Media Franchise vs. Transmedia
On Friday, Henry Jenkins debunked seven myths about transmedia storytelling. It’s a good, quick, and informative read, and you should definitely read it if you haven’t already. I agree with pretty much everything he wrote, but I struggle with what he didn’t say and what that means for franchises. I’m not surprised by this – of those thinking & talking about transmedia he has always been on the inclusive side. I am also not surprised that most of those who struggle most with franchises tend to come from a native transmedia background (such as ARGs).
Here’s a big chunk of what he had to say on franchises:
The entertainment industry has long developed licensed products, reproducing the same stories across multiple channels (for example, novelizations). Increasingly, broadcast content is also available on line. And many films are adopted from books (or now, comic books). None of these necessarily constitute transmedia storytelling. In transmedia, elements of a story are dispersed systematically across multiple media platforms, each making their own unique contribution to the whole. Each medium does what it does best–comics might provide back-story, games might allow you to explore the world, and the television series offers unfolding episodes.
There’s little to disagree with there, but it leaves the door wide open for very superficial relationships. It is not enough for stories to just be set in the same world or contain the same themes. They need to interact and impact one another – changes made in one should effect the others. If they don’t they are just supporting materials that anyone with a universe bible can produce.
That does not mean that the supporting materials aren’t great or that they aren’t important pieces of the universe. Nor does it mean that transmedia properties can’t contain relatively stand alone elements or that they have to be as complex as, say, most alternate reality games.
Yesterday, in a fit of frustration after reading yet another article holding Star Wars up as the first best example of transmedia storytelling, I vented on twitter.
It’s not that I’d hold Dr. Who up as a first best or best first example, but they are both well loved sci-fi franchises with an enormous amount of merchandising and officially sanctioned media extensions. The general response or justification was that, in early Doctor Who, there was little interaction between those extensions. Star Wars, on the other hand, introduced a character (Boba Fett) on one platform (a made for TV movie) before he appeared on the core platform (feature films).
So there is a clear and strong distinction being made based on the way that the various platforms interact with one another. While I’m not sure that the introduction of a character in a supporting platform is enough to qualify a project as transmedia today*, the implication is that there needs to be something more.
A year ago in a rather over-written attempt at defining transmedia, I stressed the complexity of the relationship as distinguishing transmedia from non-transmedia. (And made a failed attempt at keeping crossmedia alive by using it to define multi-platform projects with simple relationships. A point I wouldn’t mention if it wasn’t in the header of the image.) In that post I compared Harry Potter with the Matrix.
Harry Potter is one of my favorite franchises and universes, but I do not consider it transmedia because, despite the richness of the universe and number of bits & pieces that extend from it, the various platform do not interact. They lack that something more. The relationships are all one way.
Compare that to the Matrix where events occurring on one platform impacted events in the others. It was possible to fully enjoy the movies, video games, shorts, or comics without consuming the other. For example, if you played the video game, you not only got key bits of back-story, but one of your first tasks was to help deliver a very important message and you saw the message being received (and the impact of it) in the movie. People who only enjoyed the movies didn’t suffer from a lack of understanding, but people who participated on a deeper level were rewarded.
When writing, designing, and/or producing transmedia there are approaches and considerations that need to be made that go beyond just thumbing through a universe bible or scanning a canon-filled wiki. That’s why suggesting that transmedia is little more than providing backstory and exploring a world is, really, a bit offensive to those creating and producing transmedia.
There’s a follow-up to this post: More on Media Franchises & Transmedia