March 23, 2011
Q&A with Mathew Cullen, co-founder of new studio Mirada
We reached out to commercial and music video director Mathew Cullen while researching “Transmedia Rising,” our March trend report that looks at an increasingly popular approach to content: creating borderless story worlds that provide fans with multiple entry points. Cullen is one of four founders of Mirada, a new transmedia-focused studio based in L.A. that’s tackling both entertainment and advertising projects. The idea is to build “a different model that looks beyond what the market is doing right now to where it will be in ten years,” says co-founder Guillermo del Toro, the director of films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy, on the Mirada site.
Cullen got an early start in the business, founding production house Motion Theory at age 23. With Motion Theory, Cullen has directed and produced more than 100 commercials—for clients including IBM, Nike, HP, Honda and Tanqueray—and music videos, winning Grammys for Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” and Black Eyed Peas’ “Boom Boom Pow.” He talked to us about the impetus behind Mirada, the age-old importance of storytelling and some of his thoughts on transmedia (and his favorite transmedia marketing).
How would you describe Mirada?
We wanted to create a different type of studio and company that was relevant to how our industry has evolved. The thinking behind it was, there was a real opportunity to take all the things we had individually explored across the media landscape in creating cross-platform storytelling experiences. And there was a real synergy in being able to bring those [entertainment and advertising] worlds together and, with our experiences, covering the whole gamut of what kind of media possibilities were out there.
There’s valuable experiences to learn from both sides of the business. From the advertising industry, what I love is this ability to be at the edge of popular culture. And to be putting out media into the marketplace that has a real sense of immediacy, where we’re constantly able to experiment and innovate, and respond to the cultural vernacular. The entertainment business is a much slower-moving entity but [expert at creating] the narrative, the core aspects of why we like to get lost in entertainment experiences.
There was an idea of creating a company that was able to bridge those two languages. And that’s how we see Mirada—as a malleable entity. We see it as an evolving company that’s part concept design company, part animation studio, part visual effects studio, part production company, part development company, part interactive and technology company.
The buzz word is “transmedia,” but the idea of looking at how you take a storytelling experience and extend it across as many distribution models as possible is one that’s thousands of years old. And because of the bridging between technology and narrative, and the possibilities of what we can do now, [transmedia has] become a bit more part of our everyday language. But for us, in building Mirada, we look at it as an ever-changing model that’s about centralizing the creative and production process so that all the different aspects of the business talk to each other in a much clearer manner so we can develop the opportunities that present themselves.
What would be an example of a kind of project you would take on?
Basically, we define the company as a studio designed for storytellers. No matter what our discipline, whether you’re a concept artist, a writer, a designer, we’re all at the service of story. Each and every project has different possibilities for opening up the distribution platforms for whatever the area of content may be.
You know, sometimes a book doesn’t need to be developed into a feature film, and it’s better just living in that singular format because it doesn’t get better than that. But there are other projects that really open themselves up to extend a storytelling experience in everything from interactive—like apps—gaming, books, television, a movie or whatever it may be, and essentially we’re creating the space to be able to do just that here.
From the advertising perspective, what has been valuable for us in partnering with agencies, and directly with clients, is that we’re able to help benefit our clients to look beyond what the initial brief and assignment may be. And we’re working with multiple agencies in that regard. We even have somebody that’s a specialist here at exactly that. He’s developing more transmedia-like opportunities with the jobs we have. There are so many avenues to be able to take the creative process. It’s really looking at the core concept and presenting other possibilities to extend the life of whatever that experience may be.
At the same time, from the entertainment perspective, it’s both being a partner to studios and doing development ourselves to take these same principles into the entertainment space.
Do you think, down the road, that this kind of model will become more of the norm?
Story is at the heart and the central idea of what we do at the studio. That will never change. However, it’s absolutely necessary, especially with the creative challenges that are continually being presented in the business, that we create a model that is an evolving one, that’s able to embrace the best of developing technology—and that includes developing technology ourselves—and potential ways to extend what a narrative experience can be.
Google is a perfect example. Who would have ever thought a search engine would be everything else that it’s become? It’s because they built creative and technical innovation off a core business model. The same with Facebook. I think in creating a company in evolving businesses, you have to create a model that is a malleable one. You have to create a model that [allows you] to plug in the right people to figure out how a project’s going to work—the essential thing is creating a space and a culture where we’re able to attract and bring in those types of people.
If we look at it historically, Disney was a great innovator of transmedia. He took characters that people loved and stories that people loved, and extended it across television, amusement parks and merchandising—look at how many different creative and financial possibilities he was able to build. But the core thing that everything hinged on was strong characters and stories that people love. Everybody can’t be a Disney, obviously. But now what we’re finding, and what’s exciting, is a complete renaissance in the business of creativity and the business of technology, and where those two meet.
The distribution model has completely shifted, where somebody with great ideas has the possibility to extend those ideas and reach millions of people around the world with a click of a button. There’s an equalization of power in the marketplace, and it opens up more possibilities for people. And also, there’s more ways to connect with people.
I don’t think transmedia is a complex concept. All it is, it’s taking a narrative experience and extending it in multiple platforms. But it’s all about the central idea. If you create a memorable character, you can create an app that allows you to dig into the character a little bit more, or a television show based on the character’s life, or a poster that reminds you what you love about that character, et cetera. A story that emotionally engages us has the opportunity to have a life that extends into more media possibilities.
Do you think audiences and consumers today expect different things from their entertainment or advertising, or the way they want to engage in it?
Yes and no. There are different levels of entertainment. There’s entertainment you want to watch very quickly. Maybe when you’re at work, you want to see something that makes you laugh or smile or think about something. There are narrative experiences where you sit down and get lost in what’s in front of you. Then there’s entertainment where you want to have much more of an active participation in how it evolves.
New opportunities are expanding, are evolving, to provide an audience or a consumer with a way to engage a little bit deeper into the content. In a perfect example, we start to see television shows where there’s a core show, but you can go online and see back stories and scenes you didn’t see on a show. Maybe there are peripheral characters you dig into, where also the production companies and the studios can test which characters people like more and inadvertently have a dialogue [that helps determine] the direction a show goes in. It’s so simple.
What do you think are some of the more interesting examples of transmedia we’ve seen so far?
There’s that great Dexter campaign [an alternate reality game that kicked off at last year’s Comic-Con] where they create an experience where the audience got to be part of the show in this interesting way. Those types of things are really fascinating to me.
From what I see on the entertainment industry side, the studios are embracing this idea of promoting a film a year or two years before it comes out and creating a buzz about it, a mystery, a fan base. And that is an extension of the storytelling experience, because it lays the groundwork for it to stand out in a cluttered marketplace. So it’s almost a “necessary” now to be extending the narrative experiences past what the traditional models were.
Are there any marketing campaigns you’ve especially liked besides the “Dexter” work?
The Arcade Fire video [“The Wilderness Downtown”] that got a lot of publicity was a remarkable one, because it created an experience that made it much more personal to its audience. That was so interesting, because it both was a linear story and a non-linear story. And it embraced narrative tradition and technological innovation to create something that was quite new.
These types of things are where I think we’ve just started to see the growth. You have to have a technological aspect now, because today’s youth culture exists as a technological pop culture. To not be developing IP that helps reach an audience in a new way is ignoring one of the most important innovations in the business of creativity.
Do you think a lot of content creators have been slow to see the potential here?
I don’t think people know how; it’s intimidating. But if we look at the business, especially content creators, it’s a business that’s based on a lot of old thinking. It’s hard to move a big ship. What is most exciting for me is looking at the people on the periphery of defining the entertainment business—the young, hungry minds, the ones that understand how to merge entertainment and technology, that are versed in pop technology culture—and trying to bring them to the center.
How do you see the world of advertising and marketing adapting to this new model?
I feel that what we find is that creatives—copywriters and art directors—have really amazing things to say. A lot of them are directors in their own right. A lot are writing screenplays and developing different types of entertainment projects. It’s just that they maybe didn’t have an avenue to explore it. As brands are realizing that there’s much more potential beyond a 30-second commercial, in terms of engaging their audiences, what it does is create a lot more opportunities for creatives to be able to spread their wings a little bit.
I’m seeing more exceptional writers, both film and television, starting to move into the advertising space, into the video game space, so that there’s much more of a dialogue between the businesses. At the end of the day, there’s so much commonality between them; there are so many linkages between the entertainment business, the music business, the advertising business and the technology business, we can’t ignore them. And there’s so much overlap—there’s no black-and-white approach anymore. Every approach is grey, or as I like to think about it, full color.
It seems that you see transmedia as the modern incarnation of a very old-fashioned concept?
I think that’s the most beautiful thing about this. It’s tradition. It’s merging classical lyricism with technological innovation. We have more platforms than we ever had because distribution models have become much more equalized. We have more ways to reach an audience and more ways to expand upon what the very meaning of story can be. But the essence, traditional storytelling, it’s an essential foundation of human relationships—being able to share our experiences with each other.
So whether I share that experience by drawing somebody a picture or shooting them a short film or writing them an e-mail or a handwritten letter about something that happened to me, isn’t that what “transmedia” is? It’s so basic, and it’s nothing new. A picture communicates on a different emotional level than a piece of writing does. You couldn’t argue that one is greater than the other; they tap into different parts of you.
Do you think transmedia will become the status quo?
The most important thing is just to figure out ways we can give our audiences richer experiences. If it’s just in one media form, and that’s effective, then great. If it’s in more, and you’re able to expand on it because it makes sense—not because you’re forcing it—it’s what you’ll see. There are so many untapped opportunities to be able to bring the tradition and the innovation together to do different things.
What’s on your personal Things to Watch list—what do you have your eye on?
One really exciting company we [at Motion Theory] have a relationship with is Synn Labs—in terms of looking at business differently, there is truly no one like them. It’s a group of artists, engineers, rocket scientists—a like-minded community of people who are doing projects that are completely outside the box. We’re working with them and developing projects for advertising clients that are a cross-pollination of installation and artistic innovation and engineering.
They’re technologists. The marketplace is now finding them, and they created themselves before there was a market for them. They were known for creating the Rube Goldberg machine in the OK Go music video [“This Too Shall Pass”]. The remarkable thing about them is that’s the simplest thing for them. But everybody talks about it because it was like a little piece of magical realism. It really happened, but people couldn’t believe it happened. It worked on so many levels, because people talked about it, blogged about it.
Before, a commercial would live and die within the span of its air date. Now there’s an opportunity to create real fan bases, to provide experiences for our audiences and consumers that have a much more long-lasting effect and the potential to inspire people or get people to talk about things. In that regard, Synn Labs is on the pulse.
Photo credit: Zen Sekizawa