Last week, I reviewed A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, by Andrea Phillips. As part of the deal, I had a lovely online chat with Ms. Phillips. We talked for the better part of an hour, and she proved to be an absolute gem: approachable, easy-going, and a true aficionado of the transmedia arts. From that really long talk, here are some of the more interesting bits:
Kat: What made you decide to write the book?
Andrea: Basically because I didn’t have that many people to talk shop with. Sometimes you have to say things out loud to know what you think…so I started a particular series on my blog a couple of years ago, it was called “writing for transmedia,” and some of that went directly into the book, things about conveying action and characterization, and people started saying, “You know, you should really write a book about this stuff.” … And in my year-end wrap-up on my blog I said, “I think I’m gonna try to make this a book,” and a friend of mine introduced me to a gentleman…who became my literary agent. So I said it out loud, and it just sort of happened.
Kat: The one thing that I thought was interesting about it was that it was published as a print book, as opposed to something such as O’Reilly’s technical books, which are live with an online place to go for updates and changes.
Andrea: I’ve kind of been trying to build out a sort of transmedia presence for the book, in that for example I have an online chat that I do every week…where people can get together and just talk about transmedia. And then I’ve had a number of events—I’ve had an online event that’s happened on the 31st in conjunction with the book, so it’s sort of expanded. But I think that the kinds of things this book talks about, it’s actually more useful to have a single quick reference that you can cart around with you, than something you access on a website. You don’t always have internet connectivity when you’re thinking, and ideally this is a book you want with you when you’re thinking about creating something.
Kat: Which speaks to the whole point of the book, which is that you have to pick your medium based on the content and the audience you’re creating it for.
It really seems that transmedia is really a large, enterprise-organization thing in that all of the ones that we know about are huge monoliths. You do talk about trying to break in on the lower indie levels. Being in Seattle, that’s going to be what we need. What are your thoughts about that, because while you do touch on it in the book, the rest of it leads me to think that if you don’t have the cash, then good luck with that.
Andrea: Basically, you either have to have money, or you have to be willing to do a lot of work. And, you can’t do transmedia easily if you’re not willing to provide one of these things. You could do something like the Lizzie Bennett Diaries, a webseries with a pretty great transmedia presence going on right now, and that is very much a low-budget, DIY sort of effort. It’s that indie spirit of just making things with the things you have already, and it has a tremendous following, tremendous!—it gets a hundred thousand views, and that’s a number that even Hollywood would respect, you know? So that feeling that transmedia has to be big and expensive? That’s just incorrect.
Kat: Okay, so I’ve got a project in the works, and what I’m trying to wrap my head around is how to blend something that exists in the real world as an event with something that has a story element. In the book, you talk about creating events, but this is something that already happens, and we’re working to incorporate story into something that already exists.
Andrea: I have one word for you: “wrestling.” I actually talk about WWE just a little in the book. They’ve been flat-out doing things that we’d consider transmedia since the early ‘80s. If you look into some of the things with Andy Kaufman, wanting to wrestle women, that is definitely the sort of performative thing tied into a sporting event. I actually have a mission to do a project that is around something that solely exists as a live element already. Something like a band performing, or a circus, or a carnival, you know—if I can do something at a circus, that’d be incredible. You don’t have to do anything with the performance itself, you would just need to add some small touch to this thing that already exists that would be a content payoff. People are already conditioned to pay for tickets to go to a circus or a sporting event, so you don’t need to train them in the same way that you would have to (which might be awkward) to attend the ‘wedding’ for a set of characters in a story.
Kat: What about user-generated content? I know people who are very much on both sides of the fence regarding that, those who think that it’s the best thing ever, and people who think it’s the spawn of satan.
Andrea: You know, I’m ambivalent. I think that my position in the book is ambivalent, I can see situations where it’s the best choice. I have done projects where we have accepted user-generated content and it wasn’t so great. I’ve also done projects where the game is made by the user-generated content. Particularly Floating City with Thomas Dolby, that I did last summer. I am a lot more positive about that kind of UGC—I think that it works when you provide a framework for your audience to build and expand on, but you can’t expect the audience to build the framework as well. And I think a lot of user-generated projects are just asking the audience to make the story up out of wholecloth.
Kat: I think that my favorite thing you said in the book is that “transmedia is not the same thing as marketing.” From what I see so much of on the internet, everyone is trying to jump onto the transmedia bandwagon, and they’re even calling it “transmedia marketing.” So, can you elaborate on this?
Andrea: Transmedia can be used as a fantastic marketing tool. And I have to say that I’ve done a lot of work that was on marketing budgets, and I have tremendous gratitude for that. I think it’s a necessary phase that it has to go through to get to where it’s going. When film first came into existence, it was used as a marketing gimmick to get people into seats at vaudeville shows. Eventually vaudeville went away, and film as a medium stuck. But-that technology didn’t just turn into film; it turned into television, and the entire commercials industry, and it turned into the movies industry. So it’s ridiculous to say “it turned into film,” when that commercial purpose never really went away, but just transformed. So by that same token, transmedia is used for commercial purposes very often, almost exclusively at this point. And what we’re seeing is much like the films – is little pieces of art that just happen to be being used in a marketing way.
When I work on a transmedia project, I think about the audience, and I think really hard about the experience. I’m not focused on getting people to talk about the brand, I’m trying to create a great experience, and that happens to reflect positively on the brand in the end because they’re helping to tell this great story.