Starlight Runner 09/30/12

We kick off our month of Transmedia Storytelling interviews with Jeff Gomez, president and CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment. Jeff is a prominent figure in transmedia and has worked on such blockbuster universes as: Pirates of the Caribbean, Tron, Halo, Coca-Cola’s Happiness Factory, and Avatar. He is also a member of the Producers Guild of America and was instrumental in the creation of the Transmedia Producer credit. Jeff talked to us candidly about the PGA controversy, the changing face of media and his radical vision of the future of storytelling.

 

What does Transmedia Storytelling mean to you?

Well, it depends on my mood. Transmedia Storytelling (TS) means to me that there is a new form of expression. There is a new technique to express ourselves across multiple media platforms in an artful and concerted way—in a way that promotes direct feedback and that promotes participation amongst the audience. We are no longer collectively arguing about the definition of TS or pissing and moaning about the word. We’re just moving on and getting the job done.

Yes, I’ve noticed that there was so much controversy with “transmedia” verses “ARG” (alternate reality gaming). It seems like it’s still early to lock in those terms in some ways.

Exactly. I believe the broadest definitions are the best right now, and we want to be inclusive. It’s also tremendously meaningful for me on a personal level because TS is a technique that I dreamt about as a child. To see that it is proliferating – and that I’m playing some small role in teaching it and seeing it come to life – is deeply satisfying.

Okay, you’re definitely being modest because as a board member of the Producers Guild of America, you were instrumental in creating the Transmedia Producer designation in 2010. What are the details of the Transmedia credit and how has it been received?

Sure thing. Look, its been said that no great idea ever became adopted by huge numbers of people without it being jammed down their throats. My thinking was that, just because I say something, that doesn’t mean that anybody is going to listen. So I needed to find like-minded people who were influential. I was fortunate enough to become acquainted with members of the Producers Guild of America (PGA) who thought that these techniques could be helpful to motion picture producers and to movie studios. The producers and studios were investing so much money into these intellectual properties and all they were left with was a single product—a movie—as opposed to an array of products built around a story world.

So the PGA invited me to teach transmedia to their membership and it became a very compelling concept to them. They saw that the technique embodied a specific skill set that was needed, and will only become more vital in the near future.

So I was invited to develop a credit that could be added to a limited list of credits that the PGA would ask Hollywood and the digital media companies to recognize. That was the Transmedia Producer credit. It was introduced in April, 2010 and ratified that June.

If you hear sniping about the TP credit, which does happen, I want you to know that the PGA is a singular organization with specific rules about membership. So in devising the credit I had to observe the way the organization worked in order for the credit to get passed. The TP credit is not the definition of transmedia storytelling. It is often attacked being the equal of the definition of the term. It’s really not. You know my definition. I gave it to you at the beginning.

If everybody in the world could be a transmedia producer, the PGA would be overwhelmed with tens of thousands of members and it would have lost its meaning. That’s why it is the way it is. There is a revised text for the transmedia producer credit that has not been put on the website but has been re-ratified. It takes into account some of the criticisms, which were rooted in the fact that it was hastily written and there were some grammatical mistakes in the original version. If you’re talking to lots of different people, they’re all going to have different opinions on all of these things. The most important thing is that this is an amazing development in the media and we should all enjoy it.

Since then, do you know how many producers have been given the designation and what kinds of projects they’ve been doing?

Well there are at least 15 to 20 that I know of directly. Believe it or not, I’m not on the membership committee of the PGA. I don’t know exactly. The Guild comes to me occasionally when there is some kind of a borderline situation – when someone claims to be a transmedia producer or have the credits that would enable them to become a transmedia producer – and we’ve seen maybe 15 or 20 of those. I’m told there are significantly more than that in the PGA and of course there are dozens and dozens of talented people who at least call themselves transmedia producers all around the world.

In terms of what they’re doing and the kind of jobs they’re involved with? We’ve seen many who are involved in a kind of space between advertising/digital agencies and movie studios. So they’re either freelancing between them, taking on projects like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus or DreamWorks’ Real Steel and developing them across multiple platforms, or they’re operating out of studios like Disney or NBC/Universal, bridging in-house stakeholders, creatives, licensors and merchandisers.

In the case of the formal transmedia producer credit, what we’re hearing about that is most encouraging are very smart extensions of entertainment or branded products across multiple media platforms.

So the narrative, rather than simple commercial advertising or simple social media implementations, is used to engage the consumer. These are characters, storylines, mysteries, and entire worlds that are being used to lure audiences in and give them a great time even before they go see the movie or purchase the product.

Let’s shift a little bit toward post-production because, as you know, that is our filter and our focus. What’s your role when you’re doing transmedia projects? Do you interact with the post-production department? How does that work?

In a perfect world, the answer is “yes.” And I love it. I’m very familiar with the post-production process. I started out as a filmmaker – I’m talking in the times of celluloid, 35mm, giant Avid machines, printing to negatives, things like that. I used to cut my own Super-8 film! So, I’m very familiar with post-production and feel that it plays a vital role in transmedia projects. I’ve not been invited into the post-production process nearly as much as I’d like. That’s changing as studios, producers, and filmmakers become more familiar with the role of transmedia in the production process.

So you think post-production is going to be evolving in terms of their role and are going to be central to the project?

Vital to it. Central and vital.

New collaborative content creation technology like Avid Interplay Sphere and Adobe Anywhere seem to finally be catching up with the collaborative storytelling movement. Do you foresee a future where fans and studio content creators formally collaborate? You seemed to be alluding to this idea when you spoke in the past about the idea of a ‘communal storytelling engine’ and ‘guided UGC’. How do the logistics or the politics of that play out?

First of all, I think you put your finger on exactly why the post-production element is so vital to good transmedia storytelling. It’s because that is where the interface is designed. That is where the implementation is designed. That is where content is prepared to come into direct contact with the participant. And in transmedia storytelling, we don’t call them audience members, we call them participants.

Yes, there are many technical, logistical, political and even legal issues that spring up around this aspect and it’s one of the things that Starlight Runner is working on most intensely with our clients. Sadly, it is the aspect that we get the most resistance around. Because to allow for content to come directly in contact with the audience and for the audience to have impact on the content is to lose some control over the content. We are working on developing solutions for that. And the post-production process is definitely a part of it. 

This is where you’re really going to see tangible evidence that transmedia and post-production go hand in hand. When you think about Tron and specifically Tron Legacy, you had a producer in Sean Bailey, and a production team that was made up of digital natives. They were involved in multi-platform for many years, so they were open to a conversation – not just with Starlight Runner but with the rest of the Walt Disney Company about how assets that were derived from the feature film production could be shared and made to enhance content that was going to roll out on different media platforms.

This started with an initial production bible that was created by the Tron Legacy producers. That document was integrated into a much larger transmedia Mythology bible that Starlight Runner created for Tron. The entire Tron Universe was covered in the Mythology, including the events of the first film, the Tron video game, the graphic novels, even the events of the alternate reality game.

Ultimately, the Mythology helped to support the physical production, which had gone into post-production at that time, to share assets with various stakeholders and form a long-term strategy for the franchise. This allowed for better consumer products, better video game storylines, and a spectacular animated series, which is running on Disney’s DXD channel right now. The fans appreciate it, because all of this is totally in continuity. Every piece of the puzzle counts, and that’s very satisfying.

The moral of the story is that intense planning is required for transmedia success. Planning is going to be particularly effective on a cross-platform level when it comes to post-production, because in post-production you can share your digital assets with one another.

The media are blending now. An asset that was built for the movie can be used in any number of other media and other products.

This happened on Tron and, to a degree, on Avatar, which Starlight Runner participated in as well.

When I think of Star Wars and all of the content that was created over the decades for that, or what we’ve seen with Pottermore, I wonder if there should be a master database of media assets that also includes user-generated content? If so, who controls, maintains, and archives this content hub? Should we even try to wrangle all of this media?

At a certain point, we must do it. It’s not even an issue of try. And sadly, with many companies, even some of the larger studios, this is not happening. The owners of the content, the stakeholders who hold the copyright, trademarks to the intellectual property, need to be the controllers of the master database, the media assets and the Mythology – the brand-essence of their product. There needs to be a system put into place everywhere. I don’t just mean in movie studios, but actually in any company that possesses brands that have to travel across multiple media.

All of these companies are going to have to basically build hubs that are devoted to what we call the story world, that contain all of the assets – digital, post-production, written assets, everything. A system needs to be put in place to allow for the secure distribution of this information. There is a formal system that we construct for our clients. We call them Franchise Clearinghouses. That’s one of the reasons why you hire Starlight Runner Entertainment.

For editors who are also producers, who are something of a jack-of-all-trades and would like to work with smaller brands and smaller advertisers, how do they go about doing that? At the Power to the Pixel conference a year ago, you talked about how the Mexican mass media company Televisa has created a transmedia division within their company. This effort is partly in collaboration with their sponsors. Is this the future of branded entertainment?

Sure. Let’s look at the Televisa model, which they call Future Media, to see what they’re doing and how we can learn from it. At Televisa, they’ve developed this small division and their job is to reach out to established and new advertisers, which are holders of brands throughout Mexico and internationally.

Future Media approaches them and basically says, “Look, we are interested in developing and launching intellectual properties across an array of different media platforms. You’re used to simply purchasing 30 seconds or 60 seconds of commercial air time on our shows. For a little bit more than that amount we’re going to ask you to essentially sponsor an intellectual property that may or may not to be launched on the actual television network. It may be launched online, it may be launched through our radio or magazine publication division, but eventually it will proliferate across different media platforms if it is at all successful with the audience. So give us a little extra money to sponsor this content and of course we will make sure that the audience knows that you’re sponsoring it. Then we will crunch the data. We will give you the data that we collect around it and if that data shows that there is a dramatic increase, then you’ll start giving us incrementally more cash for the placements. We’re making money and you’re getting the exposure that you had hoped for across these divisions – across these media.” And that’s essentially what’s happening.

Now we are encountering more and more companies that want to do this but don’t know how. They don’t because they’re old school, and it’s not just a matter of extending the same commercial into different media and different platforms, or different screens. It’s a matter of telling a story that’s engaging enough to hold our attention. It’s simple these days to skip commercials and to not look at print ads, and it’s only going to get easier to avoid them. Transmedia engagement is new school.

After the transmedia campaign is over, how do you evaluate and measure the effectiveness of it?  Like say, the success of the content on the different platforms. Is it fairly intuitive or is some of it a little fuzzy as to how well it “worked”?

It’s two-fold. Number one, the beauty of using digital technology is that it is so easy to track and the data is fairly easy to gather and interpret. If there are more people there and if they’re there longer, you have a success. We’re surprised that more companies are not tracking and examining this data more carefully, and making adjustments based on what they see.

So there’s data tracking and then there is media buzz. Are people talking about it? Are they talking about it in a positive way? How are they expressing this to their friends? Is it being covered in the media? That’s slightly less tangible but also fairly easy to track. You have both of those things even before you have direct return on investment.

What are the big challenges for transmedia contact creators moving forward in your opinion?

The biggest challenged is in this kind of unified field theory.

Five or seven years ago, when I walked into a studio to talk about creating a transmedia Mythology for one of their major tent-pole franchises, I’d say, you know what, I would love to be able to talk to your post-production supervisors when it comes to this, and to talk with your new media producers, and talk with the people who will be handling the assets in light of post-production. They laughed me right out of the office.

It would not have occurred to them that post-production (or pre-production for that matter) could be important at all, because the technique was seen as something that was heavily marketing oriented, heavily advertising oriented. Now, what is happening is a growing sense that a holistic approach is necessary. Producers and studio execs are telling us, “I want to prepare for long-term success with this franchise. Give me a plan where I can look at the script, and if we’re not touching on the elemental successful aspect of this brand then we need to revise it. If the screenplay is not realizing the things that touch me about this character in this story world, then we need to find out what’s missing and develop that. So producers and creative studio execs need to better understand the DNA of their properties, the brand essence, and that is something that is knowable and doable.

The object of the game when you are investing half a billion dollars into a franchise is to reduce guesswork. You have to think about these things. And now there are tools that allow for us to better understand these characters and story worlds without negatively impacting the art – the true beauty of the story. Further along the continuum of this process, you’re also thinking about the production and how assets can be used to introduce mass audiences to the story world before it even hits the screen, before it arrives in the toy aisle at Target, or before it gets to your game console.

On top of that, you’re thinking about what has to be done to make this content accessible to the audience on a two-way communication level. This involves your entire post-production group in tandem with marketing. You have to think about how to cut things and present content in a way that is going to make people more responsive. There are techniques to that.

You have to think about how to arrange content and disseminate content in ways that are going to be most conducive to generating excitement and dialogue among your audience. That’s the challenge that we’re facing, but I think it is an exciting one.

That kind of blends in with the next question. Are there questions you have for video editors or anyone in post-production?

One of the most fascinating aspects at the cutting edge, the vanguard of the kind of work that Starlight Runner is doing, is the notion that the story world is going to be disseminated in bits and pieces across different media platforms.

Star Wars does this, right? I don’t mean that these bits and pieces where you don’t understand what the hell’s going on unless you collect them all. When you’re playing The Force Unleashed you’re given a fairly complete experience within the context of the Star Wars universe. You get a satisfying story. If you’re familiar with the greater universe, other pieces of content like the movies, you might have an even better time, because you’re realizing that this piece, this video game, is telling you the story of how the Rebel Alliance was formed. You’re not really getting that piece anywhere else, in the novels or comics, so learning this enhances your enjoyment of The Force Unleashed.

I think the next evolution of this approach is going to be the presentation of content that integrates remix culture, that understands mash-up culture. So these new story worlds in and of themselves will not be entirely complete without creative content being generated by some audience members.

How do you prepare or cut a project to allow for that? How do you leave gaps in time that then will be filled by user-generated content? How do you integrate user-generated content that you like into the content of the official story world, especially when that UGC may not be at the level of quality of the content you’ve produced? That to me is a fascinating question.

Some might think this is science fiction or that combining UGC or individuated content with canonical content furnished by the studio is ridiculous or legally impossible. It’s not. It’s going to happen and that is the challenge that is going to be faced by video editors and post-production personnel who will be the infrastructure, the glue that assembles communal narrative.

That’s really interesting. I’m wondering how something like that will play out. Is that something that’s already happened? Can you plan it? Could you have a representative of one of the leading participants in pre-production from the start? Or as these kinds of UGC emerge you kind of have it built in, that you’re going to integrate these things into the final product – is that kind of what you’re saying?

That’s exactly what I’m saying and I don’t want you to talk too much, because you’re giving away my secrets!

( laughs )

No, it’s really great, you put your finger on what it is that I’m talking about. We’ve seen the first glimmers of this in some alternate reality games. But the Hollywood system and even the video game system – some people don’t quite see it yet. You’ve seen Machinima and things like it, so you know we’re getting closer and closer to the consumer being able to generate a high quality individuated content. Its application as a way to expand and nurture story worlds owned by studios or even individuals, is only a couple of years away.

This obviously brings up what you talked about with persistent narratives. At what point is the story over? Or maybe it’s never over, right? I mean even to this day, Star Wars is a big franchise that is still being added to. Is that becoming a challenge? Always being able to integrate new iterations or recursiveness into stories that have been going on for a long time?

Sure. All you have to do is look at the great literary canon, the pop culture canon to know that stories do last forever. How many stories have been set in Oz? How many issues of Spider-Man have there been?

If I’m investing a quarter of a billion dollars or a half of a billion dollars into this property, oh, I want it to last! I want it to go on! The real challenge is how to make that happen artfully.

This is rooted in creating individual stories and story arcs that are deeply satisfying in and of themselves, so the franchise doesn’t grow into some bland gigantic sprawling soap opera.

Right, good point. Well that’s it for the questions that I have. Is there something that you want to add that I didn’t mention?

At the Story World Conference in Los Angeles in mid-October I’m going to address some of these very points, which I haven’t done publically before. In a way, you got the scoop.

( laughs ) Thanks.

At Story World, I’m going to plug the fact that I’m going to be discussing ten fundamental tenets of franchise production. Some may even call them the Ten Commandments of 21st Century Franchise Production. You know that there is a role for post-production in that speech and I’ll be mentioning it. All in all this is a whole new direction for my company and the techniques that we have been espousing.


Looking forward to hearing about it, Jeff.

 


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