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03.24.10

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Transmedia Tango

Storytelling hops nimbly now across all platforms. Are you keeping up?

By Daedalus Howell


In the wrong hands, an emerging buzzword like "transmedia" could end up as Craigslist slang under either auto parts or casual encounters, especially for those who "like to watch." A recent joint UCLA and USC industry symposium attempted to clarify the term at a conference dubbed "Transmedia Hollywood: S/Telling the Story."

Despite its unfortunate title, which looks like something Roland Barthes might sneeze into, the conference put "top creators, producers and executives from the entertainment industry" and "scholars pursuing the most current academic research on transmedia studies" in a collegial cage match helmed by Henry Jenkins, Provost's professor of communication, journalism and cinematic arts, Annenberg School of Communication, USC.

Jenkins is the author of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, in which he describes transmedia storytelling simply as "the art of world-making." You know, like God. Or George Lucas.

"To fully experience a fictional world," Jenkins writes, "consumers must assume the role of hunters and gatherers, chasing down bits of the story across media channels, comparing notes with each other via online discussion group, and collaborating to ensure that everyone who invests time and effort will come away with a richer entertainment experience."

This sounds like a lot of work for the couch potato of yore, but at least it doesn't sound like Gesamtkunstwerk, the term Richard Wagner used to describe a comprehensive artwork expressed across several media. Of course, in Wagner's day, what was known as media could be sewn up in his 15-hour Ring cycle, arguably the first attempt at a transmedia experience despite the relative lack of interactivity (yawning doesn't count).

These days, entertainment—and its marketing—is often prefigured as a multiplatform franchise with toe-holds in cinema, graphic novels, video games and (gasp!) the written word. Mythologies are created that adhere to "bibles" which describe the law of fictional lands with an eye to creating an "aesthetic that is specific and archetypal simultaneously," as Louisa Stein, head of the TV and film critical studies program at San Diego State University, put it during the conference.

This, of course, is precisely what Lucas has done with myriad iterations of Star Wars (particularly those not tied to the screen) and what Tolkien et al. accomplished with The Lord of the Rings. Ditto the creators of Lost, Heroes and True Blood, among others. Of course, not all content is appropriate for all media. Consider the sage words of director David Lynch, who, in a popular YouTube video packaged as an iPhone commercial parody, opined, "Now, if you're playing the movie on the telephone, you will never, in a million years, experience the film. You'll think you have experienced it, but you will be cheated. It's such a sadness that you think you've seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real."

Sure, a lot of films, particularly David Lynch films, are not optimally viewed on a mobile device or online or perhaps anywhere. However, the thinking goes, a two-minute short that expands and elaborates a subplot first launched in a longer format piece has synergistic value. As author David Kushner wrote in a Fast Company article last year, "In the analog era, such efforts might have fallen under the soulless rubric of 'cross-promotion.'

. . . The difference is that cross-promotion has nothing to do with developing or expanding an established narrative. A Happy Days lunch box, in other words, does nothing to advance the story of Fonzie's personal journey."

Not that the Fonz had a personal journey worth charting, but plenty of characters upon whom real world dollars are spent creating fictional worlds for us to inhabit with them do. Of course, the trend is not without its critics. As "badvegan" tweeted during the conference, "More shame, for sure. Seriously: I guess I have too much respect for 4th wall. It's worked for millennia."

Sure, but could you imagine what Wagner could have done without it?

Daedalus Howell speaks at the Northern California Screenwriters and Filmmakers Expo and Pitch Fest, which runs March 26–28 at the Silverado Resort, 1600 Atlas Peak Road, Napa. www.norcalscreenwriters.com. More at www.dhowell.com.


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