventures and acquiring new wisdom. However, each individual story-event is different and each heroic feat is not a feat/shift if it does not “change the world.”

Even when we have a cycle of hurricanes, each season is different, causing diverse effects; as is the summer harvest – one year is more fruitful than another. While cycles are repetitions, they also ensure a shift; the fictional world must gradually change, experiencing the impact of each Journeying hero and his/her team. The story/world dichotomy, at the very interesting junction between conceptions of linear and non-linear time, affects many phenomena of interest to narratology, anthropology and media theory, such as storytelling on-screen and on-stage, fandom, videogames, and transmedia.

Much contemporary writing on world-building emphasizes the act of imagination involved in building worlds from scratch, but your approach would seem to focus on the ways that storytellers rely on a shared vocabulary drawn from their culture’s pasts. Would it be better to think of this process in terms of rebuilding fictional worlds?

The current “age of adaptation” (Linda Hutcheon) signals our need to interact with, and re-build, worlds already in place in our collective imagination. This activity was already noticeable in the Renaissance (the word means “re-birth, reviving, restoring”), as well as in Romanticism and Modernism. Perhaps earlier: the Romans re-configured Greek culture in their own mythology, switching names, i.e. Zeus to Jupiter and Aphrodite to Venus. Even strikingly original contemporary worlds are subconscious responses to, and debates with, worlds of the past.

Nesting dolls – nesting worlds – emerging one out of another, created by previous eras’ imaginations are an interesting image-model. People may think they are designing fictional worlds “from scratch” because they don’t consciously acknowledge their own ancient stories and myths; yet their subconscious selves remember – and so it seems “from scratch.” Usually re-combinations of already known image-symbols are mobilized in new bold fusions (emerging from as early as the imagery of lullabies, as the magnificent animation Tale of Tales by Yuri Norstein suggests).

There is nothing wrong with the new creation having an umbilical cord connected to “forgotten” myths. Such work can still be groundbreaking and effective for a new era. Compare two stories of metamorphosis, for instance (one of myth’s typical plots). Both “remakes” are tragic-ironic. In one a man dies in an ass’s body (becomes a donkey), while another is turned into a giant insect (Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass versus Kafka’s The Metamorphosis). The difference is that one restores his human identity after numerous adventures, while the other has no adventures, just suffers a shameful isolation and never comes back as a man. A universal story of metamorphosis is rooted in early myth; but how differently do these remakes speak to their contemporaries, commenting with bitter sarcasm on the declining world of Antiquity and the Roman Empire, and later on Europe between two world wars.

In sum, I think nothing in culture can be made from scratch anymore. Consciously or not, we retrieve the memories of our favorite tales, which have “grown” out of previous mythic narratives, re-configured by new generations, with the composition altered, and the story elements recycled. I’d suggest that what is at work envelops an entire spectrum of combinations between the old and the new: we are in a state of the never-ending (ritual-symbolic) process of recreating, honoring, re-interpreting, rebuilding, fusing, making parody of, and creating – albeit from the same bricks – amazingly original, previously inconceivable, new worlds.

Examples of marvelously re-configured mythic worlds include some of my personal favorites: Roddenberry’s Star Trek: Next Generation; Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy; J.K. Rowling’s playful take on Celtic mythology and British literature in Harry Potter; Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, and Pan’s Labyrinth – multicultural neo-myths of the Spanish and Latin American traditions; the Japanese masters Akutagawa, Kurosawa and Miyazaki, with their brave insights on world narratives; and Ireland’s Joyce linking together Homer, Dante, Peter Pan and Modernism. Amadeus, Taxi Driver and Fight Club were “written” by the Russians Pushkin and Dostoevsky; while Hitchcock borrowed heavily from Shakespeare, the Baroque, the Romantics and the Expressionists. Such masters as Gogol, Kafka, Bulgakov, Borges, Marquez, and Cortazar generated an endless vibrant stream of magic realism. These re-configuring practices will become even more daring in the era of globalization, as storytellers increasingly borrow from each other’s national traditions.

It is not a question of how much old and how much new is in each emerging fictional world, or if it is created by the collective (oral tradition) or an individual (great author), but what elements and vital building blocks of imagery we need to make our “models of possible futures” be functional and effective. And in what order they should be linked together, to maintain life-asserting architectonics.

Thus, I would prefer “world-building” rather than “rebuilding,” because regardless of the building blocks, any original and effective fictional world is a unique “possible world” or template of a “hypothetical future,” a new and necessary addition to modeling systems. Each fictional world, if it is to be compelling, has its own unique function in fine-tuning and optimizing a specific society at a given historical time, addressing a new set of unresolved problems.

Lily Alexander  has been teaching film, literature, media and screenwriting for fifteen years; the last ten years in New York, at NYU and CUNY. She received her masters in drama and film, and defended a dual doctorate in anthropology and comparative cultural studies, with an emphasis on narrative, in 1998. Alexander teaches her brand of courses, which uniquely combine theories of culture and storytelling with creative writing, hoping to enthuse new Tolkiens and Rowlings. Her most recent classes, at Hunter College, focus on world fairytale, folklore, myth, novel, short story, and science fiction as part of the framework of past and present storytelling practices. Alexander’s new book Fictional Worlds: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture was published in October 2013 (available on amazon.com). This text is also available in digital formats, as a set of Kindle books, and forthcoming as a set of iBooks for the apple platform. The four books of the digital sets are titled, Fictional Worlds I: The Symbolic Journey & The Genres SystemFictional Worlds II: Dramatic Characters & Dramatic ActionFictional Worlds III: Tragedy & Mystery; and Fictional Worlds IV: Comedy & the Extraordinary. Her website is storytellingonscreen.com. Email: contact (at) storytellingonscreen.com. Comments and questions are welcome.

Why Humans Tell The Stories They Do: An Interview with Lily Alexander (Part One)

This week, we are going to be exploring the fascinating realm of myth, ritual, storytelling, genre, and world-building. Our guide is going to be Lily Alexander, who I have gotten to know through her engaging presentations at MIT's Media in Transition conferences, which often tap into her encyclopedic knowledge of stories, old and new, from around the world. Her work deals with contemporary forms of storytelling -- films, television series, games -- but she views them through an anthropological, mythological and biosemiotic perspective, and thus she is aware of the strong links that exist between traditional and emergent understandings of expressive culture. I invited her to contribute to this blog because she recently published a book, Fictional Worlds: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture. You can learn more about this book at her website. Alexander told me, “I suggested initially that this project would envelop the discussion with an anthropological perspective, and the focal point would be the dynamics between narrative and society.”

Yet, Fictional Worlds is also “how to” book. It is a guide for storytelling practices, intended to help any writer, filmmaker, or game designer to fine-tune his/her craft. It is full of creative ideas, generously shared by the giants of storytelling, and meticulously collected by this author for aspiring writers and all intellectually curious readers. Fictional Worlds invokes hundreds of powerful stories from diverse cultures and eras. Tales of journeys, love, deception, transformation, survival and escape are com-passionately retold and explored. Dozens of time tested, winning storytelling techniques, tips and timeless wisdom are shared with the readers of Fictional Worlds illustrated using the great workings of writers, filmmakers, and media artists." Alexander threw herself into writing this rich and engaging book, even designing its cover to suggest something of the hero's journey.

In the conversation which follows over six installments, she will share some of her core insights and discuss the conceptual models she draws upon for this analysis. Today, we will start with what turned out to be a fairly in-depth consideration of one of her key methodological commitments to the ways that what she calls "biosemiotics" might help to explain the function of storytelling.

 

 

You begin the book with biosemiotics. How does it relate to the art of storytelling?

While I began my book project with film and media studies, I then journeyed through the “wonderland” of anthropology and had to inevitably stop at biosemiotics, as some answers may be useful at its level of inquiry. Biosemiotics, born a century ago, at the dawn of the modernist movement in the arts, is the study of nature’s signals. It is about how plants, animals, and nature as a whole, talk, and what that has to do with us. This field’s range of interests envelops communications in all forms of life: from plant metabolism to birds’ mating songs, and from subsonic calls among the elephants that vibrate the ground to our storytelling media. Biosemiotics provides rich unexpected contexts and allows new insights into familiar issues of culture. Fictional Worlds explores storytelling as part of our species’ signal systems.

Culture is expressed through the myriad stories and narrative frameworks, which discover new social ties and build connections. The signal systems and symbolic processes operating in narrative culture often underscore a transition from a family per se (nature) to a symbolic family (community), highlighting larger issues of ethics, politics, and social coexistence.

After introducing the significance of human families and communities for the study of narrative culture, I begin the discussion of how our own societies and animal “tribes” organize themselves. We have learned a lot from animals. The first ritual performances were likely recreations of hunting experiences. Ritual masks emerged to signify and “channel” powerful animal spirits. Before the Aesopian “fables” there had been illuminating “animal tales” in every national mythology, perhaps serving as the first “bibles” – summations of acceptable and unacceptable actions across the borders of species, as observed by our ancestors. Humans learned the behavioral patterns of their neighbors and examined themselves in the mirror of animal “worlds.”

Our first fictional worlds were densely populated by animals with whom we communicated intensely. These animals provided man with food and clothing – our main means of survival. The animal spirits of animism were the earlier form of religiosity. In some cultures man believed he descended from those same creatures, regarding them as sacred or “totem” animals. One can say, half-jokingly, that our first “singularity” was with the animal world.

In Fictional Worlds, I examine society as a self-organizing system: media and storytelling serve as the inherent and crucial components of its self-optimizing mechanisms. A self-organizing system is a natural phenomenon that demonstrates its development and efficiency while being driven neither by an external will (of a god, for example), nor by random factors. It is most likely governed by logical/coherent internal growth based on a combination of natural factors.

Recent research shows that even plants “plan” – having the ability to chemically protect themselves from perceived threats. Nature reveals itself to be a self-organizing system. In that vein, “anticipatory reflection” – a built-in inquiry into the future and the actions taken to “envision” and model it – is central to all living forms, as proposed in the 1920s by Petr Anokhin. He was a neuroscientist and a student of Ivan Pavlov – a famed physiologist and Nobel laureate.

It may very well be that any self-organizing system operates by periodically creating such templates for the future, as it needs a “plan” of how to grow. If something intends to develop, there must be a structural concept of the “next steps.” These templates differ: as a biochemical process in cells; a longer neck, wings or disposable tail for an animal; a brainstorming meeting in a business; or a screenplay that society looks to learn from through media storytelling.

Humankind, as part of nature, is also engaged in projecting and testing possible futures. In our species these mechanisms were provided by storytelling and the media in general. Society, a self-organizing system, much like life in general, has always used the mechanism of projection – creating imaginary worlds and other semi-symbolic realities. Our storytelling is integral to this process, which facilitates our survival and the success of our species.

Since all self-organizing systems must make inquiries about the future to help ensure survival, society must develop efficient and smart mechanisms of building templates of possibilities. This entails questions of Choice (how self-organizing systems choose which step to make, and which way to go-grow?). This brings us to the biosemiotic importance of such issues as the protagonist’s choice-moment (“to be or not to be?”), dramatic arc, and narrative/dramatic resolution.

Decision-making, a key theme of any narrative, implies an integrated “means to an end” or “cause-and-effect” logic, and the anticipatory reflection on consequences. These, of course, are the key attributes of the dramatic form, both on-stage and on-screen. We know that our species is unique in its degree of abstract and symbolic thinking, use of imagination and, also its continual production through storytelling of new templates for possible worlds.

Our media practices may have evolved as an efficient mechanism to swiftly test developing possibilities: both the external – what environmental changes are likely to occur, and the internal – how our own responses will affect our future(s). Any self-organizing system must always factor in multiple possibilities and react toward the “branching of the future.”

My conceptions of narrative, stemming from my background in the theater, as well as semiotics and symbolic anthropology, were initially suggested in my Ph.D. thesis (1998). Recently, I found out that new attention has been focused on the idea of life as a self-organizing system, proposed by a physicist. Jeremy England at MIT suggested that inorganic substances may – by means of electromagnetic resonances with the existing fields described by physics – “build themselves” into organic form. I am delighted to hear that there is support for his idea and many scholars are cheering on his work, hoping that he will be able to prove his hypothesis. I am among those cheering along his path.

http://www.englandlab.com/

From Jeremy England’s website:

“Living things are good at collecting information about their surroundings, and at putting that information to use through the ways they interact with their environment so as to survive and replicate themselves.  Thus, talking about biology inevitably leads to talking about decision, purpose, and function.”

Decision, purpose and function are, unsurprisingly, the key words here; they are also central to dramatic arts because these concepts point at the very core of the mechanisms of system (self)optimization. Self-organizing systems represent a developing interdisciplinary field of inquiry.

One may say that the will to survive, wise decisions and “lifting oneself by the bootstraps” or having auto-catalytic processes (awakening growth or turning a deadly stagnation into a new development – death-rebirth), may be concepts taken from narrative studies to best explain self-organization. If life at its core is a self-organizing system, then society is likely to follow suit. All self-organizing systems must factor in an outcome and look “one step ahead.” As Fictional Worlds highlights, our best storytelling practices focus on the explorations of “steps” – the embedded phase transition within the dramatic arc and narrative logic. That is why for the craft of screenwriting the “transitional units” are so vital: we talk about writing a story beat-by-beat and scene-by-scene – there are action, counter-action, progression and consequences that we must investigate.

Even if living systems are not, to put it bluntly, “aware of the future,” they nonetheless must have a profound interest in “what the future holds.” This embedded mechanism of inquiry as a “plan” or a template for growth thus promotes the built-in mechanisms of modeling and examining “possible futures.”

These templates are vital: they are like the steps of a staircase – mini-bridges representing where to safely land at the new phase. It is conceivable that we are “programmed” to continually build models of “possible futures” and we have been effectively doing that by means of myth, stories, dramas, fictional world-building and, most recently, science fiction and transmedia.

Because we are a self-organizing system, we need the core of our template-making mechanism; it is conceivable that what we call storytelling media has always been at the heart of this optimization function of our social species (in addition to other modeling systems, such as those of science, philosophy and law). World-building is a related process; each world is a template or a modeling system (as the structuralists would call these intriguing fictional worlds). We look at them all together, then buzz, discuss, and, consciously or not, select a model to follow at every turn of our historical path. This is important for our collective future. Just as my students say: “no more feeling guilty for talking about movies and stories.”

In order to win the evolutionary game, we need to build many models, and then many, many more, so we can factor in a wide range of possible developments. We need to diversify our prognoses and maintain a volume of such activities. Mistakes have been made in the past, particularly when tyrants were the ones who made choices. All of the above may explain the ever-increasing collaborative activity of fictional world-building.

Lily Alexander has been teaching film, literature, media and screenwriting for fifteen years; the last ten years in New York, at NYU and CUNY. She received her masters in drama and film, and defended a dual doctorate in anthropology and comparative cultural studies, with an emphasis on narrative, in 1998. Alexander teaches her brand of courses, which uniquely combine theories of culture and storytelling with creative writing, hoping to enthuse new Tolkiens and Rowlings. Her most recent classes, at Hunter College, focus on world fairytale, folklore, myth, novel, short story, and science fiction as part of the framework of past and present storytelling practices. Alexander’s new book Fictional Worlds: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture was published in October 2013 (available on amazon.com). This text is also available in digital formats, as a set of Kindle books, and forthcoming as a set of iBooks for the apple platform. The four books of the digital sets are titled, Fictional Worlds I: The Symbolic Journey & The Genres System; Fictional Worlds II: Dramatic Characters & Dramatic Action; Fictional Worlds III: Tragedy & Mystery; and Fictional Worlds IV: Comedy & the Extraordinary. Her website is storytellingonscreen.com. Email: contact (at) storytellingonscreen.com. Comments and questions are welcome.

 

Further Information About Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television

UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and

USC School of Cinematic Arts

Announce

Transforming Hollywood: The Futures of Television, April 4, 2014, UCLA 

Co-directors:

Denise Mann, UCLA

Henry Jenkins, USC

Presented by the  Andrew J. Kuehn  Jr. Foundation

Media Sponsor: Variety

Friday April 4   2014

James Bridges Theater, UCLA

TRANSFORMING HOLLYWOOD: THE FUTURE OF TELEVISION

Conference Description

This year, the fifth installment of Transmedia, Hollywood has been given a new name—Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television—to reflect our desire to engage more fully with the radical changes taking place in the American television industry for creators, distributors and audiences. When future generations of historians write their accounts of the evolution of the American television industry, they will almost certainly point to the 2010s as a moment of dramatic change: We’ve seen the entry of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and YouTube as major players shaping the production of original programming, gaining critical praise, courting industry awards, and perhaps, most dramatically, starting to compete, in terms of number of subscriptions, with the top cable networks. We’ve seen Kickstarter emerge as an alternative means for “crowdfunding” television content, allowing fans to exert a greater role in shaping the future of their favorite series. We’ve seen a continued growth in the number of independent producers creating and distributing their content through the web. With these other changes, we are seeing the industry and academia struggle to develop new insights into what it means to consume television content in this connected and yet dispersed marketplace. This conference will bring together key creative and corporate decision-makers who are shaping these changes and academics who are placing these shifts in their larger historical and cultural contexts. What does all of this mean for those of us who are making or watching television? 

 

Schedule

9:00-9:10 a.m.: Welcome and Opening Remarks – Denise Mann and Henry Jenkins

 

9:10-11:00 a.m.: PANEL 1
Virtual Entrepreneurs: Creators Who are Reinventing TV for the Digital Future
In Fall 2011, Google announced plans to invest $100 million dollars to forge original content partnerships with a number of talented YouTube creators in order to enhance the production value of their work and their value to brands. This panel gives voice to two new types of virtual entrepreneur: Individual web creators who are reinventing entertainment for the digital age, and the CEO of a new type of web-based multi-channel network (MCN), which is forging deals with individual web-creators in exchange for providing them with infrastructural support in the form of sound stages, green screens, higher quality cameras and editing equipment, enhanced social media marketing tools and brand alliances. Early entrepreneurs in this newly commercial, digital economy include Felicia Day and Sheri Bryant (Geek & Sundry), Freddie Wong (“Video Game High School) and Dane Boetlinger (“Annoying Orange), each of whom has catapulted themselves into the top tier of web celebs with huge fan followings. Many of these entrepreneurial web creators have sought out deals with MCNs such as Fullscreen, Maker Studios and Machinima in order to expand their budding entertainment enterprises. However, other creators are chafing inside long-term contracts with MCNs, frustrated by what they see as onerous terms — the split of advertising revenues and intellectual property rights. Today’s panel debates the viability of these new creative and business models, asking whether they represent a radical rethinking of entertainment that puts power back into the hands of creators or if they are transitional systems that will eventually be absorbed by Hollywood’s big media groups.
Moderator: Denise Mann, co-director, Transforming Hollywood / associate professor, head of Producers Program, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television
Panelists:
Sheri Bryant, partner/co-founder, Geek & Sundry
Allen DeBevoise, chairman and CEO, Machinima, Inc.
Amanda Lotz, associate professor, University of Michigan
George Strompolos, founder and CEO, Fullscreen, Inc.

 

11:10 a.m.-1:00 p.m.: PANEL 2
The Programmers of the Future in an Era of Cord-Cutters and Cord-Nevers
As consumers spend more of their free time online, viewing and sharing content on social networks such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Vimeo, Tumblr and Vine, what does this mean for the future of television? Cord-cutters and cord-nevers represent a very real threat to the current big dogs of digital distribution — the multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs), also known as subscription cable systems (Comcast, Time-Warner), satellite carriers (DirecTV, Dish) and telcos (AT&T U-verse, Verizon FiOS). At the same time, the MVPDs have been waging too many public battles with Hollywood broadcasters over their high re-transmission fees, resorting to theatrics by pulling favorite sporting events and sitcoms — behavior that alienates consumers and tests the patience of government policy-makers. These policy-makers are making little effort to curb the reckless deal-making taking place at over-the-top (OTT) premium video services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus and YouTube (as well as among other players such as Microsoft Xbox), as each makes moves to expand globally while freeing themselves from their dependency on Hollywood licensing deals. By creating their own libraries of critically-acclaimed original programming (Netflix’s “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black”; Amazon’s “Betas”) — the OTT services are creating legions of new, loyal consumers, paving the way for a future that may or may not include Hollywood’s premium content licensing deals going forward. Furthermore, the OTT services are attracting A-level talent by offering greater creative autonomy than their micro-managing counterparts at the studios and networks. Do these new programming and streaming options foretell the end of an era in Hollywood or the beginning of a revised set of practices for creators and additional viewing options for binging viewers? Only time will tell. 
Moderator: Andrew Wallenstein, editor-in-chief, digital, Variety
Panelists:
Belisa Balaban, senior vice president, alternative and live programming, Pivot/Participant Media
Jamie Byrne, director, content strategy, YouTube
David Craig, clinical assistant Professor, USC, and producer, Media Nation
Joe Lewis, head of original programming, Amazon Studios

 

1:00-2:00 p.m.: LUNCH BREAK – LUNCH OPTIONS AVAILABLE ON CAMPUS

 

2:00-3:50 p.m.: PANEL 3
Second Screens, Connected Viewing, Crowd-funding and Social Media: Re-imagining Television Consumption
As the television industry has been remapping the flow of media content, as new forms of producers and distributors enter the marketplace, there has also been an accompanying effort to rethink their interface with media audiences. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a renewed emphasis on audience engagement strategies which seek to ensure consumer loyalty and social buzz as a way for individual programs or networks to “break through the clutter” of the multiplying array of media options. New metrics are emerging for measuring the value of engaged viewers and the kinds of social and cultural capital they bring with them when they embrace a program. So, for example, the rise of Black Twitter has been credited with helping to rally support behind new programs with strong black protagonists, such as ABC’s “Scandal,” Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” and BET’s “Being Mary Jane.”  Second-screen apps are becoming ubiquitous as television producers seek to hold onto the attention of a generation of viewers who are prone to multitasking impulses. The successful “Veronica Mars” Kickstarter campaign opens up the prospect of fans helping to provide funding in support of their favorite stars, creators or series. And the commercial success of “50 Shades of Gray,” which was adapted from a piece of “Twilight” fan fiction, has alerted the publishing world to the previously underappreciated value of women’s fan fiction writing as a recruiting ground for new talent and as a source for new creative material. Yet, for all this focus on engaged audiences, does the industry value some form of viewers and viewership more than others? Which groups are being underrepresented here and why? Are the new economic arrangements between fans and producers fair to all involved?
Moderator: Henry Jenkins, co-director, Transforming Hollywood / provost professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education, USC 
Panelists:
Ivan Askwith, lead strategist,Veronica Mars” Kickstarter CampaignVicky L Free, chief marketing officer, BET Networks
Stacey Lynn Schulman, senior vice president, chief research officer, TVB
Nick Loeffler, director of business development, Kindle Worlds
Sharon L. Strover, professor, College of Communication, University of Texas at Austin

 

 

4:00-6:15 p.m.: PANEL 4
Indie TV: Where Creators and Fans Pilot New Shows
The Internet broke the network bottleneck. Through platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo, creators release series directly to fans who follow shows and share them with friends. Web-content creators can write stories in whatever length, style and genre they choose, on their own schedule, and with actors of their choosing. The result is a truly open television ecosystem, where creators, talent and fans work together to realize stories they want to see. Each of the producers on this panel contributes to this new vision of television by producing series for the Internet that are being shaped for traditional TV as well; (several of these web series are being developed for HBO). Issa Rae created “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” with a small team and expanded the show using a successful crowdfunding campaign. Rae went on to produce additional series, including Amy Rubin’s “Little Horribles,” which Rubin released via her own Barnacle Studios. In the process, “Little Horribles” has become a hit with fans and with critics at Variety, LA Weekly and Splitsider, among others. Dennis Dortch and Numa Perrier launched the Black & Sexy TV network to showcase indie comedy, releasing their own hit series “The Couple,” and releasing additional series created by other emerging Hollywood talent. Jay Bushman helped “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” grow into a deeply engaging transmedia phenomenon, which prompted viewers of the Jane Austen-inspired series to follow characters from YouTube to Twitter and Pinterest. Raising tens of thousands of dollars from fans, Adam Goldman created and wrote two critically-acclaimed dramas, “The Outs” and “Whatever this is,” exploring the realities of being insecure in New York City. After showrunner Brad Bell co-created “Husbands” with Jane Espenson, the indie hit caught the eye of CW executives, who used the series to launch their new online network. As these examples convey, the Internet has become an incubator for talented, next-generation web creators and web celebs, who, in combination with fan followers, are reinventing television for the digital age.
Moderator: Aymar Jean Christian, assistant professor, Northwestern University
Panelists:
Brad Bell, co-creator and star, “Husbands”
Jay Bushman, producer and writer, “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries”
Adam Goldman, writer and director, “Whatever this is”
Numa Perrier, co-founder, Black & Sexy
Issa Rae, creator and star, “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl”
Amy Rubin, creator and star, “Little Horribles”

 

6:30-7:15 p.m. Fandom and the Future of Television

Orlando Jones, Star, Writer, Producer, Sleepy Hollow

with Henry Jenkins

Followed by:

RECEPTION – Lobby of the James Bridges Theater

 

For more information, see:  http://www.liquid-bass.com/conference/

For conference Registration, see : https://transforminghollywood5.eventbrite.com

Announcing The Women Who Create Television Event

A few weeks back, I announced the upcoming Transforming Hollywood 5: The Futures of Television conference to be held at UCLA on April 4.  Today I want to announce a pre-conference event, "Geek Speaks: The Women Who Create Television," which will be held at USC, SCI 106, on April 3, 4-7:30 p.m. You can register for this conference here. This event is being hosted as part of the ongoing "Geek Speaks" series, which I help to organize in my role as the Chief Advisor to the Annenberg Innovation Lab, and in this case, the event is being co-sponsored by the USC School ofCinematic Arts, which is graciously allowing us to use their facilities.

In 1973, American Public Television aired The Men Who Make the Movies, which showcased authorship in the Hollywood studio era through indepth interviews between Richard Schickel and such directors as Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock. The event's title pays tribute to this transformative series, but also stresses the needs to push beyond its focus on masculine creativity.  As we look back on a year plus of developments which have transformed television as a medium,  This conference seeks to showcase a range of highly creative women who are now working the American television industry as creators, executive producers, head writers, and showrunners, women who now exert some degree of creative control over what we watch on television. These women represent a broad range of different forms of television programing, including sitcoms, dramas, and fantasy/science fiction programs, and have worked for both Broadcast and cable networks. Women still face an uphill struggle to gain entry into the television industry, yet these women have shattered through the glass ceiling and can now stand as role-models for the next generation of women and men who want to change what kinds of stories television tells and what kinds of audiences it addresses.

Across these two sessions, we will be talking with these women about their careers, their creative visions, and the medium through which they work, along the way seeking to provide insights into the current state and future potentials of American television.

The first session, Creative Process, (4-5:30 p.m.) explores their paths into the industry, their relationships to their mentors and creative partners, and the changing contexts in which television is produced, distributed, and viewed.

The second session, Creative Products, (6-7:30 p.m.), deals with the content of their programs, their relationship to their genres, issues of representation, and their perceptions of the audiences for their work.

We are still announcing participants and will provide a fuller schedule here closer to the event, but below you can find bios for the speakers who have already agreed to participate. Participation is always tentative pending always  unpredictable production schedules. Likewise, some speakers may be added as we get closer to the event.

Schedule

4:00 Welcome -- Henry Jenkins

4:15  Panel 1  Creative Process (Moderator: Erin Reilly)

Felicia Henderson

Alexa Junge

Kim Moses

Julie Plec

Stacy L. Smith

5:45-6 p.m. Break

6-7:30 p.m.

Panel 2: Creative Products (Moderator: Francesca Smith)

Jenny Bicks

Meg DeLoatch

Winnie Holzman

Robin Schiff

Jenny Bicks started her career in advertising in New York City and went on to write radio comedy before she began writing for film and television.  Her television series credits include Seinfeld, Dawson’s Creek and HBO's Sex and The City. She wrote on Sex and The City for all six seasons, rising to the rank of executive producer. Her work on the series earned her many awards, including an Emmy® Award, multiple Golden Globes and Producers Guild Awards and three WGA nominations.  After Sex and The City, Bicks created and executive produced Men In Trees, starring Anne Heche, which ran for two seasons on ABC.  She recently wrapped Executive Producing and Showrunning Showtime’s critically acclaimed The Big C, starring Laura Linney.  The show, which ran for four seasons, earned her a Golden Globe and humanitas nomination and a Golden Globe and Emmy win for Linney.   She is currently developing television with 20th Century Fox and recently sold Hard, a dark comedy about the porn industry, to HBO.  In the feature world, her body of credits include What a Girl Wants, and many uncredited rewrites.  Her short film, Gnome, which she wrote and directed, had its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival and went on to win awards at multiple festivals.  She recently completed writing a feature film musical for Fox based on the life of PT Barnum, with Hugh Jackman set to star.   A born and bred New Yorker, Bicks divides her time between New York, Maine and Los Angeles.

Meg DeLoatch has written and produced a variety of hit shows during her career.  Highlights include working with Bette Midler, Jennie Garth and Ice Cube.  Her credits range from family friendly shows like Family Matters and One on One to adult comedies Bette and Brothers.  She also created and executive produced UPN's romantic comedy, EVE, starring Grammy Award-winning Hip Hop artist Eve.  Refusing to be boxed into just the comedic arena, Meg recently wrote and produced on VH-1’s hit drama, Single Ladies, and is completing a middle grade fantasy novel about a boy who fights demons.  Currently a Co-Executive Producer on Disney Channel’s Austin & Ally, Meg has just created her most personal project to date – her three month old son, Maxx.

Felicia Henderson graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a BA in Psycho-Biology. Henderson spent five years in business, and later attended the University of Georgia for an MBA in corporate finance. U After working as a creative associate at  NBC, Henderson realized she wanted to become a writer, and soon became an apprentice on the sitcom Family Matters and on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air two years later. She co-produced  Moesha and Sister, Sister, and developed Soul Food for television, which became the longest running drama in television history to star a black cast, and earned several NAACP Image awards. She and three other black women in the entertainment industry created the Four Sisters Scholarship in Screenwriting, Henderson worked as a co-executive producer for the teen drama series Gossip Girl and a co-executive producer on the first season of the  science fiction television series Fringe,   before leaving to begin as a writer on the DC television series Teen Titans and  Static Shock.

Winnie Holzman is the writer (with acclaimed songwriter Stephen Schwartz) of the hit musical Wicked. For television she created My So-Called Life which starred Claire Danes. Winnie got her start performing and writing in a comedy group, and writing syndicated comedy sketches for Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. Her big break came when she was invited by Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick to join the writing staff of their groundbreaking TV series thirtysomething. Her work on that show earned her a WGA nomination and a Humanitas award. She went on to collaborate with Herskovitz and Zwick again, first on My So-Called Life, and later on Once and Again. More recently she created the short lived but much loved ABC Family series Huge with her daughter, Savannah Dooley. Her less well known musicals (with composer David Evans) include Birds of Paradise, Back to Back, and Maggie and The Pirate. She has written one unproduced feature film and one produced one: ‘Til There Was You. Also an actress, she played Larry’s wife’s therapist on Curb Your Enthusiasm and the chocolate-obsessed divorced woman in Jerry Maguire. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, actor Paul Dooley.  Their ten minute play Post-its: Notes on a Marriage is performed frequently across the country. They recently wrote and starred in their first full length play, Assisted Living. She is currently working on a new play. Winnie is a graduate of Princeton University, the Circle in the Square acting school, the NYU Musical Theatre program, and is a member of the Dramatists Guild.

Alexa Junge is a television writer, producer and screenwriter. She is best known for her work on the series Friends. Four-time Emmy and WGA Award nominee, Junge grew up in Los Angeles, attended Barnard College and continued her education at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.  Junge wrote for Friends from 1994-1999. Nominated for two Emmy Awards and two Writers Guild of America Awards,  Junge also won the National AOL Poll for writing the "All Time Favorite Friends Episode" for  "The One Where Everybody Finds Out." Junge went on to write for Once and Again, Sex and the City, West Wing  (where she was nominated for two Emmys and two WGA Awards) as well as Big Love  and the BBC comedy Clone. Junge also wrote lyrics for Disney's Mulan 2, screenplay and lyrics for Disney’s Lilo and Stitch 2.  A frequent contributor to National Public Radio's  This American Life,  Junge performed live for their 2008 "What I Learned From Television" tour. She served as Executive Producer and Showrunner for the first season of Showtime's series The United States of Tara  and worked on Tilda for HBO. Junge is currently the Executive Producer and Showrunner for NBC's  Best Friends Forever.   

Kim Moses has developed and served as an executive producer on over 600 hours of primetime television programming.  She is currently serving as executive producer of two upcoming series, Reckless, a new CBS Network drama developed and produced by Sander/Moses Productions in association with CBS Studios; and Runner a FOX Network drama developed and produced by Sander/Moses Productions in association with FOX Studios.  Recently, she served as the executive producer and occasional director of Ghost Whisperer, which ran for five years on CBS. She also co-authored the book Ghost Whisperer: Spirit Guide and created and wrote the award-winning Ghost Whisperer: The Other Side web series.  As founder of SLAM Digital Media, Moses pioneered the Total Engagement Experience (TEE), which is a business and creative model for television that uses each show as a component of a broader multi- platform entertainment experience. Using Internet, mobile, publishing, music, DVDs, video games, AOP (Audience Outreach Program) and more, TEE establishes an infinity loop that helps to drive ratings, increase revenue streams, and create viewer loyalty.  Moses has been named to the Newsweek’s Women and Leadership Advisory Committee and was honored with the WOMEN IN FILM’s Woman of The Year Award in 2011.

Julie Plec skillfully juggles work in film and television as both a producer and a writer.  She is the co-creator and executive producer of The Vampire Diaries and is currently the Executive Producer of two new series for the CW: she created The Vampire Diaries spin-off, The Originals, which tells the story of history’s first vampire family, and she collaborated with Greg Berlanti and Phil Klemmer on The Tomorrow People, which is the story of a small group of people gifted with extraordinary paranormal abilities, making them the next evolutionary leap of mankind.Plec got her start as a television writer on the ABC Family series Kyle XY, which she also produced for its three-year run. She will produce the feature @emma with Darko Entertainment.  Past feature production credits include Scream 2 and 3 Greg Berlanti’s Broken Hearts Club, Wes Craven’s Cursed and The Breed.

Robin Schiff has been working as a Hollywood writer-producer for more than twenty years.  She has numerous credits (feel free to imdb her), but is best known for the cult classic Romy And Michele's High School Reunion starring Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino.  She is currently writing a pilot for Amazon called Down Dog, which she will produce.  Robin was a member of famed The Groundlings comedy troupe.  She has served two terms on the Board Of Directors for the Writers Guild Of America west.  She also does an interview series once a year for the Writers Guild Foundation called Anatomy Of A Script where she and Winnie Holzman (writer of the musical Wicked)  discuss the craft with other well-known writers.  Robin also teaches a writing class with Wendy Goldman (who she met at The Groundlings) called Improv For Writing.  In her free time, Robin likes to watch TV and nap.

Stacy L. Smith (Ph.D., University of California, Santa Barbara, 1999) joined the USC Annenberg faculty in the fall of 2003.  Her research focuses on 1) content patterns pertaining to gender and race on screen in film and TV; 2) employment patterns behind-the-camera in entertainment; 3) barriers and opportunities facing women on screen and behind-the-camera in studio and independent films; and 4) children’s responses to mass media portrayals (television, film, video games) of violence, gender and hypersexuality.  Smith has written more than 75 journal articles, book chapters, and reports on content patterns and effects of the media.  Smith’s research has been written about in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, Newsweek, The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Slate.com, Salon.com, The Boston Globe, and USA Today to name a few.  She also has a co-edited essay in Maria Shriver’s book, A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything (2009). Since 2005, Dr. Smith has been working with a team of undergraduate and graduate students to assess portrayals of males and females in popular media.  Over two-dozen projects have been completed, assessing gender in films (e.g., 500+ top-grossing movies from 1990 to 2009, 180 Academy Award® Best Picture nominations from 1977 to 2010), TV shows (e.g., 1,034 children’s programs, two weeks of prime time shows), video games (e.g., 60 best selling), and point-of-purchase advertising (e.g., jacket covers of DVDs, video games). Currently, Smith is the director of a research-driven initiative at USC Annenberg on Media, Diversity, and Social Change.  The initiative produces cutting-edge, timely, and theory-driven empirical research on different entertainment-based minority groups.  Roughly 20-30 undergraduate and graduate students are conducting research on gender and race in her lab each year.  Educators, advocates, and activists can access and use the research to create sustainable industry change on screen and behind-the-camera.

 

Moderators:

Erin Reilly is Creative Director for Annenberg Innovation Lab and Research Director for Project New Media Literacies at USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.  Her research focus is children, youth and media and the interdisciplinary, creative learning experiences that occur through social and cultural participation with emergent technologies.Having received multiple awards, such as Cable in a Classroom’s Leaders in Learning, Erin is a recognized expert in the development of resources for educators and students and conducts field research to collect data and help shape the field of digital media and learning.  She is most notably known for co-creating one of the first social media citizen science programs, Zoey's Room.  Her current projects include PLAY!, a  new approach to professional development that refers to the value of play as a guiding principle in the educational process to foster participatory learning and The Mother Road, a chance to explore collective storytelling through the development of the Evocative Places eBook series.

Francesca Marie Smith has been a part of the Hollywood entertainment industry for nearly 25 years, beginning her career as a young actor involved with film and television projects for Nickelodeon, Disney, DreamWorks Animation, Pixar, and a variety of other studios and networks. Currently, she is a Provost's Fellow pursuing her PhD at the University of Southern California, where she is also a research associate with the Annenberg Innovation Lab, situating her work at the intersection of academia, technology, and media industries. Her research (as well as her teaching and public speaking) has spanned a range of topics--from argumentation, ethics, mental health, and public shootings to 1980s computer advertisements, Sherlock Holmes, and Batman's Joker. Currently, however, she focuses primarily on issues of transmedia storytelling, rhetoric, and (dis)ability. As one of the early Google Glass Explorers, she is avidly interested in the role of second- and multi-screen technologies, especially as they might be used in entertainment contexts. More broadly, she is working to trace the contours of the oft-ambiguous concept of "engagement" and how it might be facilitated and/or measured across a spectrum of audiences, narratives, and technologies.

Announcing Transforming Hollywood: The Futures Of Television

UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

and

USC School of Cinematic Arts

Announce

Transforming Hollywood: The Futures of Television, April 4, 2014, UCLA 

Co-directors:

Denise Mann, UCLA

Henry Jenkins, USC

Presented by the  Andrew J. Kuehn  Jr. Foundation

Media Sponsor: Variety

Friday April 4   2014

James Bridges Theater, UCLA

Conference overview:  This year, the fifth installment of Transmedia, Hollywood has been given a new name—Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television—to reflect our desire to engage more fully with the radical changes taking place in the American television industry for creators, distributors, and audiences. When future generations of historians write their accounts of the evolution of the American television industry, they will almost certainly point to the 2010s as a moment of dramatic change: we've seen the entry of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and YouTube as major players shaping the production of original programming, gaining critical praise, courting industry awards, and perhaps, most dramatically, starting to compete in terms of number of subscriptions to the top cable networks. We've seen Kickstarter emerge as an alternative means for "crowdfunding" television content, allowing fans to exert a greater role in shaping the future of their favorite series. We've seen a continued growth in the number of independent producers creating and distributing their content through the web. And with these other changes, we are seeing the industry and academia struggle to develop new insights into what it means to consume television content in this connected and yet dispersed marketplace. This conference will bring together key creative and corporate decision-makers who are shaping these changes and academics who have been trying to place these shifts in their larger historical and cultural contexts. What does all of this mean for those of us who are making or watching television?

For more information, see:  http://www.liquid-bass.com/conference/

For conference Registration, see : https://transforminghollywood5.eventbrite.com

 

Panel one: “Virtual Entrepreneurs—Creators Who are Reinventing TV for the Digital Future." 

9-9:10 Opening Remarks

Henry Jenkins, USC and Denise Mann, UCLA

9:10-11:00AM

Moderator: Denise Mann, UCLA

 

In the fall of 2011, Google announced plans to invest a hundred million dollars to forge talent partnerships with a number of talented YouTube creator in order to enhance the production value of their work and their value to brands. This panel gives voice to two new types of virtual entrepreneur: individual web-creators who are reinventing entertainment for the digital age, and the CEO of a new type of web-based multi-channel network (MCNs), which is forging deals with individual web-creators in exchange for providing them with infrastructural support in the form of sound stages, green screens, higher quality cameras and editing equipment, enhanced social media marketing tools, and brand alliances. Early entrepreneurs in this newly commercial, digital economy include Felicia Day and Sheri Bryant (Geek and Sundry), Freddie Wong (Video High School), and Dane Boetlinger (Annoying Orange), each of whom has catapulted his or herself into the top tier of web-celebs based on huge fan followings.  Many of these entrepreneurial web-creators have sought out deals with MCNS, such as Maker, Fullscreen, Maker, Machinima, and The Collective, in order to expand their budding entertainment enterprises. However, other creators are chafing inside these long-term contracts with the MCNs, frustrated by what they see as onerous terms—the split of advertising revenues and intellectual property rights. Today’s panel debates the viability of these new creative and business models, asking whether they represent a radical rethinking of entertainment that puts power back into the hands of creators or are they transitional systems that will eventually be absorbed by Hollywood’s big media groups.

 

2."The Programmers of the Future: Video Streaming on Demand." 

Moderator: Andrew Wallenstein, Editor-in-Chief, Digital, Variety

11:15AM-1PM

Overview: As consumers spend more of their free time online, viewing and sharing content on social networks such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Vimeo, Tumblir, and Vine, what does this mean for the future of television? Cord-cutters and cord-nevers represent a very real threat to the current big dogs of digital distribution—the multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs), also known as the subscription cable systems (Comcast, Time-Warner, Comcast), the satellite carriers (Direct TV), the telcos (AT&T U-verse), and the wireless companies (Verizon FiOS). At the same time, the MVPDs have been waging too many public battles with the Hollywood broadcasters over their high re-transmission fees, resorting to theatrics by pulling favorite sporting events and sit-coms--behavior that alienates consumers and tests the patience of government policy-makers.  At the same time, these policy-makers are making little effort to curb the reckless deal-making taking place in the video streaming on demand (VSOD) space as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, and new players, such as Microsoft X-box, make aggressive moves to expand globally while freeing themselves from their dependency on Hollywood licensing deals. By creating their own libraries of critically-acclaimed original programming—House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Betas—the VSOD services are creating legions of new, loyal consumers, paving the way for a future that may or may not include Hollywood's premium content licensing deals going forward. Furthermore, the VSOD services are attracting A-level talent by offering greater creative autonomy than their micro-managing counterparts at the studios and networks. Do these new programming and streaming options foretell the end of an era in Hollywood or the beginning of a revised set of practices for creators and additional viewing options for binging viewers? Only time will tell?

 

3. "Second Screens, Connected Viewing, Crowd-funding, and Social Media: Re-imagining Television Consumption."  

2-3:45PM

Moderator: Henry Jenkins, USC

 

Overview:  As the television industry has been remapping the flow of media content, as new forms of producers and distributors enter the marketplace, there has also been an accompanying effort to rethink their interface with media audiences.  Over the past decade, we’ve seen a renewed emphasis on audience engagement strategies which seek to insure consumer loyalty and social buzz as a way for individual programs or networks to “break through the clutter” of the multiplying array of media options. New metrics are emerging for measuring the value of engaged viewers and the kinds of social and cultural capital they bring with them when they embrace a program. So, for example, the rise of Black Twitter has been credited with helping to rally support behind new programs with strong black protagonists, such as Scandal, Sleepy Hollow, and Being Mary Jane.  Second screen apps are becoming ubiquitous as television producers seek to hold onto the attention of a generation of viewers who are prone to multitasking impulses. The successful Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign opens up the prospect of fans helping to provide funding in support of their favorite stars, creators, or series. And the commercial success of 50 Shades of Gray, which was adapted from a piece of Twilight fan fiction, has alerted the publishing world to a hitherfore underappreciated value of women’s fan fiction writing as a recruiting ground for new talent and as a source for new creative material. Yet, for all this focus on engaged audiences, does the industry value some form of viewers and viewership more than others? Which groups are being under-represented here and why? Are the new economic arrangements between fans and producers fair to all involved?

  

4. Indie TV: Where Creators and Fans Pilot New Shows

Moderator: Aymar Jean Christian, Northwestern University

4-5:45PM

 

Overview: The Internet broke the network bottleneck. Through platforms like YouTube and Vimeo, creators release series directly to fans, who follow shows and share them with friends. Web-content creators can write stories in whatever length, style, and genre they choose, on their own schedule, and with actors of their choosing. The result is a truly open television ecosystem, where creators, talent and fans work together to realize stories they want to see. Each of the producers who appear on this panel has contributed to this new vision of television, producing series that are developed for the Internet but are also being shaped for traditional TV as well (several of these series are being developed on HBO). Issa Rae developed The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl with a small team and expanded the show using a successful crowdfunding campaign; she went on to produce a number of series with other creators,including Amy Rubin’s Little Horribles. Released by her own Barnacle Studios, Rubins sitcom became a hit with fans and critics at Variety, LA Weekly and Splitsider, among many others. Dennis Dortch and Numa Perrier launched the Black & Sexy TV network to showcase indie comedy, releasing their own hit series, The Couple, and many others from emerging Hollywood talent. Jay Bushman helped The Lizzie Bennet Diaries grow into a deeply engaging transmedia phenomenon, where viewers of the Jane Austen-inspired series followed characters from YouTube to Twitter and Pinterest. As these examples convey, the internet has become an incubator for talented, next-generation web-creators and web-celebs, who, in combination with their fan followers, are reinventing television for the digital age.

 

Speakers to be announced.

SAVE THE DATE. WATCH THIS BLOG FOR FURTHER UPDATES

 

Situating Bollywood: An Interview with Aswin Punathabekar (Part Three)

Despite your description of the range of media industries and practices which construct Bollywood today, it is clear that cinema remains the center around which all of these other media systems operate, and you also argue that cinema remains core to understanding the connections between Indian diasporic identity and media. So, what accounts for the continued centrality of cinema to the narrative you are constructing, given the other pressures towards transmedia and transnational logics you describe?

There are several reasons for the privileged position cinema occupies. The first is simply the enduring popularity of films and film music (mainly Hindi language cinema from Bombay) among South Asian families who migrated to the U.S. following changes in immigration law in 1965. From the late 1960s, when enterprising families began screening films in university halls and other venues, to the recent forays into film exhibition by Bombay-based media companies like Reliance Entertainment, Hindi-language Bollywood films continue to dominate the Desi mediascape.

These film screenings were usually held in university halls rented for a few hours during the weekend, with films screened off 16mm, and later, 35mm reels. These weekend screenings, with an intermission that lasted 30-45 minutes, were an occasion, apart from religious festivals, for people to wear traditional clothes, speak in Hindi or other regional languages, and participate in a ritual that was reminiscent of “home.”

During a period in which there were no cultural institutions in place, and little on offer in mainstream media that resonated with their emotions, nostalgic longing, and cultural values, leave alone addressing the difficulties of life in a new cultural space, these screenings were marked as an exclusively Indian space, away from mainstream society, where families could meet and participate in a ritual of sharing personal and collective memories of life in India.

A second reason that films and film music figure prominently in discussions of Desi youth culture relates to Desi youth appropriating and re-mixing film songs and dance sequences in college events, dance clubs, and so on.

Third, it is in and through cinema that diasporic writers and directors like Hanif Kureishi, Mira Nair, and Gurinder Chadha began addressing the complexities of claiming and defining South Asian identities in countries such as the U.K. and the U.S.

But you’re right that we are beginning to see some major changes in the diasporic mediascape. One question to ask is: do we even have a space for diasporic south asian films?

Mira Nair’s The Namesake does deal with diasporic themes, but it is a Bombay-based company that produced and distributed the film. Further, we are not at a point in the cultural life of the South Asian diaspora where media from the Indian subcontinent is only one part of a very diverse mix. Finally, with a range of actors of Indian-origin making their way into American and British public culture, one might argue that the diasporic sensibility that marked the work of cultural producers during the late 1980s-mid-1990s has given way to engagement with mainstream media.

 You begin your discussion of Bollywood fans by setting up the contrast between grassroots forms of media circulation that get labeled “media piracy” and various forms of industry cooperation which get labeled “crowdsourcing.” Is there a meaningful “space in between” these two paradigms? If so, what does it look like?

Part of the difficulty involved in charting the terrain of participatory culture surrounding Bollywood, especially in an era of networked audiences and publics, stems from the sheer range of sites and modes of participation one encounters. And in the Indian context, our understanding of participatory culture remains tied to a very specific history of fan associations and their links to electoral politics in south India. This narrative of fan/cine-politics has been so dominant that other modes and sites of participatory culture have not been considered, leave alone studied in systematic fashion, for no apparent reason other than their seemingly “non-political” character.

In fact, the topic of fan activity has not even been raised in relation to Bollywood. So in the book, I drew on some research I’ve done on fans of A. R. Rahman to argue that we need to move beyond narratives of political mobilization. The major Rahman fan community online includes fans who are primarily interested in film music, fans based in Malaysia for whom participation in the Rahman fan community is part of a larger process of claiming a Tamil ethnic identity, fans in India who work with Rahman, some fans who are, yes, “pirates,” and some who go so far as to police music stores (makeshift stores set up on pavements in busy shopping areas, in shopping complexes, and so on), threatening to call the police if pirated CDs of Rahman’s music are not taken off the shelf.

This is, as you put, a very complex “space in between” piracy and crowdsourcing. And we simply do not have the critical vocabulary to describe and theorize what’s going on in this space.

While my own recent work has sought to map the emerging links between fandom and activism, you argue that these links have totally dominated discourse around Bollywood film fans to the extent that they crowd out understandings of film consumption in the context of everyday life practices. American fan studies has often been accused of not being sufficiently political, of being too interested in the personal, cultural, affective, and social dimensions of popular culture. What might these two groups of scholars learn from each other?

The crucial difference we need to first acknowledge is between film studies and TV/media and communication studies in the Indian context. Film studies is the disciplinary location within which there has been at least some discussion of fandom, even if it has been studied primarily in the south Indian political context.

TV/media studies in the Indian context is yet to take the question of participatory culture seriously. I do not know of a single book-length study of participatory culture surrounding television in India. This is beginning to change in part because the past decade in India has been marked by some very interesting instances of participation surrounding reality TV, for instance, that has intersected with larger political issues.

In my own work in this emerging area, I’ve tried to be very careful to not make easy ‘political’ readings simply because I know next to nothing about the sociable dimensions of participation. And this is what I admire so much about scholars’ work on pleasure and participation in the American context.

As I see it, what we have here in the US is a wealth of historically grounded material on audiences and fans that provides a necessary foundation for examining links between participation and politics. But despite this archive that we have to work with, I feel strongly that it is only when we fully comprehend how participation and everyday life – say, in relation to our current digital and mobile context - are braided together that we can meaningfully pose questions about political impact.

 Your final paragraph includes a very provocative statement, which I was hoping you might expand upon here: “to look broadly at fan participation is to imagine transnational media worlds that are intimately tied to, but not always constrained by, statist or industrial imperatives.” Do tell.

As I've already explained, fan activity surrounding cinema in India - south India, in particular - has always had very close connections to the realm of politics. This cine-politics take on fandom has tended to dominate our understanding of participatory culture in India.

However, this cine-politics frame has given way to an extent under the influence of the incredible expansion of the mediascape since the mid-1990s. One of the key changes that the proliferation of television channels engendered was a shift in how audiences were imagined. Television channels like MTV-India, Channel [V], Star Plus, ZEE, and others invited audience participation. Of course, audience participation was tightly controlled and managed expertly - from talent shows to programs like Lift Kara De that leveraged fan labor for ostensibly humanitarian ends.

These changes made it clear that fandom was now an integral part of the corporate media apparatus. What I tried to signal with that last statement is the need to look beyond these two dominant frameworks - politics/state and market - without ignoring their structuring effects. I wanted to make a case for approaching fandom in India from a position of trust rather than suspicion (as my friend and colleague Paddy Scannell argues, media studies tends to operate with a hermeneutics of suspicion). Or to draw on your work, I want us to hop on this realm of pop, not stomp all over it.

For e.g., there is a group of fans who have painstakingly collected and subtitled numerous videos - film clips, TV appearances, interviews, advertisements, etc. - of the Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan. For anyone who might not understand the Hindi language, this website - srkpagli.net - was a wonderful resource. To approach the work that these fans have done by - a) dismissing it as apolitical or b) as simply a part of the Shahrukh Khan/corporate Bollywood system - is too reductive. I simply wanted to clear the space so we can begin to acknowledge the astonishing range of practices that constitute 'fandom' in the Indian context, and in doing so, develop richer and more nuanced accounts of participatory culture.
Aswin Punathambekar is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is the author of From Bombay to Bollywood: The Making of a Global Media Industry (2013), and co-editor of Television at Large in South Asia (2013)and Global Bollywood (2008). He is now conducting research on the politics of mediated activism in India as part of a collaborative SSRC project on "Media, Activism, and the New Political."

Situating Bollywood: An Interview with Aswin Punathambekar (Part Two)

You spend a significant amount of time in the book exploring the role that MTV India has played in shifting how films are marketed and how Bollywood understands its audiences. What factors have allowed MTV India to become a core player in this space? What has been their impact on Bollywood's media strategies?

MTV did play a crucial role in shaping Bollywood’s industrial identity and marketing strategies, but it didn’t happen overnight. A range of new television channels that entered the Indian market during the mid-1990s attracted audiences with a range of film-based programs. ZEE, Star Plus, and other channels introduced a number of innovative film music-based shows like AntakshariSa Re Ga Ma, and Videocon Flashback, weekly countdown shows like BPL Oye and Philips Top Ten, and shows that reviewed popular films and evaluated their box office performance.

In fact, MTV-India went off the air for a period of two years and returned in 1996 with a redesigned brand identity and, most crucially, with the recognition of the importance of Hindi film music and “localized” programming to its fortunes in the Indian market.

Suggesting that the makeover was not exactly an easy process, one MTV-India executive explained to me that the decision to start with the “look” of the channel, especially the on-air promos, turned out to be the right one and crucial in terms of reaching out to directors and producers in the Bombay film industry who were skeptical, if not dismissive, of music television. As this executive put it, their goal was to “dovetail cool with Bollywood.”

Beginning in 1997-98, with a clear mandate to forge ties with the film industry, MTV-India executives began initiating conversations with a range of producers and directors in the Hindi film industry. And it took well over two years before the film industry began responding to television executives’ overtures. Once they had their foot in the door, however, MTV-India began making the case that their particular brand identity and programming sensibility would make the difference in what was a very cluttered television landscape. And by the early 2000s, Bollywood producers began setting aside a larger percentage of the budget for marketing and promoting films.

 

What roles did the internet play in shifting the relations between domestic and diasporic audiences for Bollywood films? To what degree is the contemporary media industry being shaped by a desire to court and capture “NRI Eyeballs”?

The trouble with saying anything about Bollywood-internet connections is the pace at which things change! My research does not take into account the impact that social media has had on marketing, stardom, participatory culture, and so on. But I can say that dot-com companies did play a central role in establishing the “overseas territory” as a key economic and cultural site for Bollywood. Simply put, television and marketing professionals working in Mumbai were not in a position to shape Bollywood’s relationship with overseas markets.

Speaking a language of web-metrics and capitalizing on the growing interest in marketing and promotions, dot-com companies began generating knowledge about overseas audiences’ engagement with Bollywood that was hitherto unavailable to filmmakers and stars operating primarily from Bombay. More crucially, dot-com professionals were able to forge connections and establish themselves within existing social networks in Bombay’s media world. And in doing so, dot-com companies emerged as powerful knowledge brokers who shaped the imaginations and practices of film industry professionals for whom envisioning an overseas territory had come to constitute an increasingly important dimension of going global.

Exploring this terrain raised a very interesting question for me regarding the dynamic relation between the expansion of capital into new territories and the work of rendering those new territories more imaginable. What Bollywood got was, in fact a very limited “spatial fix” as dot-com companies interpreted and resolved the problem of space—of imagining the overseas territory—in terms of overseas audiences’ cultural temporality with the nation. In other words, these companies only thought about the overseas territory in terms of non-Resident Indians. It is only over the past 4-5 years that these industry professionals have begun taking into account Bollywood’s popularity beyond South Asian communities.

 

What do you see as the use value of the concept of “transmedia entertainment” for exploring the ways that convergence has impacted the Bollywood industry? What do you see as missing from such an approach?

 

I don’t think “transmedia entertainment” is particularly useful at this point. I have yet to see a media producer in Bombay truly grasp the potential for transmedia storytelling. At the moment, it is largely driven by a marketing sensibility: pushing Bollywood content across platforms. To be sure, there have been a handful of interesting marketing campaigns and there was also an ambitious attempt to draw on India’s rich mythological tradition to drive film content. But we are yet to see a major push for storytelling across media.

Writers have started to talk about “Bollystan” to describe this new configuration of diasporic cultural identity. What does this term mean and is it a good description of the changes you are discussing in your book?

 

The term comes from a widely circulated article titled “Bollystan: The Global India,” in which the author Parag Khanna reflected on how processes of globalization had reframed relations between India and the vast Indian diaspora. Khanna wrote: “Increasingly linked by culture and technology, they form a Global India, which I call Bollystan. ‘Bolly’ connotes culture (e.g., Bollywood), and ‘Stan’ (Farsi for “land”) represents the transcendence of borders and sovereignty.” Khanna’s neologism first appeared in the Fall 2004 issue of Another Magazine, a now defunct publication targeted at “young, upwardly mobile South Asians.” Featuring Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai on the cover, the magazine declared: “Bollystan is a state without borders, defined by a shared culture and common values.”

Using the term Bollystan to refer to a vast space of trans-national cultural production that included everything from henna tattoos and remix music to literature and films, Khanna and other writers sought to map how rapid flows of people, culture and capital across national borders have rendered difficult any easy separation between nation and diaspora. In fact, Khanna proceeded to argue that Bollystan is “cosmopolitanism’s inversion: instead of one person being at home anywhere, it is re-rooting Desis everywhere in a real and imagined shared cultural space.”

But the fact is that where commercial media ventures are concerned, Bollystan has a very specific Anglo-American cultural geography and as a consequence, re-roots only certain kinds of Desis. The network of cities that are part of diasporic entrepreneurs’ imagination of Bollywood’s global reach include cities such as London, New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto but not, for instance, Durban in South Africa. And even within these cities in the Global North, it is only a certain narrow, largely middle and upper-middle class cultural sphere of South Asians that informs the imaginations and practices of media industry professionals.

Aswin Punathambekar is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is the author of From Bombay to Bollywood: The Making of a Global Media Industry (2013), and co-editor of Television at Large in South Asia (2013)and Global Bollywood (2008). He is now conducting research on the politics of mediated activism in India as part of a collaborative SSRC project on "Media, Activism, and the New Political."

Situating Bollywood: An Interview with Aswin Punathambekar (Part One)

This is another in a series of interviews with the authors of books we have published through the PostMillenial Pop series which I co-edit with Karen Tongson for New York University Press.  I have known Aswin Punathambekar since he was part of one of the first cohorts of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program, where he did an ethnography/oral history of the experience of South Asian diasporic audiences in Boston as they impacted the reception of Bollywood films. He continued his graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where his dissertation focused on the online fandom around Bollywood composer A. R. Rahman. He has made some key contributions to the project of expanding the study of fandom and participatory culture beyond its origins in Western Culture, as reflected by articles published in Transformative Works and Culture and Popular Communication.

In a relatively short period of time, Punathambekar has developed a scholarly profile that is at once programmatic (in that he continually  deepens our understanding of media production and consumption in India and its global diaspora) and expansive (in that he has used his expertise on Bollywood to bring a much needed non-western perspective to work on a range of topics, including fan studies, participatory culture, media convergence, narrowcasting, mobile media, and digital citizenship, which have been central to media scholarship in the 21st century.) Punathambekar  has expanded upon his initial focus on audience studies to develop a mixed methods approach, which is at once theoretically sophisticated and historically informed.

His new book, From Bombay to Bollywood is a tour de force, one which connects Bollywood decisively to larger conversations about our current moment of media change, one which moves incorporates close readings not only of texts but also of media rituals (informed by the best work in Production Studies), to explain the larger contexts through which Bollywood operates as a global media industry, one that moves backwards from Bollywood's relationship to digital networks to explore the historic role in radio in helping to shape the circulation of Indian film music.  This expansive understanding of what once might have been treated purely through a lens of "national cinema" was anticipated by his Global Bollywood anthology, which he co-edited with Anadam P. Kavoori. Global Bollywood brought together established scholars with younger researchers, many of whom received their first publications under his leadership, to create an important and groundbreaking exchange around how Hindi Cinema reflects and drives larger developments in the global media scape.

In this interview, he situates Bollywood at a series of intersections between film and other media, between local, regional, national, and transnational industries, between domestic and diasporic audiences, and between producers and fans.

You begin the book with the suggestion that Bollywood should be studied across media rather than through more traditional paradigms of national cinema. What factors have contributed to making Bollywood a particularly rich case for understanding contemporary convergence culture?

I worked out this perspective of media convergence or inter-media relations in part by revisiting a question that several scholars have tackled: how did Bombay emerge and maintain its position as the pre-eminent media capital in India? Film and media scholars have identified a number of key factors: the city’s position as a center of trade and commerce, and the influx, through the decades, of mercantile capital into film-making; its status as a vibrant cultural center, with established theater movements initially providing the film industry with a range of creative personnel; the use of Hindi which accorded the Bombay-based film industry (located in a multi-lingual city and in a state where the official language is Marathi) ‘national’ status whereas film industries in cities like Madras and Hyderabad were ascribed ‘regional’ status; and the impact of India’s partition on other centers of film production, most notably Calcutta and Lahore, and the migration of a number of producers, directors, actors and technicians to Bombay during this period.

I argue that there is another important factor: the role played by new media—radio, television, the internet and the mobile phone—in enabling the Bombay film industry to consistently imagine and mobilize a national and now, transnational audience. Moving past a film-centric approach, the case studies of television and dot-com companies’ relations with the film industry that I develop in the book invite us to consider how various ‘new media’ have, historically, reconfigured the cultural geography of Bombay cinema and Bombay’s status as a media capital.

Considering the case of Radio Ceylon, which broadcast a range of film-based programs that reached audiences across the Indian subcontinent, South Africa, and even some cities in east Africa, encourages us to ponder how other technological and institutional developments influenced the circulation of films and film music, transforming the Bombay film industry’s spatial coordinates and engendering new sites and forms of consumption. This does not necessarily mean that we think only about continuities from the 1950s to the present. Rather, my goal is to open up a space for more grounded explorations of the interwoven histories of different media technologies and institutions and, in the process, expand our understanding of the histories and patterns of media convergence.

So at a basic level, the ‘national cinema’ paradigm isn’t productive given Bombay’s position as a media capital that has always been shaped by trans-national forces and factors.  I’ll say more about the limitations of a strictly ‘national’ framework as I answer other questions here. But I should also point out that film historians like Priya Jaikumar have argued very convincingly that we need to move past the national cinema framework to understand how aesthetics, regulation, and other dimensions of the cinema in India have always been worked out in relation to various trans-national forces and factors.

You note that most work to date within the production studies tradition has focused on western and for the most part, American contexts. So, what might production studies as an emerging paradigm gain from a more thorough exploration of media production in India?

 

This is a crucial question not only for production culture/industry studies but media studies at large. Too often, “global media studies” serves as a mere placeholder for media studies outside Anglo-American academic settings, with “global” gesturing towards studies of “Other” media ecologies. Such studies are often understood as mere case studies that test and refine theoretical concepts developed within media studies proper. In writing this book, I have tried hard to steer clear of fitting what I observed into existing theories of production culture while at the same time avoiding celebrations of local difference.

For instance, I take into account the enduring power of long-standing social and kinship relationships in the Bombay film industry and, equally important, the creative ways in which small-scale, family-run businesses have responded to changes in the global media landscape and calls for corporatization. Examining the impact that the discourse of corporatization has had on the film industry by analyzing the construction of industrial identities suggests that the narrative of transition from one established mode of production to a new one, say Fordism to post-Fordism, does not adequately explain the industrial logics and practices that characterize Bollywood.

In fact, Madhava Prasad’s observation that the Hindi film industry adopted a “heterogeneous form of manufacture in which the whole is assembled from parts produced separately by specialists, rather than being centralized around the processing of a given material,” troubles stagist narratives of media industries in the non-Western world catching up with those in the West. After all, the dominant mode of production in the Bombay film industry could be described using terms like flexible accumulation and de-centralization that theorists like David Harvey use to describe the logics of late capitalism in the West. In other words, the particular histories of capital in Bombay cannot be easily set aside.

But this does not imply documenting a set of practices that are somehow essentially Indian. A closer look at the operations of family firms suggests that production relations defined by mercantile capital and kinship networks are neither static nor contained within national boundaries. And when we move beyond family businesses to consider a wider range of companies and professionals, it becomes clear that every domain of Bollywood including production, distribution, marketing and promotions, and exhibition involves negotiations among actors and institutions enmeshed in multiple, asymmetric, and seemingly incongruent cultures of capitalism.

You link the global extension of Bollywood to shifts in national cultural and media policy in India over the past decade, policies which involved a greater state role in the financing of media production, the regulation and “corporatization” of the media industries, and a recognition of the core cultural mission which film plays in shaping communication between the South Asian Disapora and the mother country. During this same period, though, we’ve seen a growing crisis in state funding and support for cinema, television, and other media across Europe. What might we learn by looking at developments in India and Western Europe side by side as we think about the place of state funding for media production in the 21st century?

Situating the emergence of Bollywood within the socio-historical conjuncture of the past two decades helps us understand how the state worked out its relationship with the cultural industries. Let’s not forget that even though Bombay had emerged as major center of film production during the 1930s and 40s, the Indian state did not regard filmmaking as an important industrial activity or as central to the project of defining national culture. What changed during the late 1980s and early 1990s?

This was a period that witnessed a number of socio-cultural and political transitions engendered by the Indian state’s adoption and gradual legitimization of neo-liberal economic policies including the privatization of different sectors of the economy and, broadly speaking, attempts to integrate the nation into a global economy. Among other arenas of cultural production, Hindi-language films and television shows played a crucial role in mediating these concerns. So one way to understand the state’s overtures towards the media industries is in terms of the media industries having become useful to the state. This is, of course, a global story. For instance, we see this kind of strategic alignment of state-media relations in the UK and Australia under the “creative industries” banner.

But in the Indian context, the usefulness of the media and entertainment industries was articulated in more than just this economic sense. If we consider Bollywood’s presence in settings such as the World Economic Forum (at Davos), we can see that the transformation of the Bombay film industry into Bollywood was caught up in a larger process of the state re-aligning its understanding of ‘culture as resource’ away from well-worn developmentalist paradigms towards meeting the demands of new circuits of capital. While development-oriented media production had its own shortcomings, it wasn’t beholden to commercial mandates. If anything, it is all the more difficult now to imagine carving out a space for independent and public media production.

It is also important to keep in mind that this particular re-alignment of state-media relations ended up privileging Bollywood as the global (Indian) media industry. The Tamil and Telugu language film and television industries based in Chennai and Hyderabad, for instance, are anything but “local.” The use of the term “regional” to mark these industries’ position within the Indian mediascape and the Indian state’s material and symbolic investments in Bollywood underscore the continued relevance of the “national” as a scale where the politics of media globalization play out.

Aswin Punathambekar is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is the author of From Bombay to Bollywood: The Making of a Global Media Industry (2013), and co-editor of Television at Large in South Asia (2013)and Global Bollywood (2008). He is now conducting research on the politics of mediated activism in India as part of a collaborative SSRC project on "Media, Activism, and the New Political."

What World Wrestling Entertainment Can Teach Us About the Future of Television (Part One)

The following exchange is between my son, Henry Jenkins IV, who is a Creative Development Coordinator at the Alchemists, a transmedia company, and Sam Ford, who is  Director of Audience Engagement at Pepercom Communications, a strategic communications firm. They are both life-long wrestling fans and regular contributors to this blog. They are sharing their thoughts here about some significant new developments in the world of "sports entertainment," which constitute another of those factors this past year, which are transforming television as we know itTom Phillips,  Senior Research Associate contributing to research at University of East Anglia and University of Edinburgh, has written a thoughtful response to this blog post, which can be read here

Henry: World Wrestling Entertainment recently announced the launch of the WWE Network – a 24 hour programming track, and an online archive, that audiences will access through their computers, smart phones, video game systems and DVRs. Many of you may not be wrestling fans, but read on, because this case study has big implications on the future of television and fandom. I’m excited not only as a lifelong fan but as a Hollywood transmedia writer who grew up as the son of Professor Henry Jenkins. I immediately reached out to my longtime friend and colleague, Sam Ford, who I consider to be the world’s foremost professional wrestling scholar, and I asked him if he wanted to write a public dialogue with me about why this is such a game changer in and outside of the wrestling world.

If you can’t quite picture what the WWE Network will be like, that’s because there’s never been anything like it before. The closest comparison would be to Netflix, which can be accessed through many digital devices, but does not show their content over the air. The WWE is likewise putting their entire archive of 100,000 hours of shows on the server for fans to play with. But unlike Netflix, they’re also going to be airing content 24/7 on a cable-style channel,  with a slate of original reality shows and sports desk shows, which you access through your iPhone, Android, Playstation, XBOX, Roku, Apple TV, etc.

This isn’t the first time that the WWE has driven a new TV format. In 1982, Vince McMahon acquired the WWF from his father. The company had been a popular regional promotion in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states since 1963, and his dad intended for it to stay grassroots. His son had visions of national fame, so in 1985 Vince essentially spent the company’s entire fortune putting on a one night show, Wrestlemania. But in a bigger gamble, he relied on audiences to use a relatively untested technology – closed circuit television – in order to watch. The technology was so new that in many cases the WWF had to buy the equipment for the theaters. The gamble paid off. Cinemas coast-to-coast sold out showings of the event; just two years later, closed-circuit theater broadcasts were overtaken by pay-per-view in homes; and now the WWE charges fans $55 a showing to watch 12 pay-per-view events a year. They built their company, but they also created a demand for a new way to watch sports.

The biggest headline for many fans now is the change in price structure. Buying 12 pay-per-views at $55 each costs $660 a year. There are also a limited number of people willing to do it. The WWE Network costs $10 a month – or just $120 a year – and expects to attract six or seven times as many viewers. Cash-strapped families and young fans who cannot spend $660 have been left out, while many adults have turned to illegal downloads. But those same people have been blown away by the possibility of spending $10 a month to get the same content. A weird analogy: The economics of it sound like Obamacare. If millions of people who are currently paying nothing now start paying $10 a month the WWE can afford to charge the average customer less.

Although many sports fans don’t know it, Major League Baseball already has a digital channel. It is not hard to believe that if the WWE Network is successful, other brands will follow suit. Just like movie studios made pay-per-view a part of their business model – releasing films there after theater runs but before DVDs and TV debuts in order to milk additional revenue – it is easy to imagine Warner Bros. putting their entire film and television catalogue on a subscription-based digital archive. Well, the WWE is now removing most of their offerings from Netflix and making them exclusive to their service. What would happen if a company like Warner Brothers did the same? Sam?

Sam: Thanks for inviting me to take part in this dialogue, Henry. Like you, I’ve been a long-time viewer of pro wresting and—while there are a long list of reasons I would hardly call the pro wrestling industry as a whole a progressive one—it certainly has been transformative in the way it deals with storytelling. For those who don’t watch WWE, let me back up for a moment and explain exactly why a 24/7 storytelling model makes particular sense for the WWE and why I think it behooves both those working in the media industries and media scholars to pay especially close attention.

First, pro wrestling has the opportunity to conduct storytelling on multiple levels simultaneously:
  • The pro wrestling match is a narrative into itself—the fictional depiction of an athletic competition with a beginning, middle, and end—governed by rules that have remained fairly consistent across the history of this “sports entertainment” performance genre. So, as opposed to any other sort of fictional programming, almost any individual segment of any pro wrestling show is, in itself, a discrete chapter that could be watched on its own as a “mini-episode.”
  • Then, there is a narrative that spans the course of an individual show. An episode of WWE RAW or WWE Friday Night Smackdown or a PPV event all takes place, typically, in one arena, in front of one live crowd…like an individual sporting event…and there is a script that connects all of the matches and “segments” taking place in any one night together into a discrete whole, as an episode of television.
  • At the next level, there is the ongoing story arc of the WWE, which is typically built in one-month increments and which leads to a climax with the pay-per-view event. In other words, the month of programming leading up to a “big show” basically is designed to set up the rivalries, the tensions, and the background story to get people to tune into the major show that resolves all the questions that the programming has built up to. In the days before there was closed circuit and PPV, this is the same model wrestling promoters like Vince’s father used to drive people to go to Madison Square Garden or the other big arenas in his regional circuit—Boston, DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, etc.—to see the big rivalries taking place at the moment. The TV programming plays a promotional element to drive people to the most important shows, where typically the best matches take place, where the championships are most likely to change hands, and where, traditionally, the biggest moments would take place.
  • But, at the next level, of course the storylines coming out of one PPV event typically role right into the next, so WWE maintains a “TV season” that runs all year long—that means there are 6 hours of WWE TV shows on network/cable every week, along with a range of internet, DVD, and on-demand shows—with no “re-run season.” For WWE, the climax of each “season” is Wrestlemania, so the typical flow is that the new WWE season in a way begins the night after Wrestlemania, dealing with the aftermath of the biggest show of the year, and everything from that point forward slowly starts to build to the next Wrestlemania.
  • Finally, since WWE’s season never really ends, there are “meta” narratives that spans the course of time. Since WWE has the advantage of both having a deep well of serialized stories that go back for decades—with at least most of the previous decades’ archives saved—as well as the fact that most of those individual units—matches, interviews, etc.—can be treated as their own discrete segment—they have a way of drawing from their archive that few can. They can tell the story of the evolution of a particular character through the course of that history…and, since they have bought the archives of many of their competitors now out of business, that story can be told by even looking at their history as they’ve jumped from one part of the “pro wrestling” narrative universe to another. They can also tell the history of particular time periods in wrestling, of particular promotions, of particular types of matches, of particular rivalries…there are a wide range of ways they can slice and dice—and move through—their history.
Second, WWE has a unique ability among entertainment franchises in terms of creating an “immersive storyworld.” Elsewhere, I’ve defined “immersive storyworlds” as narratives which include the following attributes:
  1. expansive backstories which can’t be neatly summarized
  2. a vast set of ensemble characters, including a few who may front burner at the moment but with a wide variety who may only show up from time to time
  3. tying current storylines to the extensive history of the narrative world
  4. managed by multiple creative forces, often both at any one time and also through generations of storytellers who have controlled the property at one point or another
  5. a hyper-serialization
  6. a sense of permanence to the narrative world
For WWE, this is conducted by mimicking the sports world. Elsewhere, I’ve called WWE “the world’s biggest alternate reality game,” because they are a fictional story that uses all of the tropes of a real sports league to basically turn our “real world” into the story world for a fictional narrative. Often, wrestlers compete under their real names or draw on a range of elements from their real lives, blurring the line between fiction and reality. The core and longest-lasting part of the pro wrestling business model is the live event, which means stories are told about these wrestlers as they travel from arena to arena—and they are telling stories about themselves through social media accounts that the performers themselves run—as they carry out in real time, in the same world the WWE’s audience lives in. And, if you purchase a ticket, you can even go and watch the next installment of the story live.
This means the potential WWE has for being the true masters of “transmedia storytelling” is unmatched. However, the issue WWE has faced until now is that they have spent much of the past two decades distancing themselves from the sports background—emphasizing the “entertainment” over the “sport.” Now, they are trying to shift that pendulum back and to think through what the unique advantages are of being a fictional property purporting to be a sports league. As they see MLB, NFL, NASCAR, and others negotiate massive TV and sponsorship deals, they realize that they could forge a path between “sports” and “entertainment” that might take advantage of both in a way no other storytelling company could.
Through that lens, I’d say that every other media/entertainment company—and sports company—should watch what WWE is doing because they could perhaps learn a lot from it. However, on the other hand, the potential WWE has here is unique to them, because no other narrative out there is better suited to move to this sort of model. No other narrative has the potential to both take advantage of its video archive in the way WWE does, nor to tell ongoing stories through this sort of model.
But these observations speak primarily to how WWE is uniquely suited to draw on its archive and to move its current way of storytelling to a unique online video distribution model…and why the rest of the entertainment world…as well as media scholars...ought to pay attention to what’s happening here. The question remains…for those of us who care about pro wrestling narratives themselves…what are the narrative potentials this new model affords? What are the narrative challenges? And what will be WWE’s mentality of making the most use of those potentials? As someone now working in the entertainment and storytelling business, Henry, I’d be curious your take on what this might mean for WWE in particular.

 MORE TO COME

Sam Ford has been a fan of professional wrestling since his youth. His fan activities has ranged from fantasy wrestling leagues to putting on costume wrestling shows with his high school friends to even, for a time, being a licensed professional wrestling manager in the state of Kentucky and playing the role of owner of the local “Universal Championship Wrestling.” He has taught courses on pro wrestling in U.S. culture at MIT and at Western Kentucky University and has written about wrestling in publications like Fast Company, CommPRO.biz, Cinema Journal Teaching DossierIn Media Res, and in an essay in the 2012 book Bodies of Discourse. His undergraduate honors thesis at Western Kentucky University was entitled “Grappling with Scholarship on Pro Wrestling: Comparative Media Studies Inside the Ring.” Sam is Director of Audience Engagement at Peppercomm, an affiliate with MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing and the Popular Culture Studies Program at Western Kentucky University, and co-author, with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green, of the 2013 book Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.

Henry Jenkins IV is a devoted fan, and critic, of professional wrestling. The son of Professor Henry Jenkins, he dressed up as The Undertaker for Halloween as a child; wrote scripts as an apprentice promoter with the Carolina Wrestling Federation after college; and will attend his eighth Wrestlemania in New Orleans this April. He previously wrote memoir accounts - first of being a child fan in the 80s in the article "Growing Up and Growing More Mature" for Nicholas Sammond's collection Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling and then of a recent trip to Wrestlemania with his dad in "Same Old Shit!": Fan Resistance at Wrestlemania 29. He is a transmedia producer and write for The Alchemists whose credits include The CW drama Cult and the Hulu original series East Los High. He has also written numerous unproduced television pilot scripts which lay the groundwork for transmedia franchises. Last year he performed a five month study on The 20 Greatest Franchises of All Time and summarized his findings in a proprietary white paper for The Alchemists. He ranked the WWE near the top.

Rethinking the "Value" of Entertainment Franchises: An Interview with Derek Johnson (Part Two)

  What do you see as the limits of the concept of transmedia storytelling for accounting for the range of different production practices you discuss in the book?

 It’s often very appropriate to talk about franchising in terms of transmedia storytelling, but as I understood the concept in my reading of your work in Convergence Culture, I felt that transmedia storytelling represented a kind of aesthetically ideal case of franchising, where every element is designed to work together in a coordinated, coherent, integral way, without elements that seem unimportant to an overarching story.  Often, a way to do this is to ensure that your franchise is being guided by a strong authorial, editorial, or managerial vision.  I may be reading what you originally wrote a bit strictly, and I really love how you have since extended the concept to account for a greater range of multiplicity—where one-off interpretations and “what if?” spins on the franchise still make an integral contribution to the whole through their unique take on the formula.  I’m not always sure that creation under a centralized vision is the most interesting or ideal, so I think that acknowledging the pleasures of multiplicity and divergent interpretations really enhances our understanding of transmedia storytelling.

But where I think transmedia storytelling cannot fully account for the full range of franchising is in the inherent messiness of franchising and its push away from integrated forms of collaboration.  I think that all transmedia storytelling is a form of franchising, but not all franchising manages to count as transmedia storytelling.  The industrial relationships of franchising across boundaries of corporation, media form, and production community lead to a resistance to the kind of collaborative creativity transmedia storytelling implies.  For many in the industry who have embraced the idea of transmedia storytelling, I feel that franchising is the “bad” object they want to move away from.  I think franchising is very much with us still, and I’m interested in it a little more because I want to understand the persistent tensions and struggles and unevenness that the ideal of transmedia storytelling often seems to want to move away from.

 

I have often seen Marvel celebrated as an example of the successful and creative management of a franchise. What do you think Marvel has done that has won over fans, even as it has also been commercially successful? How do you see the new SHIELD television series fitting within the history of Marvel media production you trace within the book?

This speaks not just to the world of comics, but also the world of film, television, and video games that Marvel has colonized over the last fifteen years (where I see its success touted most often in a comparative sense against the failure of competitor DC in similarly trying to build franchises around its characters, Batman excepted).  Coming back again to the idea of authority, I think the way that Marvel has won over fans in this effort over the last five or six years in particular is based in some part in reaffirming the idea of centralized control and authorship against the multiple authorship of franchising (similar to the transmedia storytelling ideal vs. franchising bad object described above).

The Marvel case study in my book actually stops at the moment that Marvel starts to move away from licensing Hollywood studios to produce Marvel films, as has been the case in the 20th Century Fox X-Men and Sony Spider-Man series.  But in a parallel article in Cinema Journal, I explored this new moment where Marvel starts to self-finance and self-produce its own films, starting with Iron Man and of course leadings to last years’ The Avengers.  This involved a shift in the way Marvel executives talked about the company, the (gendered) identities of its talent, and its relationship with Hollywood; Marvel singled itself out as the only entity that truly had the experience and expertise to deal with these characters.

What was needed, this suggested, was not the licensing-based franchise model they had been relying upon, but a more centralized form of creativity where the ideas remained under the control of the entity that originated them.  This was a more authority-driven idea that connected with common sense notion about creativity—of course Marvel would do a better job making Marvel movies.  Of course 20th Century Fox would be less desirable than the originator.

I’m not trying to identity who does and doesn’t make more objectively good comic book films, so much as illustrate how the celebration of Marvel (and the much-repeated suggestion from fans that Marvel try to buy back X-Men and Spider-Man rights from its old studio partners) is in some ways tied to our continued investment in the idea that “real” or “the best” creativity lies with the originator, not the licensee or franchisee.  Marvel’s success, then, lies beyond the screen in tapping into our continued investment in creative authority.

Agents of SHIELD though represents an even newer moment.  With Avengers already planned as the culmination of a multi-year production sequence before Disney purchased Marvel in 2009, I think we’d have to be careful about characterizing the build-up to that 2012 film as truly indicative of how Marvel operates under Disney.  Agents of SHIELD is perhaps one of the first high profile projects to come more fully out of the new relationship with Disney, and its subsidiary, ABC.

One of the big fan concerns about the Disney deal was what this would mean for Marvel’s autonomy, and Marvel is now in the position of needing to assert that autonomy in the face of not just Disney, but also the TV network.  At the same time, you have producers like Joss Whedon working to create as much distance as proximity to the familiar success of the film, suggesting that the series will have a different, more everyday focus and that recognizable superheroes won’t be doing cameos every week.  Much of this is about managing fan expectations, I’m sure, but I also feel some dimension of it must be about assuring audiences that this project has a creative raison d’etre of its own, as well as an executive independence.

 

Where-as others speak of “world-making,” you write extensively here about “world-sharing.” What are some of the challenges of constructing a world that will be “shared” by many industry participants (not to mention diverse fan communities)? Does this phenomenon of “world-sharing” mean that the idea of a transmedia experience as coherent and coordinated is a practical impossibility given the current structure of the entertainment industry?

 

I think I hinted at this above when comparing transmedia storytelling to franchising, in that there are definitely structural obstacles to making world-sharing happen in a coherent and coordinated way.  When media producers operate within different markets and corporate cultures, or even just in different silos within a single parent company, it is logistically difficult to manage collaboration—which is why companies like Starlight Runner have emerged to perform that labor, and we see new transmedia producer credits for those working to push production past those hurdles.

What I want to emphasize though is that the obstacles aren’t always structural and/or economic—they are often social and tied to a sense of production culture and identity.  World-sharing in a coherent and coordinated way is a challenge because there is often no economic incentivize to do so.  But it is also a challenge because there is sometimes no creative incentive to do so (in the sense that creativity is a type of identity and not just an aesthetic trait).

Think about television spin-offs where two or more related series are in production at the same time.  In that case, the shared world makes it possible for characters from one show to pop up on another, but it rarely happens because of both practical scheduling matters and corporate concerns about dilution and confusion of distinct sub-brands.  At the additional level of production culture, however, producers often resist these kinds of stories, identifying one series and set of characters as “theirs”, and others as belonging to another creative community.  So in the 1990s when you had multiple Star Trek series in production under a single franchise manager (Rick Berman), but with each under the pen of a different writing staff, there was a sense of intra-franchise competition, not cooperation.  Each writing staff and crew had duties specific to one part of the shared world, and they often wanted their contributions to be seen as the best, competing for accolades and attention.  So there were occasional crossovers, sure, but producers just as often resisted coordination because each staff wanted to generate its own identity and culture.

I don’t think that the tensions involved with “world sharing” make transmedia storytelling a practical impossibility, however.  It’s just requires working against these factors, and my own concern is more about the desirability of doing so, the unchallenged privilege we might accord the idea of central authority over sharing, and whether these competing creative visions and tensions may have some alternative value beyond their failure to always produce coherent narratives.

In the process of discussing "over-design" as an industrial process, you've developed what I see as one of the richest account of the production design process within contemporary entertainment. In many ways, contemporary stories are as much constructed by decisions made by art directors and costume designers as they are by decisions made by screenwriters. Yet, our critical discussion of these productions lags behind, often grumbling about products being overly dependent on "special effects" as if these choices could somehow be isolated from the overall experience of the fictional world. To what degree is it important to see these new franchise properties as "designed" rather than "authored?"

Based on how many times I’ve brought it up already, I think I’d be hard pressed to say that authorship isn’t important, since that idea is often the terrain of struggles over creativity in cultural production.  But the idea of design helps us get past the question of who the author is, and more toward how multiplicity, collaboration, and competing claims to authorship can be supported in creative practices.

I like the framework of “design” because it points to the creation of a system or context in which other things will happen.  That’s how I see a lot of the creative energies of franchising at work, where the creativity that occurs in one instance becomes the context for creativity in another.  It might be a little easier to see these dynamics when comparing different entries in a franchise—the way in which the new Star Wars films will be produced in relation to the design of those that have already been produced, for example.  But even outside of franchising, design could be a useful framework for reconceptualizing authorship more generally, in that we might think about how the creative work of many different labor categories (from directors to production designers to foley artists) occurs in relation to a shared context for designed for collaborative creation.

 

Derek Johnson is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.  He is the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU Press, 2013), as well as the co-editor of A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Media Industries (NYU Press, forthcoming 2014).  His research focuses in the media industries, looking at how cultures of production negotiate creativity, convergence, and collaboration.  Most recently he has started working on a new single-authored book project focusing on children's media industries and the way in which producer identities cohere in relation to ideas about age, taste, and the child audience.  He has published several journal articles and chapters on the subject of Marvel Comics and their cross-media practices, and in his forthcoming publications, he has critiqued the industry strategies behind the HerUniverse web shop as well as the racial logics behind LEGO's licensed film and comic minifigures.

Rethinking the "Value" of Entertainment Franchises: An Interview with Derek Johnson (Part One)

This is another in a series of interviews with the authors whose books have been published as part of the Post-Millenial Pop book series which Karen Tongson and I edit for New York University Press. I have followed the career of Derek Johnson since he was an entering Master's Student. We were foolish enough to have rejected Derek when he applied to be part of one of the first classes accepted into the MIT Comparative Media Studies program -- it is not a mistake I would make again, because I now see Johnson as one of the most impressive cultural scholars of his generation. I admire his commitment to test theoretical frameworks against carefully documented case studies and his refusal to take an either-or position in our ongoing debates about structure and agency. He is someone who pays attention to points of negotiation or, his term, "collaboration," where different participants in the processes of cultural production meet each other with differing stakes and differing degrees of power and control.

His strengths as a theorist and researcher are aptly demonstrated in his new book, Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries. The term, "franchises," has been used loosely in media studies for years, but no one has systematically developed a framework for understanding its historic emergence, its discursive implications, its relationship to other industrial practices, and its consequences for what media content is produced and how it is marketed and consumed. Johnson's work here is multidisciplinary -- including a focus on the management of media systems, archival research and interviews with industry insiders, textual analysis, and audience research, all in the service of understanding the logics shaping contemporary media production. The book makes a vital intervention into ongoing discussions around transmedia storytelling and places a new emphasis upon the role of production design and world-building in the contemporary entertainment industries. I have already incorporated this book in my own teaching and writing, especially his work on "world-sharing" within the Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek universes. His writing is clear and accessible enough to satisfy many undergraduate students and sophisticated and provocative enough to generate heated discussions in graduate seminars, a hard balance to achieve.

The following interview focuses  on some of  the book's core concerns, since there is so much there which will be of interest to the various communities that follow this blog. But, you need to know that Johnson is now producing scholarship at an astonishing speed on a broad range of contemporary media practices -- from My Little Pony to Lego culture -- and topics -- including an important new collection on media authorship and another book in the works that deals with the processes and structures of media management. His recent work has especially engaged with issues of gender, sexuality, race, and class, as they relate to the development of children's entertainment properties.

As you note, the concept of media franchises involves “a migration to the media industries of market logics from other business sectors.” What can you tell us about how the concept of media franchises emerged and what do you see as the implications of using the same concept to discuss the production of “McDonald’s, Mr. Goodwrench and Chicken Delight” and of Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica?

There’s at least two levels at which I think it’s important for us to draw this connection between the production of entertainment and these kind of business formats often used in the retail sector.  At the most basic, economic level, a franchise is a business arrangement where one party extends to another party the right to use some kind of idea or intellectual property in a new market.  In the mid 20th-century, McDonald’s and other franchisors increasingly looked to sign a bunch of independent franchisees across the country (and later the world) to extend the corporate footprint with little risk and investment (since the financial burden for operating these new locations fell on the franchisee, who actually paid the franchisor a fee for this right).  This is a very similar arrangement to what we see with media licensing—film rightsholders, for example, extending production responsibilities for video games or comic book tie-ins to third parties who absorb the production costs and risks.

Of course, media licensing is a practice with a long history predating the post-WWII franchise boom (see Avi Santo’s excellent work for this), so I’m not claiming that this kind of arrangement was fully inspired by McDonald’s and the like.  But I think it’s an important connection to draw because there’s a large literature in organizational communication, business, and other non-media fields that have reflected on the social dynamics of franchising structures.  Retail franchisors and franchisees have not always worked in unison; instead, franchisors are always working to assert their authority over independent outlets they cannot fully control, and franchisees seek to assert their local agency in a larger corporate culture (in a way a bit more complex than George Ritzer’s notion of the “McDonaldization” allows). It’s exactly the kind of question of power and negotiated struggle that I think speaks to cultural studies of the media.

What I do think is perhaps more “new” is the way this franchise boom in the latter half of the 20th century helped to shape the way in which the production of media entertainment would be increasingly imagined.  Media licensing, and even formatting (in the sense Albert Moran researches, where ideas for TV programs are exchanged between different local markets) were not new to the entertainment media of the 1950s and beyond, but came to be understood through this same “franchise” imaginary.  As Moran tells us, Romper Room was a 1950s children’s television series that was originated in one local television market, and then spawned new productions in others—with the creators having looked to fast food franchising as an alternative model to network distribution.  It is by the late 1980s and early 1990s, of course, that the language of franchising enters common usage for making sense of entertainment media—where we start to understand “franchise” as a commonsense descriptor for things like Star Trek, Batman, and others that cross multiple sites of branded production and consumption.

I think it’s particularly crucial to understand this connection because the franchising metaphor also shapes our critical orientations to these entertainment brands.

Calling something a “franchise” is not a neutral declaration: it prompts us to think about the media in the same terms that we think about McDonald’s.  There is a recognition of the industrial basis for that culture and its hyper-commercial, systemic mode of multiplication and maintenance over time.  Often that comes with an implied critique as well, where acknowledging something as a “franchise” product suggests that its existence is based on market calculation more than creative expression.

When I first offered franchising as a site of analysis at a conference many years back, one colleague advised me to come up with a different term because of the very economically determined, delegitimating connotations it had.  The link between McDonald’s and media in franchising, therefore, is one that makes cultural production meaningful, and it does so in ways that are not always flattering and make it a source of tension and struggle for those involved or invested in that production.  My interest was not to take the economic determination implied by franchising for granted, but to think about how those implicated in and by that term work to negotiate those meanings.

 

You argue that franchises are not “self-propagating” phenomenon. So, where does agency lie in our discussion of franchises?

In the people who do the work of that propagation.  I consider franchises not as produced by corporations who own the rights to media properties, but also all the other stakeholders who seek to get something out of the work of expanding production and making more of that cultural product.  This could be the producers hired by major media conglomerates to take the reins of a particular franchise—author figures like Ron Moore (Battlestar Galactica) or JJ Abrams (the recent Star Trek films) or the long line of different comic book authors and editors hired by Marvel or DC to be steward of their ongoing superhero narratives.

Despite whatever authorship and genius we might recognize in these folks, they are still “for hire” workers with only a very bounded and limited (often contractually temporary) claim to authority in the franchise.  The site of agency could also lie in the less visible below-the-line labor of production designers, musicians, and technicians who are asked to recognize the vast histories and networks of collaboration surrounding a franchise in the course of their work.  And it could also extend to the licensees who are contracted to produce ancillary materials meant to work in some relationship to other products, but produced from a position outside more privileged sites of creativity and subject to the stringent approvals of rightsholders and other authorities.  I also want to locate agency within the consumer as well, as fans and other audiences do a lot of work to help these franchises move across markets and persist over time.

 

The idea that a popular narrative is a complex mix of commercial and cultural motives has been one of the most long-standing themes in film studies (going back to the auteur theory), so why has it been so hard for some people to accept the idea that “franchise properties” might also be culturally meaningful? In what sense are the properties you study “creative”?

 

In that there’s a lot at stake in the ability of people working in these contexts to be able to lay claim to the idea of creativity.  On the one level, I definitely acknowledge and am fascinated by the capacity for franchising to support complex storylines, design histories, and capacities for expression.  But on the other, I see “creativity” not as an essential truth but as a status and subjective identity that media producers and workers would claim about themselves (“I am creative; I do creative work”).  Particularly because the hyper-commercial realm of media franchising is so critically delegitimized, I’m particularly interested in how those involved with franchising might position themselves in opposition to that franchising and assert their uniqueness, authority, or vision.

Think JJ Abrams and not only his choice to replace the old Star Trek continuity with the new one, but also the distance he puts up between himself and the original series (he prefers Star Wars), and his tendency to retroactively disavow ancillary video games (he just claimed to have “dropped out” of producing the 2013 Star Trek video game despite his co-producers’ participation in the development stages, distancing himself from perceptions that it was nothing but a cheap cash grab)

One of my other favorite examples is how Dirk Benedict, the original Starbuck from the 1970s Battlestar Galactica, attacked the new series by emphasizing its “franchise” status and casting the mass production of franchising as part of a gendered war on masculinity.  The commercialism of franchising raises the stakes for media workers to position themselves as creative and as different from all the others that use the same idea or premise or property toward this ongoing commercial end.  It helps to position one’s self as such if you actually do innovative things, and I think we do see that a lot in media franchising given this imperative for differentiation.

But sometimes that differentiation comes as much in the identity claims of specific contributors as it does the product itself (and as the case of Benedict and what Suzanne Scott calls the “fanboy auteur” suggest, these franchise identity claims are often explicitly gendered).  As much as franchise products may or may not be indicative of creativity, I see franchising more broadly as a site of struggle over creativity, what it means, and who can claim it in industrial contexts.

You describe in the book interviews you have done with media industry insiders who want to deflect or disavow the concept of franchising as informing their creative decisions. Why do you think the term produced such discomfort? What alternative models do they draw on to describe their work?

 

Similar to the above, I think it’s because when you’re talking about creative decisions, the idea of franchising (and all the economically-determined calculation it implies in popular and industry use) calls the potential creativity of those decisions into question.  So what I found were often appeals to reassert creativity—and often singular authorship—in opposition to the idea of franchising.

While this wasn’t one of my own interviews, Lost is a great example of this, where the conclusion of the series generated all kinds of industry and critical speculation about franchise potential, and the producers repeatedly came out to publically state that they would have none of it and that theirs was “definitive” version of Lost.

To me that’s what fascinating about franchising—it is both a logic for multiplying media production, but also a meaningful discourse for making sense of and assigning value to that production.  It forces producers to confront the fact that they don’t have creative monopoly in the for-hire work they do for corporations.  It also forces them to position themselves and their work in relation to that of others who come before, after, and in parallel.  That can create contradiction and discomfort around the idea of creativity, which leads to that disavowal.

Derek Johnson is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.  He is the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU Press, 2013), as well as the co-editor of A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Media Industries (NYU Press, forthcoming 2014).  His research focuses in the media industries, looking at how cultures of production negotiate creativity, convergence, and collaboration.  Most recently he has started working on a new single-authored book project focusing on children's media industries and the way in which producer identities cohere in relation to ideas about age, taste, and the child audience.  He has published several journal articles and chapters on the subject of Marvel Comics and their cross-media practices, and in his forthcoming publications, he has critiqued the industry strategies behind the HerUniverse web shop as well as the racial logics behind LEGO's licensed film and comic minifigures.

Highlights from the "Rethinking Intermediality in the Digital Age" Conference

Earlier this fall, I reported here about my trip to Transylvania to attend a gathering of the International Society for Intermedia Studies, hosted at Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania. I found the interdisciplinary and international mix of speakers invigorating, as they shared reflections of a broad range of historical periods, national contexts, and media platforms and practices. They have since made available videos of the three keynote addresses from this conference, and I wanted to pass them along to you. Here is my address, "'All Over the Map': What Oz The Great and Powerful Can Teach Us About World-Building." The recent Oz film has been generally dismissed as too much focused on visual spectacle, too little interested in character and story. I take a contrarian perspective, arguing that we need some aesthetic criteria for discussing works where richly realized worlds take center stage and become the key focus of our attention. Here, I situate the Oz film, and its play with intertextuality and world-building, in the much larger history of the Oz franchise, noting that Oz was the first conceived of as more a world than a story and that there have been many stories which sought to allow us to "return" to this world -- a theme that goes back to even the earliest Oz films (produced by L. Frank Baum himself). I am now in the process of developing this talk into an essay for publication -- one of the tasks I've set for myself over the break. But, I thought some of you might enjoy this glimpse at a work still very much in progress.

Marie Laurie Ryan was a second keynote speaker at the conference, and she addressed the concept of transmedia storytelling from a narratological perspective. I thoroughly enjoyed, though nervously anticipated, her critique of my work, which I felt was fair in its challenges and also touched on themes which I have been exploring through my own more recent writing, ubeknowst to her.

And finally, there was Joachim Paech, who dug much more deeply into the concept of the intermedial, from a perspective grounded in continential aesthetic philosophy. People at the conference suggested that the three keynotes were a study in contrast with each of us embodying different academic styles and cultures and each speaking from a place deep within our own national traditions. I will allow you to judge this for yourselves.

This will be my last post for 2013. I am going to take off a few weeks to focus on family, recreation, and writing in that order, but we will be back again after the start of the year with more exciting interviews which I already have ready to go. So, see you on the other side...

"From Imaginary to Virtual Worlds": An Interview with Historian Michael Saler (Part Three)

As I was reading your discussion of this process of providing “proof” for imaginative narratives, I could not help but think of the roles being performed by contemporary transmedia extensions. For example, see the case that Campfire constructed around the launch of Game of Thrones -- (http://campfirenyc.com/work/projects/game-of-thrones/) or these videos relased this summer in relation to Pacific Rim (http://sheridantransmedia2013.wordpress.com/2013/01/15/pacific-rim-viral-site/) and the next Planet of the Apes movie (http://www.firstshowing.net/2013/dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-kicks-off-viral-simian-flu-website/).  To what degree are these very contemporary practices a continuation of the techniques that you suggest emerged around the New Romance?

 

These transmedia extensions are all ways to heighten the immersive reality of imaginary worlds by appeals to our senses and to our reason. (Modernity requires fantasy to be rational at some level; many seek enchantments that don’t reject reason but augment it.) Such practices transform imaginary worlds into virtual worlds that can then inform our thinking about the real world because we have assimilated them corporeally, emotionally, and philosophically.

Why do so many fans collect replicas, first editions, autographs, or other palpable material relating to the imaginary worlds they love? In effect, these are secular reliquaries; they put fans in contact with the intangible mana or charisma of the imaginary world, just as symbols of a favorite sports team, or even a favorite nation, provide many with a sense of identity.

The advantage that imaginary worlds have over some of these other forms of affiliation is that they are explicitly marked as imaginary. European soccer fans can be violent, their conflicts often linked to national identities, but I have yet to see Middle-earth fans get into physical blows with Golden Compass fans. The “virtually real” nature of so many secondary worlds is undercut by acknowledging that they are provisional constructions, and that habit of mind that can be usefully applied to other beliefs we hold in the primary world. Living an “as if” life does not preclude political, spiritual, or ethical commitments, but it does temper arrogance while opening us to a multitude of worlds we might not have considered otherwise.

 

Some recent writing, yours among them, have linked the concept of imaginary worlds with Tolkien’s notion of Sub-creation, which seems to limit the model to talking about worlds that are largely if not entirely the work of the imagination. Yet, Dudley Andrews has discussed the concept in relation to “Dickens’ London,” you discuss here Doyle’s London, and I’ve made the case for Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Each represent an artist’s particular inflections of real cities, but developed in sufficient imaginative detail as to constitute an immersive environment with a character uniquely its own.  What is the case for or against these environments being regarded as “virtual” in the ways you are using the term?

I think all of these “realist” worlds are clearly marked as fictional, and thus can be thought of as “secondary worlds” distinct from the primary world. They too can become “virtual” through social media that permits their audiences to inhabit them communally, for prolonged periods.

In the late nineteenth century, the imaginary worlds that became virtual through reader participation were primarily works of fantasy, because readers were explicitly seeking an escape from literary realism: they wanted new forms of enchantment that were compatible with modern reason but did not replicate the status quo. Thomas Hardy’s “Wessex” was an imaginary world, complete with a detailed map, but contemporary readers who wanted to immerse themselves for prolonged periods in an imaginary milieu turned to Haggard, Stevenson, Conan Doyle, and other writers of the fantastic, where they could gratify their sense of wonder as well as their reason. (Sherlock Holmes’s “London” is a fantasy world, because it contains Sherlock Holmes, a fantastic character – among others!)

Many middle-class readers and critics, though, thought that this form of immersion in fantasy was irresponsible and regressive. Today’s readers and critics are less likely to dismiss “escapism” in such terms; even those who don’t like fantasy find themselves immersed in the imaginary worlds of Jane Austen and James Joyce, both of which are now virtual with their own fan bases, dedicated social media spaces and, in the case of “Bloomsday,” cosplay every year.

 

I was struck by Edmund Wilson’s critique of Lovecraft’s realm as “a sort of boy’s game.” First, in what sense are these worlds “games,” that is sets of activities in which readers can participate alongside writers? And if they are games in that sense, then, where do the rules of these games come from? and Second, were the kinds of collective activities you describe emerging around these stories always heavily gendered as masculine which would seem to be part of the implication of calling them “boy’s games”? And finally, there’s implications here of “infantilism” or “latency,” charges that have long been associated with fandom. In your research, was fandom always associated with arrested development?

 

Edgar Allen Poe and Jules Verne thought of their imaginary worlds as games, and established rules for them that were taken up by the New Romance and the later marketing genres of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. (When Hugo Gernsback established Amazing Stories in 1926 – thereby inaugurating the marketing genre of “science fiction” – he constantly cited as his predecessors Poe and Verne, as well as H.G. Wells, and reprinted many of their works.)

Poe argued that imaginary worlds ought to be constructed as meticulously as any hoax, which has become one of the tacit rules for modern imaginary worlds. Verne acknowledged his debt to Poe on this score, continuing the imaginary world Poe created in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1844) in his An Antarctic Mystery (1897).

The notion of including multiple paratexts became firmly established with the New Romance beginning in the 1880s, and the implicit rules for the fannish habitation and extension of imaginary worlds derived from Sherlock Holmes fandom beginning in the 1890s. (Indeed, they called their prolonged and immersive explorations of Conan Doyle’s world the “Great Game.”) Holmes’s fans were the first to write “scholarly” essays about his world as if it were real, and pastiches that augmented the world, making it a living, “virtual” creation.

By the 1930s, these and related rules of the imaginary-world game had become widespread – even science fiction pulp magazines were peppered with paratexts, including learned footnotes in Amazing Stories and Robert Heinlein’s famous “Future History” chart published in Astounding.

Dorothy Sayers wrote a marvelous essay about the Great Game (the term is hers), but on the whole Sherlockian play was masculine, especially in the United States, echoing the homosocial world that Conan Doyle created. (The American Baker Street Irregulars refused to invest women in the society until the 1990s, although there were “scion” societies that did welcome them.) Similarly, science fiction fandom for much of the twentieth century was largely male, and this was true for other subcultures dedicated to comics, horror films, and so on.

There was somewhat more gender parity in the imaginary worlds purveyed by radio in the interwar period. “Little Orphan Annie,” “Captain Midnight,” “Buck Rogers,” “Jack Armstrong,” and other children’s programming provided significant agency for boys and girls in their plot lines and premium campaigns, largely for commercial reasons. Gender hierarchies and imbalances persisted, but at least these worlds were not exclusively male preserves.

The charge of “infantilism” was certainly applied by elites to fans of mass culture for much of the twentieth century. But this charge has a longer history in Western culture. It has usually been associated with any extended immersion in the imagination, which historically has been defined as subordinate to reason and associated with subaltern groups: women, workers, children, so-called “primitives.”

The late-eighteenth century romantics challenged this binary opposition between reason and imagination, and mid-nineteenth century children’s literature also welcomed rather than feared imaginative play. By the late nineteenth century the imagination was being defined by psychologists, philosophers, critics and others as being complementary to reason.

The suspicion of the imagination by elites may have been more prevalent in Protestant than Catholic countries (certainly it was prevalent in Britain and North America, whereas late nineteenth and twentieth century France was practically ground zero for the new celebration of the imagination). Nevertheless, it has continued to play a large role in the negative reception of fantasy, and fandom, until very recently.

Your discussion of Lovecraft suggests that fans from the start saw fantasy, science fiction, and horror as points of entry into conversations about race, ethnicity, and immigration and that readers and writers were often blind to their prejudices even as they celebrated forms of exploration that went beyond the margins of current public sentiment. Much of what you share there could have come from more recent debates amongst fans about the role which race play in contemporary speculative fiction. Can you share more of these debates and their impact on mid-century readers?

 

 I’m a bit disheartened about the way some of the current debates about race and speculative fiction online have used Lovecraft as a convenient punching bag and go no further. It’s easy to do that – no one can deny that he was a virulent racist for most of his life.

But history shows that he, and other fans, were debating issues of race, imperialism, sexism, and other issues since the onset of public spheres of the imagination. Rather than excoriate figures from the past because their views don’t accord with ours, itself an ahistorical practice, it might be better to examine the conditions that enabled these views to flourish, and to explore how such views were challenged and at times changed by diversely constituted public spheres of the imagination.

In other words, the prehistory of our current use of imaginary worlds and virtual realities has much to say about how we might promote pluralism and an acceptance of difference. To dismiss Lovecraft as simply a “racist” without acknowledging how far he had changed – and the reasons for this change – is to abandon the resources that history gives us for negotiating the present.

I find his story, and that of Tolkien (who did question some of his earlier, unexamined views about race, religion, and the nation) to be hopeful examples about how imaginary worlds can be used as well as enjoyed. Their case-histories provide instructive instances of how imaginary worlds are not simply escapist but inform the real world in many ways, for good and for ill. (This is not to say that all online discussions have been like this. Elizabeth Bear’s contribution to a public sphere of the imagination, Tor.com, is a reminder of how imaginary worlds can be good to think with about the primary world: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2009/12/why-we-still-write-lovecraft-pastiche.)

Michael Saler is Professor in the History Department at the University of California, Davis. He received his BA from Brandeis University and a joint Ph.D. in History and Humanities from Stanford University. He is the author of As If: Modern Enchantment and The Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford University Press, 2012), The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: 'Medieval Modernism' and the London Underground (Oxford University Press, 1999); co-editor, with Joshua Landy, of The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age  (Stanford University Press, 2009), and editor, The Fin-De-Siecle World  (Routledge, forthcoming).

"From Imaginary to Virtual Worlds": An Interview with Historian Michael Saler (Part Two)

You write about the “ironic imagination” as a way of describing the ways fans are and are not immersed in the fictional worlds you describe. Can you explain what you mean by this concept and how it might address long-standing concerns about naive or unknowing spectatorship?  

  Ironic self-reflexivity itself seems to be part of our natural makeup: psychologists find that children develop the capacity to engage in meta-representations from an early age. But the degree to which cultures encourage or discourage ironic self-reflexivity has varied.

For Western Europeans and North Americans, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was not a period especially open to the ironic habitation of fictional worlds. The early Victorians in particular were ambivalent about fiction, which they shackled to religious and utilitarian strictures. In As If, I trace the gradual cultural shift from the Victorians’ stress on “sincerity” and a cohesive “character” to the Edwardians’ greater emphasis on multiple perspectives and a complex “personality” capable of living in multiple “worlds” without cognitive dissonance.

I found that the ironic, self-aware apprehension of representations during this latter period was widespread. Irony has long been identified with the literary modernism of the late nineteenth century, but it was also pervasive in mass culture as well. She, Dracula, and the Sherlock Holmes stories were among the many coyly self-referential texts that helped inculcate an “ironic imagination” in their readers.

Readers were trained to simultaneously believe and disbelieve in imaginary worlds and characters. Friedrich Nietzsche was an influential proponent of the ironic imagination, and Tolkien applied the concept to imaginary worlds directly. He noted that Coleridge was wrong to argue in 1817 that readers inhabited fantastic worlds through the “willing suspension of disbelief.” Instead, they willingly believed in these worlds, while at the same time acknowledging that they were engaged in pretense. Coleridge’s views reflected the “sincere” outlook of the early Victorians; Tolkien’s the “ironic imagination” of the late nineteenth century.

Critics of mass culture, from the fin de siècle to the nineteen-sixties if not beyond, have tended to assume that texts that appeal to the masses are simplistic, conveying univocal messages promoting the ideologies of the culture industry entwined with the state. Examining the texts themselves, and how they were received and repurposed by readers – the “textual poaching” you’ve analyzed in your work – reveals a very different situation. So-called postmodern self-reflexivity was emerging in the nineteenth century through the spread of the ironic imagination; consumers of the new mass culture often approached it in sophisticated ways.

However, it is important to stress that the ironic imagination is usually insufficient on its own to challenge mass culture’s appeal to desire. H.P. Lovecraft, for example, was a lucid exponent of the ironic imagination, but this didn’t prevent him from holding racist opinions without any irony whatsoever for most of his life. Similarly, The German writer Thomas Mann cultivated an ironic imagination, but lost all critical distance with the outbreak of WWI, becoming an ardent nationalist.

Audiences during the fin de siècle were not naive: but irony can be helpless against canny appeals to our desires. Fortunately, another resource arose in the late nineteenth century culture to challenge these emotional appeals: “public spheres of the imagination.” Even Lovecraft benefitted from these at a late point in his life, as he himself acknowledged.

 

Your term, “public spheres of the imagination,” seems especially evocative as a means of thinking about fan communities and practices. In some ways, we have reduced Habermas’s much richer notion of the public sphere, which included literature and the arts, to a narrower conception of the political. In my own current research, I am focusing on the concept of fan activism and looking at the ways activists/fans are appropriating and remixing elements of fictional worlds to build a new language for social change. Is your suggestion that this blurring between politics and fan culture is not some outgrowth of post-modernity, as some have suggested to me, but may have been part of the project of modernity all along?  In what ways do you see fan discussions as constituting a “public sphere”? What does the “imagination” bring to this process?

 

So much of what we take to be quintessentially “postmodern” – self-reflexivity, intertextuality, an emphasis on the provisional, contingent, social-constructionist dimensions of human experience – was already in play by the end of the nineteenth century. These qualities are characteristic features of imaginary worlds of the time (works by Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard are wonderfully intertextual, for example). They were emergent rather than dominant forms of expression at the time, but they do suggest that postmodernism was not a break with modernity, as some have argued, but a vital tendency within modernity itself, which assumed a greater momentum in the second half of the twentieth century. (Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern should be modified to We Have Never Been Postmodern).

Readers have appropriated utopias for political purposes, notably Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888). But utopias and satires are associated with the primary world – they are not strictly “secondary worlds,” which connotes a greater degree of autonomy from the primary world. One of the fascinating aspects of secondary worlds is how fans nevertheless have used them to discuss, reimagine, and change the primary world.

Fans have been enabled to engage in these communal tasks via “public spheres of the imagination.” These first appeared in the late nineteenth century, in the new letters pages of fiction magazines. Readers were encouraged to discuss imaginary worlds with one another, the editor, and the works’ authors. In the 1920s, some magazines began to include the letter writers’ address, which fostered direct contacts between fans and led to new public spheres of the imagination in the 1930s, such as fanzines, fan clubs, and conventions.

I’ve noted that these venues allowed fans to inhabit imaginary worlds communally and for prolonged periods, transforming them into virtual worlds. But as an unintended consequence, fans also began to relate autonomous imaginary worlds to the real world, using the former as touchstones to discuss the latter.

I distinguish these public spheres from those discussed by Habermas by highlighting the central role played in them by the imagination. Habermas emphasized the importance of rational and egalitarian communications in his Enlightenment-inspired conception. Public spheres of the imagination also promoted rational and egalitarian discussions – at least these were proclaimed ideals – but added to them the alternate realities and “cognitive estrangements,” made possible by the imagination.

To a greater extend than Habermas’s conception of the public sphere, arguably, public spheres of the imagination encourage thinking outside of the box. (Late nineteenth and early twentieth century theorists like Georges Sorel and Ernst Bloch discussed the use of fantasy and the imagination for political and social purposes, but scholars have been largely unaware of how similar ideas were being generated and even put into practice by fans at this time as well.)

Public spheres of the imagination revel in the “cognitive estrangement” that science fiction and fantasy direct toward consensus reality. They are also sites in which individuals try to reconcile utopian aspirations with practical and rational programs. Russian fans of The Lord of the Rings, for example, were inspired by the Hobbits’ opposition to Saruman’s “scouring of the Shire” to actively support Yeltsin’s defiance of the attempted military coup of 1991.

Public spheres of the imagination, especially when they have a diverse constituency, can challenge unexamined assumptions and challenge one-sided convictions; they are a necessary complement to the ironic imagination when it comes to living in virtual worlds of the imagination. Thus members of the “Lovecraft Circle” at times vigorously contested Lovecraft’s political and social views, which were also challenged in the amateur journalism societies to which he belonged. He was forced to reconsider his most cherished beliefs, and over the long term he did modify many of his opinions and prejudices (although his racist views about Blacks never changed). Similarly, Christian fans of Middle-earth have engaged in constructive dialogues with fans from other faiths, or no faith at all, in the public spheres of the imagination dedicated to Tolkien’s imaginary world.

A homogeneous public sphere, however, often preaches to the choir. This was a problem with the Inklings, which Tolkien and C.S. Lewis belonged to. The group was largely comprised of white, middle class, Christian writers, and tended to reinforce, rather than challenge, many of the fundamental convictions of its members.

 

Rather than describing the “willing suspension of disbelief,” a common phrase, you argue that these practices are best understood through “the willing activation of pretense.” What mechanisms have emerged to support such a process? How is it tied to the various forms of “documentation” and “mapping” that you describe?

 

         As I noted, the early Victorians were worried about the irreligious and antisocial potentials of the imagination, and tried to delimit it to religious and utilitarian purposes. Coleridge’s famous phrase, the “willing suspension of disbelief,” reflects this point of view – “disbelief” is taken as the default position, which is then temporarily suspended. This restrictive attitude toward the imagination changed over the course of the century owing to many factors – notably secularist currents of thought and the rise of mass culture, which encouraged the exercise of the imagination and undermined the authority of elites by appealing directly to consumers.

A good example of this change was mid-Victorian children’s literature, which was less moralistic and didactic than earlier tracts delighting in naughty children burning in hell; instead, works like Alice in Wonderland celebrated, even encouraged, imaginative whimsy. Writers of the New Romance were weaned on these books and consciously recalled them as they wrote imaginary worlds for adults as well as children.

By the late nineteenth century, adults were allowed to actively “believe” in imaginary worlds, with the double-minded understanding that they were engaging in pretense. This is a more immersive state of mind than the “willing suspension of disbelief” and allows for imaginary worlds to become virtual worlds.

This immersive, participatory state of mind was also enhanced by the paratexts that were distinguishing features of the New Romance. Detailed maps, glossaries, footnotes, photographs, and so on imparted tremendous realism to the fantastic imaginary worlds described by the text. Paratexts remain a vital dimension of imaginary worlds to this day. (HBO’s “Game of Thrones” opens with a wonderful, three-dimensional map, gesturing to the traditions established by the New Romance.)

Paratexts also encourage fans to speculate about what has been left out of the documents, reconcile contradictions within them, and contribute to the cognitive mapping of the world from the information provided. These participatory activities enhance one own emotional and cognitive investment in the world, thereby escalating the immersive experience, rendering the world not only more “real” but more “alive” or virtual.

An interesting consequence of such virtual world building is that it often reminded fans of the constructed nature of the real world. Nationalism, or any number of other “isms,” became less defensible as unchanging essences distinguishing one group from another. Nations could be seen as “imagined communities,” in Benedict Anderson’s phrase; personal and social identities were increasingly acknowledged to be more fluid, constructed, and performative in nature. Tolkien, for example, created his imaginary world as an essentialist myth for England. Many of his fans, however, actively debated the nature and purpose of nationalism, as well as ethnicity, gender, class and religion. Many fans came to question essentialist outlooks.

Thus, as a result of inhabiting imaginary worlds, and discussing them with others in public spheres of the imagination, we see a move from the passive acceptance of essentialist, “just so” narratives to a greater comfort at embracing provisional and contingent “as if” narratives. Imagining new cosmopolitan worlds and pluralistic identities is one of the benefits of imaginary world building and habitation, or at least it can be. (I also discuss more “essentialist” receptions of Middle-earth by neo-fascists, which highlights the importance of diversely constituted public spheres and openness to debate as prophylactics against such “just so” stories.)

 

Michael Saler is Professor in the History Department at the University of California, Davis. He received his BA from Brandeis University and a joint Ph.D. in History and Humanities from Stanford University. He is the author of As If: Modern Enchantment and The Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford University Press, 2012), The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: 'Medieval Modernism' and the London Underground (Oxford University Press, 1999); co-editor, with Joshua Landy, of The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age  (Stanford University Press, 2009), and editor, The Fin-De-Siecle World  (Routledge, forthcoming).

 

"From Imaginary to Virtual Worlds": An Interview with Historian Michael Saler (Part One)

This is the third in a series of interviews I am conducting with key contemporary thinkers writing about the concept of world-building. Previous instalments in this series featured Mark J. P. Wolfe (Building Imaginary Worlds) and an exchange between Ian Condry (The Soul of Anime) and Marc Steinberg (Anime's Media Mix). More to Come. I am embarrassed to say that my copy of Michael Saler's book, As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (2012) sat on my book shelf for several years before I got past the cover and the table of contents. What a foolish mistake that was! I've found the book to be an invaluable reference point for many discussions I have been having since I really dug deep into this book last summer. At first glance, the book would seem to be a series of case studies looking at early 20th century authors, especially those associated with what we would today call genre fiction, and their readers. His central figures are Arthur Conan Doyle, J.R.R. Tolkien, and H.P. Lovecraft. This alone would make the book of interest to me and many of you who read this blog, especially given the continued influence of these three key popular writers on our culture. Each not only produced compelling fictional characters and worlds, but also thought deeply about their craft and especially the ways that popular arts might enhance the life of the imagination.

Saler sees these writers as emblematic of a larger shift in the "structure of feelings" within modern culture, identifying the kinds of change in mind-set which needed to take place before adult readers would actively engage in these richly detailed depictions of worlds which exist only in our imaginations. He asks us to think about the "As If" status of these works, which often demand a sense of ironic spectatorship and an openness to play and performance. It is this new kind of cultural relationship between readers and these imagined worlds which paved the way for the emergence of modern fan culture, and this rich cultural and social history takes us along the path by which many of the kinds of speculation, appropriation, and affective investment we associate with today's fans first emerged.

Beyond this, he's interested in the ways that these writers went beyond words on the page to engage with a range of other media production practices in order to deepen the reader's sense of  immersion. This process of documentation and authentication has strong parallels with the tactics and techniques being explored in contemporary forms of transmedia storytelling, which has similarly placed the act of world-building at the center of the storyteller's craft.

I am hoping that showcasing this remarkable work via my blog can help call it to the attention of those of us who work on contemporary media and do not yet know how urgently we need to learn what Saler has to tell us about the origins of these practices in the late 19th and early 20th century. Since I rediscovered the book some months ago, I have been shoving it at my students and urging them to read it closely, so let me use this interview to introduce you to a book you need to not only have on your library shelf but to engage with actively. In this three part exchange, Saler explains the changes enabled our modern sense of imaginative play with literary texts.

 

A key subtitle in your introduction describes a movement “from imaginary to virtual worlds.” Can you define the key terms here and explain why and how this shift has occurred from your perspective? For example, you have a somewhat broader conception of a virtual world than what surfaces most often in discussions of new media and so it seems important to be clear about your terms from the start.

Because I was examining changing orientations to fictional world building from the eighteenth century to the present, I tried to distinguish among three different terms: “imagined world,” “imaginary world,” and “virtual world.” Fiction has always provided “imagined worlds,” but in late nineteenth century Europe and North America we start to see a new form of literary fantasy that established the template for “imaginary worlds” today, many of which have become “virtual worlds.”

These imaginary worlds differed from earlier imagined worlds in two ways. First, they were influenced by literary realism, with its emphasis on highly detailed, empirically “objective” accounts of reality. Realist writers rejected romanticism, which in turn provoked others to resurrect literary romance in the late nineteenth century. The authors of what became known as the “New Romance” objected to the content of literary realism – its disillusioned focus on contemporary social issues – but were indebted to the realists for their style.

The numerous imaginary worlds of the 1880s and 1890s were far more empirically detailed and logically cohesive than their predecessors, adapting the outlook of scientific naturalism in their descriptions of marvelous locales, characters and plots. Contemporaries noted that the New Romance could be distinguished by its combination of the fantastic narratives of earlier gothic and romantic authors with the stylistic objectivity of the realists. (For this reason, I don’t think “late Gothic” is a good term for works such as She or Dracula; “gothic” was not often used by contemporaries to refer to these works, whereas they did invoke the “New Romance.” When we use “late Gothic” to discuss many of the fantastic works of the fin de siècle, we risk losing sight of their distinctive attributes.)

Innovation in printing technologies, such as half-tone lithography, enabled writers of the New Romance to “document” their imaginary worlds with photographs, and they used many other corroborating “paratexts” as well (footnotes, charts, glossaries, chronologies, etc.) Of course, maps and footnotes had been used occasionally by earlier writers – one thinks of the map in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), or the footnotes employed by Sir Walter Scott in his historical romances a century later – but the authors of the New Romance often went out of their way to substantiate their imaginary worlds by including as many of these “paratexts” as possible, outdoing the literary realists at their own game.

H. Rider Haggard’s She (1886), for example, is full of documentary illustrations, including photographs of the potsherd that the protagonists use to discover the lost world of Kor, reproductions of its multilingual inscriptions, corroborating footnotes, and so on. As If surveys many other imaginary worlds of the New Romance that provided the reader with similar evidentiary material. These were truly “spectacular texts”; their attempts to reconcile fantasy with scientific objectivity not only distinguished the New Romance from the earlier gothic, romantic, and sensationalist fictions, but also provided the model for subsequent SF and Fantasy imaginary worlds.

In addition to being indebted to realism, the imaginary worlds of the New Romance were also beholden to another literary mode of the time, aestheticism. The aesthetes emphasized the autonomy of their fictional worlds, promoting the idea of “art for art’s sake.” Similarly, writers of the New Romance created autonomous imaginary worlds divorced from the social, moral, and utilitarian impulses of Victorian literature.

Tolkien called these imaginary worlds “secondary worlds,” emphasizing their distinction from the lived reality of the “primary world.” He thought that this characteristic typified fairy tales and other works of fantasy, but the sharp distinction between primary and secondary Worlds was actually historically specific, originating in the late nineteenth century: William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End (1896), for example, was one of the first fantasy worlds that took place in an entirely invented locale. Tolkien was sensitive to the autonomy of Secondary Worlds because he too was attracted to aestheticism, as were many other creators of imaginary worlds in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – including Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, E. R. Eddison, and H. P. Lovecraft.

So currents of both realism and aestheticism distinguished the “imaginary worlds” of the late-nineteenth century New Romance from earlier “imagined worlds.” The characteristics of these imaginary worlds – a reconciliation of reason and the imagination; a wealth of paratexts; an emphasis on autonomy or “the world for the world’s sake” – also typify many of today’s imaginary milieus of science fiction and fantasy.

These early imaginary worlds also engendered novel forms of social media that anticipated our current ways of inhabiting secondary worlds and relating them to the primary world. Venues devoted to imaginary worlds, such as letters pages in fiction magazines, fanzines, clubs, and conventions, emerged between the 1890s and the 1930s, allowing fans to “live” in these worlds for prolonged periods of time, often in the company of other fans. This was a new practice; while vogues for imaginary characters and worlds had occurred before (one thinks of the enthusiasm for Richardson’s Pamela, Goethe’s Werther, and Dickens’ Little Nell), they were brief and did not involve the prolonged and communal habitation of the imaginary worlds.

The latter practice transformed literary imaginary worlds into “virtual worlds” that transcended any particular reader, author, or text. Middle-earth, for example, began as a literary imaginary world, and subsequently assumed a life of its own through the ongoing and communal efforts of its fans. They explored and elaborated it, transforming it into a virtual world that could be experienced in an immersive and participatory manner.

 

You are tackling the development of fantasy literature and fandom from the perspective of a historian. What does your discipline bring to the table that might be different from forms of fan studies that come from media studies or literature scholars?

 

Conceptions of the “imagination, “reality,” “fantasy,” “fiction,” etc. are all historical; they change over time and across cultures. Imagined worlds have existed since antiquity, but the ways in which they have been understood and used vary tremendously. (For example, Paul Veyne’s Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? demonstrated how the ancient Greeks’ ideas about “myth” and “truth” were sharply different from our own.) Imagined worlds of all sorts must be understood contextually if we are to grasp their cultural appeals, social functions, and potential benefits and dangers.

In As If, I wanted to explore several historical changes in the conception of imagined/imaginary worlds. Why was there a remarkable expansion of imaginary worlds in Europe and North America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Why was this period the first in Western culture in which adults began to live in these fictional worlds communally, persistently, and self-reflexively, ironically “believing” and disbelieving in the fiction at the same time? What were the links between these phenomena and increased references to the “virtual” and the “vicarious”? It became clear that the fin de siècle is critical to our understanding of virtual reality today, because this period witnessed a concerted and self-aware embrace of the imagination, virtuality and artifice.

Indeed, the practice of turning imaginary worlds into virtual worlds began with Sherlock Holmes, the first “virtual reality” character in Western literature. As I mentioned, while there were brief vogues for other fictional characters before, nothing compared to the Holmes phenomenon, in which adults no less than children pretended that his world was real, inhabiting it in a communal fashion for prolonged periods of time.

Holmes fandom was the template for subsequent fan subcultures dedicated to fictional worlds and characters. By exploring the literary prehistory of virtual reality, I hoped to highlight some of the benefits and pitfalls of our current obsession with imaginary world and fictional characters. While the technologies involved in virtual reality today are more sophisticated than in the past, in important respects our approach to virtual worlds echoes the methods that began to be forged in the late nineteenth century.

 

Michael Saler is Professor in the History Department at the University of California, Davis. He received his BA from Brandeis University and a joint Ph.D. in History and Humanities from Stanford University. He is the author of As If: Modern Enchantment and The Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford University Press, 2012), The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: 'Medieval Modernism' and the London Underground (Oxford University Press, 1999); co-editor, with Joshua Landy, of The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age  (Stanford University Press, 2009), and editor, The Fin-De-Siecle World  (Routledge, forthcoming).

 

 

"Media Mix Is Anime's Life Support System": A Conversation with Ian Condry and Marc Steinberg (Part Four)

As both of you mention, Walt Disney’s work as an animator and as an industry leader exerted a strong influence on the development of the Anime system. What did the Japanese learn from Disney and how were his practices localized for the specific Japanese context?

Ian: Tezuka watched Bambi, 80 or 100 times, depending on which story you believe. He made fanzines of Disney characters. In his manga, “Metropolis,” one of the characters escapes from an evil-doer’s prison by sewing himself inside a giant irradiated rat that looks suspiciously like Mickey Mouse. Anime fans often note that remarkable similarities between Tezuka’s “Kimba the White Lion” and the much later “Lion King” by Disney.

Then again, as Otsuka Eiji noted at conference that Marc organized at Concordia University: “It’s true that Disney’s Lion King stole from ‘Kimba.’ But that’s OK because Tezuka stole from Bambi.” That got a laugh.

In his 2004 book, “The Complete History of Anime” (in Japanese, Nihon no anime zenshi), the anime historian Yasuo Yamaguchi identified a range of influences that reach from aesthetics to labor and business practices:

• The use of exaggerated expressions—for example, the “squash and stretch system” of deforming characters to emphasize their personalities.

• The storyboard system, which allowed Disney to use a variety of sequential pictures to convey the story and the feeling of the scenes to the animators.

• A curriculum for training new talent, which was necessary because with each hit production, animators would be hired away from Disney at higher salaries. Disney responded by developing a system to train new workers.

• The division-of-labor system, which allowed the Disney studio to work on animated shorts and feature-length films at the same time.

• Establishment of the Disney brand—for example, by describing all works as “Walt Disney presents” and polishing the brand image by having Disney himself personally introduce the works.

• The development of merchandising, whereby the licensor of animated characters would receive 3–7 percent of the sales price of goods related to those characters, which was necessary to offset the deficits incurred by animation production (Yamaguchi, Nihon no Anime Zenshi, 2004: 36–38).

The big adaptation of Disney’s ideas comes from relying increasingly on limited animation to make anime more cheaply, and by relying on already-popular manga characters to ensure a wide viewership.

Henry: One of the things many of us think we know about Anime and Manga is that its readership extends well beyond children, that it is much more diverse than would true of similar productions in the west. How is this diversity managed? Some forms of cultural production seem structured around generational or subcultural niches, while others get discussed in terms of their ability to enable transgenerational communication. What can you tell us about the relationship between niche and mainstream as they operate in this context?

Ian: Perhaps the key to the diversity around manga is that it is not well managed, at least not from above. What is managed is incorporating reader responses.

As I discuss in my book’s chapter 5, some writers have pointed out, correctly I think, that manga represents a kind of “democratic capitalism,” in the sense that the most popular works are also the best. They contrast this with music and film, where heavy-handed marketing can make somewhat mediocre productions become big hits. Not so, they argue, with manga. People who love manga read a lot of it. You can read it for free standing in a convenience story, and even manga that is purchased generally gets passed around to at least a few friends.

I’ll never forget when I met one of the founders of Comic Market (the enormous manga fanzine convention), and I asked him what manga I should be reading. He said, “All of it.”

I think that’s the attitude of the serious fans. They go through a tremendous amount of material. Each weekly-serialized magazine comes out with about 20 stories, and the readers are asked to send in postcards evaluating the best and worst three. The major publishers receive about 3000-4000 postcards a week. Popular series keep going, and less popular ones are removed to make way for a few of the legions of amateur artists hoping for their big chance.

Indeed, the diversity makes it difficult to characterize the links between niche and mainstream. Put simply, however, that niche series become mainstream often do so the old fashioned way, by building an audience.

Marc, you draw a useful distinction between toys which replicate the characters and toys which help the consumer to become the character. How central are forms of role-play to the cultural and economic processes you are both describing?

Marc: It’s a complex issue. In my book I note how there’s a shift from characters that you can be or play to characters toys that you can play with. In the late 50s costumes for the various characters were the rage, and children imitated their favorite characters, they became them. For a number of reasons including growing urbanization, the decline of play space and time, and the general rise in income that gave children greater spending power, the 1960s saw the rise of toys that can be played with. Children no longer bought the mask, the gun and the gloves, they bought the Astro Boy replica toy. In that moment they were cut out of a certain kind of play that allowed them to be the character – they could only play with the character.

This was followed closely after by the kaiju monster toy explosion that extended this. What I don’t talk about in my book is that the 70s sees a different shift: the rise of video games, where the character appears on screen. In some ways this was an extension of the character you play with, but it was also an opening towards that earlier form of play: you could feel like you are the character onscreen.

Another space we can see the return to being the character is in cosplay, where you build and inhabit the character for particular periods of time. I think it’s in these moments that you find the collaborative energy that Ian discusses. The character becomes the nexus for a kind of creative, or community-forming activity on the part of the cosplaying fans, and a kind of excitement for the surrounding people too.

 The concept of “moe” has been central to the study of Japanese anime, but it may not be familiar to many western readers. What is “moe”? What role does it play in shaping production and reception?

Ian: “Moe” (pronounced “moh-ay”) is a very unusual term. It generally refers to an affectionate yearning, often for young, female characters, and there’s a lot of debate about whether there is a sexual element to this longing or whether it is more about an innocent desire to nurture and protect.

“Moe” also has the same sound, though different kanji character, as “burning.” So, there can also an implication of raging flames of desire.

More precisely, however, “moe” refers to a kind emotional response to visuals, with or without a storyline or world around it. People publish photo books on “factory moe,” for example, aimed at those who respond to the elaborate architecture of refineries or manufacturing plants.

The point of using the term, I think, is to acknowledge the enormous diversity of fascination and desire that can arise from visual elements. Hiroki Azuma, who Marc mentions above, offers an extended discussion of moe in his book Otaku. He makes the point that moe is another departure from the emphasis on story, and even character, focusing instead on elements of characters, like cat ears, a tail, or glasses.

Indeed, the science fiction writer Mari Kotani organizes a regular club event in Tokyo for women who are fascinated by eyeglasses (megane moe). Their response is to the eyeglasses, not the personality of the person behind those eyeglasses. Talk about post-gender!

 Many of us have turned to Japan in search of alternative models for consumer-producer relations. What insights did you gain from your research about the ways that fans have sought to insert themselves in the production process around Anime? To what degree do Japanese media producers solicit the active participation of their audiences?

Ian: This is a really interesting question. My experience is that there is a sharp generational difference among Japanese media producers. The higher-ups at major manga publishers and anime studios begrudgingly admit that fan appropriation is something that they have to accept. The manga publishers I spoke to, for example, hate the idea of Comic Market amateur producers using their characters without permission or recompense. But they don’t really fight it either.

Some say that’s because the Japanese legal system would be harder to navigate successfully. I like to think it’s because deep down, they recognize their need to let fans have their spaces of participation.

As I mentioned already, manga publishers very much do solicit the feedback of fans and work these responses into their selections for future issues of their magazines. Anime producers don’t have this luxury because they have to start work six months in advance of broadcast, so they have a much more difficult time incorporating fan ideas.

But when I interview younger media producers, they seem to be aiming to create a very different kind of media object. They want to produce something that can be a “platform” rather than a narrative or some kind of “content.”

They are learning from the success of Miku, Japan’s crowd-sourced virtual singing idol. Miku started as voice synthesizer software that Crypton Future Media released, along with a free-to-use image of her as a blue-haired, 16-year-old pixie. Fans made the music, elaborated on the illustrations, and created their own videos, such that Miku has become one of the leading singing stars today, even though, technically, she doesn’t exist. Or rather, she exists as the social energy of fans that bring her to life.

In this, younger media producers see that openness, not control, can be the key to success. (Isn’t it interesting how copyright control no longer seems the key to making money?) When I spoke to a recent college grad with his own media startup, he similarly spoke of his desire to follow the path to success of the Toho Project, a vast transmedia phenomena that started as an amateur video game.

In both cases (and we could identify others), the success arises from creating something—a character, a world, a certain kind of premise, or a participatory space around something completely different—that others can build upon. To me, this represents a further shift from thinking about media in terms things internal to a world (story, character, premise) and more about creating figurative platforms that others can build upon.

This perspective has the potential to completely transform what we think of as media, and I think it offers some fascinating possibilities for thinking of the politics and pleasures of media. I guess it simply remains to be seen how spreadable these practices can be.

 

 

Ian Condry is professor of media and cultural studies in Comparative Media Studies at MIT.  He is the author of The Soul of Anime:  Collaborative Creativity and Japan's Media Success Story (Duke U Press, 2013).  The book explores ethnographically the global spread of Japanese animation, from fieldwork in Tokyo's studios to participation in fan conventions in the US.  His first book, Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (Duke U Press, 2006), analyzes the way rap music took root in Japan.  His research focuses on "globalization from below," that is, cultural movements that succeed, despite skepticism from elites.  He is the founder and organizer of the MIT/Harvard Cool Japan research project, which examines the cultural connections, dangerous distortions and critical potential of popular culture.  More info:  http://iancondry.com

Marc Steinberg is assistant professor of Film Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. He is the author of Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), and has published essays on anime, franchising and digital media in Japan ForumAnimation: An Interdisciplinary Journal,ParachuteJournal of Visual CultureTheory, Culture & Society, Mechademia, and Canadian Journal of Film Studies. Continuing the study of the media mix, his current research project explores the close relation between “contents” and “platforms” in Japanese media industry discourse and practice, from the 1980s to the present.