The Business of Art: Brian Clark at Transmedia Vancouver (1/2)

Yesterday, Transmedia Vancouver hosted Brian Clark of GMD Studios as our guest speaker. Though piped in via a Skype connection with unsteady audio, Brian’s hour with us was chock full of great insights. Especially due to the fact that not everyone caught everything Brian said, my summary of the conversation here is going to attempt to be fairly comprehensive.

Brian started by introducing himself and how he got into transmedia. He comes from the independent music and film spaces of the early 90s, just as the internet was coming around. When the net first appeared, he and his colleagues saw it as a tool to have relationship with fans -- allowing them to realize they didn’t need studios anymore. They assumed that the internet was going to be about interacting with people, and saw it as an extension of the community experience.

The arts community (in this case, film) is part digital and part physical -- the community is cemented by things like film festivals. And that community is so important to communicate things to each others -- like who at what studio is an asshole, what agents you shouldn’t trust, the best way to get film into sundance, etc.

A bunch of those in transmedia who came from that -- Brian Clark, Mike Monello, Lance Weiler -- brought to transmedia this desire like what they had in film -- practitioners talking to practitioners about challenges so we can all do better. (And I would add that events like Merging Media and StoryWorld, and meetup groups like ours and others, help do precisely that, and that this is the power they have.)

It was from this desire for communication and dialogue, and Brian Clark started a Facebook thread that became -- his words -- an “epic flame war” about the PGA credit transmedia definition.

The credit was worded oddly, such that those who were producing rich interactive content online didn’t qualify, but if you were running the twitter account for one character for a TV show, you could qualify.

Brian said that it’s an important debate even if you don’t have a dog in the fight (as he says he doesn’t), because these are the kinds of things people look to as they draw up granting and funding definitions. There was a lot riding on this.

(It’s worth checking out Brian’s original post, and perhaps the first 100 or so comments (that’s not a typo) to get a sense of the discussion.)

Ultimately what Brian and Mike Monello had theorized was that the discussion was really about creative control -- what people were talking about wasn’t credit, but that as a transmedia creator, you’re creating across all those channels. They wanted to reclaim “transmedia storyteller” as the one with creative control over everything in a project rather than a piece of it.

This conversation gave rise to the concept of an east coast/west coast divide in transmedia, where the “east coasters” were people like Brian who came from an indie film perspective, while the “west coasters” were the Hollywood types talking about larger franchises.

It was this dialogue that led Brian to be invited by Henry Jenkins to speak to his class as the torchbearer for east-coast transmedia thinking in the (again, Brian’s words, said tongue-in-cheek) “dark depths of Hollywood”. And he realized that what we’re really talking about are different business models for these systems.

He says we’ve been pigeonholed by the fact that all our funding models are based on the patronage model -- which is where all art forms start. A patron gives us money for something other than the joy of the art: a marketing campaign, an educational purpose, etc. The project is funded because it has tactical usefulness.

And this is contrasted to what we as artists and storytellers all know: that our fans will pay for it. In every other artistic medium, there is some moment where fans start to give us money for what we produce.

Brian then brought up the “impostor syndrome”, which he said was “common among bright people.” It’s the general belief that at some point someone’s going to figure out that you really don’t know anything.

He says the transmedia community has the impostor syndrome. When brands or studios give us money to be tactically useful, we think that justifies us, but when we realize that our audience will support us, and we create a business model to support what we do, it will allow us to rely on that fan base instead.

He then pointed towards a theatre project called Sleep No More in New York, which you can read about here. It’s very transmedia in innovative style, even if it’s not actually transmedia storytelling. His point was that if you can count on five days a week of sold out shows at $60 a ticket (actually, I just checked, and they’re $85 a pop), that’s a sustainable business model. We need to figure out how to make that work for transmedia.

He concluded his opening talk with this: We can build things that don’t require a patron and thus don’t just have to be tactically useful. If you think of yourself as a storyteller, you should be thinking of business models as one of the textures you design with.

Tomorrow, I’ll go into some of the insights that arose from the lengthier Q&A period.


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