by Zach Borden
A long time ago, in a galaxy not that far away, audience members only occasionally had the opportunity to dig more deeply into an expanded universe of a movie. This passage into that world beyond the film is defined by a concept called transmedia.
George Lucas enlarged Star Wars by having adventures involving Jedis, droids and the Galactic Empire extend past the trilogies and into novels, video games and everything else imaginable. In the summer of 2003, when The Matrix Reloaded debuted, the Wachowski Brothers had big plans. The writer-directors gave audiences a chance to discover more about The Matrix itself, with a collection of animated shorts for home video and a video game focusing on supporting characters that were featured in their new movie. The approach these science-fiction behemoths took was once the exception; now, this concept that bridges marketing and major creative work is becoming the rule.
Transmedia is becoming a remarkable value proposition in Hollywood. When the universe in an intellectual property is disseminated across a myriad of entertainment channels, this is transmedia at work. It can transform a story that is only meant to be two hours into something much bigger and longer once the credits finish rolling. This growing methodology lets studios maximize their investments in tent-pole movie franchises and significant television shows. The additional content also serves as a way to create more of a buzz around a property, indoctrinate a core fan base and create an additional revenue stream.
Specificially, transmedia is a term that was coined by M.I.T. professor Henry Jenkins in the 1990s. Jenkins described transmedia as the notion of spreading narrative across multiple media platforms, with the aim of having each platform contribute something integral to an overall storyline. The rise of transmedia comes at a crucial time and amounts to a perfect convergence. It is not just that Hollywood’s release schedule is being saturated with big budget franchises, but also the emergence of new media platforms and the time and energy people devote to them. Even the Producers Guild of America sees the importance of transmedia, as they recently ratified a new credit with the title of “transmedia producer.”
Starlight Runner Entertainment, which rests in the heart of New York City’s Union Square, has become one of the leading developers of transmedia franchises. The company was founded in 2000 by Jeff Gomez, and has worked on some of the most popular entertainment properties in the past several years. Gomez and his team have sailed the high seas with Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates Of The Caribbean, gone to battle with Master Chief of Halo fame and have set foot on the planet Pandora, as featured in Avatar. Currently, Starlight is working with Disney on this fall’s much anticipated Tron Legacy.
Gomez’s career included stints at Acclaim Entertainment (where he wrote the story for the video game Turok: Dinosaur Hunter and had it implemented across a comic book series, toys and a website) and Valiant Comics. Gomez’s immense passion for stories and pop culture took hold early on, which set the seeds for his job as a transmedia producer. A gigantic lover of animé, Gomez points to Space Pirate Captain Harlock as an initial inspiration. “It was mind-blowing, how these different media — animated television series, feature films — were dealing with the same persistent universe in intricate ways,” Gomez says, with the enthusiasm of someone who is still clearly in touch with his inner child. “I loved the idea that a storyteller could be given that kind of platform and I endeavored to be able to do that myself.”
When it comes to taking on a project, Gomez and his team at Starlight Runner start with an analysis of the intellectual property at hand. “We will look for some hallmarks of good transmedia stories, which tend to be about rich worlds, storylines that refer to events in the past and where the future is somewhere down the road.” Also needed are many characters that interact in different ways, and avenues for different audience members to participate in how the universe unfolds. The core themes and messages are delved into as well. If a property has all these criteria, Starlight Runner will commit to it, and start working with the visionaries of the project.
The next step is to scope the depth of the universe of the property. Often, this requires Starlight Runner to do repair work on story points. Gomez points out that “when we watch bad movies, we’re basically seeing characters move from point A to point B to point C and the world is built in kind of rickety structure around them. Just enough is put there to make us basically believe that the situation is going on. When it’s a wonderful movie, you can feel as if the universe exists beyond the borders of the screen, that references are being made to things that we’ll never see, and aren’t necessarily directly pertinent to the plot at hand and yet, makes it all feel so wonderful and real. This is what has to happen with a fictional world in order for it to work well as a transmedia implementation.”
Once it is determined how much story work is needed to make a world robust enough to generate dozens — if not hundreds — of hours of content, the “mythology phase” comes into play. Starlight Runner is well known for building rich mythologies, which are “show bibles on steroids,” as Gomez likes to call them. The story bibles delve deeply into who the characters are, as well as important things in a property’s universe — be it creatures, items or vehicles. Rules in the universe are established too, such as how magic or metaphysics might work if it is a world that is on the fantastical side. Brand analysis and determining chronology plays a part, too. Once that’s all taken care of, and Starlight’s partners and clients have signed off on it, the company starts to leverage how the story will work on media platforms such as comics, novels and video games.
One of Starlight Runner’s biggest projects was working on James Cameron’s Avatar for 20th Century Fox. The company was hired to create mythologies while the film was in production and being kept under wraps. The mythologies served the marketing division of Fox, so they could understand the world of Pandora and the Na’vi. “It was really, really fantastic,” Gomez says of the experience. “James Cameron had a fundamental knowledge of the world he created down to the tiniest microbe. The work we had to do was tough, mostly because we had to keep up with him,” he says with a laugh. “I think Jim has an incredible amount of content planned in his mind,” Gomez teases about what we can expect to see of Avatar in the future. “The surface has barely been scratched with regards to what’s already there.”
In addition to working on iconic Hollywood franchises, Starlight Runner has recently announced a partnership with Curious Pictures, an animation studio based in New York City, to develop four transmedia properties for different demographics. One of those projects in the mix is Shadow Angels, a music-driven project that Gomez describes as an “inner-city romance with magical and supernatural undertones.”
Transmedia storytelling is relatively new, and thus presents an emerging market for screenwriters. For those aspiring to work in this thriving field, Gomez suggests that you familiarize yourself with the terminology, as well as the various processes of what it takes to create a transmedia narrative. One such way is to research transmedia online, and also join the community of transmedia writers and producers that are forming on social networks such as Twitter. (Starlight Runner’s website — www.starlightrunner.com — and their Facebook page is also chock-filled with information.) “People who have something to say about transmedia, and can speak intelligently to it, are often hired. People who are versed are going to become very highly sought after by the studios,” Gomez notes. “We’re seeing this starting to happen right now.”
Gomez also stresses that it’s important for writers to understand the language of different media platforms, and be versatile in them. “The best transmedia writers have a working of knowledge of how video games are put together. They have a pretty good sense of the strengths of the mobile platform, and the comic book medium. In order to make money and stay on a project, [a transmedia writer] may need to jump from one media platform to the next. And if you don’t know what makes a good story as a video games versus what makes a good writing in a comic book script, you’re going to get in trouble.”
Aside from specific platform writing, there’s also the importance of having an understanding of interactive writing. “You can write in a way that might reference the audience, or call the audience to take some kind of action, or you can write in such a way that the storyline you’re writing makes a subtle call out to a companion storyline.” Of the forthcoming Tron Legacy, Gomez says the movie will make reference to the upcoming prequel video game. Because not everyone watching will have played the game and understand the mention, “it takes a little subtly and cleverness to be able to do that and not create a disruption.”
Transmedia storytelling is a technique, and should not be confused as a form of game design. Transmedia is also not synonymous with alternate reality games (ARGs), such as the “Why So Serious?” Internet campaign that promoted “The Dark Knight.” While ARGs can involve jumping from one media platform to the next, Gomez likes to think of them as a “dab of paint on the palette” in the realm of transmedia. The method of true transmedia storytelling lets audience members be part of the experience and that property’s larger world at hand. “[People] can respond any way they’d like,” Gomez explains. That includes merely watching something, or even posting a piece on the web that somehow might make it into the canon of an ever-evolving story universe. It’s not just following a group of characters on the silver screen, through book or even on a phone that makes transmedia so appealing, but also the opportunity of interactivity and choosing the degree of participation.
Gomez points to James Cameron, saying all writers can learn something from the filmmaker’s approach, noting that it will “always pay so much” to work out the details of your world when involved with transmedia implementation. Gomez also stresses the basics of good storytelling as an important skill set. “Most of us at Starlight Runner are writers. Having a fundamental understanding of story, and the building blocks and origin of story, has helped us immensely in handling transmedia universes.”
However, when dealing with these universes in a transmedia narrative, a screenwriter always needs to remember the element that is going to compel the audience to jump from one media platform to the next. According to Gomez, that would be the characters. “It is a love for who these people are, what they need to do, where they are going and what happened to them [in the past] that we don’t know about.” All this, as well as challenges they’ll face and the themes they’re grappling with need to be woven into the fabric of the universe that surrounds them. “If you don’t, it’s like writing a script about two dudes hitting each other with light sticks and calling it Star Wars. If you’re not paying attention to the integrity of the story world, the fans will go away.”