A Discussion on Transmedia – Conference Review

I was lucky to attend a fantastic Cross Media Forum hosted by IFP and Power to the Pixel at the Lincoln Center Film Society earlier this week. The speaker-line up was impressive but what I learned is still whizzing in my mind so I want to capture the notes here before I lose them to time. This is not a line-by-line review of each of the talks but more of a review of the overall trends I noticed and some interesting quotes that stood out to me.

1. Power of the Story:

Ex-JWT Chief Creative Officer and current founder of Co: Collective, Ty Montague gave an inspiring talk on the power of story. He’s a perfect ad man. At the right moments, he modulated his voice to a whisper for a dramatic effect. His presentation was very inspiring but like most advertising-folk presentations, I find that it lacked substance. He stressed the importance of storytelling whereas  I think we are beyond being convinced of that. But he  shared an interesting experiment by Rob Walker, Significant Objects. This project makes a perfect case-study for brands that don’t place enough emphasis on telling their stories and approach their brand from a purely functional and rational POV. The experiment demonstrated that objects with stories had an average appreciation of 3800%. (Did I hear it right?)

To this effect, he shared that Apple never pays for product placement. Every single Apple product featured in shows, movies etc – is because the directors want the Apple story to align with their protagonists. He also mentioned that every single protagonist he has noticed uses an Apple computer.

2. Transmedia in Action

What was more thought provoking was Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner, a 100% Transmedia company. I loved his talk because it was prescriptive enough that I walked back with a lot of fodder to mull over. “True interactivity is how your choice impacts the progress of your narrative.” His company works with big-budget films (Pirates of the Carribean, Avatar, etc) in taking the canon established in this movies and these fantastical worlds and extending it into the pop culture universe in a way that lasts for a very long time. Their process is very interesting as well: they have a team of writers/ editors and designers that begin a project by first identifying areas where there can be room for additional or an expanded narrative. Perhaps its secondary character, or a fictional place/ land that demands more history or a backstory. Once they have the gaps identified, their team brainstorm ideas and come up with a series of appropriate “transmedia” objects to fit into the narrative. It could be a graphic novel, a video game, a lost chapter, a board game, toys – etc etc. Screen shot 2011-04-21 at 2.56.42 PM

As a marketer, this is very interesting to me. Geico tried to do something similar by extending their popular Cave Men advertisements into a mini TV Series. It flopped but kudos to them for trying. Can you think of other brand examples where brands have extended their narrative successfully?

I loved Andrea Phillip’s talk. She took the audiences through an exercise on applying transmedia lens to “Romeo and Juliet.” I loved that she did this – her point was that transmedia does not just apply to sci-fi or fantasy. She stressed that it is important to consider from the audience’s POV what they want. I found it easiest to document the process and the outcome she took us through in the chart below.

One of the most important points that Andrea shared was,

“It is a myth that you can make something great, put it out there and expect it to take off. A lot of great transmedia products have failed because of that approach. It is important to treat and market a transmedia property like you would market its parent product. (Film/ game etc)”

A couple great case-studies emerged out of the talk by Brian Clark who is an experience designer and storyteller. I will need more time to dig through all the case-studies he mentioned (they are all in film, fyi) so that’s for another post.

Nina Bragiel, former writer on Lizzie McGuire and transmedia producer for ValemontU by MTV shared a great insight.

“The key to transmedia is providing something for every level of participation.”

Her presentation and the story behind how she managed the transmedia efforts for ValemontU was interesting but shed no light on success factors. I asked her particularly about the Twitter followers. Across 9 Twitter feeds, they had only 2000 or so followers at their peak. This is where I think that marrying transmedia principles with social media best practices would have been a smart way to approach this conundrum. I understand the importance of every character wanting their own feed, but at some point, transmedia producers will have to evaluate whether the celebrity feeds are more valuable than the character feeds and whether or not every narrative needs to have multiple voices. I would have liked more discussion on how or if transmedia contributes towards results. I suppose in regards to film, the answer is clear. Ancillary revenue. But for a Web show (like ValemontU) what is the goal of transmedia and what should’ve been its contribution towards increasing viewership?


Personally for  me, with Transmedia, I think I’ve found the bridge that connects my two interests: fiction writing and marketing. The challenge is now to allow this thinking to inspire the work I do for my clients. That said, my concern is also that transmedia will become the next new “buzzword” (much like “gamification!) and everyone will want to “transmediafy” everything, much like they tried to gamify everything. Success for brands will rely largely on identifying the RIGHT mix of brands, narrative and audiences.

For further reading, JWT Intelligence recently published a report on Transmedia (as it relates to marketing/ advertising – not film or books)

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