By robert pratten, April 21st, 2010

The key to creating a great transmedia project is to see it as a living, breathing, evolving entity. Even though my preference is always to plan rather than wing it, trying to find all the pieces of the puzzle from the start can be exhausting, demoralizing and may later prove to be misplaced. Right now all media and entertainment experiences are built on shifting sands: better not to be locked in to one particular set of ideas if you don’t have to be.

The figure below expands on the transmedia business model to incorporate the idea of “evolutionary entertainment” – that is, entertainment that evolves. It evolves with time, technology, audience preferences, financing and your story. Adopting this approach will keep you open to new opportunities.

Evolutionary Approach to Transmedia Entertainment

Not only do I suggest that the “live” transmedia project evolves but also that it’s possible to use this evolutionary approach to development.

Five Stage Development Process

I’ve identified five key elements to a transmedia project:

  • The story
  • The audience
  • The (technical/media) platforms
  • The business model
  • The execution

The goal is to get all five working in harmony together – supporting and reinforcing each other.

Rather than try to tackle all five considerations in a single swoop, allow your ideas to evolve through multiple iterations – start with a small concept, run it through the all the stages and see what comes out. Now start again, this time taking the outputs from each stage and feeding them into the other stages.

Developing the project in this way makes the process manageable and ensures you think carefully about what you plan to do.

5-Stage Transmedia Development Process

Each of the five stages warrants its own blog post but for now I’ll stick to explaining the process. Also, I know that ideas can come from many angles but I’m going to assume here it starts with an idea for a story.

Stage 1: Story

Start with the story basics: characters, plot, premise, theme, genre and location.

Stage 2: Audience

Who does this story appeal to? Try to identify as many audience segments as you can ranging from fans of this genre to those who will agree with the premise; those who will identify with the themes, characters, genre etc.

Now iterate back to the Story. What might you add to the story to increase its appeal to these audiences?

(There’s an excellent post related to identifying your audience at Dennis Peter’s blog)

Stage 3: Platforms

By “platforms” I mean the combination of media plus technology. So YouTube and iTunes would be two different platforms even if they can both deliver video. A printed book and The Kindle would be two different platforms. A cinema, a living room and an outdoor public are all different platforms.

Almost any technology, medium and place can be used to convey your story but think about your audience again – what’s their lifestyle? Where and how do they hang out? If you’ve got a story appealing to single-parent families is it likely they’re going to attend live events? Maybe if it’s during the day and they can bring their babies but most likely not in the evenings – they have problems with babysisters, cash and free time. Which platforms will appeal to this audience?

Think of your project as a lifestyle choice: it needs to slip into your audience’ lives with the minimum amount of friction.

Now iterate back to the story. What might you do with the story to have it play out better across these platforms?

Stage 4: Business Model

How are you going to pay for this project? You have three main choices:

  • Free
  • Premium (only available for sale)
  • Freemium (mix of free and paid).

Look at the platforms you’ve chosen for your audience – which of them supports free and which supports paid? Look again at your audience – what do they buy and what don’t they buy? Do you platforms and audience support your business model?

Consider the CwF+RtB=$$ equation – which parts of your content can be pirated (shown in the diagram below as “infinite” availability to all) and which parts are “scarce” (not easily or can’t be copied). What content can be easily copied but some audience members might pay on a platform that offers convenience and immediacy (for more on this see Ross Pruden’s excellent blog).

Offering Audiences Reasons to Buy

Now iterate back to the story but this time think about the timing of the story delivery. By this I mean how will the story be released to the audience on the platforms you’ve identified- a free book chapter a week over 12 weeks simultaneous with a paid Kindle version? A free feature film followed by a paid comic book?

How can you develop your story and platforms to better suit the business model?

Stage 5: Execution

Finally look at the resources you have. If you’re an indie you’ll likely have more time than cash – how can you use that to your advantage? How much cash do you actually need to get going on the Transmedia Business Model? What favors can you pull in?

To answer these questions, consider this equation: outcome = probability x impact. It’s usually used to measure risk – how likely are bad things to happen and if they do happen, what’s their impact. But you can use it to make informed choices about the steps you take to implement your project.

For example, you may feel that a feature film has the highest impact – on your career and/or your audience – but what’s the probability of getting it made? Only you can answer that because you know what resources you have available (money, crew, kit etc). If the probability is low – because, say, you need to get a studio to green light the project – then you might think it better to do something with a higher probability of success even if there’s potentially lower impact.

Ultimately you’ll likely have a range of things to implement – a “portfolio of opportunities” – that get you started with some quick wins and lay the foundations of longer term, higher impact successes.

Now iterate through the five stages again and keep honing and refining.

As I said at the start, don’t feel you need all the answers from the get-go. After a few passes through the five stages, start thinking about implementation and give it a go. Then, in the light of that early experience go back to the development process and evolve.

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Posted in audience-building cross-media marketing social media storytelling transmedia

robert pratten Robert Pratten is CEO and Founder of Transmedia Storyteller Ltd, an audience engagement company and provider of Conducttr, an pervasive entertainment platform. He has more than 20 years experience as an international marketing consultant and has established himself as a thought-leader in the field of transmedia storytelling. He is author of the first practical book transmedia storytelling: Getting Started in Transmedia Storytelling: A Practical Guide for Beginners.

By Lance Weiler, April 20th, 2010

I find myself baffled at times by the lack of willingness to experiment. Where is the innovation? We find ourselves at an amazing time, one in which storytelling has vast possibilities thanks in part to advancements in technology. Yet many confuse this opportunity with what they literally see others doing or what bubbles up in various press coverage. Social media hype clouds the true creative potential. In fact in many ways the types of transmedia I find myself drawn to are all about story and have little to do with promotion and marketing. Now some of that becomes a natural byproduct but it isn’t what’s driving the story I’m telling. If I can build an audience along the way – why wouldn’t I? In fact they’re more than an audience to me they’re collaborators. Of course some will be passive viewers but others will be active participants.

The technology that we use to design, delivery and tell engaging stories with; is more than just a twitter, blog or facebook account for a character. It isn’t just about documenting the behind the scenes of a film or TV project that we’re making. Not that there’s anything wrong with documentation of a process in many ways that’s what makes the WorkBook Project possible. But for me It’s about creative choices that effect a vast world where the characters and stories we tell live. Where a scene can play through time and space. It can resolve itself on a mobile device, in a dark theater or in someone’s living room. The technology that we use is merely another creative tool no different than a lens or a camera.

we feel fine

There are some amazing projects that embrace technology and data sets. Data is something that touches all of our lives and it is a language that we all will find ourselves learning whether we like it or not. In many ways data is boring but it can also become a beautiful moving piece of art. For instance We Feel Fine jumps to mind. The project is emotional and tells a collective story that connects people all over the world. I could argue that it is as beautiful as some of the foreign films I love. It is an amazing piece of art yet informative and touching all at the same time.

Now Transmedia isn’t for all stories. In fact for some it could be considered a distraction especially if you try to shoehorn it into a project. But that’s because the language for telling stories across multiple devices and screens is relatively a new form. Like writing a good script it takes time to develop a rich storyworld one where you feel a connection to the characters, engage in the story and escape into the world that surrounds you.

One area that I’ve been focusing over the last year is within the mobile app space. The following column from Filmmaker Mag explains some of the reasons why.

It’s a known fact that the film industry has no shortage of middlemen. The path between filmmaker and audience is littered with them – some good, some bad. But the promise of a direct connection to an audience has become the currency of the future. These days it seems as if everyone is trying to find a way to capitalize on fostering stronger relationships with audiences. Much of these efforts are focused after the film is finished when it comes time to promote and market the work. Although some filmmakers are including audience development in their initial business plans, many are still only working to build awareness around traditional elements such as theatrical, DVD and VOD.

Are we missing a window of opportunity by limiting ourselves to formats, running times and traditional markets?

Consider the Following:

* To date, Apple has shipped more than 70 million iPhone and iPod Touch devices and it’s projected that within the next two years they’ll have more than 200 million in the market.

* More than 140,000 applications have been created for the iPhone and iPod.

* Each day, 60,000 Android devices ship.

* The fledging Android Market has more than 10,000 apps.

These stats are just one part of a growing mobile device market, which is currently expanding due to a new generation of tablets. Apple’s iPad and a slew of other computer and handset manufacturers have tablets entering the market over the next few months. Larger screens, faster processors, wireless connectivity and the ability to run various browser and mobile-based applications will all be here soon. We don’t know yet if this generation of tablets will resonate with consumers but, as we have seen in the past, devices do have the ability to influence user behavior and consumption. The iPod revitalized the value of a music track and now the publishing industry is hoping the iPad can do the same for books and zines.


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Posted in audience-building community cross-media crowdsourcing experimental gaming social media storytelling transmedia

Lance Weiler is the founder of the WorkBook Project and also a story architect of film, tv and games. He's written and directed two feature films THE LAST BROADCAST and HEAD TRAUMA. He's currently developing a number of transmedia projects.

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By Jeff Watson, April 12th, 2010

Christopher Bolton is a Canadian writer, producer, and actor, best known for his award-winning comedy series, Rent-a-Goalie. A few months ago, Christopher — AKA “Bolts” — contacted me asking for feedback on his latest project’s transmedia strategy. After a few minutes of chit-chat and an exchange of development documents, I realized that the project, a comedic exploration of Canadian landscapes popular and physical, entitled In Search of Gordon Lightfoot, was much more than a TV series with a few transmedia extensions tacked on just for the hell of it; no, this was something different, something much more integrated — transmedia from the get-go. And, as it happens, it was also something that sounded quite funny and more than a little community-minded in its direct engagement with audiences and Canuck mythology. Naturally, I wanted to be a part of it. A few web chats later, we came to an agreement — I would consult on the project and shadow Christopher as he worked his way through the development process, and in return he would share what he learned with me, here, in the form of a series of interviews.

This first interview is a snapshot of Christopher’s thinking as the project moves through the funding process and into the first stages of pre-production. It reveals a considered and well-informed view of transmedia and the new storytelling landscape. It is an inspired and often very funny view of the future of entertainment, and I look forward to speaking to Bolts more as his work on the project progresses.

You’ve worked in the Canadian film and television industry for a while now. What’s your background, and what’s changed since you got started?

My background is varied. Until my mid-20’s it was solely acting. In ’93 I took a stab at writing and that landed me at the CFC in 94 as a writer. I did the directing curriculum at nights and on weekends and directed my first two – and only two – short films there. In 2003 I teamed up with a fella goes by the name Chris Szarka and we formed a company to develop and ultimately produce a cable ½ hour comedy up here called Rent-A-Goalie. In there somewheres I did a few stints as A.D. and Props Man.

As for how it’s changed since I began…televisions are colour now and very crisp and clear.

It was during the production of RAG that I became interested in Transmedia though I didn’t know it was a concept with a name. I suggested ideas to the broadcaster, ideas intended to drive traffic to and from the mother ship – some UGC, a genre bending prequel movie, some mobile applications – but it was always met with a no. It was a licensing issue and I get that but…well…I’ll leave it there. I blame myself. I should have pushed harder.

When I began developing In Search of Gordon Lightfoot I met a woman named Jill Golick, a digital pioneer in Canada. She began my indoctrination into this world.

Man-oh-man, forget how the industry has changed since I started; in just 7 years, dated to when we began development on RAG, it has broken almost to the point of no-fixee. I was at a card table recently of smart broadcasting folk with impressive CV’s discussing the future of our industry. The hardcore estimate for conventional broadcaster life expectancy in Canada was 2 years and the optimistic guess, if you’re said broadcaster, was 10 years. Basis or not to such speculation I was rocked. The consensus was that cable isn’t going anywhere fast because subscription is consumer-choice. It just won’t look like pay cable does today.

The web has blown shit wide open. Access, audience contact and engagement, community building, social media, distribution platforms, the very nature of what content is (stop calling it a Television show for cryin’ out loud) is so drastically different that it needs to be called something new. There is a good and big explosion at the point that industries are colliding – tv/film/branding/communications/tech – and where the smoke clears is an opportunity to re-imagine and develop content specifically to meet the unique demands of all interested parties and, more importantly, audience. The excitement for content creators lay in the exploration of new ways to tell story. A fractured media landscape is exactly what I needed as it helps to make sense of how I think and speak.

This is a frontier and frontiers benefit the entrepreneurial spirit greatly. I think it was Ted Hope who said that it’s the era of Artist as Entrepreneur and it behooves anyone taking that notion seriously to look at how those industries conceive of and deliver content and will do in participation with one another.

The logline for my new company, Forty Farms, is…

The client is the brand is the consumer is the experience is the entertainment.

…and that could just as easily read…

The experience is the consumer is the client is the brand is the entertainment.

Ruminating on this one-hand-clapping-esque driver is a good way to get inside the headspace necessary for making resonant, profitable entertainment going forward.

What is In Search of Gordon Lightfoot?

ISOGL is the title of two of six platforms in an as-of-yet-unnamed Transmedia Project about searching for an identity, a sound, a connection to a landscape, and a warm dry spot to pitch camp for the night. The first is a 13 x 30 minute comedy that sees Ed Robertson (frontman for the pop-rock outfit Barenaked Ladies) and myself flying around Northern Canada in an iconic bush plane looking for reclusive rock legend Gordon Lightfoot. Why? Because he has something that belongs to us. We just miss him everywhere we look and become embroiled, instead, in some small town, wilderness related mayhem before a narrow escape back to the skies to search for another day. The second is a tribute record to the man himself. Our guest stars in the series will be well-known Canadian music acts who will do double duty – act their asses off for the show and then sing them back on covering one of Gordon’s tunes for the album. These two properties are designed for distribution together but that ain’t prescriptive.

The remaining platforms are a game, feature, feature documentary, and graphic novel. Our point of identification in the meta-narrative is a guy, a creative guy, who stumbles, flies, loves, fishes, hikes, and writes his journey. It’s a walk through time, media, story and Canada with a fella trying to make sense of it all. Taken together it will serve as a big ol’ love letter to this country as well as warm, beautiful, funny and musical showcase of Canada to the rest of the world. The idea is to entice more Germans – as if that were possible – to come canoe our rivers and lakes.

Do you conceive of the project as a show with a Transmedia experience, or a Transmedia experience that includes a show? Is there a difference?

I’m reluctant to answer this question because it implicates me by rendering the project’s history a little less pure than I’d like it to be. The series was to be my sophomore ½ hour effort. Discussions with broadcasters were frustrating me – one guy’s problem with it was that he didn’t like flying so he bumped on the aviation part – and I figured that it was the right time to dig in the dirt of new business models and alternative modes of storytelling. I began thinking of an extended narrative for Search, ideas I wanted to implement but that didn’t fit in the series as well as different platforms that interested me. Writing for gaming for instance has particular cache. Are you kidding me? No limits storytelling? It was like my head exploded and I knew my time in traditional would serve me well here because what that did teach me was restraint. Restraint, I think, is key to navigating a world as full of opportunity as No Limits Storytellingville.

That’s the long way round to saying that, though I didn’t conceive of it as such, I absolutely consider this project a Transmedia Experience that includes a show.

I love that you call it a Transmedia Experience because that is key to how I frame this thing. It’s a creative and production process experience and the user can consume it soup-to-nuts or in parts. Empowering the audience to participate breeds pride of ownership and I think people will respond to that. What’s really blowing me away is people contacting me with platform ideas of their own as well as reach-outs that I initiate bearing fruit as well. This dialogue between you and I is a prime example: a) it helps us both in our respective missions b) it is content c) it will drive traffic to our mutual benefit. That’s some performing shit in my opinion.

As to whether there is a difference between a Transmedia experience with a show or a show with a Transmedia experience? Abso-lute-ly and it’s as important a distinction there is in defining Transmedia. It’s essential that TM design be ground up rendering every platform essential to the broader stroked narrative. Tacked on properties will feel like tacked on properties and your audience will at best dock you points for that and at worse abandon the project altogether. It seems to be the mistake producers are making in trying to design additional platforms for their fleshed out traditional properties – done in this order it becomes re-purposed material as opposed to original, non-linear content that is platform-specific.

What got you thinking about developing a Transmedia strategy for Lightfoot? Why not do things the same way you’ve done them in the past?

What gets me excited about Transmedia is the belief that the present (past) model is broken and that the opportunities inherent in being an early adopter to this kind of storytelling are huge. It seems simple: a fractured media landscape begs a splintered approach and a savvy user demands that it be robust. I leapt at the chance to create within those parameters. And some of the best minds I know, people who’ve made good, albeit waning, livings in Traditional are meeting in dingy bars to discuss how to make ground-up changes in their industry because they don’t feel they have anything to lose. It’s electrifying to hear the talk. And it’s not griping ‘make the writer matter’ or ‘actors are people too’ stuff either. These are talented and frustrated professionals, who’ve read the writing on the wall, discussing a renovation of the system that values what they do and has everyone thinking creative + business + tech from step 1. Who was it said it feels like 1911 and we’re the guys learning that different angles and editing are good? Oh right, that was you. Spot on Mr. Watson. Makes me crave a cigarette and I don’t smoke.

Reminds me of a joke about lemon meringue pie. I’ll have my friend Jeremy deliver it to camera and post it on my site when I get a site.

Canadian TV productions have notoriously low operating budgets. How are you going to pay for all the different components of this project?

F@#ed if I know.

Kidding. Sort of.

Yes we have tiny budgets up here and they are getting tinier by the day. We shot Rent-A-Goalie for a half million bucks an episode in 3rd season and that was extraordinarily high then. Today you’d probably have to bring in a CSI for that. Not quite but, y’know, almost.

In my opinion the answer to low budgets is to go lower. Don’t try to make a $200,000 show look like a ½ million bucks because it’ll suck. Make a 100 K per episode show and don’t apologize for it. Don’t try to stretch the dollar. Don’t try to stretch anything. Just make the most awesome content you can possibly make with what you have and concentrate on what hooks – story. Necessity is the mother of invention and with today’s technologies you can make it beautiful for peanuts. The key is knowing how to make it beautiful and that is art as it’s always been. Ted Hope again – he tweeted recently that ‘A return to less could be more.’ Yes. Just plain yes indeed.

The agencies that help us make entertainment in Canada are trying hard to keep up with the changes and, on the business side of it, are thinking progressively. We’ve pitched the project to the Funds with no real ask other than a dialogue. We ask whether the model makes sense and how could they see being involved? They appreciate it because they’re trying to wrap their heads around new models as well and we appreciate the response because it helps us create accordingly. Assuming we get the Funds, and if we keep the thing indie-spirited, there will be shortages to make up but they aren’t prohibitively huge. For that we’re looking at brand relationships plus some crowd-sourcing options and a bit of private investment to top off. I’m not frightened by the financing plans yet. But then I’m the guy who writes fart jokes in these partnerships.

How has taking a Transmedia approach changed the way you’ve gone about raising development money and securing licensing agreements?

The absence of a broadcaster has cleaned rights up immensely. And, again, the wild west of the Internet means very few precedents so we’re kind of making it up as we go along. Talks with musicians, writers, performers have been positive – everyone seems to want to see it work. A western spirit of Kereitsu – a Japanese business model based on industries working with one another to the benefit of all – is what we’re looking to build. There’s power in that. The power of community.

We’ve received some development money from regular avenues for traditional deliverables like series bibles and pilot scripts for the 13 x ½ hr. I’m writing the feature script during the month of April as part of a month long script competition. With no dough attached to its development I am hungry to work completely and feverishly to reduce the time it takes to develop. That platform is a No-Budget film we want to make as a Canadian nod to the Mumblecore tradition. We were soft-offered some development dough for it but it would be recoupable so what’s the point? I’d rather put it on the screen down the road. That property sits with a different producer than the one who has the series, which is a different producer than the one who has the feature doc. So you see how the heavy lifting is spread out while the creative remains central. So there’s a bit of my own money – well, my wife and children’s too – in play on this one but that’s not a bad thing because I’m positive we can make a business out of it.

Here’s a two-parter: 1) What role, if any, do you see for the audience in producing and developing content for Lightfoot? and, 2) as an artist, how do you feel about opening up parts of the creative process to audience participation?

It is my sincere hope that the audience will do the lion’s share of the work. My favourite thing, by far, of having a popular show was that, love it or hate it, everyone had something to say about it. Inviting them to voice those opinions netted us feedback and story fodder. When I began developing Lightfoot I continued to invite that input. Everyone I talked to had a Lightfoot story – some were first-person accounts, some were major life events with Lightfoot as the soundtrack and some were tales of mistaken identity. They were all fantastic though and enthusiastically told. There is one that stands out – a guy nearing 40 now told me about a Sunday morning in the early 80’s where he and a buddy were playing hockey in an alley, taking shots against a neighbour’s garage. The puck-on-metal clang is a very common ruckus up here but it might be a little much for a rock-star early on a Sunday morning. This grizzled dude walks out in his robe and asks the children, in a charming and patient manner no doubt, to stop interrupting his sleep. The storyteller’s friend told him that was Gordon Lightfoot. I told Gordon the story and he swore it was his dad who tromped around city alleys in his robe.

An aside re. the organics of this thing – that story got back to Gordon and Gordon commented on it. Commenting is content.

So I wondered if it was possible to formalize this relationship between creator and audience and that’s the plan for ‘Search’. We are opening up the process, inviting anyone who has been touched by the subject matter to chime in. I want tales of bush piloting gone wrong and small town yarns, the instances where a song played over a formative time in one’s life. And then we want to be invited to shoot in the places where the story was originally set. We want to engage the people who helped develop the content in producing it as well. Maggie Ancaster of Herring Neck, Newfoundland gets to be prop master for a day or two. The result here, we hope, is to make shooting the show as much of a celebration of this country and it’s people as the content is. Totally 360.

This isn’t a new idea. One of the great Canadian storytellers of this generation, Stuart McLean, has been doing exactly this forever and a day. His material resonates because, beyond being talented, he sits with the people and listens to them. Gordon too. He says it’s dialogues with the people who consume his art that shapes it. Sure, he loves to play because he loves to play but it’s more than that. It’s an exchange.

Writing tv and film in the traditional manner doesn’t offer that opportunity exactly.

I’ve been warned off what this means to me as an artist but I don’t buy it. There’s a quote from Martha Graham posted above my desk that says, paraphrased – don’t be a donkey, you’re no genius. You’re a dude who types for a living. Just stay open and let flow through you what will. What I want flowing through me are the stories of the people I want to write stories for. If I can conceptualize a boundary that resonates with people, inspiring them to tell their version, my job simplifies to merely taking good notes. And ain’t it nice for Maggie Ancaster to get a credit on some quality Canadian content? Story by: Maggie Ancaster has a good ring to it don’t ya think?

I made the name Maggie Ancaster up. Any similarities to any living persons, dead or alive…yadda yadda yah.

Are there any touchstones that serve as inspiration for this project?

Stuart McLean’s stories for sure. Properties that have been sent my way since I began talking about it – Murray McLauchlan’s ‘Floating Over Canada’ is a good example. Specific properties have specific inspirations: the series is homage to John Lurie’s ‘Fishing with John’; the feature is inspired by films like ‘Wendy and Lucy’ and ‘Old Joy’; the feature doc by Werner Herzog’s Encounters At The Edge of the World; the record was a Rick Rubin inspired thing; and the graphic novel is egged on by the likes of Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Seth.

Is this the future of TV?

It’s the future of entertainment for sure. The single media property is done and so are sloughs of other givens we ‘know’ about entertainment. The audience is now referred to as the user and respecting them as a client will take us a long way. The power they have in pressing little buttons is unprecedented and so creating experience and empowering them to participate are paramount moving forward. In the not so distant future Networks will be of people around people not corporations defining content and retaining sole authority to distribute it. Speaking of which…has anyone tackled the David and Goliath story in the new era? They should.

About Christopher Bolton: Christopher Bolton began acting in his teens appearing in feature films Global Heresy, Killing Moon, A Colder Kind of Death, Dead By Monday and The Third Miracle, as well as the Showtime television movies Hendrix and Our Fathers. Additional television credits include roles on the series Northwood, Mutant X, Blue Murder, Little Men, PSI Factor, La Femme Nikita, Street Legal and The Outer Limits. Bolton earned a Gemini nomination for his guest-starring role as ‘Joey Williams’ on the award-winning series Cold Squad.

His work in film and television led him to try his hand at writing. This effort landed him a spot at the esteemed Canadian Film Centre in the Resident Programme. He entered as a writer, but left having written and directed his own short film entitled The Tooth.

He then completed a two-year stint acting on the highly regarded Showtime Network television series Street Time. It was on Street Time in 2002 that he met producer Chris Szarka, forming a partnership to create and produce the multiple award-winning television series Rent-A-Goalie for Showcase.

Bolton is the executive producer, star and creator/writer of Rent-A-Goalie. He is represented by DF Management in the US and Celia Chassel/Gary Goddard in Canada. His new Transmedia Production House, Forty Farms, will launch in May, 2010.

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Posted in Person of Interest storytelling television transmedia

Jeff Watson is an interdisciplinary media practitioner with a background in screenwriting, filmmaking, and game design. His doctoral research in Media arts and Practice at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts investigates how ubiquitous computing and social media can enable new forms of storytelling and civic engagement.

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By Haley Moore, April 9th, 2010

Maureen McHugh has a piece up on MimeFeed about The Illusion of Authenticity, in which she talks about the most compelling storytelling as an alchemical mix between the mundane and the surprising.

So achieving ‘authenticity’ requires novelty in an established convention. The audience needs some level of comfort and some elements of surprise. For now, Transmedia is pretty much always surprising for the audience. I suspect that in ten or twenty years, we may have to work harder at it.

This got me thinking about a whole range of shared experiences that you and I have every day that push our authenticity buttons.

For example, I’m sure I’m not the only tech-savvy twentysomething who gets in snits with her mother about email forwards.

The people in my life who aren’t very familiar with spam culture are, in their way, playing a very diffuse, but massive and persistent alternate reality game, sketching out a fictional world in which Coca-Cola dissolves ribeye steaks, and the government tests the internet through chain mail.  They don’t like to be told that the stories they’ve passed along are just stories, and nothing more, because it seems unsporting.  Telling game players they’re playing a game is annoying, and checking Snopes is definitely cheating.

The town where I live is home to a MLM company that sells magic sugar pills.  There’s also a lovely mom-and-pop business here that will sell you all the colon cleansers you desire.  The fictions these companies rest on are no doubt viral narratives, and no doubt have supportive communities.

These forms of fraud draw people in by putting an old story in a new context – whether its a urban legend in your email box, a sugar pill that actually works, or a new angle on the old Pyramid Scam, adding a twist to an old lie works to build authenticity – and many people buy it because of that authenticity.  In fact, for many people, the story is no longer just authentic – it’s real.

Storytellers and scammers have always been part of the same ecosphere.  Around the turn of the century, stage magicians and spirit mediums both sold seats to performances where they did many of the same acts – but the spirit mediums indulged the audience’s assumption that the tricks were supernatural, and many of them made fortunes from it.   The mediums’ stories were backed up by a large spiritualism enthusiast community and by publishers who put out spiritualist books and magazines.  The stories told in this subculture are still around today.

For example, the popular belief that images of ghosts can be captured by photographing an empty room probably comes from urban legends spawned by photographs like this one.

That’s Harry Houdini, surrounded by ghost “extras” added in by spirit photography scammers.  This is a plate from Houdini’s book  A Magician Among the Spirits, which could best be described as an angry skeptic rant, debunking a long list of Houdini’s contemporaries for exploiting the authenticity they forged by combining old ideas of the occult with the new technology of stage magic.

The spirit photography scam is a prime example of McHugh’s formula.  It took a recently discovered but familiar concept (x-rays) and combined it with something fantastical (ghosts).  At a time when few people were qualified to evaluate the claim, it seemed plausible enough to be real, and wonderful enough to capture the imagination.

I am sure that the modern game designer thinks about as much of  developers of online gambling sites as Houdini thought of spirit mediums.  Although really, Facebook games might be a better analog.  As TechCrunch reports, fraud in games like Farmville is rampant – both in the form of scams that target the players, and in number crunching that justifies high prices for nearly worthless advertising spots.  Facebook games meet McHugh’s standard for authenticity, too.  They combine something familiar (simple video games) with a twist (social interconnectivity.)

But unlike McHugh, Facebook game scammers, and spirit photographers, and MLM salespeople, and the authors of those email forwards are not using this alchemical combination to deliver a more compelling story experience.  They are using it to hack our suspension of disbelief.

I have a copy of the comic that came out for Chasing The Wish 2, and blazoned across the back is the question, “Can a story be too real?”  Yes, and no.  A story can transcend its medium; it can become more, provide you a more real – more authentic experience.  But, as McHugh points out,

An authentic story is almost by definition an oxymoron. Sure, there are true stories. But we were talking about fiction. About The Matrix, and the Batman movies. About Blair Witch.

So long as something is a story, it will never be real in any, well, real sense.  It can only be authentic, never genuine.  When authenticity bleeds over into reality, you get a lie.

And here, I predict: As game mechanics become more ingrained in everyday experiences, we are going to see more Facebook scams – these too-real stories that use our understanding of games to hack the authenticity-seeking parts of our brains.

In all probability, they will be better than we are at using technology to draw people into a fiction, and we should be ready to extract the compelling elements from what they will do with games, and adapt them to our purposes.

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Haley Moore is a newspaper reporter, artist, and playwright based in north Texas. She has worked on several indie, fan and commercial Alternate Reality Games.

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