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.
It’s always a good idea to try and build small pieces of content as early as possible before the big and expensive movie (or TV series) comes out. Thanks to the popularity of tablets and eBooks, it’s now easy to release a novel or comic based on the story or world you are creating. Remember all that backstory you wrote for your characters that never made it into the script? Releasing it as an eBook or comic book may work as a prequel to your movie, letting the audience connect with your main characters from an early stage. Or you could create a Webseries as a prequel to test your casting options.
Then complement these digital releases with a social media presence to start creating buzz and getting audience feedback. You may find out that your main character is not as lovable as you need him to be. Maybe the audience is reacting to your story in different ways than you expected. If you still haven’t shot your movie, you can go back and fix the script. If your project is a comedy and you’re trying new talent, you can test your material with a live audience, possibly as a stand up comedy show where you can see how a real audience reacts to your lead actor and your jokes.
This audience interaction may give you good ideas you can use to fix your script (or your casting options). Is your project in the sci-fi or horror genre? If so, developing (or asking a games company to develop) a game for the Web, Facebook or mobile and tablet platforms based on your property could be a good way to build an audience. This may also cost you nothing, as you can do a co-production with a games studio and split the revenues.
While executing these ideas, you’ll be building your audience. People will become aware of your brand, and if they are enjoying what you’re serving them, they will share it with their friends and family. On top of that, you’ll be getting the best feedback possible: Real, live audiences will react to your work, which will allow you to fine-tune your movie. This is the sort of advice and reactions you will probably never get from a script editor or a test screening.
Does this transmedia approach fit all film projects? No; it depends on the filmmaker’s plans for his work. I usually say that the transmedia franchise approach, because of the commitment in time and resources it requires, only makes sense if you see yourself producing sequels to your original movie. If you are only interested in producing a one-off movie—a small character-driven drama, say—the franchise approach probably doesn’t suit you. But even so, you can use some of the concepts of transmedia to build your fan base and feed the content development stage.
The secret is to involve your audience as early as possible. Ask for their participation. Let them help. This can be done by allowing them to suggest plot points or casting. Or there are more sophisticated approaches; one example is letting the audience create some elements for your movie, such as posters, Websites or online communities. If the audience is involved making your movie, they will be the first ones to want to see your (and their) work. They will also be the ones promoting your movie and getting their friends and family to join them in the experience.
The big complaint I keep hearing from film producers is that transmedia is more work for less money. It’s true that the majority of distributors and traditional funders will not give you any additional money for the production of the transmedia elements, but the truth is that the power of having a preexisting audience is probably more important for your movie. Unfortunately, we live in a world overcrowded with movies. But audiences are becoming smaller. If you have your own built-in fan base, you have more chances to succeed. Film distributors, sales agents and exhibitors are not just looking for good movies; they are also looking for movies with built-in audiences.
Nuno Bernardo is the co-founder and CEO of the transmedia production company beActive. He is also the author of The Producer’s Guide to Transmedia: How to Develop, Fund, Produce and Distribute Compelling Stories Across Multiple Platforms. For more information, visit www.beActiveMedia.com or follow Bernardo on Facebook (facebook.com/nmfbernardo) or Twitter (@nmfbernardo).