The many faces of money in transmedia

(Originally posted on Words and Things. Thanks to the commenters! 14/10/10) Over the last little while, I've had the opportunity to be involved in preliminary planning for a digital media/transmedia project, for a production company in Vancouver. Like many such digital media projects, this one is tied to a television series. And it's interesting for me to look at how that tie-in dramatically affects how we approach the digital media.

I come primarily from a background in writing fiction -- though I've now also worked in TV, and I've been researching for months the world of transmedia writing. And each different industry seems to approach the task of creation very differently, seems to have a different take on transmedia, and a different culture of money.

As a fiction writer, I do not get paid for my work -- at least, not when I'm doing the work. I'll spend months on a story, maybe years doing drafts of a novel, and not see a dime until it's absolutely finished and a publisher agrees to buy it. I accept that -- that's how the industry works, for the most part. And so I happily put in hours and days of my time, with only the hope of an eventual payoff to keep me going. (Well, that and the joy of the task itself, which I wouldn't do otherwise.)

If I were to create an indie transmedia project, it would likely be much the same. I'd put weeks of work into crafting the project and creating the content and then putting it out there and spend weeks more as it played out and potentially interacting with my audience. And I wouldn't be getting paid for it. Maybe if I created some kind of business plan and figured out some way to make money from it, I would get some payment for my work -- but not until most of the work was actually done, and not unless I could attract a big enough audience.

But in the world of television, there are very different standards. There are rules that must be abided by, especially if there are guilds and unions involved, regarding how much people get paid for what they do, what credit they get, etc. When it comes to creating a TV show, after you have a concept and a script and a pitch, before you can do anything else production-wise, you need funding -- from producers, from networks, from the government (in Canada, at least). And when it comes to a transmedia project tied to that TV show, the standards carry over, because that's the way the industry works -- if I put in x amount of time do accomplish y (research, writing, content creation), I need to get paid for that work.

And of course, this is a good thing. If we have funding for a project, then it's good that there are guidelines in place that ensure I get paid for the work I do. It means I might actually be able to make a living off of it, be able to feed myself as I'm doing the work.

But if you're trying to start up some kind of transmedia project (for example) and you find yourself tied to this industry, it might actually end up restricting what you're able to do. I would gladly spend time writing and developing for this project and creating all sorts of great content and making the best project I can possibly make. But if our budget is only so big, they can only afford to pay me for a certain amount of work (and can only afford to create a certain amount of content -- as soon as you introduce a video clip, you need to pay for cameras and actors and directors and editors...) and I frankly can't do more than that. Even if it would mean a bigger and better project, a better end result, a bigger audience, whatever it is. It's just not in the budget.

And, coming from the background I come from, and being interested in creating my own indie transmedia projects, and all that, this just kind of boggles me. It's there to protect me, but I hate the feeling of being restricted in what I can do, especially when it's a project that excites me.

There's a whole other side to the money issue in transmedia as well. If the transmedia project is an extension of an existing property (a TV show, for instance) or is meant as essentially an advertising campaign for something else (like many of the biggest ARGs over the last decade), then you have somewhere that money is coming from to fund the project, and it's all part of a bigger financial picture. But if I want to create a project for the sake of the project, as a way of telling a story that I want to tell -- just as I would write a novel -- then where is the money coming from? Unless I'm doing it just for fun, or just to find an audience or something, I'm going to need some kind of business model for the project, some way to make money off of it (and some way to pay people I might need to help me create content -- I'm not a film producer, for instance). And it's important to note that, as of a couple years ago, when ARGs and transmedia were interchangeable terms (or rather, before transmedia was much of a term at all), no ARG had ever made money.

There are some intriguing business models out there now -- Socks, Inc. was funded by a Kickstarter campaign; the Mongoliad operates through subscribers -- but those could rely on pre-existing audiences, or a confidence that the content will be of a high quality, and that doesn't exist for an indie creator just starting out. There's no publishing house who will invest in me and distribute me and market me in transmedia, if I'm not tied to a more mainstream base media.

Should there be? I don't know. The system could very well work as it is now -- I'll create an indie project and make nothing off of it, but get my name out there and prove I can do it and gather an audience, and see if I can grow to the point where people would be willing to pay me for the experience, or see if I can find some other way to make money off of providing free content (webcartoonists do it all the time). This whole dichotomy might not be a problem, per se.

It's just interesting to see the extreme differences in approach, depending on the industry in question. And as the publishing industry starts looking more at transmedia, will they see it as marketing they're willing to spend money on, something the author should do on their own to promote their own work, or something of enough intrinsic value that they'll pay more for that content from the author alongside the book contract?

Will they be able to afford that?