It was Jeff Gomez, steward of such “story worlds” as Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean and Coke’s Open Happiness, who drew the biggest cheers at the two-day StoryWorld Conference + Expo.

“What a relief to get up here and not have to explain what I do,” Gomez said, and was rewarded with enthusiastic applause and a deluge of retweets.

Billed as the first-ever conference of people engaged in transmedia ­– or multiplatform – storytelling, StoryWorld was a Dungeons and Dragons-meets-TED Talks gathering of filmmakers, writers, producers and marketers devoted to telling age-old stories in exciting new ways.

The spirit of collaboration and creativity in the Parc 55 Wyndham was palpable – no doubt the conference was a success – but I’m not so sure we’ve moved past definitions just yet.

Sure, everyone at StoryWorld agrees that “the story always comes first,” as the oft-repeated mantra goes. But what is the story, who owns it, and how do we tell it in a collaborative, fair, and profitable way?

Jeff Gomez (Image by James Duncan Davidson via Flickr)

Everything is a story (wait, what?)

The word “story” has gone mainstream, as John David Heinsen from Bunnygraph Entertainment pointed out in a Monday morning session. Let’s say a screenwriter, a producer and a brand marketer sit down at a table. Each may think they’re a storyteller. But they’re not talking about the same thing.

It turns out the words “story” and “storyteller” are fluid and their meanings depends on who’s using them.

Another example of how semantics are important (and confusing) occurred later in the day. Toward the end of a breakout session on “building buzz” someone used the word “brand.” Everyone groaned.

The speaker apologized profusely. But that’s essentially what people mean when they talk about a “story world” ­– a piece of intellectual property that has multiple extensions on different platforms. A brand by any other name.

Of course, the problem is that the word “brand” has become a buzzword. And if we’re not careful, the beautiful word “story” will become one too.

Story worlds are not new

Stories have been around forever (since cavemen and campfires blah blah blah) and so have story worlds. Think J.R.R. Tolkien (proudly invoked by Tricia Pasternak and Lenny Brown from Random House), George Lucas or, of course, Walt Disney.

In a Tuesday morning keynote Disney’s design director Orrin Shively noted that story worlds exist in the real world too; Disney has been creating theme park rides that expand on its branded universes (from Snow White to Finding Nemo) for decades.

What has changed is the variety of platforms available for storytelling, as well as their interactive potential.

Robot Heart Stories

Collaboration is key (but so is consistency)

A fundamental aspect of transmedia storytelling is collaboration – both with other storytellers and with the people formerly known as the audience.

We heard countless examples of transmedia stories “co-created” with fans, from Brent Friedman’s branded TV series Valemont, to Jim Babb’s playful Socks, Incorporated. Transmedia pioneer and Monday keynote Lance Weiler even collaborated with inner-city fifth-grade students on Robot Heart Stories.

Transmedia storytellers also collaborate with each other. While creative types often guard their intellectual property like Gollum guards his ring (sorry, two full days with self-professed geeks), multiplatform storytellers are like jazz musicians: happy to jam on each other’s tracks.

Novelist Sparrow Hall, for example, invites musicians, artists and videographers to riff on his short stories, which he packages into transmedia ebooks. Of course, collaboration requires trust, which means content creators are only willing to share their story worlds with collaborators who are on the same page.

A fundamental rule of story worlds is that they must be consistent across every platform and in each iteration. As Jeff Gomez put it in his presentation, storytellers need to “Show me you care about the story world. Show me it’s real.”

The same lesson applies to all (gasp) brands – whether it’s a magazine, an airline, or a TV franchise.

Collaboration is complex (who owns the story?)

Collaboration fuels transmedia storytelling but it’s also what makes it so incredibly hard to pull off.

In a Tuesday session called “Navigating the Silos,” panelists from Bravo, BBC and LucasFilm commiserated about the roadblocks involved with launching cross-platform initiatives within their own organizations (“I can accept that I.T. is a silo but there’s no excuse for Communications,” bemoaned former BBC content commissioner Rosie Allimonos).

So you can imagine how messy it gets when numerous copyright holders, licensers, and distributors are involved. A Tuesday afternoon session entitled “Co-managing in Collaboration with Stakeholders” attempted to navigate these complexities; it sort of hurt my brain (this probably shouldn’t have been scheduled as the last session of the day).

The key takeaway for prospective transmedia practitioners: “Get a lawyer.”

This question of “Who owns a story?” came up throughout the conference. Some, like “brand fiction” pioneer Helen Klein Ross (who has more than 31,000 followers as the unofficial Twitter voice of Mad Men’s Betty Draper) feel that once it’s released to the world a story belongs to the world.

Others, like Blacklight CEO Zak Kadison, insist a story’s creator is its rightful “gatekeeper.” While this question remains open, it made for one of StoryWorld’s most emotional and important debates.

Stories are good for business

In the end, there’s a practical reason for both Madison Avenue and Hollywood to embrace transmedia: There‘s money to be made.

As Innovative Artists’ David Tochterman put it, transmedia “gives buyers multiple ways to say yes.” Or put slightly differently by Universal McCann’s Jeff Bernstein, “If you’re a storyteller you have a tremendous advantage; you can design an experience that’s scalable.”

But perhaps most crucially – this was stated by multiple speakers – mutliplatform is good for business because it’s what audiences and customers expect. End of story.

Sparksheet is an official media partner for StoryWorld Conference + Expo, which took place October 31-November 2 in San Francisco. 

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