This post was originally published on The Film Collaborative blog on November 7, 2012

This week’s post should help those who are thinking about giving transmedia/cross platform storytelling a try. Andrea Phillips first encountered cross platform storytelling over a decade ago and has been writing in the space since 2005 as a full-time, free-lance transmedia author. She worked on the interactive treasure hunt Perplex City, HBO’s immersive online sensory experience The Maester’s Path for its show Game of Thrones, and with musician Thomas Dolby on an online experience for his concept album, a community-based web game based on Dolby’s entire discography called A Map of the Floating City.

I interviewed her upon the release of her new book A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling: How to Captivate and Engage Audiences across Multiple Platforms and asked about the differences between this form of storytelling and more traditional forms, whether this takes a different skill set and how she sees this field evolving over time.

SCAre there different principles of storytelling for transmedia?

Cover of A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling

AP: Yes and no. The basics of telling a good story are going to be the same no matter what medium you are using, but if you are going into a big transmedia project, you have to leave things more open ended than you would traditionally. You have to give yourself opportunities to extend the story late and more places where things aren’t answered, more loose ends.

In the book, I talk a lot about Chekhov’s gun, that traditional storytelling principle where if you have a gun on the mantle in the first act, then it has to be fired. (ed note: from Wikipedia: Chekhov’s gun is a literary technique whereby an apparently irrelevant element is introduced early in the story whose significance becomes clear later in the narrative. The concept is named after Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. The phrase “Chekhov’s gun” is often interpreted as a method of foreshadowing, but the concept can also be interpreted as meaning “do not include any unnecessary elements in a story.”) But in transmedia, this isn’t a good technique because you want to put lots of things in the story like this, you may need something later to use and, if it has been precedented,  you can build on it.

There are lots of things in transmedia that go against the idea that the story will unfold 100% the way you envisioned. Sometimes the audience won’t react to something the way you expected them to and one of the fantastic things about working in digital media is the ability to adapt to the reaction you are getting. In films, studios do test screenings and change the ending if the audience reaction is poor or not what is desired. With an interactive narrative, you actually have a chance to change the whole story if it is playing out differently than you had envisioned. If the protagonist is portrayed as unsympathetic, you can either change the story or use that info to help him get what’s coming to him.  It’s really fun stuff!

SCSome storytellers might say “I have my whole vision for a story and I don’t want to constantly evolve it.” Is there a mindset change to this kind of work as well?

AP:  “There can be, but let’s step back. There should be wiggle room, but it doesn’t have to be the whole story. The classic story of Hamlet doesn’t become a better play if you let the audience vote on the ending. You don’t necessarily want your audience deciding what the story is, but if you give them even the feeling that they have a part in influencing the outcome, it is a very powerful tool for participation. They have an investment in the story just as much as the author does.

SC: The main component I see in this is making the story interactive. The difference between the traditional way and the interactive world that we live in now is the ability to have participation rather than passively watching or reading what is put in front of you. Do you think that when we talk about educating audiences or drawing them in to the storytelling, does it depend on their age or their mindset or their history of playing video games or collaborating with other people?  Is there an audience boundary that is keeping this from getting bigger?  Or will this just evolve over time as we see more of these kinds of projects?

The Maester's Path from HBO's The Game of ThronesAP:”I think there are some audience boundaries, but also context boundaries. Sometimes you just want to sit quietly and read a book and not have to click on something or go look something up later.  Sometimes people will want a single medium story and that will probably always be the case. The trick is to provide that single medium experience for the audience who still likes that,  while identifying the audiences that want to be more engaged with the story. It is surprising, it doesn’t always have to do with age or gender or tech savvy. First find the audience that really loves your story and once you have a fandom, or base of supporters who really love the stories you tell, they will want whatever you can give them. Digital media winds up being a fairly cost effective thing to give them more of the story. It is much cheaper to roll out a social media footprint than it is to make subsequent films for instance. You are still giving them things that they want that will keep them involved in your story, until you do have the ability to get that second film, or subsequent project out.”

SCWhat kind of budget considerations are we talking about when one wants to make a transmedia project? Does it mean you have to have the budget of The Dark Knight Rises or Prometheus or The Hunger Games? Or can one do it with some simple tools and elbow grease?

AP: “You definitely can do it with simple tools. The Alternate Reality Game community (ARG) is a group of fans who have gotten together to make experiences for each other out of pocket change and love.  You don’t need a Dark Knight budget to make a transmedia experience. Social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr are relatively free, shooting video isn’t free, but if you are already shooting a film, just adding on additional videos probably isn’t going to be so expensive. It is the sort of indie spirit thing as any other indie art project would have.”

SC: I hear indie filmmakers say “OK, I’m going to have a film. And then I’ll think about all of those other story aspects because those are more of the marketing or promotional efforts that come later.” Or they only see this effort as something that will fill the theater or sell DVDs. Is this a good idea or should it be planned from the start so that it is all incorporated together?

AP: “I am definitely, definitely of the opinion you should plan it all up front. Mainly because if you just tack something on later, it is going to feel tacked on.  If you want it to reach its maximum power, then you have to make it all in one piece and plan for how everything will interrelate.  Even from initial writing, initial conception.”

SC: In reading through some of the ideas on transmedia projects from filmmakers, I feel like some people paint themselves into a corner. These story tangents go off onto other paths and then disappear because they haven’t been clear about how it all weaves back into the overall project.  Also, Lance Weiler has talked about how in his early projects, games they created to be solved by the audience in a week, only ended up taking a day and it caught the creators by surprised so they had to scramble to keep up.

AP: “This is one of the rookie mistakes that I talk about in the book. Never deploy anything unless you are ready for it to be solved. The audience is always smarter than you think it is. They are as smart as the smartest 20 people among them because they all collaborate. They will always outthink you, never think you will be smarter than your audience. Also this may come from a more marketing mindset. Some people think they will put an interesting bit of something out there, as a marketing tactic and they don’t give it much mind as to whether it leads anywhere. It gives the audience a negative feeling about your story. When you set up an expectation and then there is no payoff, it is extremely frustrating for the audience.”

SCWhat do you think about all of these transmedia events, and new media funds, and new emphasis on transmedia storytelling in independent film? It seems like creators are being told this is the only way to be creating stories now. Many times these events seem a little haphazard and confusing, like they are being programmed by people who also don’t know much about this form of storytelling.

AP: “I think it is a confusing time for the creators. The audience doesn’t care about this conversation at all. They just want to know if this thing you are putting in front of them is worth their time or not.  They don’t care if it is transmedia, cross media or who it was funded by.  In one sense, it is an important conversation because creators have their careers to think about, but from the audience perspective, none of this is relevant if we aren’t doing good work.”

SCRight, this is a time of experimentation. Where there is chaos, there is opportunity and you have to look a little harder for it. There is no one process that has been developed to succeed, and as an independent filmmaker, you wouldn’t want that anyway.

AP: “I had an interview with a gentleman who was very frustrated with me because he kept asking me for  a blueprint on the one right way to make a transmedia project. And my answer was it depends on what you are trying to do.  The book is not the one true way to create a transmedia project as much as it is a flowchart of lots of different ways. There are things you can do, and there will be trade offs to doing that. It is much less about rules than about my advice on what you can do depending on what you are trying to accomplish with your work.

The interesting thing about transmedia right now isn’t the stories, but the structures. We are in an amazing period of experimental structure and I am not sure this has happened in storytelling ever before. There has been experimental structure in individual arts such as writing with the novel, and in film. But now we are seeing this happen across all media and figuring out how to use multiple media and include the audience with digital tools in order to tell a story. The thing that fascinates me is how people fit all the elements together in their story.”

SC: As time and money are needed to create these stories, what do you see as sources for revenue? I think we shouldn’t come into this thinking if it doesn’t make millions, it isn’t worth doing. But what do you see as a way of generating revenue?

AP: “First I’d like to say that anyone who doesn’t think an artist has a right to make money is on the wrong side of history.  There is no shame in commercial art. I do see some interesting things revenue wise. You for sure see the Hollywood studio model which largely depends on licensing and on selling movie tickets, a very traditional and stable way of making money.

Accomplice New York

But I also see things like Accomplice which has a live performance aspect, short, location based experiences where one buys a ticket to see it. I’ve seen The Lizzie Bennet Diaries which uses the Youtube advertising revenue stream and you can also see projects selling merchandising (posters, comics, tshirts). There’s really no limit which is the other interesting thing.  Not only is the storytelling structure changing, but the business structure is too. You can hypothetically make money any way you can imagine. The question becomes how much time and money are you spending to make the project, and is it more than you could ever get in return? Knowing that only comes with experimentation and experience.”

 

SCAre many film schools teaching this kind of scriptwriting/storytelling? I don’t think that many are doing this yet.

AP:  Quite a number are teaching this actually. Emory, UNC, FSU, Ball State, MIT, Columbia, USC, all have programs. There is definitely an academic interest in it and especially in film schools. I am much more excited to see this being taken up by film rather than only by games. Film has been considered much more legitimate as a storytelling medium in the hierarchy of culture so transmedia is becoming much more legitimate too from its association with film.

I do think it is valuable to teach these skills to students. Film, theater, and creative writing students because it is something that exists in the world and sheer exposure is a valuable thing even if you aren’t choosing to work in it in your individual career.”

SC: Do you think this will evolve to where stories will only be told this way? I see this as a way to be in dialog with an audience and it is becoming more and more expected that the audience will be able to speak with creators. Will it be possible to say, “Oh I am not going to be in talks with the audience, I’m just going to write it as a straight book or film?” Is this really going to be  an optional thing in 10 years time?

AP: “I think it will stay optional. As I said, sometimes the audience doesn’t want the whole experience. There will also be a significant number of creators who aren’t comfortable working this way or have a creative interest in not making their story interactive. I do think in the commercial space that you may not be able to get funding for your webseries or film if you don’t have a transmedia plan though. That is a reality I can very easily imagine.”

SC: In getting back to the book, tell me how it is laid out

AP: “The book is in 5 sections. The first is an introduction to transmedia. The second is an intro to storytelling. Further sections cover structure, production and then big picture which is ethics and money.  The structure section is the heart of the book.  I talk about considerations like using email, will you send it via your character, will the character answer? I don’t say, ‘You must use these social media outlets.’ You can’t  say that, it depends on what you are trying to do and I, as the author of this book, do not know what you are trying to.

SCEthics, that’s an interesting section to include. What are ethical considerations to creating transmedia projects as opposed to writing a book or making a movie?

AP: “When you are putting pervasive elements into the world, things that look like they are real, you do wind up with ethical considerations. For example, a common trope is flyers for missing persons. I consider this not just ethically poor, but also bad design.  As a consumer walking down the street, the first thought is not, ‘Oh my gosh, this must be part of a game or film. Let me take down this number or website and partake of this entertaining experience.’  It is probably, ‘Oh, what a terrible thing has happened. I am going to lock my doors when I get home.’ Creators need to think about the context someone will have when they happen across this material.

My favorite example I use in the book is the Parkinson’s Disease example. Let’s say you have a fictional pharmaceutical company and you make a website for it, as is the way for any transmedia project.  Typically, there will be news published on this fictional pharmaceutical website. So you make some fake press release about Parkinson’s Disease, announcing the results  of fake trials of a drug that improves symptoms and is expected to come to market in 3 years. Now, imagine that this website gets some Google juice and someone who suffers from Parkinson’s Disease is searching the internet for treatment options and finds this news. They make a treatment decision based on your element of fiction that was not signposted as fiction for someone who found it by accident on Google. That’s problematic because you could do harm to someone out in the world.

Many times creators don’t think about these things until something bad has happened. Things happen in the real world because of content we put out there. The world isn’t yet accustomed to questioning everything behind a story to see if it is real. All you have to do is look at how many articles from The Onion get reported as news.

My thanks to Andrea for spending time talking to me about her work and her new book. I have read the book and it is excellent, a real primer for those interested in learning more about creating interactive stories using both online tools and offline experiences. I especially liked her descriptions of World Building as it is something I don’t think creators spend enough time thinking about. World building is a good exercise whether you are creating a story structure on which to hang technology and user experiences or you are thinking through all the elements you can create and layer to immerse an audience into the world of your characters for marketing purposes, to pull them into the story experience. Every story exists in a “world” and creators should strive to bring the audience into it, let them experience it from many angles, give them something to do there, not just assume passive viewing.

For more on Andrea’s thoughts about the future of storytelling, see this video

 

 

 

Cross platform case study-Guidestones

October 26, 2012
posted by sheric

This post was originally published on The Film Collaborative blog.

In the continuation of a look at recent cross platform/transmedia projects, this case study will be particularly relevant to those working with low budgets and ambitious plans. Writer/director Jay Ferguson’s initial inspiration for Guidestones came from his late father’s fascination with serialized shorts. Growing up in the thirties and forties, Ferguson’s father went to the cinema and was ‘hooked’ on serialized shorts where bad guys tie distressed maidens to the train tracks and such. Ferguson thought that the internet would be an ideal place to try to recreate that experience for this century.

Again, thanks to Storycode.org for providing the video presentation (found at the bottom of this post) from which these notes were culled.

Jay Ferguson, writer/director, 3 o’clock TV

Synopsis

Two journalism students, investigating an unsolved murder, uncover a global conspiracy centered around the mystery of The Georgia GUIDESTONES, an enigmatic monument nestled in a farmer’s field in rural Georgia and inscribed with directions for rebuilding civilization after the apocalypse. The story is based on a real monument and on the real account of a Toronto woman’s experiences.

GUIDESTONES uses elements of transmedia and ARG storytelling to take viewers on a thrilling chase that crosses two continents and three countries in search of the truth. The project uses a hybrid mix of traditional narrative and formal and non-formal documentary styles.  Shot vérité style in Canada, the USA and India, the series moves seamlessly between the real world and the ?ctional account of how a young woman named Sandy stumbled upon a murder mystery.

Three minute episodes, 50 in total so far, with audience participation elements.

Intent:

Ferguson wanted to tell stories by professional storytellers that would guide the audience  an online and offline experience.  He observed that, though audiences wanted to participate in the story somehow, no one wants to pay for online content.  Also, how to keep audiences coming back? Too many webseries start out with the first few episodes being ok then die with audience numbers. Ferguson and his team have endeavored to keep up a fast paced, engaging story that pushes the audience to continue the journey.

Funding:

A mix of self funded, Canadian Independent Production Fund, some matching grants from the Ontario Media Development Council , sponsorship from Samsung, Carbon Clothing, Major League Baseball/Toronto Bluejays, Pizza Pizza (Canadian Domino’s).  The online platforms (Hulu, Youtube) did not put in any money. The total budget is around $300,000 CAD. Estimate to reproduce at market value would be $1 million.

Revenue streams:

Product integration, merchandise/music/ringtones, rev share from Hulu. Recently launched on iTunes and considering a DVD to sell. 

Audience demographic:

While there were certain demographics in mind, the production recognized that different audiences will want to interact with the series, so  different ways to view the project were developed. In the Push version, one can sign up for the show and have the episodes delivered via  e-mail to experience in ‘real time’ as the characters are exploring the mystery. The Linear version is for those who want to be more passive and treat it like a traditional serialized show.

Background of the team:

Jay Ferguson is an award-winning filmmaker who has contributed as a writer, director, producer and cinematographer to over 15 feature films. His work with institutions such as The National Film Board of Canada has garnered him several awards, including the top cinematography award at the Atlantic Film Festival (Animals, 2005) and from the Canadian Society of Cinematographers (Inside Time, 2008). He was nominated for a Gemini Award in 2005.

Jonas Diamond is the CEO of iThentic, joining the team in the fall of 2008. Jonas is producer of the award-winning animated series Odd Job Jack (52×30). The series received a Gemini, CFTPA Indie, Banff Rockie and Canada New Media Award for Best Cross Platform Project. Additional Accolades for Odd Job Jack include a nomination for Best Interactive Program (2006) and Best Animated Show (2005) at the Banff Rockie Awards, second prize for Best Interactive Design (2006) at Vidfest, Best Convergent Project by the Banff Institute as well as multiple Gemini and Canadian Comedy Award nominations. Jonas? producer credits includes Odd Job Jack, Hotbox and Bigfoot for The Comedy Network / CTV, Pillars of Freedom for TVO, Turbo Dogs for CBC / NBC, The Dating Guy, skatoony, Sons of Butcher and the upcoming Geofreakz MORPG for Teletoon, The World of Bruce McCall, and the interactive storyteller Legends of Me as well as many other projects for various platforms.

Supinder Wraich, Guidestones

Development phase:

It took 3 years from conception to launch.

Thinking through each platform:

50 webisodes were shot and edited for use as video links, the main storyline.

50 different websites were needed to house the clues for each webisode.

Content was hidden online for viewers to research the clues given during the webisodes.

One of the really hard things was creating 50 story arcs. Each episode is on average 3 minutes long and it is difficult to find an interesting opening, build the story and then a climax to lead into the next episode in such a short space of time. For feature films, you may only have to do one or two of those, but 50 is a lot. The interactivity was very difficult to make happen…very time consuming.

Production workflow:

The production used a very small crew and shot with a Canon 7d digital SLR in order to have flexibility and adaptability when on location. It allowed them to get into places that you regularly would not be allowed to shoot. In India, there were some places that do not regularly allow filming, but they were able to shoot some scenes in a few minutes and not bother anybody.

8 months in production, with 8-10 hour days

Location shooting: 3-4 weeks Toronto, 1 week in Georgia, 1 week in India

Post production meant bringing together all the elements of web and film. Before locking an episode, online properties needed to be created and sites linked to other sites so that the minute it was live, everything was in place for the viewer to experience.

Digital team included:

A graphic designer

Website builder

1 person to buy and manage urls

people to develop online presences on Linkedin and MySpace

2 editors full time

2-3 editors part time

a media manager

effects supervisor

effects editor

Brad Sears who designed the Push system and email system.

Deployment strategy

They launched the “push” system in February 2012. The viewers sign up via email address on their website to follow the episodes. Links are emailed to them with the episodes.  Emails are timed to coincide with the happenings of the characters (if something happens at 9am, the email is sent at 9am). It takes the viewer a month to experience the whole thing and it is evergreen which means anyone can start it whenever they like. There is no “starting” and “ending” period.

After launch, the team received a lot of feedback from viewers. High schoolers in particular were impressed that they could Google things they had seen in the show, and something was actually there online.  Also found that high schoolers do NOT use email like adults do. They communicate more via Facebook. Production team then modified the “push” system to run on Facebook.

For older people, they complained of too much email (50 episodes plus supplemental info). Some complained not enough episodes being released fast enough.  They modified their release pattern/experience. Now viewers can choose to experience via Facebook, email or in a linear version where they just watch the episodes on their own time instead of following along with the characters.  The linear version is on Hulu and on iTunes.

Building the Audience

Ferguson concedes that not enough money has been spent on publicity. Largely marketing has been a mix of public speaking, interviews in publications on the process, word of mouth by the viewers with a tshirt promotion for those who bring in 5 viewers. Brand sponsors are doing some of the promotion, particularly Pizza Pizza who play a 30 second ad for Guidestones in each of their stores across Canada. They are hoping that being on Hulu will help garner a larger audience for the project due to its large amount of traffic.  Both Pizza Pizza and Samsung have done prize promotions on their Facebook pages for the show.

Achievements

-The clue finding is actually going very well. People really love it and get excited looking for the content. The first season really taught lessons in how to create on-line interactivity…now the team wants to take it further and have many ideas on how to get even more interactive.

-Through connections gain on other projects, the team was able to broker an agreement with Hulu to host the series and have an advertising revenue share.

-The series is now selling on iTunes in the TV show section. The whole season download  is priced at $9.99 or one can buy them per episode for $1.99.

-The acting is critical to the storytelling and the believability of any story. Supinder Wraich (Sandy) and Dan Fox (Trevor) have a real honesty that is hard to find in actors. Both can act really well directly to camera because they are able to empathize with the characters and that brings this very genuine quality that audiences respond to, it is very hard to fake that emotion without the audience feeling it. Ferguson’s tip in casting is that when watching the actor closely, don’t worry too much about the words or the actor’s look necessarily, look into the eyes, see if there is a true belief in there. If they believe it, so will the audience.

Challenges

-To the conventional viewer, the non-totally immersed viewer, the Push system adds up if they are not able to get to the emails often enough and that became frustrating for some people who didn’t realize there was a more linear way to watch.

-The team was surprised that the South Asian community has not taken to the series yet as the “Sandy” character is a great character for the South Asian community. The series still struggles to get any real traction there.

-Promoting the show for a bigger audience. Most of the limited funds had to go into production. This is the classic conundrum for lower budget productions…all your money goes into making the thing and none into promoting it.[editor's note: A word to the wise, budget in significant money for a publicist (traditional and one geared toward reaching fans directly), online advertising, video seeding, promotions, Facebook promoted posts, etc].

- Post-production has been about a year long with four working on it full-time and six or seven people working on it part-time, unlike editing a 120 minutes of content  which can be done in a few months.  Every single step of the way requires so many elements – a ringtone,  a song, a site to house that audio, a site to house a different type of clue that has to be searchable only in a certain manner… all these things are endless and each has to be built because there is no preexisting system.

-The only way they’ve been able to do this on a low budget is that the studio where they work [for day job projects] has audio people, graphic designers, visual effects artists, people who can build apps, all in-house. While they set out with a specific road map and  60 to 65% of that might have remained the same, about 40% has definitely had to change in post-production because they found certain approaches don’t work and when one things is changed, all the elements have to be adjusted since everything is built together. Everyone on the team understands that they’re trying to prove a point with this, build a new model, but it is really hard to do unless you have infrastructure behind you. At one point, Ferguson thought if grant money and sponsorship money didn’t come in, he would still try to do this on his own, but he now concedes this was a ridiculous notion! “It would have taken me 15 years to do and I wouldn’t even have the skills to do most of it.”

A huge thanks to Jay Ferguson for sharing his details for the benefit of all who are interested in these new forms of storytelling. Below, please find his presentation

 

Other sources used in this post:

http://www.ithentic.com/p/2012/01/17/commentary-jay-ferguson-guidestones-webseries-tips/

http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/xedqq/iama_creator_of_a_web_series_alternate_reality/

http://wildeffect.com/jayferguson/

 

 

Investigating cross platform storytelling

October 3, 2012
posted by sheric

Over the next few weeks, I am going to investigate and write some pieces on cross platform, or transmedia, storytelling. This form of project is gaining interest from many independent filmmakers, but most do not really know what is entailed in putting together such a story or what their goal is in going to this effort. For the majority of filmmakers, cross platform stories are peripheral to the “main event,” their feature film, and so it is in the Hollywood studio space. These stories are largely a marketing effort to funnel audiences to see or buy the film, but the consensus in the transmedia space is the effort IS the project, not something made in support of a product. To be clear, I do NOT consider myself a transmedia or cross platform storytelling expert in any way, but I am curious about the developments of this space and how it might pertain to independent filmmakers.

While I am researching, I leave you with this interview of Elan Lee, chief creative officer of Fourth Wall Studios. Fourth Wall is a company founded on the principle that the next generation of entertainment will be fully immersive and blur the lines between reality and fiction. They currently have two projects in release, RIDES which is a true transmedia project where audiences experience stories via browser, email, cell phone and other connected devices. The stories draw audiences into the action, giving passive viewers the opportunity to become active participants in the narrative and deepening the connection to the story in order to bring the content to life. As their website says, “It’s entertainment…with a pulse.” The stories can be enjoyed both episodically or as a standalone experience. One of the stories within the RIDES experience, Dirty Work, just received an Emmy Award® for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media, Original Interactive Television Programming. Congratulations to them!

Their second is a technology software they’ve developed called Elsewhere which creates augmented reality for the viewer  to seamlessly blend computer graphics, narrative and gameplay into the real world using mobile devices and tablets.

In this video, Elan Lee talks about his foray into cross platform storytelling through an alternate reality game project called The Beast which was developed for use by the Steven Spielberg film A.I. The game ran for 12 weeks and entailed endless man hours of work to create and moderate the content because it was being created as it was played. You’ll see in the interview (at 8:03-8:41), this was an incredibly grueling way to work!

Start the interview at 3:35 to hear about The Beast

Lee will be speaking at the upcoming Storyworld Conference in Los Angeles, October 17-19.

There’s a real person making this film

April 6, 2011
posted by sheric

I have been doing a few speaking gigs lately at colleges with students who are either interested in filmmaking or they are film survey cinephiles. I’ve taken on the responsibility of introducing them to concepts we in the industry are talking about lately. Stuff like crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, transmedia. Not sure if you guys realize this, but those are mostly foreign concepts to the average movie goer and that is a bad thing seeing as how all of those concepts DEPEND on audience participation. I get the distinct feeling that the general public isn’t really sure who is making their entertainment. Just as most filmmakers (and certainly corporations) treat their audience like a faceless mass; a conglomeration of eyeballs; audiences have no connection to who you are as a creator. It is time you put more effort in becoming human to your audience.

Your survival as an artist is going to depend on your ability to build an audience for your work. Which also means we have to be interested in you, at least professionally. I totally uphold your need for personal privacy. I am not advocating a Lindsay Lohan-style life share across the internet, but you do have a personality, a perspective, a way of seeing the world that can be shared. Independent film is more about the personal story, the artistic vision. Tell us what draws you to that story, what your work means to you, what drives you (to drink or otherwise). While you’re at it, find some artists you admire and do all you can to support their work too. We have to survive as an interdependent community.

All of this is new both to modern artists and to modern audiences. It will take some time for the vestiges of corporate media with their constant advertising interrupting our lives and our numbness to it all to subside. Show us there is a real person creating this art. Someone we should care about and encourage. Don’t hide behind your work because that’s what corporate media does. Step out here and let us have a look at you.

What in the heck is an ARG?

July 19, 2010
posted by sheric

I’ll start off with a definition for the uninitiated (like me, before last weekend), according to wikipedia an ARG (alternate reality game) is “an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants’ ideas or actions.” In the indie film world, this is also becoming known as transmedia storytelling. I had the wonderful experience of meeting both game designers and game players at this little conference called ARG Fest in Atlanta. Mostly, I went to check it out as it was close by and I am very interested in knowing more about transmedia as a storytelling method.

I learned that most ARGs are developed as part of a marketing initiative for large entertainment companies and big brands such as Audi, Cisco and Microsoft and are paid out of the sizable marketing budgets for product launches. This is why many of the popular ARGs are free of charge to play and the idea that players might pay to play is not very developed. The difference between a sponsored ARG and a grassroots ARG is that a grassroots game is made by an individual design team for no other purpose than to be played for entertainment, not to sell anything. In other words, no one is paying them to develop the game.

There are a number of terms one should be familiar with in order to understand the world of ARG.

1) Puppet Master (PM) is the design team behind the game and runs it for the players. Puppet master identities are generally not known to the players, though there are some games branded with a particular company logo so that hardcore gamers do know who is behind the design.

2) the Curtain refers to the separation between the game/players and the real world/puppet master. This means that no communication between the PM and the players is meant to happen in game without the use of characters and within the game’s design.

3) A Rabbit Hole or Trail Head is the first contact players receive to tell them a game has started. It could be a mailing, a website, a puzzle to solve, a phone call. Sometimes these are covert and spread to media in the hopes that gamers discover it or it can be scarcely disguised advertising.

4) artifacts are physical items that are left as clues. Since ARGs take place within the real world, not purely online or on console, items are mailed to participants or left in hiding places to be found by a series of clues.

5) Swag- stuff we all get. Not much different in meaning to the bags you get at any event you have been to. This is merch that helps to promote the game, identify players like tshirts, badges, patches and it can be prizes players get as a reward for reaching certain levels.

I’m not going to go into all the gory details on designing ARGs. For that, you can check ARGNet and connect with the ARG community on unfiction. So what does this have to do with transmedia and the indie film community? Some say the future of film entertainment and storytelling partly lies in transmedia; the ability to connect with audiences by giving them a fully immersive experience with your story and with you as the filmmaker. Telling your stories over multiple platforms so that the audience is not a passive participant, but a fully integrated collaborator, is a change for most filmmakers. It is not much of a stretch to imagine doing this given that social networking is fairly pervasive and everyone is feeling the need to express themselves, their opinions, their interests across the world wide web. Since everyone can tell stories and share lives, why shouldn’t that be a form of entertainment, baked into professionally told stories? Reality shows certainly prove there is a market for it.

Did you know that games like Bejeweled, Farmville and Mafia Wars are considered ARGs? They don’t take place in the real world but they do involve communities working together to solve problems and progress to higher levels and the game responds to the choices made by the player, so that everyone’s story will be different. And they are dead easy to play. That is one of the downfalls I see for ARGs. People who play them are a pretty exclusive group. Not to say that they don’t welcome new players, but many have been playing a while, they know how  ARGs work, they love difficult puzzles and tasks, and it takes a certain mindset to want your real life and fictional life to merge. Real ARG is very time  and attention consuming. The players can be hyper competitive and the smartest are the most revered. It is a little like revenge of the nerds. Those the best at solving complicated puzzles will get the most from the game and everyone else, well, follows along. Once a game has been going for a while, any new players have kind of missed the party. Generally there is no start over because the games are designed to be played in a group, not single player.

The keynote speech was given by Maureen McHugh, a celebrated science fiction writer who helped to found No Mimes Media. In it, she said she feared that the ARG is not going to be the next phenomenon because of its exclusivity. A challenging game is what ARGers want, but it will never catch on with the masses and so will always be ghetto-ized. Her hope was truly in transmedia storytelling.  It is a definition more in line with Henry Jenkins‘ theory that coordinated  storytelling across platforms can make the characters and the story more compelling to audience and involve them in a collaboration with the creator. I think her speech made many in the room disheartened, but thoughtful about what that means for them as designers and players. For the players I talked to and heard speak about their ARG passion, the story being told was of foremost importance, followed by a sense of community with the other players. Some even said they are quite picky about the games they participate in and it all depends on who designed the game and who the players are. Transmedia storytellers would be wise to understand this as a key to connecting with audience. The story has to be very compelling and inviting and there have to be outlets for the participant to connect with the whole community engaged around the content.

We heard from many panelists about how ARG and transmedia stories are being developed for brands, to aid in public arts initiatives, and used to transform our experience in the environment, via cell phones, into a rich multimedia platform. We also heard from Mike Monello, one of the producers of the Blair Witch Project who is now the Executive Creative Director of Campfire, an immersive marketing company who produces promotional/transmedia content for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week and The Colony, Showtime’s True Blood, and many other major accounts. I sat down for a chat with Mike to talk about the indie film scene today, the plans he helped develop that turned Blair Witch into a phenomenon and what indie filmmakers can be doing to better market their films and themselves. That interview will be coming up here very soon.

Overall, my time with ARGers was very interesting and inspirational. The adrenaline rush of hearing your players exclaim excitedly when they call the phone number posted and someone actually answers, reading posts in the chat rooms that tell you what your audience is thinking, and making up their own stories to complement yours is like nothing experienced by traditional filmmakers. I am told even better than the rush of the first screening. I encourage you to find out more about what is going on in the world of transmedia and how you might incorporate those elements in your stories to better connect with and thrill an audience.