How did you get major brands like Kodak and Verizon to sign on to something as new and untested as transmedia storytelling?
Our first transmedia project, Afterworld, was a great litmus test for the model. It became something that we could use to showcase what we were capable of from a production quality and creative standpoint, as well as a business standpoint. I mean, the reach that we got with Afterworld was globally over 20 million views and it made money!
So, although we didn’t have any sponsorship on that project, when we did Gemini Division as our next project, everybody could see we had credibility. We got Rosario Dawson interested and once we had her, and we had NBC, and we had Sony, we had the confidence to go after some big sponsors.
We got Cisco and Intel and Acura and UPS and Microsoft all as sponsorship integration deals on Gemini Division. It was an embarrassment of riches, but it was also too many balls to juggle. So by the time we got to Valemont and Woke Up Dead, we decided it’s better to have one sponsor take on a bigger role in our project. It just becomes too difficult to manage all of those relationships while you’re also trying to produce content.
What have been the most effective ways to work these brands into your stories?
You really have to sit down and explore what it is that the brand wants to communicate; what aspect of their brand do they want to represent in this story, or in this experience? Taking the Verizon example, before we even knew that brand was on board, we had embraced this idea that the central narrative device of Valemont was going to be a cell phone.
When you’re working in two- to three-minute episodes you need shortcuts. Something I learned in video games was to cut out the first act of set up – jump right into the action – and the way we thought we could do that in Valemont was to give our main character all the clues she needed in the very first two-minute episode. Give her a cell phone with all the digital fragments of her brother’s life – his voicemails, his text messages, pictures, videos – so she could solve the mystery of his murder one clue, one episode at a time… using a Verizon branded phone, of course.
How do you integrate your sponsors into the narrative without insulting your audience’s intelligence?
That’s another thing I learned as a story consultant at EA [Electronic Arts], the video game company. When I was there they were really embracing the verisimilitude of advertising. It used to be that you had a major league baseball game, for example, and all of the signage inside the parks were jokes, they were parodies of real ads.
But then they started getting feedback that the game would seem more real if there were real ads that simulated the experience of being in a ballpark. And I think a light went on in everybody’s head – “Oh, wait a minute, they’re not going to feel that’s advertising, they’re going to feel that that’s reality” – because we live in a branded world. So from our standpoint, we could make a fake phone, and we could make a fake wireless carrier, but that would take you out of reality.
What are some of the ways in which you enabled your audience to interact with the story, as well as the brand?
As a kind of nexus of the entire ARG [alternate reality game] and interactive experience, we built a faux Valemont University website that we modeled after real 21st century college websites. Students could apply to Valemont University and when they were accepted, they got their own virtual phone through the website.
That became their communication device, where they got text messages and pictures and videos sent to them from characters in the show. And that was also a Verizon-branded phone, so it became a replicate experience to the show’s main character.
Both Woke Up Dead and Valemont have more or less completed the run of their episodes. How have your sponsors been able to realize some ROI on these projects?
We were able to offer click-throughs to the Kodak website. They featured Woke Up Dead on their main site and got a lot of attention for that. I think they really got a lot of return on their investment in terms of what it did for their brand., because it connected a new demographic to their digital cameras and made using them fun and cool. Plus, it allowed Kodak to loosen up their brand identity. In terms of actual numbers – selling cameras – I don’t know. But I do know that they couldn’t be happier with the whole experience.
Verizon was excited about a lot of things that happened on the show; the number of people who enrolled in Valemont U completely exceeded everyone’s expectations. The amount of engagement, the time that people were spending on Valemont U, the number of fans we garnered on Facebook, as well as the amount of streams they were getting to their V CAST users of Valemont was through the roof.
The retention rate of the Valemont episodes when they aired on TV was also off the charts. But most importantly, it wasn’t that people were watching the show, it was that they were engaging with the content.
And because Verizon was integrated into that whole experience, from the episodes to the websites, they felt like they were getting a lot of great exposure.
As a transmedia storyteller, how important is it to create a community around your content?
I think at this stage of the game it’s one of the most vital things. I think what’s happened is that there used to be this kind of wall between creators and audience. It used to be a one-way experience where creators created and they distributed to an audience at whatever time they chose to give it to them, for however long and for whatever price. Those days are gone and that wall has come down, and now you don’t have creators and audience, you have co-collaborators.
You have people who initiate the content and you have fans who invest in the content and even help market it virally. And I think that that relationship is going to be key going forward because the audience has become so empowered and so enabled because of the technology.
Something else I picked up at EA is the notion of “a universe worthy of devotion.” When you look at a project or a franchise like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, it’s not just that the movies themselves were successful. It’s that those worlds have been so fleshed out, so well conceived in their 3-D qualities, that fans want to go live there, they want to explore that world. The key is to create content experiences that satisfy that compulsion.
Taking Valemont as an example, what was the most surprising way in which your audience became part of the story?
We initially decided we didn’t want to have a fan forum on the Valemont University site. We were trying to create what feels like a real university site, so we couldn’t have fans talking about the TV show on it.
We thought we’d have a Facebook page where fans can gather and talk. But that’s not really a forum, that’s more of a bulletin board.
And so, without any prompting, a group of hardcore fans rose up and created the Valemont Commons, which is a very good replica of our Valemont U site. They emulated the design of the VU site, and created an adjunct, essentially, where fans could gather, and they did a really smart thing: they created an “on campus” portion of the forum where people could be in character and talk about Valemont as if it were a real institution, and then they had “off campus”, where you could kind of step back and talk about the show.
That happened instantaneously. It happened within the first week of the show being released.
Is transmedia a niche, or is it the future of entertainment?
It’s definitely the future. I think that what’s happening is that storytelling is taking on a different life because people are looking for a different level of experience. I think that transmedia producers are actually rising up to meet a need. I think that it’s an emotional, psychological need to not just watch passively anymore.
I think there is both an opportunity and a challenge for content creators. To trust the audience, to invite them in and let them make it their own. That’s exciting for creators and fans. And you don’t really have enough of that right now.
Honestly, I always look to video games when I want to peek into the future. Everything you’re seeing from Project Natal, which is creating interactivity in terms of not just movement recognition, but voice recognition, eye recognition, emotion recognition – it’s putting the viewer, the audience, into the game, into the movie, into the web series, and once they’re in there, they don’t want to just watch. They want to be part of that world.
I don’t know how far off that is as a mainstream technology, but that’s what kind of keeps me going – the idea that I’ll be around to not just see something like this, but to actually create a next-gen experience like that.