Transmedia is a buzzword that has been used quite a lot in the last couple of years to define all sorts of things, from the independent movie that has a companion Website and a Facebook fan page to the multi-million dollar interactive experience that involves games, interactive Websites and live events. But what all of these different so-called transmedia projects have in common is the desire of their producers to engage an audience using digital and social media tools.

The distribution and monetization of content on multiple platforms is not new. Major studios and networks have been doing it for decades. They were the gatekeepers that controlled access to the audience; they were the ones that had sufficient marketing power to promote their content to an audience on every single platform that became popular. The rise of digital platforms means independent filmmakers are now able to directly connect with their audience using social media and online communities without having a multi-million dollar budget.

For the first time, filmmakers can “own the audience.” They can talk to the audience and find out what they like (or dislike). The success of their movie is not 100 percent dependent on a film distributor or sales agent. Using a transmedia approach, directors and producers can validate their work directly with a real audience, build a fan base and increase awareness of their project. The success of movies like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity or, more recently, Kevin Smith’s Red State was the result of the buzz created by the filmmakers using the Internet and social media services (or, in the case of The Blair Witch Project, an ancient version of social media services). But is transmedia just about promoting a movie using the Internet and digital platforms?

Most of the so-called transmedia projects that were produced in the last couple of years are just that—transmedia brand extensions. Studio and network executives see transmedia only as an online marketing tool for promoting upcoming summer blockbusters or the new network TV sci-fi series to young crowds of moviegoers. But the concept of transmedia goes a little beyond that.

Transmedia is about creating a story that, in its origin, is not formatted for any specific media. It’s not a book, nor is it a film or a TV series. The world of the story is populated with characters that interact with each other and create conflict and plot. It’s only when that story world is well-defined that the producer or filmmaker can start to open windows to that world to allow the audience to connect with the story. These windows are the different media where the story will be told. The true transmedia projects are the ones that pick the right platforms to tell different parts of the story. But does this mean that the audience needs to watch, read and interact with the story on all the different platforms to understand what is going on?

Yes and no. With transmedia, there are two approaches to allowing the audience to connect with the story. First is the puzzle-based approach, where the audience needs to collect content pieces on different platforms and then align all the content pieces to form the plot and the story. This is the approach used with Alternate Reality Games. The advantage of this model is that it creates a very loyal fan base with fans jumping from one medium to the next and spending long hours collecting content, deciphering codes and solving puzzles. The big problem with this approach is that it makes it difficult to generate big communities, because it’s so time-consuming (and confusing to the average user who just wants to watch a funny video and have a more laid-back experience).

The other type of approach is what some experts call the “transmedia franchise.” This is where you still tell your story on different platforms, but each medium is independent and lives on its own merits. A comic book may tell part of a story, the Website and social media may develop a few of the characters, a game allows you to get into the shoes of the hero and the movie takes your story to the big screen.

In a franchise approach, audiences need only watch or read one of the pieces of your content puzzle; each stand-alone piece will make sense for that audience (i.e., it will have a beginning, a middle and an end). But the fans who consume every single piece of content that you release will have a better understanding of the world and story you’ve created. They will know every single story and past event that happened to the characters before the start of the movie, or they will know what happened to their favorite characters between your first movie and the sequel that will hit cinemas two years later.

The big studios are using this approach for their summer blockbusters. Most of the movies released every summer are based on existing comic books (or other properties, like games or toys), and they already have an existing audience spread across several Websites and social media outlets that connects with the content and brand all year round. And then, every few years, a new movie comes out to satisfy the demand from this loyal fan base. But now, thanks to the development of new digital media platforms, small independent producers can use the same approach to increase brand awareness of their movies and establish their own franchises.