“Defiance” is a new science fiction television series/ massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) that will be released on the SyFy cable network channel April 15th. Another television series and video game set in a dystopian future that has earth invaded by aliens and destroyed by an environmental disaster isn’t an original approach. You only have to look to a host of television shows like “Falling Skies”, films like “Independence Day” or video games like “Gears of War”. The originality, and the risk, comes from the creation of a story world that spans both the television series and the online video game in real time.
The Ontario government has a Entertainment and Creative Cluster funding program that is now supporting transmedia development. There are a number of areas that are being supported, including 3D film, media portal and Transmedia.
Ryerson University is developing a Transmedia Production Acceleration Program that will help develop the digital media skills necessary to produce Transmedia in the province. Probably not a bad idea if they want Toronto to stay relevant in the evolving creative media space.
You can read more in the press release.
The Transmedia Debate
One of the things that struck me from a recent trip to L.A. was the dominance of marketing conversations when discussing social media. As we have seen in the past year in many Arab countries, social media can be a core element in massive social upheaval. It is a powerful tool that can be used for many purposes, not just selling products. The same argument is ongoing in Transmedia. Many people are just coming to consider Transmedia as another marketing tool but there are counter arguments that this narrow view is limiting and there are many different ways to consider the design and implementation of Transmedia creative properties. Andrea Phillips has one of those wider perspectives:
Late last week, I was involved in a Twitter conversation in which a gentleman dismissed the “transmedia bandwagon” as having been invented by marketers.
I was watching an interview on “The Lean Finance Model” and tech start-ups. It is an idea that “We are in the era of cheap” and that financing needs to create low-cost approaches to getting tech start-ups off the ground. This means there need to be a low-level of initial financing, until the company validates itself in the market. This initial investment would be low, around $800k-$1M. Once the company proves that there is a demand for its product there is usually a large dump of money that follows in what is called a Series A/ B round of financing. Basically the idea is that you start to shovel money into the company in the hopes that you can grow it quickly. Usually this next round of financing is around $10-12M.
The lean approach is different. It has a second round of financing that is much smaller, perhaps as little as $2M. The company has proven itself after its first round of financing but it still needs to show it can continue to provide value. If the company continues to show traction it will have proven itself and can get ready for a large influx of capital. This is the big burst of funding that is often in the $20-25M range.
Transmedia could easily adopt the same model. If a creative property looks promising a small amount of seed capital could be introduced to build a transmedia experience that exposes the creative property to a larger audience. The goal of this seed round would be proving the property has affinity with an audience and has the potential grow into a larger property such as a television series or film. At this point some more money can be brought into the project to expand the transmedia project and explore what kinds of media seem to work best for the audience. The feedback will help to grow the brand of the creative property and correctly assess the next step in the evolution of the creative property.
This is a little different from most funding where you start with a concept, perhaps a graphic novel or a script, and then you decide to move it into another form of media such as a video game or film. The amount of money starts piling in quickly and once you’ve committed all that money you hope that your choices were correct.
A lean approach for transmedia focuses on keeping initial production costs down and lowering the risk of spending a lot of money before a creative property proves itself with an audience. It will also help you determine the appetite for an audience to spend money on your property. It requires you to keep production costs low during the initial stages but it can also give you an indication of what the audience expects from the next phase of your transmedia, and, perhaps most importantly, what they are willing to pay for it.
There are a lot of valuable lessons to be learned as Transmedia stumbles through its initial growing pains. One of the most important lessons has to do with establishing a brand, creating quality material and reducing production costs. Hollywood was the first to successfully achieve all three and gained a dominance in the industry that is still maintained a hundred years later.
Almost a century ago the film industry figured out that if they could increase the quality of their films they could sell more tickets. It was at this point that the public began to view film as less of a gimmick and more of a legitimate story-telling device. Once film producers had figured out what audiences wanted (and more importantly, were will to pay for) they began paying money for the rights to the best novels they could find, the best actors and the most spectacular sets. Higher quality meant more audience members and eventually more money. It also meant increased production costs. The companies that couldn’t that couldn’t keep up with the quality race began to decline and eventually disappear.
Hollywood became the big winner in this race for a number of reasons. One was they managed to raise a lot of capital and became the first big winner in developing quality feature films. That established a branding around Hollywood films that was difficult to beat. Once the brand had been created, industries in other parts of the world found it increasingly difficult to get past the American mystique that had been created. The second reason was Hollywood’s ability to quickly build their distribution networks. Not only were they able to distribute to a wide network of theatres, they were able to offer large blocks of content so there would always be a flow of new material for their audiences. The third reason was the centralization of production to one geographic location. It allowed multiple productions to occur simultaneously and locations could be re-used on a regular basis. The result was lower production costs on the films they created. Once all these elements were in place it was very difficult for anyone else to compete. Independent filmmakers were always around but they were typically successful because they lowered quality. The strategy resulted in the rise of the B-movie genre and always seemed to generate enough marginal profit for the independents to survive.
The most recent development in the film industry is the rise of digital tools that are significantly reducing the production costs of movie-making. It comes at a time when most film companies are struggling with reduced profits from their films. Digital cameras and software are having two effects on the film industry. First, they are lowering the production costs for traditional film production companies so they can continue to develop high quality films without the same high level budgets. The second is that the technology is also accessible to independent filmmakers. This is giving them their first chance to develop films that can match the quality of their big brothers in Hollywood.
Transmedia faces the same problems as traditional film-making. Production costs are a real barrier to quality. Most of the work is created and distributed through human teams, a cost intensive form of distributing your intellectual property and engaging an audience. The fact that there are few monetization models in place makes it even more difficult to commit to large production budgets. This present a real problem for transmedia producers. If they can learn from the lessons of Hollywood they will understnad that they need to have high quality transmedia properties in place if they are going to engage large audiences. The only way they are going to achieve that is by lowering their production costs. Although it will be possible to borrow digital tools and equipment from other media industries eventually they will need to begin developing their own. The exciting part is that it isn’t going to take a hundred years for disruptive technology to allow production costs to drop. It is probably going to begin happening in the next 12-18 months. Transmedia engines are one of the hot topics at the moment and they are definitely a start. They answer some of the problems presented by production costs for transmedia. Once those are solved the industry will need to quickly figure out the next problem and quickly develop solutions for those as well. In a couple of years I’m expecting transmedia to be much further ahead.
And no, I wasn’t just lazy. I thought the opening line that most programmers learn when they decide to pick up a new programming language was appropriate. Most of us are learning new languages every day and we’re using them to create some pretty amazing and disruptive things. Film, television and books have a few shadows of their former selves but they have changed dramatically in the past two decades. At the core of these changes is the technology that was designed to change them or did so accidentally. I’m going to be writing about a lot of areas where I see those changes are providing opportunities for creators and technologists. Some of it is based on research, in a lot of cases things are so new that there isn’t a lot of research. In those cases you’ll be reading some educated guesses about the future.