One For Them, One for Us
Back at StoryWorld, Brian Clark mentioned a business tactic that inspired a lot of us from Vancouver, and that was “one for them, one for us.” Do the projects for clients in order to make money, then use that money to help fund your own projects, to do the ones you want to do.
This week at Transmedia Vancouver, after being thanked for that insight, Brian went on to say that you can also use your own self-funded projects to experiment, and to take the kinds of risks you’d never be able to convince a client to take — and then, if it succeeds, you can point to your own success when you talk to future clients to prove that it can work.
He said that the things they experiment with themselves become the template for what they do for bigger clients, confident that the tactics will work (and then likely able to do it on a larger scale).
Brian was asked about his Occupy Transmedia panel/event at StoryWorld, where he and Jan Libby organized a much more freeform dialogue than the conference had seen so far for everyone to air their grievances with the form. He said that we are getting dangerously attached to gurus in transmedia, and we need to get away from that. We need to keep the conversation as open as possible.
He also wants to find the short-form of transmedia. Every art form has one — the single to the album, the short story to the novel, the short film to the feature. We don’t have one yet, but perhaps we can find it if we focus on where the problems are in the form. Thus: OccupyTransmedia.
And the best parts of that, Brian said, were the more virulent, like “No more free work.” We need to start a dialogue about how to solve the problems. Are there easy solutions? Maybe not, but a dialogue will help us get smarter and get better and work towards figuring it out.
Filmmakers and Gamemakers
The next question was about improving the dialogue between filmmakers who want to add game elements to their work and the gamemakers who are asked to do it.
Brian said he likes to use sports as metaphors for narrative. The rules of basketball are there not just to make it a fair game but to make it an exciting game with all the same tropes as a good narrative. The shot clock makes sure you don’t just hold onto the ball and it gets boring. You have this constant back and forth, reversals of fortune, rising tension and anticipation, fluctuating emotions, and hopefully a close ending. And the rules are constantly tweaked and adjusted to optimize that emergent narrative.
Storytellers understand that, that story requires tension, and that the sport has a series of rules designed to produce a certain kind of narrative.
He also mentioned the use of game-like mechanics in film: In the 60’s, filmmaker William Castle created a film where right at the climax, audience members (who had been given glow-in-the-dark thumbs) were asked to vote on whether the killer should be shown mercy, or should die, and would be shown an alternate ending based on their vote. But Castle had never even filmed the version where the killer lived. Magicians call this “forced choice,” when they know what the outcome will be. And yet, it gives the audience a feeling of agency within the movie.
Be Your Own Distributor
The benefit of being your own distributor, Brian said, is the direct connection with fans. You don’t want to hand your relationship with your fans, the people who will follow you from your first film/project to your second, over to someone else.
Brian said that when someone comes up to him and says they liked one of his films, he doesn’t know anything about them and can only nod and say thanks. When it’s someone who’s a fan of one of his interactive experiences, though, he knows their forum handle and knows way more about them than they do about him. That relationship is vital.
He then paraphrased DIY filmmaker Sarah Jacobson in saying this: What’s stopping you? If the distributors say no, call the theatres. If the theatres say no, call the high school. If the high school says no, rent a screen and put it in a park. If the park says no, stick a VCR in the back of your car. What’s stopping you from getting your project out there?
Too many producers decide they’re going to sell their film, and then when they don’t, they have no backup plan.
In talking about working with brands and ad agencies, Brian outlined three interesting trends with how brands are changing what they do: brand journalism, where we can once more have a personal relationship with the people behind the product; gamification, through things like loyalty programs; and the rethinking of the television commercial, which has become a secondary money-maker to product placement.
Squirrels and Escalators
He also talked about a design problem he was given by the Smithsonian: how to make museums more interesting to the busloads of kids that are shipped in every week than chasing squirrels and running up the down escalator. To solve this awesome design challenge, he’s been working on how to make a visit to the museum more goal-oriented than what was pedantic mandated wandering — challenges and competitions, puzzles and rewards.
When asked about a cause-based transmedia project, Brian said that the challenge of cause-based transmedia is that you’re always either playing to the people who already agree with you, or you’re being provocative.
World Without Oil may have made some difference to those who played it, but was likely only played by those who already agreed with the message. Conversely, PETA strives to be as provocative as possible, dumping blood on runway models and whatnot. There’s very little in the middle. And neither extreme really starts a useful dialogue. Even if you can do a project that gets people in the same room, it’s difficult to have those conversations.
So Brian believes that such projects need to be entertainment first, with the issue hidden underneath. All art, he said, has a thematic message about the world in it. If you can be entertaining first and foremost, you can get people interested, and they will then get the message you’re sending.
He created a project called Eldritch Errors, which he said was mainly to work out his own angst of being an American under the Bush administration — the story was a techno-Lovecraftian world, dealing with an insurmountable evil force. What do you do in that situation? So instead of terrorists, he’s talking about cultists. He could raise issues about the Bush administration without raising issues about the Bush administration. (A behind-the-scenes and post-mortem blog can be found at schmeldritch.com.)
So I think the overall message we can take from Brian’s awesome and insightful visit to Transmedia Vancouver is that we need to do whatever it takes to make our stuff. Find a business model that works for you, and work it into the design of your project. Distribute yourself if you need to; do whatever it is you need to; do the client projects to give you the leeway to do your own. Make great entertainment that your audience will pay you for; put your messages within it.
And as a community, we need to keep talking. Find where we have problems, and work together to find solutions; try to avoid assigning guruship; and move transmedia storytelling into its next phase as the mature artform we all know it can be.
Be sure to check out our experimental fiction project Azrael’s Stop, about a boy who must learn to live when everyone he loves has died. Updated daily at azraelsstop.com