8.23.2011

Transmedia & the Future of Filmmaking

"[Transmedia] enables you to be connected to so many other people on the basis of the fact that they're experiencing the same work as you at the same time. This is the evolution of storytelling." - Lance Weiler

"So yes, I'm a filmmaker; yes, I create my world; but I don't believe that I should be the complete tastemaker. Giving the audience the benefit of the doubt is better than me being the sole creator." - Zeke Zelker

"There's this thing video game designers call a 'golden path'—there's a definite way that the majority of people are going to experience the game, and the designers plot that. A lot of the interactivity in a video game is really just the illusion of interactivity. It's about engaging the audience and giving at least the feeling of volition. But as the artist you have to have the sense that you are, in some way, controlling it, blending the craft of storytelling with the illusion of agency." - Tommy Pallota

The NY Press recently published a great article on Transmedia by Zachary Wigon. The article is worth your time to read and reflect on. It begins with Wigon's definition of Transmedia:
A cinema/digital media hybrid anchored in filmmaking, this new brand of storytelling is defined by works that combine the typical moviegoing experience with more interactive elements, enabled by new media tools. There's no standard formula for making a transmedia work—the field is too young to have ossified in form yet—so the new medium is being produced in varying iterations.
The article cites the work of:
Lance Weiler, a filmmaker and new media consultant whose name is typically the first to come up in discussions of transmedia (he's been making transmedia work ever since he created a network of websites presenting his fictional narrative for 1998's The Last Broadcast as reality, a marketing idea recycled for The Blair Witch Project).  [Lance] recently had a short film shown at Sundance called Pandemic 41.410806, -75.654259. Alongside the premiere of the horror short, about a brother and sister whose mother is possessed by some sort of zombie-like disease, Weiler created an interactive experience that took place during the festival itself, entitled Pandemic 1.0. The experience, also termed an "alternate reality game" or ARG, consisted of a website that named specific hidden objects that needed to be found around Park City in order to stop an outbreak of the illness portrayed in the short. Anyone in Park City could participate, viewing media on the website while they gathered items.
One of the benefits of transmedia is that:
Films have not one but two ways to gain an audience:  through traditional filmic means, like festivals and theatrical releases, and through new channels being opened up by the films' added components, found over the net and elsewhere. That being said, at the moment, transmedia films are certainly under the radar; plenty of people who work in the independent film industry are only vaguely aware of it. But those who do believe in the field believe in it fervently.
Another benefit is that you can actually make money through transmedia:
For Zeke Zelker, who produced the interactive component of Pandemic, transmedia represents a way to monetize independent filmmaking as never before.

Talking about his upcoming feature film, Billboard, Zelker explains, "From a very young age, I understood that you have entertainment and then around the entertainment you have various profit centers. My film is about a radio station that has a billboard-sitting contest. How do those entities make money? Advertising. So I'm going to use a lot of branding to raise the money for the film. Brand integration. Not a bastardized aspect of what Morgan Spurlock did, but actual integration, with real ads on the billboard in the film going to companies that pay for it. For my last film, we put T-shirts in retail stores, and had, on the tags, a link that would allow them to watch the movie for free if they bought the shirt. I was making more money selling the shirts than I would have been making from downloads of the film."
And Zeke's plan:
Zelker explains that his ambitious project has many phases. He's already launched a radio station online to serve as the station that holds the contest his film revolves around. He has opened the station to submissions from any bands who want airplay; the bands who get the most plays on the station's website will see their songs used in the film. Next, Zelker plans to travel around the country, holding auditions for his actors and videotaping them. The audition videos will be uploaded to a site on which the audience can vote for who they want to see in the film, effectively crowd-sourcing his casting. Finally, after the film is released, he plans to run a nationwide ARG that sends fans on a scavenger hunt using clues that Zelker has dropped on various media platforms—online and in the film—to find a painting used in the film. The person who finds the painting wins $96,000, the same amount of prize money as in the film's billboard-sitting contest.
A big part of the transmedia concept for the filmmaker is allowing for certain elements of a film to spin out into something totally separate from the film but still be a part of the film's world.
"There's this central story I have, but then there are all these other things coming out of that—things I want the audience to crack out, to break away to a certain extent.

I think with transmedia you can section off parts that can be explored by the audience, but keep those separate. I don't mind letting go of certain aspects. But with other aspects—if I've written 12 drafts of a script, there's no room for modifying that story." (Lance Weiler)
However, it is easy to forget the importance of art, creativity and story-telling in transmedia by just dwelling on technology:
For all of the talk about transmedia as a major technological progression in storytelling, there has been relatively little discussion of the artistic merits of transmedia works—almost all discussion seems to concentrate on the way the works utilize media platforms.

"One of the problems I've found with transmedia is that people tend to talk about the technology and platforms before the story and characters," says Tommy Pallotta, a producer of Richard Linklater's Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, who recently directed a transmedia film called Collapsus (which Weiler, everpresent in the field, actually co-wrote) for a Dutch production company. The film, available in its entirety online, is a cautionary tale about a future in which environmental disaster provides opportunities for geopolitical espionage. It features intermittent tasks the user must perform (i.e., descramble a telephone conversation), as well as frequent (fictional) news segments that interrupt the film to comment on the narrative developments (though the viewer can skip these segments if they desire).

"Telling a successful story is always a challenge," Pallotta continues. "To tell it on multiple platforms creates a greater challenge because you're asking a lot more from the audience. You need to find your character and story first, and then go from there to a compelling reason why you need multiple platforms."
However, because of the newness of the transmedia concept there are no fast rules and what works for one filmmaker is not necessarily preferable or relatable to another:
"Every transmedia project you see is going to be different because people are still trying to find the right form. With Collapsus, I didn't want to jump around platforms. I tried to create a single destination for everything. My goal with Collapsus was to create a stand-alone experience that is not ephemeral. Obviously, it becomes individualized based on how people interact—you and I doing it have different experiences—but it's not a choose-your-own-adventure either. I thought of it as annotated storytelling: if you want to go deeper, you can."
Some of the conclusions to be drawn on the use and effectiveness of transmedia begin with the questions it poses:
The ultimate question seems to be what filmmaking will look like once transmedia's done with it: Will audiences feel understimulated without multiple streams of video available to them during the course of a film? Will they feel disconnected from works that don't engage them on an individual level, or in real-life activities? Will they demand the ability to provide feedback on elements as crucial as casting decisions?
And so just like the web has transformed, filmmaking will transform itself merging the traditions of the past with the technologies of the present to give filmmakers a choice into how best to tell a story:
If what occurs is a "Web 2.0-ing" of filmmaking, one suspects future iterations of film could consist of artistic decisions that are heavily informed (if not made) by the audience, as well as a greater ability for niche films to find their audience communities. It sounds like a solution to the revenue issue—one that comes at the cost, perhaps, of artistic quality, depending on one's belief in whether or not the audience has taste. Of course, this is all purely speculative; there are different ideas about the degree to which transmedia should genuinely enable audience participation rather than merely provide the illusion of such. Which side wins out has yet to be seen.
In conclusion, a filmmaker would be wise to consider the transmedia possibilties their idea potentially has. Not only could it unlock a wider audience and a larger source of revenue but it could also unleash the filmmaker's creativity as he or she winds down the different paths of storytelling their film can take in multiple platforms.

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