Hollywood scripting getting a multimedia rewrite

Film has been king in Tinsel Town for decades, but a new form of storytelling known as transmedia is forcing studio executives to rethink the way a complete story is packaged.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
Built to promote the 2008 film, 'Watchmen,' the interactive, multi-media project '6 Minutes to Midnight' was a form of a new storytelling genre known as transmedia entertainment. Fourth Wall Studios

In Hollywood, everyone knows that movies are king. Television makes money, and video games are a fantastic way to extend a franchise, but movies get the prestige. Vanity Fair doesn't have an annual Emmys party.

That's been the way it is for years, but the fault lines under the entertainment industry are shifting rapidly in favor of a more cohesive and multimedia approach to storytelling, and those who refuse to adapt may well be victims of a major shake-up in the way things work.

The protagonist in this story? A relatively new and increasingly popular concept called transmedia storytelling, which at its most basic and fundamental means telling stories across a variety of kinds of media and letting people interact in the ways that are most comfortable to them.

And while the early rounds of the transmedia revolution have consisted of an increasing number of video game and comic book projects being built up around popular films, the next stage is revolving around creative people designing multimedia stories from the ground up in which movies, video games, Web sites, smart phone applications, comic books, and other media are equal partners and all elements of a complete story.

That's the vision, at least, of a slew of new transmedia production companies. These are firms founded by people with rich backgrounds in entertainment who believe that there are better opportunities than ever before to get audiences actively involved on many levels and who think that the broad stories that come out of projects like this are altogether more interesting.

Transmedia, said Jordan Weisman, a founder of Smith & Tinker, one of the start-ups, is "when you are taking a single story and distributing components of that single story through a wide array of media. When you collect those pieces of the media, it tells the [whole] story...When [you have] a text message and a video clip on YouTube, and a toy, or even a movie, when those things add up to a larger single story, that's a transmedia experience."

Transmedia for 'Watchmen' fans
A year ago, as the world was being primed by Warner Bros. for the imminent release of its big-budget adaptation of "Watchmen," fans of the graphic novel and those excited for the movie were invited into the story's world through an online project called "6 Minutes to Midnight."

There, fans were treated to a 10-minute interactive trailer for the film, as well as to a series of Rorschach tests that would bring them inside the "Watchmen" story and reveal exclusive content unavailable to the public at large. Those diving into the site were encouraged to communicate with "Watchmen" characters by phone and over the Web.

This is transmedia entertainment. So, too, was "Why so Serious," a project built around the release of the mega-hit "The Dark Knight." The movie came out in 2008, but a year before, with the launch of the film's Web site, astute fans were presented with different directions they could go in order to dive into what appeared to be an alternate-reality game built around the film's marketing.

"Clicking on the bat symbol [on the film's site] brought a user to the [fictional] Harvey Dent campaign website, which simply contained [actor] Aaron Eckart's picture and the slogan, 'I believe in Harvey Dent,' recalled the blog Asmedia. "Meanwhile, in California, a comic book [store] employee reported defaced Joker cards appearing in his shop with 'I believe in Harvey Dent too! Hahahah!' stamped all over them. Sure enough, when users went to ibelieveinharverydenttoo.com, they found a Jokerized Harvey Dent image. Participants typed in their email address and received their first exposure to Heath Ledger's Joker."

And on it went, a multifaceted experience built around "The Dark Knight" that would get millions of people involved in the world of the film, long before it ever hit a silver screen.

The fourth wall
In the theater, there is a term called "the fourth wall," which is the imaginary boundary separating the audience from the actors. And to Weisman, transmedia storytelling is all about eroding that barrier. "The characters...communicate with you through all the same mechanisms that your real life communicates with you," Weisman said, "through a billboard on the street, through a newspaper advertisement, through email, and Web sites, all mechanisms where you gain information about the real world and friends. Now, the characters are using the same mechanisms."

For Elan Lee, like Weisman a former executive at 42 Entertainment, the pioneers of the alternate-reality game genre, the fourth wall is more than just a concept. It's also the basis for a company.

Indeed, Lee's new firm--which designed "6 Minutes to Midnight," as well as "Eagle Eye: Free Fall," a transmedia project tied to the movie "Eagle Eye," and which has several Hollywood projects currently in the works--is called Fourth Wall Studios.

To Lee, transmedia storytelling is simply an extension of the kinds of entertainment we're used to onto a much broader canvas. "Imagine your favorite movie as a series of scenes," Lee said. "The transmedia version of that would tell the same story, just with each scene on a different form of media."

In this picture, Lee explained, scene one from a transmedia story is on TV. The next minute, scene two, your cell phone rings, and a character from the TV is on the other end of the line. And in scene three, an e-mail comes in from that character, tying it all together. "It's just using your life as the focal piece as the new form of storytelling," Lee said.

And Hollywood is definitely taking notice.

At Blacklight Transmedia, a company launched six months ago by several veteran Hollywood executives, the model is creative cohesion. According to partner Zak Kadison, Blacklight is the world's first company capable of crafting, from the ground up, a transmedia experience that includes a feature film, a video game, a comic book, and more and has 25 such projects in the works and a rare "first-look" deal with Imagine Entertainment, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard's production company. And instead of the game and the comic book being based on the movie, the story begins and ends with components of all the different media.

Fourth Wall, too, is writing the scripts for its film-oriented projects, said Lee, and consistently, the company is being brought into the picture earlier and earlier.

You might think that Hollywood would resist a paradigm shift like this, but that seems not to be the case, even as building film projects seems to also mean working on the formerly ancillary games, comic books and other media at the same time. "All of the major studios absolutely get transmedia storytelling," Kadison said, "and have been eager to work with us."

Excited but cautious
Clearly, there is a lot of energy around transmedia in Hollywood these days. And in a risk-averse town famous for mirroring successful projects, as more studios launch their own versions of "6 Minutes to Midnight" or "Why so Serious," there's little doubt the genre will pick up steam.

But some would like to see transmedia storytelling stand on its own, without big corporate backers. And that was one of the biggest discussion topics at Transmedia/Hollywood, a one-day symposium put together recently by the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Televsion and USC's Annenberg School of Communication and School of Cinematic Arts.

"A number of people in production companies see this as a new and unique media platform," said Denise Mann, a co-organizer of the symposium. "But the paradox from my vantage point is that it's hard to see how these can function in the world outside their role as promotions because in order to get the big budgets, you need a big" partner.

Of course, as an academic, Mann brings a historical perspective to the medium. She said that in its earliest forms, transmedia entertainment can be traced back to Orson Welles' 1938 broadcast of "The War of the Worlds," to the 1969 "Paul is Dead" conspiracy or, more recently, to the 1999 film "The Blair Witch Project."

Other projects that most Transmedia experts consider part of the genre include the ABC show "Lost" and the "Matrix" films, both of which had multimedia elements that engaged large numbers of fans.

But because of the high costs of putting together a multimedia project that can involve thousands, or millions, Mann worries that the genre is too dependent on deep-pocketed benefactors interested in it solely for promotional purposes.

Still, Mann said that the symposium's packed house demonstrated that transmedia storytelling "seems to have captured the imagination of a lot of people who are interested in what's the bleeding edge of new entertainment today."

But while there have been some big transmedia marketing successes, Mann said, the genre needs to be firmly in the hands of storytellers if the projects are to continue to be strong enough to attract big audiences. Those storytellers, she added, need to be in the mix from the get-go of a new project, so that when someone is conceiving of a film, they're also talking about how the story will spread out to the game, the comic, the alternate-reality game and the Web.

And that, of course, is what companies like Blacklight Transmedia, as well as Lee's Fourth Wall and Weisman's Smith & Tinker are all about. And it seems like, after a little bit of educating, Hollywood is listening.

"The first six months of our business has been a lot of education of Hollywood studios, the agencies, [and] the creative talent," Kadison said. But the reality is that once the creative talent and the agencies have seen this concept realized, as evidenced by some of the projects we've developed...they really did get it, and it hasn't been a problem convincing people of the benefit of this approach."

Or, as Lee put it, "It's gotten a lot easier lately. Hollywood's in trouble. They're watching their revenues dwindle [in the face of] competition like Web sites and video games, Twitter, Facebook, and Xbox. It's [Hollywood's] own special brand of insanity to run away from that stuff scared. What has become much easier lately is to get them to embrace that stuff. Instead of running away scared, embrace it."