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Talk don’t tell

Having referenced a number of blockbuster franchises earlier in our conversation (see part one of this article here), transmedia expert Jeff Gomez spoke about the transmedia contribution to Avatar and other activity in New Zealand.

Avatar

James Cameron’s super-narrative still has a long way to run

There was still a lot of secrecy around the project at the time Fox’s in NZHead of Licensing and Merchandising, Elie Dekel, brought Gomez and his team on board Avatar to help the studio’s marketing team get a better handle on what Avatar might become and what they might do with it.

Gomez credited James Cameron with having a broader vision than just one title, saying that from early on Cameron had been developing a super-narrative, of which only a fraction formed the first film.

“It was great for us,” Gomez explained, “because we have a natural inclination to want to absorb everything about a story universe.”

Creating a cohesive story universe is important for success. There’s a methodology behind it, a toolset to make it happen but most importantly a way of thinking that allows it to happen: the result is what Gomez refers to as “the architecture for dialogue”.

While there are no hard and fast laws, the transmedia landscape is a lot less like the Wild West than even a decade ago, when conferences first began hosting panels on transmedia and convergence.

“Convergence isn’t happening and isn’t going to happen in the way that was predicted – that the TV would deliver all manner of media beyond scheduled broadcast and again become the hub of family life,” Gomez said.

Few TV broadcasters would disagree. The talk is all about muliple screens, fragmenting audiences and stratifying, the use of specific screens for specific purposes. Many broadcasters still struggle with the idea that content now needs to form part of the greater media landscape, while some broadcasters still refuse to accept that there was a media landscape greater than TV.

Jeff Gomez at FILMART's T for Transmedia session

Jeff Gomez at FILMART’s T for Transmedia session

In his presentation in Hong Kong, Gomez stressed the importance of placing content where people hung out, rather than where creators would like them to line up in an orderly manner. But doing that effectively requires an understanding of how and where people accessed content, whether it was primary or ancillary content, and in which directions traffic was flowing.

Vine, Instagram, YouTube, twitter, and – with its increasing video offer – Facebook can all form the beginnings of trails of breadcrumbs that lead viewers to “primary” content – the TV show in the case of broadcasters.

Regardless of whether a piece of primary content is a film, TV show, game, book, song, or toy, it’s no longer an item to be presented in isolation, but a contribution to a much larger conversation. “Each platform is an instrument in an orchestra to create an immersive symphonic narrative universe.”

Working with Cameron’s narrative, Gomez and Starlight Runner developed research material to created a huge resource of transmedia material which is still in use today. It was great for the Avatar owners but, Gomez admitted, perhaps not the best business strategy on Starlight Runner’s part.

The value of a transmedia approach was valued by all participants in Avatar, although Fox was slower to come to the party. Avatar was always going to be a very expensive film to make, and Fox decided to draw a line on expenditure. The result of that decision was that, while Avatar remains the world’s highest-grossing movie five years after its release, the franchise hasn’t yet created the kind of pop culture footprint that others have.

“It’s easy to say with hindsight that they would have been far better off,” noted Gomez, “had they taken proper advantage of the licensing opportunities Avatar could have generated.”

With more films in train, Fox certainly hasn’t written off the potential of Avatar. Disney has been the most successful of the US majors at exploiting transmedia opportunites, since long before transmedia was term for it. Former Disney VP of Global Studio Franchise Development, Kathy Franklin joined Lightstorm after the release of Avatar with a brief to work with Fox to generate more transmedia opportunities as the franchise advances.

Dialogue not delivery
Starlight Runner tracks fan behaviours online as part of its work and recognises that fans are, generally, a savvy bunch with love for and commitment to the content they choose to engage with. For Gomez, the hardest part of his job is often helping content creators move to a place where they can accept the dynamic of dialogue with rather than delivery to consumers.

“Like it or not,” he said, “the world changed. People talk to one another a lot, and – in the absence of information – they’ll make assumptions and run with them.”

It is, therefore, better to give them accurate information to expplore and discuss, or rumour and invention will hold sway.

ARRI

Shooting Lord of the Rings
Image: ARRI

Avatar is by no means the only NZ-made production to have explored options in the transmedia arena. Gomez credited Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor for their visionary approach during the making of the Lord of the Ring films and since, taking the time and spending the money to both create and record assets that weren’t necessarily going to appear on screen in the films, but were part of the story universe being created.

According to Gomez, one thing that did more than most to help build the international fan base around Peter Jackson’s take on Tolkien’s world was to turn the critical geek community theonering.net into fans and ambassadors.

Dekel, who brought Gomez on to Avatar, has since left Fox and returned to another company with NZ connections, Saban Brands, creators and owners of the Power Rangers franchise. He’s heading up some interesting work integrating production processes for the show with the need to create more assets to use across other media.

Next
Gomez has been in NZ a couple of times in recent years presenting masterclasses to introduce and explore concepts of transmedia and some of the tools and technologies behind making it work. His last presentation, at Unitec, addressed one of the regular criticisms of transmedia activity, that it’s fine and dandy if you’re Disney or Fox with a few million dollars to throw at a project, but not so good otherwise.

Gomez reworked his masterclass to focus on scaleable strategies, not ones that suited only blockbuster franchises.

He noted in New Zealand, more than in some other places he’s visited but politely didn’t name, an eagerness on the part of academia to engage, understand and equip themselves to deliver students a stronger understanding of transmedia principles and practice.

Unitec has supported two masterclasses by Gomez, after meeting him at a Xmedia Lab event in the UK, and has been developing new cutting edge programmes with assistance from Gomez and other tramsmedia practitioners.

Unitec's Athina Tsoulis

Unitec’s Athina Tsoulis

Unitec’s Athina Tsoulis explained, “The good relationship forged with Jeff and the discussions that ensued during and after the events, Unitec staff decided to feature Transmedia in their innovative suite of programmes.

“Although Transmedia has been embraced by the entertainment industry, its value to all disciplines and sectors of society have been recognized and we are extending our reach to include all types of businesses from the industry sector, to education and Not For Profit.”

Part of Unitec’s Masters in Creative Practice, the Master’s Transmedia pathway covers Transmedia Storytelling, Production, Design, and Data Analytics in a practice-based setting. The first intake will start the new courses in July of this year.

As well as working with Unitec, Gomez has also spent some of his time in NZ working with companies getting into the Augmented Reality space.

In Hong Kong, where Gomez presented at FILMART, he’s been working with another tertiary institution, the Hong Kong Design Institute, which is also developing a suite of new courses to grow transmedia producers with a focus on Asian markets.

In 2014 the China app market doubled in value to US$4.9 billion with, Gomez suggested, plenty of room remaining for growth.

“Think beyond the kids,” Gomez told the FILMART audience. “There’s a reason the 18-39 demographic has long been preferred by so many TV advertisers.”

Gomez also encouraged producers to “seed pop culture and social media” ahead of a primary release, before stressing that didn’t mean the few weeks of promotion in the run up to release, but a much more concerted rollout of material with data tracking in place. It should happen early enough in the process that responses could contribute to plans for content creation. From a business perspective, a cohesive approach also allowed IP creators to use the data to attract partners to longer term strategies.

“Strategic planning for the extension of narrative content across digital and traditional platforms,” Gomez said, “generates massive fan communities and multiple revenue streams.”

Rights
One issue that has always held back fully transmedia enterprises is the ownership of rights around IP. Nobody has yet really crossed the boundaries with the same abandon a kid would play in a sand-pit, making up a story involving Hot Wheels cars, a Spider-Man figurine and a My Little Pony toy.

The day before we sat down with Gomez, Steven Spielberg signed on as director for Warner feature Ready Player One. Adapted from Ernest Cline’s novel, the story sees a young man compete for a prize in a virtual reality world which references all manner of 80s and 90s pop culture icons.

There’ve been a few examples of titles that have combined IP from different owners: kids titles Wreck It Ralph and Hotel Transylvania; Lego’s deal with Warners being expanded to incorporate LucasFilms’ Star Wars; Sony and Disney’s agreement on use of Spider-Man in Marvel Universe stories.

Whether someone with the pull of Steven Spielberg can make Ready Player One a truly borderless transmedia experience remains to be seen.

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