Zen and the Art of Transmedia Storytelling

Several months ago, an indie film director approached me. He was searching for funding for his film, and he wanted me to "make a transmedia plan" for him, because he thought that would make the project an easier sell to investors. His business logic was sound; he wanted a way to create fans ahead of time, because it's naturally easier to get funding and distribution for a film that has a robust fan base already waiting to buy tickets. We have Blair Witch Project and dozens of comic book movies to prove that point.

What this particular gentleman was missing, though, was a crucial pillar to any transmedia project. He wanted transmedia as a mysterious, separate black box to add on to the movie… but he didn't much care what it was, much less have a creative purpose in mind. I had questions. What experience did he want to provide? What story information did he want to expand or reveal? What subplot did he want to play out? He was unprepared to answer, because he didn't know those questions were coming.

Now, I have deep sympathy, because heaven knows I've been there myself. This echoes my own introduction to scriptwriting -- sideways and accidental. At the time, I was working on a big-budget film's marketing campaign, mostly writing blog entries, Tweets, and emails from various characters. One of these characters was meant to begin posting videos, so I dutifully wrote a few short scripts and sent them off to be shot.

The production team came back to me with their questions. So very many questions! What time of day was it? What was he wearing? What did the room look like? Should there be anything in the background? This was a revelation to me. I came from writing prose first, where you highlight only the most important details and allow the imagination of the audience to fill in the rest. Before that moment, I had never truly understood that every visual element in a film is there because somebody made a creative decision to put it there. I now call this the practice of mindful design: being present and aware of every creative choice.

This won't be a new concept to any filmmaker, of course. It's one of the fundamentals of film. Every line, every scene, every shot and prop and article of costuming serves a creative purpose, be it furthering plot, characterization, theme. Ultimately, each one of these small creative decisions affects the quality of the whole work, so every last one of them matters.

So it shouldn't be a shock when I tell you that extending your film into a transmedia narrative is exactly the same. No website, no Tweet, no social media profile or tie-in graphic novel or webisode should exist unless you know what it's adding to the experience of your story for your audience -- because once you send it into the world, it becomes a part of your story, and it will inevitably color the audience's perception of your film.

It's easy to miss this simple fact. Transmedia has achieved super-hype buzzword status, and as my experience with that director shows, there's an idea floating around out there that "having transmedia" will help you with funding, distribution, or marketing… but lagging behind is the understanding that creating a transmedia narrative is fundamentally different from hiring a marketing team or cutting a licensing deal.

That pivotal difference is that transmedia elements are received as a part of the same creative work as the film itself, and so need to be produced with the same creative vision behind the wheel -- if not the same creators.

The evidence for this is manifold. Even a decade ago, the experience of watching movies like Blair Witch Project or A.I. were deepened by understanding parts of the story world revealed only on their web footprints. More recently, web components like the fictional TED talk deployed for Prometheus shed light on the history, character, and motivations of CEO Peter Weyland, and affected the viewer's perception of him in the film. If those elements hadn't been resonant in tone, quality, and content, the totality of the experience would have suffered.

That means you need to bring to your transmedia components the same kind of mindful design that you bring to your film. This is true at any scale, from the broad sweep of the big picture (when you're first choosing to, for example, create a blog or web video meant to convey a subplot cut from the film) all the way down to tiny details (like choosing fonts or putting a character on Pinterest vs. Tumblr). Because at the end of the day, for your audience, it's not just an add-on. It's another facet of the same story.

This doesn't mean you have to do it all yourself, of course. There is a growing industry of transmedia professionals experienced at reading a script or watching a rough cut and understanding the creative vision well enough to expand it across media. And it's not new to transmedia, either. It's simply continuing the tradition of film as a collaborative art.

But it also means you definitely don't need to hire an expert to do black magic and hand you "some transmedia" that you can then point investors toward. Indeed, outsourcing that responsibility could turn out very poorly indeed. Removing your guiding creative hand from the equation risks something much worse than wasting time and money. A tone-deaf and badly executed transmedia extension might damage the experience of your story and degrade the experience of your film for your audience, just the way a tone-deaf and badly targeted marketing campaign can hurt your film.

Does that sound a little scary? Relax, it shouldn't be. Absolutely hire on a team to build websites, draw graphic novels, or manage a social media footprint if you don't have the time and skills to do it yourself. Just keep yourself in the loop. As a filmmaker, you already have the single most important ingredient for a great transmedia narrative: a vision for the story you want to tell. All you have to do to use the transmedia toolbox is take a step back and imagine that story -- your story -- behind and beyond the frame… and mind the details.