A little less than a week ago I published the annual-wrap-up and looking-ahead-to-next-year publication “One Year In Now Media Vol IV“. From the start, four years ago, a central part of the publication has been the interviews with creative and intelligent people from different parts of the media field. This year was no exception, as people from all over the world, from Paris to the US, from Denmark to Singapore and Australia gave their look on the highlights of 2014 and the best to come in 2015.
One interview this year went a bit deeper. Jeff Gomez of Starlightrunner Entertainment is someone most people in the transmedia field recognize. An evangelist, a creative, a renowned producer – Jeff’s been an inspiration for me and many others over the past years. I’ve been keeping close tabs on his and Starlightrunner’s activities, and entertainment franchises are definitely no longer the only things on their plate. With that in mind, I took the opportunity to talk a bit more in-depth with Jeff about their activities, and about the future of transmedia on the whole:
Q: Jeff, you’ve been diligently evangelizing about smart 21st century transmedia franchise production, which is something we’ve seen coming from Marvel, Universal, the Harry Potter universe and so on. But at the same time in a recent Facebook post, director James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) famously warned against launching shared universe franchises right out of the gate. What do you think of his comments?
A: I hit “like” on Gunn’s post and actually agree with a lot of what he said. But we do differ on a major point. Gunn argues that studios and filmmakers should concentrate on making a great first film, and then consider more films and a shared universe after it has achieved success. That’s fine, but I don’t think ambition is a sin, and that there are things you can do from a creative standpoint and from a design perspective to prepare to tell a longer and more expansive story (and this goes for all storytelling media: films, video games, novels, TV series, comics…).
Gunn argues that Iron Man was a damned good movie, and that’s all Marvel needed to worry about at the outset of their self-financed film endeavor. But there was more to it than that. Kevin Feige and the filmmakers crafted the film only after making the commitment that the vision of the movie was loyal to the integrity of the Marvel Comics universe. This was done in two major ways:
1) There were any number of visual and dialog references to a greater super hero world; its past, its institutions, what is to come; and
2) Like the best Marvel Comics, Iron Man had something to say about who we are and the issues we are grappling with today and tomorrow. In a complex world of inner turmoil and human conflict, how do we become heroes and maintain our heroism?
This was asked and answered wonderfully in Iron Man, but we continue to explore facets and dimensions of the question with every Marvel movie. As in the comics, the answer is ultimately optimistic, and that resonates with people across the globe. It’s an answer all of us need to hear right now. So I would argue that there was a greater design sensibility infused into Iron Man, a message bigger than any single film, and that’s what helped to launch a consistently successful transmedia story world.
Contrast this with Dracula Untold, which was Universal’s hesitant first step toward rebooting its Classic Monsters story world. The film was scripted and shot as a self-contained story with no forethought given to how it might become the foundation of a shared universe. Additional footage was shot and added long after principal photography was finished, which brought the Dracula character into the present day. The tag tells us there’s more to come, but the decision to do this was after the fact.
So Dracula Untold conveys no sense of being an important story within the context of a larger canvas. There is no greater cosmology, no unique take on how the supernatural or the metaphysics of this world operate. Unlike Iron Man, the movie does not ask a question or offer a thesis that the greater franchise must further examine or realize. Beyond its melodrama, what does Dracula Untold have to tell this rising generation about itself? What gift is it giving to the world?
If I was in the room with Alex Kurtzman’s franchise team for Universal Monsters, those are the questions I’d be asking. I think there’s amazing potential in a story world where monsters—whose very existence demonstrates the veracity of deeply held religious beliefs, and who are capable of shifting the global balance of power—must grapple with the consequences. Those are issues young adults everywhere are facing right now. So I’m hoping they pull things back on track and hand James and I a big surprise.
Q: In recent years you’ve talked with enthusiasm about the fact that Starlight Runner has been brought in as a transmedia producer or consultant on big entertainment tent poles earlier in the production process, which would have allowed you to have a stronger impact on franchise development and quality transmedia extensions. Now that some time has passed, how has that turned out for you?
The impact our transmedia production and development work has had on big entertainment properties has been profitable for our clients, and satisfying for us as a company. Looking back over the past several years, we’re glad to see that the work we did on properties like Pirates of the Caribbean for Disney, Transformers for Hasbro, and Halo for Microsoft 343 Studios helped to galvanize those story worlds.
We provided tool sets for an array of brand managers, producers, and licensees to expand those properties in concerted and immersive ways. Transmedia content was generated based on that work, and the content sold lots of product and generated millions of views. Positive references are still made by our clients and their producers to the Mythology documents we prepared for those three properties.
From a narrative standpoint, I think Halo in particular has unfolded in a true transmedia way in recent years, and the improved storytelling that has been infused into the games, novels, comics and webisodes has also helped it get picked up for development as a premium cable TV series.
Q: What about projects like Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man 2, and El Rey network’s Lucha Underground, for which you are credited onscreen as a Transmedia Producer?
A: It’s strange, sometimes I have to stop and pinch myself, because my partner Mark Pensavalle, Fabian Nicieza and I have Lucha Underground, a TV series currently running on Comcast and Univision. How awesome is that?
In terms of transmedia production, results were mixed on Spidey 2, and it’s a bit early to tell on Lucha. While the Sony brass were strongly supportive of our coming in to assist with a careful analysis and expansion of the Spider-Man universe, there were so many cooks in that kitchen, it was difficult to maneuver. We didn’t receive the access we were accustomed to having, and that was unexpected. There were competing visions of what the Spider-Man world is fundamentally, and if you don’t resolve that quickly, you’re left with a degree of uncertainty. It was disappointing to be involved so indirectly.
Fabian Nicieza lead the team at Starlight Runner, and I would argue that, whether it was ultimately applied or not, his work on Spider-Man yielded a definitive survey of the character and his world. It was unlike anything ever done for the character, and it was some of the best transmedia story world documentation that we’ve ever done. The Daily Bugle Tumblr blog, to exemplify one of the best bits to come out of our Spider-Man work, bridged the first and second films and were written in the movie canon, while making numerous references to events first depicted in the comics. Fans had a lot of fun with the blog, and the enormous press it attracted made Sony very happy.
Lucha Underground has also been tricky due to the involvement of so many factions. When Mark Burnett joined the TV series as Executive Producer, it became classified as “unscripted,” which meant that we had essentially created a transmedia story world for a reality show. In turn that meant that we couldn’t really concentrate on intricate storytelling and world-building in the show, or at least not as much as what we would have liked, because there are no WGA writers on it.
On the other hand, the show is only in the middle of its first season, and recent episodes we’ve seen are starting to allude more specifically to a rich mythology that can serve as the basis for all kinds of transmedia extensions. The fans seem to dig the show, and there’s an active dialog around it on social media, which is satisfying. It’s also great that in the case of Lucha Underground, all of the participants from the network to the AAA league in Mexico are believers in transmedia and are eager to find ways to apply these techniques to the property.
Q: You’ve done a lot of traveling this year. Has it been mostly about evangelizing transmedia to organizations and institutions, or does it tie into Starlight Runner taking on a significant amount of international work?
A: Well, you know, I think it’s vital that as many people as possible understand and learn how to communicate effectively across different media. The prediction made a decade or so ago that all media would somehow converge onto a single huge screen in our living rooms has not come true. It’s the opposite, actually.
We have more screens, more devices, and we interact with them in different ways. How do you reach such a splintered, segmented audience—an audience that has now gotten used to participating, an audience that wants to be heard?
First, it’s more important than ever to get your story straight, to have an intrinsic understanding of your own narrative and how to communicate it in ways that leverage the strengths of different platforms. Second, you have to know how to listen. Transmedia storytelling and transmedia production techniques address these concerns.
While Hollywood seems to be slowly integrating transmedia as a matter of course, corporations, big brands, and the international scene are still catching up. I’ve been fascinated with applying transmedia to start-ups and young companies, and we’ve seen significant success on this front with Spartan Race and the Humin mobile phone app.
Humin, a kind of major domo that maintains your phone contacts in a unique way, started as a product that was difficult to explain. We helped to develop a narrative around it that was simple, compelling, and quite useful for their marketing and publicity teams. Humin wound up making a lot of this year’s top 10 app listings.
But you’re right, we are also working it pretty hard around the world, often consulting with companies at the same time that we’re teaching seminars or popping up in university classrooms as guest lecturers. This year, Canada, Colombia, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and China have all been keen enough on transmedia to bring us out for conversations, master classes, and consultations.
Q: It’s not all entertainment franchises though. One of the activities you’ve been involved in is presenting a number of seminars at The Meeting House near Toronto last June. I looked at The Meeting House, and it’s one of the largest multi-site churches in Canada. What’s the reason for speaking there – does religion need transmedia too?
Over the past year, Starlight Runner has met with a number of large religious institutions. Jewish or Christian, they are all facing the same challenge in the fact that membership in organized religion is falling off precipitously, especially among young adults. They’ve been looking at transmedia as a potential solution.
Things tend to get complicated when we tell them, it’s not just about moving your timeworn message across new media channels—it’s about revisiting the message with a fresh pair of eyes.
A teenager today can look at the Batman television series from the 1960s and be amused by it, but it has no real relevance to the teen’s contemporary life. So the story is innovated and re-contextualized by Christopher Nolan and we get The Dark Knight, and there is an immediate resonance. The same has to be done with religious narratives if they’re going to remain applicable and important to us.
That’s where many of these organizations drop out. You can’t mess with the story, after all. But we argue that you can, and history tells us that you have. With everything speeding up exponentially, and kids becoming savvier by the moment, its time to revisit the narrative sooner than some would like.
What’s interesting about The Meeting House is that they were already multi-platform before I got there, but what they were interested in was in how they can craft a more relevant and concerted story, which in turn can improve the way they engage and inspire young people. They responded enormously to the seminars, and remain one of a handful of large churches that continue to maintain a dialog with Starlight Runner.
Q: Your rhetoric and your core messages have always been secular. Listening to you now – are you concerned about Starlight Runner or yourself being so closely affiliated with a specific religion?
A: The first job of story was to help primitive humans survive, to answer our questions, to preserve and pass down better ways. At the risk of sounding crude, the gods may be different, but what all religions have in common are long strings of interlinked stories. Many of these through the millennia did help to formalize values, laws, creative expression. Yes, there were plenty of negatives along the way, but I don’t think we can ignore or shy away from the fact that there remain a handful of enormously compelling and influential religions in the world.
If we have the ability to keep the wisdom, values and transcendence of these powerful narratives resonant with the needs of the modern world, then we are obliged to affect those calibrations.
As for being affiliated with a specific religion, Starlight Runner has taken its lumps for being affiliated with everything from Coca-Cola to Avatar. We take jobs based on the fact that these story worlds are going to reach many millions of people, and we take the responsibility of making sure the transmedia narrative is rich and infused with that very first job of story.
The Judeo-Christian narrative informed my childhood, and certainly fired my imagination. My personal beliefs aside, it is a cornerstone of the human canon. I’d have no problem being affiliated with it.
Q: Continuing on the same path, it seems to me that transmedia is “growing up”—it’s much more than “just” entertainment and marketing now. This past year Starlight Runner has branched out by applying transmedia techniques in geo-political situations, like your work in Colombia, and you’ve been talking about more ambitious applications in education. What’s happened for you on these fronts in 2014?
A: After more than ten years down the Hollywood road, we’ve been able to demonstrate the impact of the transmedia approach in terms of how it’s increasing the extensibility and longevity of brands and story worlds. After some potholes in the pavement, Disney has fully embraced integrated cross-media universes as a business model.
The reason that Avatar didn’t leave a greater footprint in the pop culture landscape was that 20th Century Fox refused to support it from a transmedia standpoint. As a heavily siloed conglomerate Newscorp was simply not built to do that. But this has entirely changed when it comes to how the franchise will be built around the sequels. It’s a sign of the times; just as TV shows and video games are now routinely offering story world extensions in different media.
So with this proof of concept, and with this pedigree, it’s a bit easier for Starlight Runner to walk through doors and get people to listen. My thought has been, why not leverage that and apply transmedia more directly toward making the world a better place?
I spent my early years in a chaotic environment. I saw the effects of poverty, crime and violence on families, on kids my age. I haven’t forgotten that. It’s still there and not nearly enough is being done about it. Left unchecked, these are what lead to corruption, extremism, organized crime, terrorism and war.
My salvation was story: the stories my mom told me at bedtime, the optimistic future of Star Trek, the nobility and perseverance of Frodo Baggins, the true stories of leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. I found the codes in these stories and was somehow able to transpose them onto the map of my own life. Why can’t this work for other people? Why can’t transmedia be applied toward inspiring, motivating, and activating individuals, communities and even entire nations facing crises?
Transmedia Population Activation, as I call it, leverages research, data analysis, historic context, and the personal narratives of a cross-section of a target population to inform sets of stories bound by common themes and values, which are then strategically disseminated across multiple media platforms.
The process was pioneered in Mexico and Central America through the Sabido method of media social responsibility, developed by the Televisa television network in the early 1970s. This is where they did things like include tips on personal hygiene or promoted education in telenovelas (soap operas), which led to positive social change.
Over the past several years, Starlight Runner has worked hard to evolve this model for the digital, interactive, and multi-platform age. We’ve also worked hard to make certain that these are not foreign narratives being asserted on local populations, or counter-narratives created in direct opposition to an imposing force, or politicized narratives driven by some regime’s biased agenda. This is about authentic dialog, driven by stories that are told by the people to the people, and to the world. And these implementations are accompanied by supporting social services.
In our experience, the results can include a heightened awareness of the issue, stronger social participation, clarity and creative expression around it, greater empathy, and proactive self-organization. In short, when people see themselves reflected in the narrative, it becomes more powerful and empowering.
Q: Can you exemplify?
Well, first of all, Starlight Runner is not the only company doing this. The Population Media Center teamed up with The Alchemists transmedia production company to produce East Los High, which leverages a teen drama series and various media extensions and resources to candidly discuss issues of relevance to inner city youth, particularly teen pregnancy. It’s a big success. The series is shooting its third season, and its impact, measured for example in a dramatic increase in family planning inquiries arriving through East Los High resource links, well it’s amazing.
In India, Lina Srivastava is producing a multi-platform super hero narrative called Priya’s Shakti, which uses popular genres and art forms like comics to examine gender-based violence. So again, we have a carefully designed and orchestrated entertainment property that is also meant to directly engage large audiences and activate them toward changing the system. The elegance of the design lay in its ability to give voice to survivors of rape and gender violence, allowing their stories to be woven into the implementation, empowering them to make a difference.
Starlight Runner’s current population activation project surrounds a crisis of leadership in the nation of Colombia’s youth. After more than a decade of peace, an excellent higher education system, a thriving national technological infrastructure, and a positive mood among Colombia’s college graduates, why are so few young adults becoming civic leaders, innovators, thought leaders and entrepreneurs? If this continues, Colombia will be in danger of falling behind as a nation, and will no longer be competitive on the international stage.
This disparity has also been generating a rising tension between the establishment and young people, resulting in a growing generation gap, which further exacerbates the situation. Starlight Runner was teamed with Out of the Blu, a digital consulting agency based in Bogota, to see if we could get at the root of the problem and use transmedia techniques to address it.
The focus of our work thus far has been data driven. The data confirmed what we were told by the government. Colombian youth was in stasis. But we soon realized that it wasn’t because they were “small minded” or “superficial.” Their lack of personal determination, their “holding back,” was based on a set of very real and quite sobering issues. By cross-referencing the micro-narrative data with an examination of decades of Colombian popular culture and the placement of the crisis in a greater historic context, we realized that the nation’s young people were suffering from a kind of generational post-traumatic stress.
From the late-1980s to the early ‘00s, Colombia had experienced a horrific mélange of bloody civil conflict, drug cartel violence, and deep government corruption. During that time, if you were successful, if you were wealthy, you were almost certainly going to be forced to choose sides and be drawn into the chaos. If you stood out, you were going to get snatched. Worse, your family could suffer the consequences. Small wonder your parents, your teachers, your clergy, your peers all told you the same thing: keep your head low; success is for the corrupt; becoming a leader can get you killed.
This was striking and difficult to discuss with the Colombian authorities, but eventually I was granted a meeting with President Juan Manuel Santos, and he became convinced of our conclusions. He came to believe in the transmedia solution and advocated a new narrative for Colombian youth.
That happened this past August, and the project has since picked up speed, allowing us to build a significant community of interest. We will now be able to access Colombia’s media infrastructure and seed it with a far more relevant, aspirational narrative. These will be stories that demonstrate that the fog of war has dissipated into the past, and that the time is right for new leaders to rise.
We’ll support these stories—the equivalent of several East Los High’s implemented across Colombian popular media—with a campaign in which entrepreneurs and civic leaders collectively emerge and announce themselves, telling their stories and assisting youth in fulfilling their own success narratives.
The shows are now in development, and the next phase of the transmedia campaign will be rolling out in 2015. But the impact is already being felt. We’re seeing significantly more activity in terms of youth leadership in Colombian social media, and even a degree of self-organization in the wake of Heroes Fest, the conference in Medellin at which we announced our findings.
Q: Your love of transmedia storytelling has always been clear in the way you’ve talked about your work, but this social work sounds as if it’s even more personal for you.
A: It’s all about what we do with the time we are given, to paraphrase a Gandalf quote. I’ve gamed with Gary Gygax; talked Spider-Man with Stan Lee; speculated about FTL drives with James Cameron; and hobnobbed with R2-D2. My inner fanboy is sated. I’ve finished my rehearsal in the arenas of imagination.
Now I’m excited to transpose what I’ve learned to a real and hurting world. Which isn’t to say I won’t get my ass kicked. But the truth is, I’ve also learned how to take a punch, and I think I’m rallying some pretty mighty forces to my aid.
Q: And who might those be? What are the major challenges we’ll be facing in the transmedia space? What are the major possibilities?
The people I’m most excited about are those who have come to believe in the positive potential of pervasive communications, and who are using their influence to prepare the world to make best use of it. These are CEOs and educators, pastors and singers, peace-builders and government agents, members of the rising sharing economy, brave souls who are almost single-handedly introducing transmedia concepts to their countries. I wish I could list them all, because I have tremendous respect for each one of them.
As for the challenges we’ll be facing in the space, one of the major ones will be to come up with solutions around big data management and transmedia data analytics. This is something Starlight Runner has been working on for a number of years. We’ve had clients who’ve taken big leaps with us, trusting that transmedia will bring added value without needing to see a history of hard numbers. But now that we’re expanding into corporate and international markets, there is a greater need to prove the efficacy of the techniques in black and white.
I’ve been preparing a new brief for these kinds of clients. First, it demonstrates that data analysis is not just about the size of the audience and return on investment. It’s also about more deeply understanding your audience and improving your relationship with them, which in turn builds brand loyalty. It’s about fine-tuning and personalizing your story; customizing it for different market segments or localizing it for different regions.
Big data can also be used to synchronize user experiences, improving the users flow through a transmedia narrative. As we learned from our population activation work, data is not just about the end, it’s everything. It’s the way we look into the eyes of our audience, turning them into participants.
So in the near future, as more of us move toward collaborative cross-platform projects, we’re going to need improved global database solutions that simplify the management of growing volumes of unstructured data.
Another challenge we’re facing is in how narrative-based transmedia solutions might bolster industries distressed by the onslaught of digital technology. During my recent visit to China, I learned that their print industry—which employs millions—is at an all-time high, the equivalent of where it was in the United States in 1995. With the mass adaptation of mobile phones and tablets there in the next several years, they will be facing a drastic implosion. What can printers do to integrate their assets and resources into new media before they’re seriously impacted? We’re giving a lot of thought to that.
We’re hoping that story and multi-platform narrative content will also infuse the music industry and book publishing more than it has. The inquiries we’re receiving and deals we’ve been negotiating are becoming more serious on this front, and I’m very happy about this.
Finally, we’re talking with a number of very interested parties about partnering to produce a Transmedia Learning System. This has got me so excited! It’s more than a set of courses or curricula. Our concept combines elements of distributed learning and consolidated database management with a narrative-based strategy that sets the learner on a kind of hero’s journey.
So instead of being detached, elitist or adversarial—disciplining through punishment—faculty, administration, and trainers will serve as mentors and allies. Believe it or not, in most higher learning institutions this is not usually the case!
Goals include improved grades, better student retention, better interdepartmental asset and resource management, more immersive online coursework, and even a more engaging student life. I started this discussion with Caitlin Burns before she branched off from Starlight Runner to start Caitlin Burns & Associates, which I’m thrilled about, and now Steele Filipek our new lead producer, is working with me to prepare the Transmedia Learning System for production.