Next month, London will host two key media industry conferences – the venerable London Book Fair and the second outing of Transmedia Next. Storytelling professionals happy to stay in the world of business-as-usual will be attending the London Book Fair. But those who have discovered that business-as-usual doesn’t cut it in the 21st century – who want to stay at the cutting edge of media production – those people will be hitting Transmedia Next.
Transmedia Next is a three-day series of seminars, workshops and exercises aimed at training storytelling professionals in the theory and practice of transmedia storytelling. It is hosted by Seize The Media, with the support of the EU MEDIA Programme. Lance Weiler, Seize The Media’s creative director and chief story architect, unnerved attendees of the Sundance Film Festival with the short film his short film “Pandemic 41.410806, -75.654259”. The film played in conjunction with a transmedia experience accessible to people on the streets of Park City too, and the Sundance crowd got a peek into Weiler’s compelling and intricate storyworld, “Pandemic 1.0” (www.hopeismissing.com).
Lance Weiler’s Pandemic 1.0 short film, shown at Sundance
I spoke with Anita Ondine, transmedia producer and CEO of Seize The Media about transmedia and Transmedia Next. Anita is passionate about educating creatives and producers in the method and vocabulary of transmedia production. She grew up in Australia surrounded by artists and creatives. Her later years took her to law school and then to a series of positions tackling legal issues of technology and intellectual property for major firms. She was a Senior VP at Lehman Brothers in London until 2006 when she decided to pursue filmmaking full time. For her, the transition from finance to film was perfectly natural. She has always been a storyteller, a communicator, and her practical experience in the no-nonsense arena of The City gave her the perfect toolkit to becoming a 21st century producer.
The term “transmedia” is thrown around with ever-increasing frequency, but surprisingly few people, even those in the media industries, have a solid grasp of what it exactly is. “Transmedia” is often confused the old-school term, “multi-media”. Multi-media is the presentation of a story in multiple formats – often repeating the same story in a book version, then a film version, then a game version, etc. Ondine explains that transmedia is a type of storytelling in which the story exists independently of the media used to present it. The story exists before and beyond its appearance in a specific form and each media experience is a limited window onto that larger story. “There are gaps in the storytelling,” Ondine says, “where the audience – or participants as I like to call them – fill in their own experience, through their own imaginations or by supplying content themselves or by actually physically taking part in the story.”
Anita Ondine, Transmedia Producer
Lance Weiler’s “Pandemic” short, which Ondine produced, is only one viewpoint into the Pandemic storyworld. An web of online and real-world content, carefully architected, allows participants to interact with the Pandemic 1.0 storyworld in a variety of ways. It is that careful structuring of the storyworld parameters – its characters, timeline, rules, narrative style – and the orchestrating of the venues by which participants can access it that makes transmedia such a challenging and exciting storytelling arena.
Developing a transmedia storyworld requires forethought and vision. The development and production of a computer game might be a comparable endeavour, but a highly complex transmedia story might have a computer game embedded in it as only one of the numerous experiences available to the participant. And how each of these different experiences interacts with each other and with the ever-evolving participant can be unpredictable. In a transmedia experience, the participants or audience might begin contributing more to the story, changing things in real time, introducing complications and story twists of their own. The story architects must be meticulous in their preparation of the underlying narrative and technological structures supporting the storyworld. Transmedia Next emphasises the preproduction of a transmedia story is as important as the storytelling itself. Though some of the well-tested workflows of 20th century media production still apply, new ways of building a story and offering it to an audience have had to be introduced, often through an R&D process that continues beyond deployment of the story. The world of transmedia storytelling is still in its infancy, a “Wild West” where methods and techniques are still being pioneered and experimentation is the name of the game.
Transmedia Next is a gathering of professionals who already have a solid grounding in their own creative arenas – design, writing, finance, production, and this is one of its features that most excites Anita Ondine. The conversation that develops among these gathered professionals can be as enlightening as the seminars themselves. Transmedia Next participants are reminded that they are as vital a part of the learning process as Ondine and the rest of the seminar leaders. Characteristic of a transmedia experience, attendees move out of the realm of passive observer to active participant, discovering insights and methods that a single artist might have never arrived at on his or her own.
Ondine is eager to help people discover how transmedia stories can both creatively financed and produce profits. Because transmedia has such a wide reach in terms of the demographic of its participants, as well as a variety of venues in which it might be encountered, it has a potential for many different kinds of revenue streams. Typical of the digital age, revenue generated by transmedia projects tends to be non-linear with multiple types of revenue potential, from the old media model of volume and unit selling to a whole salad of options including subscriptions, sponsorship, ad sales, and franchises. Ondine says, “Transmedia is about the experience. That’s what makes it unique. You’re not restricted to moving units. The income can come from selling experiences.” And certainly, there is no limit to what can be experienced. The transmedia income model calls for as much creative vision as the transmedia story architecture.
This year’s Transmedia Next will again feature Anita Ondine and Lance Weiler. Joining them again this year will be Inga von Staden, Berlin-based media architect, educator for 21st century media creatives. She has published and lectured widely on technology-enhanced media and brings an intellectual rigor and years of experience to the seminars. New on the Transmedia Next team this year is Jonathan Marshall, who has been a lead technical strategist for the BBC’s interactive TV initiatives and is CTO of Social Television at SlipStream. His work for the BBC also won him a BAFTA.
Transmedia Next takes place 12th – 14th April, 2011 in London. For more information go to TransmediaNext.com or email sam [at] transmedianext.com.
The term “transmedia” seems to have originated in 1991 with Marsha Kinder, the critical studies dynamo of USC’s cinema school. When I was at USC, cinema students were divided into two theoretical camps. You were either a Marsha Kinder devotee (European, experimental, theoretical cinema) or a Drew Casper devotee (classic American cinema with big movie stars). And I have to say it was Drew Casper for me at the time. But I was young and narrow-minded. Today it would be Marsha though, definitely.
MIT gave “transmedia” its seal of approval in 2003, when Henry Jenkins – also a USC media professor now – wrote his game-changing article “Transmedia Storytelling”. I’ve always thought that knowing the names of things is one of the differences between an amateur and a professional. But the terminology is still flux when it comes to 21st century media. We’re making this stuff up as we go, and it will take some time to get our toolboxes properly organised. In the present Tower Of Digi-Babel ruckus, some people say, “transmedia”, some “crossmedia”, some “media 360”. Me, I say “full spectrum media”. Richard Wagner said “Gesamtkunstwerk”. And people in 1999 said “new media”.
The key feature that distinguishes true transmedia from stories presented discretely in traditional formats is that in transmedia, the story exists before and beyond its appearance in a specific form. I’d like to think that the pen & paper role-playing games of yesteryear were one of the first truly transmedial entertainments, where characters, places, monsters and events are assumed to already exist and the stories experienced and told by players are spin-offs and riffs on the already existing world. Some of the major science fiction franchises too have offered up stories, characters and worlds that appear transmedially, as children of the original universe. But we are still in the Wild West phase of transmedial storytelling and transmedia is yet to fully stand on its own two – or three or four or twelve – feet.
Last September, I attended one of the most important conferences of the year for European media professionals – Transmedia Next. The three-day event took place in London – in a lovely Thames-side corporate building, halfway between the Tate Britain and the Houses Of Parliament – and was hosted by transmedia pioneers Seize The Media. It featured lectures, discussions and exercises facilitated by a full spectrum of transmedia expertise – Seize The Media’s CEO Anita Ondine, the company’s Chief Technical Architect David Beard, and its award-winning Story Architect Lance Weiler.
Providing intellectual backbone to the Transmedia Next conference was media expert and educator, Inga von Staden. She is director of the Interactive Media programme at Berlin’s Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg and also directs the MEDIA training program at the Media Business School, Spain. She works first-hand with visionary creatives who are in the process of inventing 21st century media. She has been a guiding force in moving them forward and has, as often, learned from them what transmedia really can do.
I had the good fortune to interview Inga von Staden about her work and the past, present and future of 21st century media:
Inga von Staden
NEAL ROMANEK: So how do you answer when someone asks you “What IS transmedia?”
INGA VON STADEN: I tell them it is one of several terms used in the converging media landscape. “Transmedia” was coined by Jenkins (and Kinder—NR) focusing on a story to take the user through different media platforms. The other terms currently in use are “crossmedia” which was coined by the advertising industry, referring to integrated, cross-platform campaigns. And there’s also “360Degrees” which refers to a theme playing out across a multitude of platforms and also includes factual content that may be less story-driven than fiction. 360Degrees is quite popular term in the European media industries.
NEAL ROMANEK: You started out as a filmmaker. How did you get to where you are now?
INGA VON STADEN: I began working in television and film productions in 1987. In 1995 I migrated into games and internet development as a conceptor and project manager. Then I worked as a consultant for the media industries from 1999 to 2008 helping with the paradigm shift from analogue to digital. My clients were print publishers, tv broadcasters, and also the film industry.
The more I worked with these companies, the more I became aware that there were too few professionals who could do the work that converging media implied. So in a lecture I gave at the Bertelsmann Association in 2000, I proposed we change our narrowly focused film education to a wide media education to create professionals who develop and produce content for all media platforms. My proposal was not particularly well-received at the time. But ten years later the director of my film school wrote in the school’s studies guide: “360Degrees is the new magic term.” I do not really think it is magic, but I do think it is a very sensible approach to the media business.
In 2002 I set up Germany’s first European MEDIA programme, “The Academy of Converging Media”, training authors and designers to think transmedially. And I wrote the first national studies on digital cinema for the German Film Fund in 2002 and 2003 . Today I run a four-year diploma studies programme at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg (www.filmakademie.de) dedicated to 360Degree Media. Our students are trained to work as transmedia producers and transmedia content directors.
Now, apart from giving lectures at conferences, hosting seminars and directing the studies program mentioned above, I coach interdisciplinary teams through the transmedial development process. It is very stressful to be suddenly doing what you have always done your way with others who do it their way. We see this even when we bring together students from different departments or schools in our Content Labs. But the innovative force that is unleashed once the communication and methodology have been practiced is simply amazing.
NEAL ROMANEK: And you became involved in Transmedia Next how?
INGA VON STADEN: For the Transmedia Next conference, I was contacted by Anita Ondine, who had heard of me through European MEDIA training programs on converging media.
NEAL ROMANEK: So is there any going back to the traditional, 20th century way of doing things for you? Or do you see yourself now permanently operating in a multi-platform world?
INGA VON STADEN: Once I began seeing ideas, stories and themes through the transmedial lense, I found it very hard not to make transmedial suggestions when involved in a development process.
NEAL ROMANEK: What are the most difficult parts of the creative process in constructing transmedia material? What are the unique challenges that are not present in producing other content?
INGA VON STADEN: To go transmedial means you have to allow for a pre-development. In other words, before you develop a format – a film, a game, etc. – you must first develop the story universe that will be the foundation on which all the different media formats will be based. This concept of pre-development is not usually taken into consideration in the development process of content. Or in the budgets for the development process. Furthermore, you have to change the process to be less linear. Transmedia is much too complex to be designed by just one person. It is a team-oriented pool process. The producer needs to bring in other disciplines to participate through the entire development process – a technical director, for example, and a community manager. And the content director needs to be educated in all media formats to understand the input they’re getting from the different team members.
Transmedial projects tend to become very big and complex. The art is to allow for all the possibilities that transmedial thinking can offer to come into the brainstorming sessions at the same time, and to structure the development process along a commonly accepted methodology, ie the “content onion” by Raimo Lang (YLE). You have to consolidate the content into an operative idea – the creative kernel – and from there build the red thread through that story universe the team has designed. The art is to keep it simple.
NEAL ROMANEK: How is today’s transmedia different from past efforts at presenting a story across multiple platforms? How does it differ, say, from what Walt Disney was doing with simpler technologies 50 years ago?
INGA VON STADEN: Transmedia is more than just crossmedial distribution. Transmedia is understanding an story or theme to be more than just a film or game or an app. It is about the notation of the story universe that an author has in his head as he writes a story. By exposing that story universe, the team members and co-production partners can share in it and become part of the creative process. They can collaborate to design a media architecture that will take that idea or story or theme across different platforms. This is not about a film going onto the internet or a character being merchandised, though that could certainly be part of the design. It is about understanding what part of the idea, story or theme plays best where and how the different media formats are interlinked, via “rabbit holes”, portholes into the various spaces within the story universe. Simple examples are having the main plot of a story happen in a TV-series and different sub-plots staged on the Internet. Another example might be opening up spaces in the story universe to users who will create user-generated media to feed into the overall content.
NEAL ROMANEK: Whenever I talk to producers about transmedia, there often seems to be the same response – and said with quite a lot of confidence: “There isn’t any good way to make money from it”.
INGA VON STADEN: Transmedia is more expensive than “simply” making a film, game, app, or building a community. But each format in a transmedial architecture will be cheaper than if it had been produced on its own. You create synergies, production resources that can be reused and reconfigured. So rather than making 5 films for the sum of X, you are creating 5 different formats for the sum of X minus Synergy.
And furthermore we are seeing film producers having an increasingly hard time to come up pre-financing. So thinking transmedially, you can create content that feeds into another platform and then cross-finance your film with those revenues.
There is no one business model. There are many business models out there. Each media platform has its models for making money. They would otherwise not exist. Now you will probably not be making money by uploading your film to YouTube – a film does economically much better in a cinema, on DVD or VoD-platform. But you may make money selling elements of your story universe on a pay-per-item basis and collecting micro payments from an online community. A transmedial producer must creatively combine the financing and revenue models out there to come up with a project’s very own business model. I call it the transmedial business mash-up model.
NEAL ROMANEK: What is the biggest potential growth area for transmedia? Entertainment? Marketing? Education? And where is the best transmedia work being done today?
INGA VON STADEN: Transmedia will most likely be making its big money with entertainment as most media does. But we are currently seeing the most interesting projects come up in the factual realm born out of the necessity of documentary film companies to find new business models in order to survive. Examples are “Prison Valley” or “The Galata Bridge”. And we have seen transmedia happen for years already in children’s media. Kids find it so easy to surf a story environment on different platforms.
NEAL ROMANEK: I feel like transmedia now is in the same place as movies were in the 20th century. Movies imitated past popular media, like novels and theatre. A lot of transmedia seems to imitate movies. How do we get away from imitating movies?
INGA VON STADEN: You soon become more creative than simply emulating the movies if you bring in different disciplines into your creative team. A game designer has a very different approach to content, as does a designer of apps or a builder of communities. Take a look at the great work Dr. Randy Pausch (creator of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University) did with his “Building Virtual Worlds” class.
NEAL ROMANEK: How can transmedia creators help each other?
INGA VON STADEN: Share experience and build a body of professional knowledge! That is the only way we can all begin making interesting projects and earn a living with them.
I had the privilege of interviewing Mike Carey, writer of “X-Men” and the “Sandman” spin-off “Lucifer”, as well as creator of the Felix Castor series of horror/detective novels by Orbit Books. Mike has also recently written “Re-Gifters” for DC Comics’ new “Minx” imprint of graphic novels for teen girls. His third Felix Castor book, “Dead Men’s Boots”, will be available this September.
NEAL ROMANEK: How did you become involved in DC’s Minx line and “Re-Gifters”? Did you have to employ any new tools to write specifically for a young female audience?
MIKE CAREY: It was less of a stretch than it looks. I’d already written “My Faith In Frankie” (Vertigo), of course, and that gave me a chance to exercise these particular muscles – to try out writing for a younger audience or at least in a “teen fiction” mode. I really enjoyed it and I was hugely satisfied with the result. Then when Shelly invited me to pitch for Minx, her first suggestion was that I could team up with Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel – bringing the Frankie creative team back together again. We already knew each other’s strengths and foibles, and we’d already got into a really good work groove on that first outing, so pitching “Re-Gifters” didn’t feel like much of a leap at all. It was very much a question of applying the “Frankie” aesthetic to a different – non-fantasy – context. Structure wasn’t an issue because we knew that Sonny could take style shifts and flashbacks and multiple points of view in his stride. So we pulled out all the stops. “Re-Gifters” is “Frankie” with a bigger core cast and a bigger canvas. Well, that’s not true, of course, because “Frankie” also had that element of playing on mythological themes and questions of religious belief. In “Re-Gifters” that wider dimension is much more subliminally present in the relationships between the different L.A. subcultures and the protagonist’s trying to find her niche within that complex web of relationships. But what I mean is that we knew where we were going, and we knew how we wanted to get there. There was never a phase of sitting around and asking ourselves “How are we going to do this?” Clearly, though, the narrative techniques are very different from my superhero work and from most of my Vertigo work. That was part of the fun.
NEAL ROMANEK: As your career has progressed, and the popular media industry with it, how have your attitudes and your approaches changed?
MIKE CAREY:I guess the big difference is that I’m writing for a living now. When I started out, and way, way into my run on “Lucifer”, I was a teacher who wrote in the evenings and at weekends, around the edges of a very demanding job. Then I made the big jump – as two smaller jumps, because at the college’s invitation I took a sabbatical before I quit teaching for good – and for the past five years I’ve just been doing this, full-time. That was a huge change in my life, and at first it was hard to adjust. Obviously I began to take on a bigger volume of work, but that’s never really been a problem: what was weird was sitting at home, waving my wife off to the office and my kids to school, and then hammering away at the keyboard in a room by myself for eight hours.
But that’s just logistical stuff, obviously, and you get used to it. In a more significant sense, I had to start seeing writing as a career rather than a hobby and I had to start making decisions about where I was going, what I was aiming for. That didn’t come naturally to me: I’m both a disorganised person and a retiring one, so I don’t push hard towards specific goals, treading the slow and the unwary under my feet. My instinct is to keep plugging away and wait for things to happen, which was why it took me so long to progress from comics journalism into comic scriptwriting. I’m still not aggressive: but I do have more of a sense of direction now, even if it wavers a lot.
NEAL ROMANEK: What’s the biggest roadblock you’ve had to face as a writer?
MIKE CAREY:Probably the biggest crisis came quite early on in my relationship with DC. I wrote “The Morningstar Option” for Alisa Kwitney, and in the process became very good friends with her – which was hard not to do because she was an inspirational and very supportive editor. But then Alisa took maternity leave and left Vertigo – as it turned out permanently – and I didn’t know anyone else at DC from Adam. Or Eve. There was a very real danger that I’d suddenly find myself on the outside looking in again, losing all the ground I’d gained. Two things saved me. One was that Alisa commissioned a second miniseries – “Petrefax” – from me before she left DC, giving me a lifeline and an ongoing link to Vertigo for at least four months. And the other was that I made the decision to go to San Diego that year for Comic-Con and made contact with Shelly Bond, who edited me on a short story for the Flinch horror anthology and ultimately commissioned the “Lucifer” ongoing. I stayed in the game, in other words – with the help of two exceptional editors. And everything since, as far as my career is concerned, has really followed on from the decisions of that time.
NEAL ROMANEK:There’s the adage: “It’s not enough to have talent, you must have a talent for having talent.” So how do you operate as the Mike Carey “brand”, as a business person who may sometimes have to act and think differently from the author?
MIKE CAREY:I think you develop a kind of double-vision where – even while you’re immersed in one project – part of your mind is always engaged in racking up the next one. That’s a change that comes about as soon as you’re relying on your writing income: you worry about gaps, about periods when there’s nothing happening, so you try to keep them as short and infrequent as you can. I’m always talking to editors, and I’m always throwing out pitches or jotting down rough ideas for possible stories. Having said that, though, I know a lot of creators who are much more pro-active, much more aggressive than I am in doing that stuff – who set up and maintain the brand with great skill and great dedication. I’m kind of ham-fisted at it, if I’m honest. And I do the bits of it that come easy to me, like writing the blog and chatting on the occasional message board, and doing signings every so often. Stuff that looks daunting I shamelessly duck.
The part of marketing that I enjoy most is going to cons. I don’t really regard that as work, because my own inner fan-boy is still alive and well and any sci-fi or comics convention is going to provide me with a lot of pleasure and diversion. But it does also get you onto people’s radar, so in that sense it’s a promotional thing.
NEAL ROMANEK:The communications revolution has affected the balance of power in all areas of business. Do you see UK and European popular media changing in prominence or influence? Or do you suppose there’ll be more consolidation of US influence, with stuff farmed out to international artists?
MIKE CAREY: I think the hegemony of the US media is very deeply entrenched now, across the globe. And speaking as an English writer working overwhelmingly for US publishers, I can see exactly how this process works – at least in a niche market like comics. The truth is, although there is still arguably a UK comics market, there probably isn’t a living to be made in it. Certainly not for a writer, anyway. If you get in at 2000AD, you may end up writing a regular strip for them: but that means five or six pages a week, at forty or fifty quid a page, for however long the strip lasts – then a frantic round of pitching and developing to get the next strip up and running. It’s fine when you’re young and unencumbered, but it’s not going to get you all that far in the longer term. A lot of people see that as just a calling card for the American market, because there’s nowhere to progress to in the British market. Literally nowhere.
Having said that, European publishers like Humanoids and Soleil are making increasing use of British creators: unlike the UK they have a robust domestic market that scarcely intersects at all with the market for translated American books. So DC and Marvel rule the roost but they’re not the only game in town – and I don’t think we’re seeing a gradual process of cultural saturation and colonisation. It amazed me when I was at the Lille Comics Festival last year to see how the three audiences – for US superhero books, for the home-grown “Franco-Belge” strips, and for Manga – exist side by side and are even served to some extent by separate specialty shops.
NEAL ROMANEK:What have been your observations of “New Authorship”, with creators working easily across multiple media – in your case, films, prose, comics. Is there a real falling away of specialization – or pigeonholing? Or has it always been this way?
MIKE CAREY:It’s probably always been there. Look at how many successful novelists have written movie screenplays, going way back to the fifties. It’s almost inevitable, if you’re making a name for yourself in one creative field, that you’ll eventually get noticed and get offers from adjacent ones.
The degree of inter-penetration we’re seeing now though strikes me as something new, if only because it’s been formalised and institutionalised. San Diego Comic-Con has so many movie and TV people in attendance now that the straight comics stuff has come to seem almost like an off-shoot. DC and Marvel are aggressively recruiting novelists to write books for them, both because it’s a fair bet that they’ll already know how to write and because they bring fresh perspectives with them. Not to mention dedicated fan bases in a lot of cases.
I don’t see this as a bad thing. Very few writers in my experience think of the medium they work in as their natural home or as the limit of their ambitions. Most writers like telling stories, and most writers like to experiment: I know generalisations are dangerous but I believe those things to be true. The medium may be the message, in a lot of cases – has to be, in a lot of cases – but for that very reason, if you’ve got something different to say you’ll often reach out for a different medium to say it in.
NEAL ROMANEK:What’s the most practical lesson you’ve learned? The thing you’ve used most in improving your craft?
MIKE CAREY:This isn’t my insight – it’s Peter Gross’s (artist “Lucifer”, “Chosen”, et al)- but I quote it all the time because it’s so useful as a mantra when you’re breaking into the business and when you’re trying to establish a name for yourself.
Peter says there are three qualities that it’s desirable for a comics creator to have: to be really good, really quick or really nice. To be all three of those things would be great, but any two will do. It’s the honest-to-God truth.
NEAL ROMANEK: Will we see you this July at Comic-Con?
MIKE CAREY: I should be tacking between the Hachette, Marvel, DC and Virgin booths, and I expect I’ll have signing sessions at all three. Don’t know if I’ll be on a panel, but I’ll do it if I’m asked. On the floor… man, SDCC is so huge these days that you’re unlikely to meet the same person twice in the aisles over the whole week. But it is right at the end of a three-week signing tour for me, so I’ll be the guy who looks like a used dishrag.