Noah J Nelson on Thursday, Oct. 11th
This summer I had the pleasure of meeting author Alison Norrington, whose enterprising work in the publishing world has made her a sought after speaker on transmedia storytelling practices. She’s also the chairperson of the upcoming StoryWorld Conference in Los Angeles, which will bring transmedia producers and creatives from all corners of entertainment together to talk about the latest advancements in the art and science of storytelling.
Transmedia remains a controversial subject in the entertainment industry. Seen by some as a tainted marketing buzzword, its champions view transmedia as an emerging aspect of their craft. A methodology that attunes storytellers to their audiences, who are increasingly found spread out across multiple platforms.
“With each different way that you tell a story on each platform you pull a different audience in,” Norrington told me. “I created a YouTube channel around a chick-lit story which gained loads of male attention. At the end of every video clip I’d have a URL to the website. I can’t tell you how many emails I got from these guys saying ‘Oh my god, this is a love story?'”
Norrington said that these guys would never have picked up her “pink jacketed book” in a store. Yet their conversion into fans demonstrated the power of approaching the world she had created “with a different tone of voice and with a different perspective.”
Revelations like these about the strength of a transmedia approach have contributed to the industry buzz. Buzz that has a downside: bandwagon hoppers who use buzzwords as if they were magic spells.
“The gold rush philosophy is going to be one of the things that make people disrespect this approach to storytelling.”
The “gold rush” that Norrington refers to is a tendency for some producers to slap the term “transmedia” on just about any non-traditional project. Thinking that the word itself will attract an audience.
“I get sent quite a lot of projects to look at from people who are asking for advice and they say ‘it’s a transmedia story’. Don’t even tell me that. I mean, I know it is because they sent it to me. I want that to be a surprise. I think that’s how it should be with an audience. They want that to be a surprise. They want to find that rabbit hole or that diving board that’s going to leap them off somewhere else.”
Instead of a marketing checkmark, transmedia is best deployed as a term of art. The approach involves understanding the advantages and limitation of each platform, along with actively listening to the audience. Norrington also puts an emphasis on the technique of building a world that goes far beyond what any one story might show. She notes that J.K. Rowling used this for her most famous work.
“I went to the Warner Bros studio tour for Harry Potter just on the other side of London a few months ago. There are posters all around where she said that she had built the world of Harry Potter so vast that even with the amount of books that she put out, the skill was in the choices of what to show and what not to show. The world is so much more than we have seen.”
Here too is a catch: while a complex world can be a plus to a long time fan, it can also be a barrier to entry. Don’t believe me? Go find a Marvel Comics fan and have him explain the decades long history of the X-Men to you. For those who equate “transmedia” with “massive story world” the term can be a red flag.
“I honestly think there’s so much attention for people’s time that if they embarked on something knowing that it’s going to make more demands on their time than they thought, that’s going to put them off. People understand the time that’s required for radio, for books, for movies. We’re kind of programmed to know how much time we want to give something.”
With StoryWorld on the horizon (Oct 17-19) I wondered what bringing a diverse group of creatives– theme park designers and studio heads will sit right alongside DIY authors– to talk about transmedia is all about. While the access to industry movers and shakers is an obvious draw for freelancers and DIY creators, what do the power players– screenwriter Damon Lindelof and Walt Disney Studio’s President of production Sean Bailey are the keynote speakers– get out of StoryWorld?
“I think that the value is that people are still very much practicing, they’re testing out ideas,” said Norrington.
“Right from when I was asked to be conference chair of StoryWorld, I wanted to bring the top guys who were doing this as their job and having a responsibility for huge properties; I wanted to marry this with these grass roots creators who had been a member of their community for many years and kind of knew what they wanted and weren’t embarrassed. Who didn’t have any ego with testing it out. Putting something up in a forum or posting it on Facebook and testing it out. They’re all approaching it in slightly different ways, and there’s a lot for each of us to learn from the others.”
Transmedia, as it stands, is still one big lab experiment. While there have been attempts to codify what the term means, the real value remains in the word’s ability to bring creatives together to swap tips and tricks. A fulcrum around which conversations exist that help storytellers of all stripes deal with an ever changing media landscape.
The StoryWorld Conference +Expo takes place next week at the Loews Hollywood Hotel in Los Angeles.