Transmedia and the Evolution of Storytelling

A few days ago I came across a podcast by Hollywood 2.0 called The Future of Storytelling.  The topic was “Transmedia.”  I’d never heard that term before.  Initially the word made me think of Transylvania and blood-sucking vampires.  
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Still of Bela Lugosi in Dracula

From there my mind connected thought to the awful trend of producing brain cell-killing films that numb the senses and suck life out of an audience.  And so, naturally, my first gut feeling was not a positive one.  Still, I was curious.  After learning more, I can now recall seeing it around.  But you don’t know what to look for until you learn there is something worth looking for.

Amanda Lin Cost, writer for PBS.org describes Transmedia as a tool for telling stories across multiple platforms. The same story will share elements of its core across outlets like movies, apps, and gaming.  Different yet distinct parts of, say, a film are designed to engage fans on a more dynamic level. All points of the process purpose unique story contributions to stand on their own.  An application of the methodology might include producing a video game of the story, creating Webisodes of character spin offs, or generating a comic book of unanswered questions directed by fans.  Transmedia has the power to extend a film’s deep back-story and characters beyond traditional, singular exhibitions.

Innovent’s CEO, Antonio Kaplan says their operations of this practice began before the process even had a name. He says the experience for customers is like looking through a “three-sided prism.”  Amanda Lin Cost describes the method as “breaking down the fourth wall,” and Henry Jenkins of Fast Company says Transmedia “allows gifted storytellers to expand their canvas and share more of their vision with their most dedicated fans.”  Transmedia Marketing Café compares what marketing was, and presently is, to what marketing could become through Transmedia as the difference between, “interruption to integration, from “sponsor” to “story contributor” and from a disconnected purchase path to instant commerce.” It’s important to note that Transmedia isn’t applicable to all films and forms of entertainment, but, in many cases, its relevancy is obvious. However, as the cliché goes, it’s hard to describe the taste of salt to someone who’s never had salt before.  For many, a salt-less meal is quite simply, bland.  Without Transmedia, some audiences could be deprived the pleasure of a savory viewing experience.  Translating a story into various forms of media has the power to fill that common dissatisfaction.

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Collaborative Intermedia Storytelling

Summer Anderson is a up-and-coming graduate of Full Sail University’s Entertainment Business Master’s Program.  Her 10 years of multimedia experience provides a foundation to examine the interrelation between all forms of media while looking through the lens, specifically, of cinema.

Needle In a Haystack

Smaller Than a Big Mac

A beautiful thing entered my life this week: the Roku 2 XS.  It’s a wireless unit the size of a small box of Whitman’s chocolate, and I think it’s the best thing since sliced bread.  Ten minutes after opening the box I had access to an almost cable repertoire of Internet content – on my TV.   The biggest selling point for me was the impressive amount of access to independent films and online video content (i.e. Hulu, Netflix, SnagFilms AND Vimeo!).  But how did those channels even acquire said content?  Digital distribution.  Still, even if a filmmaker has their work available through these channels, it doesn’t mean instant audience gain.  Awareness has to be built; campaigns have to run; and viewer relationships have to be fostered if filmmakers want to attract an audience, and therefore, a profit.  One may argue that since it’s hard enough to land a theatrical release, campaigning for Internet viewership must be harder – especially with the sheer amount of content on the Net.  On the contrary, as Dustin Woodward, ‘WebConnoisure’ blogger and freelance SEO professional says, “People that are passionate about your film’s topic are out there and want to find you. And it is a level playing field—Hollywood studios have trouble ranking #1 for their own film titles!” With the Web and the power of social media, filmmakers without deep pockets can quickly spread the word about and exhibit their work before it even sees a theater.  And, should a filmmaker get the privilege of showing their film in a theater, a solid support system may have already been built under their work.  Which comes first, the horse or the cart?  I opine that, for the film industry, the Web is now the horse and the theater is the cart – not the other way around.

Ben Hur, 1959

As far as churning your film through the glut of content like cream to the top of milk, this is where SEO, or search engine optimization comes in.  But it’s not just about the film’s brand.  Brand building also centers on the filmmaker him or her self.  Sheri Candler, marketing expert and publicist for independent filmmakers, specifically, says SEO is key to building a personal brand.  “Your Personal Brand. Your online reputation. It’s the same thing.”  Know your professional name and how that translates, or doesn’t translate, across the web.  Consistency builds relevance, and relevance builds trust.   The filmmaker is the representation of the work.  As a unique representative, are you ranking positively with search engines? Sheri continues,  “Filmmakers interested in building a personal brand on the web do not have the luxury of anonymity.”  SEO and brand building is not simply a nicety.  For filmmakers, they are essential.

However, the seriousness of SEO should not overshadow content.  Buzz will fall flat without any substance behind it.  If you have a choice between spending time on your blog and producing creative works, produce creative works.  Nobody wants to be considered a poser.   Talk is cheap, and it’s bad for business.  Even still, try to find a balance.  From my end of the Roku, I won’t get the pleasure of seeing your works if my channels can’t find them. Get your stuff found. I’m sure I’m missing out.

** For kicks and giggles, watch this Shakespearian work on SEO.  As serious as having a robust web presence is, it’s always good to keep it real:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnMW0NRPVOo&feature=related

A Watched Pot Never Boils

No doubt every filmmaker wants their film projected to the big screen in front of a large audience.  We dream about it every time we sit watching someone else’s film, thinking, “Surely if they could do it, then so could I.”  That is 100% true.  You can and should.  Your film deserves it.  Every film does.  The big screen is where it’s meant to be.  But it may not happen in your time frame or in your way. It may take years for your film to reach even one theater, and often at a financial loss rather than gain.  The ‘screen’ may not even be the screen you envisioned.  The odds for a marketed film in the U.S. to generate financial gain is roughly 3%.  “Wow.  Thanks for being such a Debbie Downer,” you may say.  “Why don’t we tuck our tails between our legs and call it a day.”  But let’s get real: The San Diego Padres have roughly a 0.0% chance of making it to the playoffs, and the Colorado Rockies are close behind.  Odds say they should hang up their cleats and shut the team down.  The Padres haven’t entered the World Series since 1984.  Then again, the Padres went to the World Series in 1984.  So did the Rockies in 2007.  Who’s to say they won’t again?  But besides that, what keeps a ball player playing when the odds seem stacked against them and the years between keep stacking up?  The love of the game.  And even if they never made it to the World Series again, the teams keep playing games because, for one, their fans keep paying.

So how does baseball have anything to do with filmmaking?  Nothing.  And everything.

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“A League of Their Own”

We live in a magnificent time of opportunity and versatility with regards to exhibition and distribution.  Your film’s ‘premiere’ doesn’t have to wait for funding or the opportunity to theatrically release.  Instead, outlets like IndieFlixDistribber, and Distrify provide platforms for streaming play and instant download, equating sometimes to instant revenue.  Aggregators such as these branch out to major players like Hulu, iTunes, Amazon VOD and other streaming services, delivering your content to a wide spread audience.  You could approach the outlets individually, of course, but that’s your preference – your prerogative. This isn’t a new revelation, but a reminder that the resources exist to, quite frankly, eliminate excuses.  Men all over the country, including Major League ball players, were called away during WWII.  Did that mean baseball stopped? No. The league worked with what they had to “get done what they had to get doing.”  It was about the game – not about the player.  Here, it’s about the film – not the venue.   Some day you’ll have your theatrical release.  It’ll be amazing.  Your twenty-dollar tub of popcorn will have never tasted so… buttery.  But in the meantime, “get to doing what you gotta get done:” show your film.  Because, “There’s no crying in baseball.” (Columbia, 1992)

Whose Permission Is It, Anyway?

It appears that everyone who has a camera can be or thinks he or she is a filmmaker.  The resources are such that make this realistically feasible for the financially deprived.  As digital distribution options grow plentifully on a global scale, getting your movie out and bringing money in becomes less of a pipe dream and more of a possible reality.  Micro-budgets and crowdfunding avenues make upfront costs shrink to a fraction of what it takes to make a Hollywood-level film, and the evolution of acceptable formats satisfy consumer pallets sometimes in 4 minutes or less (i.e. ‘webisodes’).  The rules have changed and the processes have simplified.  Truly, anyone who has even a cellphone camera can make the next Blair Witch Project or Clerks 4.0 – the reboot.  Still, as options increase so do legal complications.

New ‘Acts,’ policies and laws regularly crop up to ‘protect’ artists while conversely deterring them from producing.  What often deters artists from making a living with their craft is the multitude of legal hurdles to hike under and over.  I may be speaking blasphemy to the independent, rogue creative, but thank goodness for lawyers.  Without them, our ignorance may make the difference, as Ana-Klara H. Anderson of the law firm of Thomas & LoCicero PL says, between bank or bust for an artist’s labor of love.  Without legal protection front-loading, she says, “You invest a lot of time, money and creativity only to be stopped in your tracks.  All that hard work would be for nothing.  It could bankrupt the work.”

So what types of IP protection should a filmmaker consider before a film captures first light?  According to Dr. Anderson, the producer should own every piece of intellectual property associated with their project.  This includes the copyright to the creation itself as well as the right to use the idea, concept or work for post-production purposes (i.e. distribution and exhibition).  It is similar in the music business to the difference between an artist’s musical work and the sound recording of that work itself.  Permissions are required for both.  Other assets that need protection are sound, script, music and the right to use the title.  Yes: the title.  The film’s title becomes its trademark, captured in a catch phrase as its identifier.  Also, if a filmmaker desires to place specific products within the film for funding, permission needs to be secured before – not after the fact.  These points seem obvious, but they wouldn’t need articulation if filmmakers practiced them.  Obviously.

One of Dr. Anderson’s points stood out poignantly in its obviousness: Filmmakers contract with actors to employ their ‘product.’  An actor’s performance secured in a tangible medium, i.e. film, is a copyrighted product.  As such, permissions required are dependent on variables, variables Dorothy Fadiman, a social change documentarian considers based on the situation.  In an interview with Tony Levelle of MicroFilmmaker Magazine, Dorothy says there are two releases she acquires for each shoot. “’The first is a “model release” or “signed permission form” from each [talent].”  She says the two are important for both the film itself and for publicity afterwards.  All permissions, Fadiman says, are designed not only to protect the artist but also the filmmaker.  Dr. Anderson concurred.  She stressed the importance of “memorializing things in writing.”  Word as bond holds no water in court and, from history, intellectual property disputes are diverse in their frequency.  This is why seeking legal council for permission review and advisement is an essential investment.  Tony Leville echoes this in his MicroFilmmaker article by saying, “the money and time you spent finding and talking to an entertainment lawyer could very well turn out to be the best money you spent on the entire production.”  I’m a fan, Tony.  I’m a fan.  Glossing over the legalities associated with filmmaking, out of complacency, is a dangerous tightrope to dance on.

My interview with Dr. Anderson was both informative and reassuring.  Reassuring in the sense that all the textbook warnings I’ve received are true.  We, as artists, pour our heart and soul into our craft.  It takes tremendous self-investment to turn a vision into reality.  It may be true that all capable thought and effort is spent on its creation, but that is no excuse for disregarding legal formalities and laws.  The hassle is no hassle if viewed as a shield and protection for both you and the work itself.  In the immortal words of Smokey the Bear, “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires!”  Boy I hope using that tagline passes the “fair use” test.  I might need to consult my lawyer on that one.

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Ana-Klara H. Anderson, Ph.D, Esq.

In 2009, Ana-Klara earned her law degree from the University of Florida Levin College of Law and her Ph.D. in Media Law and Policy from UF’s College of Journalism and Communications.  Ana-Klara has authored numerous articles for media law publications and has been a frequent guest lecturer throughout the southeast on First Amendment and media law issues.  In her commercial litigation practice, Ana-Klara litigates commercial disputes for corporate clients, including contract disputes, class action defense, business torts and related areas. She also prepares and reviews contracts and other documents related to business operations and management, with a particular emphasis on the arts, entertainment, and publishing industries.

Areas of Practice: Media/First Amendment Law; Contests & Sweepstakes; Corporate Litigation; and Arts & Entertainment Law.

The Puritanical Debate: Film versus Digital

Since its inception, digital image capturing has faced serious resistance from film professionals – both in still and motion.  The argument being film tangibly preserves an image while digital is a simple rearrangement of ones and zeros. Yet digital is heralded as the next evolution of the art form.  My point of view is that shooting films on film is the highest form of the art because it requires a higher degree of professional expertise.  But when a top director, Martin Scorsese, not only shoots digitally but also in three-dimension (something many pass off as gimmicky), it makes me think twice.  Part of me wants to scream, “Sell Out!”  While the other part, the side that reveres Scorsese, gives him a pass.  There must be something to it if Scorsese, director of the gritty film Raging Bull, takes a leap towards it.

            gizmodo.com

Even so I still prefer film to digital.  Never mind that I own three digital cameras (DLSR, HDV and iPhone 4s).  Don’t judge me.  I have what I have because of production and post-production costs.  In managing a motion media product, I am constrained to my budget – or the lack thereof.  Had I the choice –and the means – I would choose film.  Is it more complicated? Yes.  Is it more costly and time consuming?  Yes.  But I’m a purist in my opinion that images captured on film are real.  Images captured on digital are not.  You catch a crappy image on film – it is what it is.  Honesty.  You catch a crappy shot on digital?  Just hit delete and no one will know.  Janusz Kaminksi, one of Steven Spielberg’s regular cinematographers interviewed with the LA Times, saying that digital makes for a lazy photographer.  I concur – from experience.  “When I was your age….” (and I’m only 30, mind you), I learned to shoot photography with a film camera.  My training took me from black and white, to color and then to slide film, working each in the darkroom and on the light table for hours.  The smell… the feel…. The frustration of seeing my mistakes slowly reveal themselves under the chemicals… It was a process to process.But that time spent made me a better photographer by motivating me to ensure I wouldn’t make the same mistake again.  Importantly, if not more in this context, is the fact that film capturing was a very organic experience. You could literally capture a piece of life, recording it into the emulsion of the film.

     photo.net

Photography and filmmaking are much different now.  Instead of perfecting exposure and camera control, shooters “Chimp.”   ‘Chimping’ is when a photographer shoots a shot, look at the LCD screen or monitor, shoot the shot, look at the screen… adjust settings (or just leave it on auto)… shoot.  Look at screen…. Etc.  It’s why Kaminski laments digital as “the death of the cinematographer,” and creates a co-dependent relationship between the photographer and the review button.  Kaminski continues, “If you see the image on the digital screen I think people become lazy, they get satisfied with just seeing the image, they’re not going for visual panache, not getting the story through metaphors… With film there is still mystery.”  Gone is the confidence that comes with knowing what, why and how a shot is captured.  I won’t lie and say it hasn’t happened to me.   My discipline died when I drank the ‘chimping’ punch.  A ‘sin’ I will never forgive myself of.

But you can’t ignore the fact that digital is here to stay, and professionals like Scorsese and Cameron are on board.  It would not be prudent to push against a bullish trend, but maybe converge the two artfully.  Newer digital cameras are capturing on 4K sensors and projecting “as-is” onto the screen.  Examining the process of traditional 35mm filmmaking and distribution, multiple duplications and projections actually downgrade the film to 1K by the time it reaches the screen.  Audiences have never really “seen” a 4K film in the theater.  Even so, there is still something organic about seeing a movie made from film.  But according to Filmmaker Magazine (Spring 2012 Issue), there is a new generation of filmmakers who hate the texture of film grain.  They are annoyed by small imperfections or the act of looking into a separate world rather than participating in it.  I don’t see that as a bad thing.  We often watch a movie to escape… to see and feel something not akin to real life.  Digital… just makes it too real.  Maybe it’s the way we “old-timers” (again… I’m 30 years old) grew up.  The story of film-making may soon be relegated to rocking chair conversations being reminisced from the front porch.

                   pro8mm.com

Fortunately there are companies still trying to preserve the art of ‘real’ filmmaking, while at the same time marrying film and digital for more efficient post-production workflows. Pro8mm out of Burbank, California is a full-service procurement, rental and processing house for 8mm and 16mm film.  They stock a self-invented Super 8 negative film (16X9) along with Super 8 and Super 16 cameras re-engineered for practical use.  Pro8mm creates digital masters of the film while preserving the look and feel of its original capture.  No I do not work for Pro8mm and no I do not get a cut for ‘selling’ them.  More or less, I am selling the idea that film is not dead.   But Super 8?  Whoa.  Who talks about Super 8 anymore?  Apparently  J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg do. It may take a bit more effort to proselytize its enduring viability, but making films with film is still a valid and valuable medium to work with – a resource professionals persist in using when managing the product of their film.

Links:

http://articles.latimes.com/2012/feb/19/entertainment/la-ca-oscars-cinematography-20120219

http://www.filmmakermagazine.com/news/2012/04/good-things-in-smaller-packages-large-sensor-motion-picture-cameras-a-year-later/http://www.pro8mm.com/our-mission.php

Filmmaking as a Contact Sport

When I think of contact sports, I think of activities like football, boxing… and sumo wrestling.  But how do I equate contact sports with filmmaking?  They are synonymous on various levels.  Throughout my life I’ve analyzed and intellectualized why one movie reaches me but another does not.  How does a film “reach out and touch someone?”  On three levels: the mind; the heart; and the wallet.  This applies to both the audience and the filmmaker, but for this discussion I’ll focus on the latter.

The mind:

Someone once said that filmmaking is the only blue-collar art form.  When we think of art, one may think of passionate flashes of inspiration out of the nothingness and struggle of life.  That may be true for the initial idea of a story materialized into a film, but the work that goes into its production takes persistent thought coupled with manual labor.  It is multi-faceted, laborious and dynamic.  To make the film work, a filmmaker has to think on specific, yet complex concepts simultaneously.  Because of its complexity, a film takes many hands to keep the machine moving.  Yet each requires timely thinking and attention detail.  What’s interesting is that even the smallest, seemingly lazy thought manifests itself, even by association, in the film.  Something to chew on: if the craft service sucks (i.e. stale bagels and cream cheese that are not complementary… like blueberry and chive spread), then actors and crew are not properly fed, resulting in lethargy and/or grumpiness, which then affects performance and proper tracking of details – like follow focus.  It takes a great deal of present thought to make a film.

The heart:

Filmmaking requires long hours of contribution.  Sometimes those hours are not equally spaced in a healthy way.  Sometimes things don’t go as planned.  Sometimes the crews you have to work with are difficult.  Whatever the challenge, a heart for the art and a belief in the project are what carries filmmakers through to completion.

The wallet:

Filmmaking is an expensive hobby and/or marginally profitable career, at best.  It’s expensive.  Plain and simple.  (See above for motivation)

But never mind what it takes to contribute.  The outcropping from successful completion reaps rewards regardless of what profit it generates.  I turn my attention back to contact sporting.  Training for any sport is hard an often painful.  The muscles stretch, the mind fatigues and the heart tests.  What keeps an athlete going? A number of factors: satisfaction of completion; the winning catch; or knocking the thoughts out of someone’s brains.  Whatever the reason, there is a reason.  And whether the athlete wins or not, they still come out on top.  Why? Because their mind and heart have been expanded.  I submit that the same occurs in filmmaking.  You are challenged and tested beyond the ability you had at the outset.  You overcome fears and doubt.  You test your resolve.  You learn about yourself, others and about humanity by examining the human condition.  We are not on this earth merely to exist or to be acted upon – but to act; to grow; and to multiply what portion we have received.  Filmmaking touches a person.  For better or for worse, it touches them – leaving its mark.  To me, that’s worth every penny spent.

So I venture to say the responsibility lies with the filmmaker in choosing what film to make, because it will inevitably affect the person they are and become.  You may not agree nor see value in this argument, but I have an intimate relationship with how affective the moving image can be on a person.  For a few years I was a combat photographer and videographer.  I spent six months documenting infantry life and operations in Iraq.  It was hard work living, breathing and acting as if I was one of them.  But I did what I had to do to get my shot.  I did what was necessary to tell the story.  As a result, shooting that footage made a profound impact on me – for good and for bad.  I am forever changed because of that experience.  And for that I am grateful, because my abilities, heart and resolve wouldn’t have uniquely grown without it.

Making pictures move is definitely a contact sport.

“It’s Not About You”

Negotiations occur every day.  Sometimes we negotiate with ourselves over simple tasks like going the gym in the morning, in the evening or not at all.  Cost-benefit analysis of each decision is usually based on preset goals and commitments.  When two parties negotiate, they ideally work towards mutual gain within a proposed project.  Knowing yourself and knowing your project from the outset sets the tone by determining direction and focus. When interviewed, Jenna Edwards, Producer of the film, “April Showers,” and Producing Advisor for The Film Method podcast, spoke about the importance of also knowing with whom you are negotiating. “Know your investor.  What do they want out of this project?  Are they the right fit for the project?  Look at it from their point of view.  What is their ultimate goal?”  Still, clearly defining what the project is and where it is going takes precedence.  But if either party does not understand or see the project’s vision, an end decision cannot be effectively met.

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5th Element Scene: Negotiation

Film productions often involve heightened emotions.  Many of the projects are personal in nature, and new filmmakers have a strong desire to land their “big break.”  But these elements have a tendency to cloud deal-making discussions.  You may have a well-known industry talent sitting in front of you, but if they aren’t the right fit for the project, it’s better to walk away than succumb to the emotions of the moment.  Instead, focus should rest on the interests of the project rather than the positions of parties involved.  Jenna advises filmmakers to follow their gut. “It’s not worth it if the deal doesn’t benefit the project.  You want to build on integrity first.  Trust your instinct.” Roger Fisher writes in Beyond Reason, “The difference between having a core concern ignored or met can be as important as having your nose underwater or above it.”  Building the wrong team on the wrong terms not only creates future hassles, but also increases the likelihood for conflict down the road.  Each party comes to the table with individual roles, goals and expectations, which should be respected with equality and autonomy, but deciding what is best for the project is paramount.  It can make the difference between the success and the failure of a film.