The platform is now less relevant.
Since we published our Transmedia Rising report two years ago, we’ve been watching the evolution of this and other creative storytelling concepts, along with the rise of immersive entertainment and myriad new ideas about what film and video can be. Chris Smith, who’s behind the future-filmmaking event EMERGE in the U.K., helped fill us in on the latest. Smith has worked across TV, digital advertising and film, focused on taking an innovative approach to storytelling. Two years ago he left the advertising industry to form a film and interactive production company, Modern. He’s currently producing the feature film Dog Boy and the multi-platform documentary New Town Utopia, and recently directed an animated documentary about Imogen Heap, Cumulus. Find him at citizensmith.net or twitter.com/cismith.
You’ve worked as a creative director at ad agencies—what is your focus now?
I’m working on a range of different projects at the moment, across moving image and interactive. Some are more straightforward film projects but always with a view to how I can use digital to either improve the way I’m making films or innovate in the way I reach an audience.
Tell me more about the EMERGE event.
The EMERGE at the Barbican in June was the third one and part of the East End Film Festival, and I’ll be doing it again at the Cork Film Festival in November. For me, it’s a really great opportunity to hear from people who are either filmmakers that are utilizing digital and social and emerging technologies in an innovative way, or digital people that are dipping their toe into things that link to moving image, such as interactive and cross-platform storytelling. Then there’s the audience side—looking at the film industry and how distribution is evolving, flipping on its head. EMERGE is my attempt to try and make sense of it all.
When it comes to interactive storytelling, what are you seeing now? Is it a lot of things involving mobile?
What I’m definitely seeing, not just in the brand space but in the independent space also, is that the platform is now less relevant. For a couple of years, mobile was the big thing, and then it was social. Now it seems that people are talking more in terms of storytelling and how an idea can be developed using whatever channels are relevant for its audience. That’s what’s interesting to me: when technology is necessary but secondary to story and emotional engagement —whether it’s Google Glass or whether it’s a mobile or whether it’s your desktop or not technology at all, like live performance or a print book. I like the fact that those lines are getting more blurred again.
It’s reverse-engineering it. I’m seeing a focus again on researching and understanding the audience, knowing what platforms they’re using, what channels they’re using to share and communicate with, and then trying to tell the story across those channels in the right way.
That’s why interactive storytelling is exciting. I feel like it’s something that developed a bad reputation, because since the early days of YouTube and online content there have been many attempts to make films that are in some way interactive with varying degrees of success, whether it’s the “choose your own adventure” type where the user chooses a pathway through a film, or something more abstract and less about narrative and more about just diving into a story world, for instance. Now, you’ve only got to search a little bit of the Internet to find some really great examples of interactive filmmaking and interactive storytelling. Further to that, everyday new events and environments are launched to celebrate and investigate the medium, from hackathons and digital festivals through to brand-sponsored activities.
What are some examples of great interactive storytelling?
[At the recent EMERGE event], we had the guys from Choose Your Own Documentary, who perform a fantastic immersive live stage show in which the audience makes decisions on which pathway a documentary film will take. In contrast, you’ve got a coder and creator like Evan Boehm, who produces very tech-based, heavily programmed interactive works that lives as either installations or online but have a strong narrative thread while giving each user a very unique experience every time.
There are lots of different ways to tell a story interactively, and you are seeing it more and more in the brand space as well now. Easier access to technology and knowledge sharing has also led to the riseof transmedia, which has been a hot topic for some time now.
How do you define “transmedia”?
Ultimately, it’s the development of an idea or telling of a story using all the means required to reach your audience and enhance the story. So if that goes across more than one medium—if it’s not just a book, it’s not just a film, it’s not just a website—then at that point it becomes transmedia.
As far as I’m concerned, the ad space has been practicing transmedia for a long time anyway. That’s what integrated marketing is or should be: conveying a message of story across all customer communication channels. It’s taking a single idea and integrating that across platforms. In the studio film world, if you look at GDO films like Dark Knight Rises or Prometheus, what they’ve got is fantastically clever marketing campaigns across all the digital and social channels. Prometheus, they made the fictional TED talk and released that as a viral film—it was a beautifully executed viral idea that everyone was going to share because the anticipation for the film was so high, but it also tapped into the zeitgeist of TED talks, and so it was a surefire concept to build the anticipation around the film.
I’m not sure how much I like it, or how long it will last, but transmedia is a very broad, nebulous term. Maybe that’s a good thing, and maybe it should be, because the technology is constantly changing and our behaviors are evolving with that. I’m 36 now, and the further I get from 16-year-olds or 18-year-olds, the more difficult it is to understand their behaviors. I really want to get into Minecraft, but that one seems to have passed me by.
Older generations are adopting new behaviors such as “media meshing” and “media stacking.” For younger generations, this really is second nature. Everything’s shifting: the way we watch content, the way we watch TV—how long will scheduled television continue, as we pick and choose what to watch, whether stealing it or through legally accessing it on iTunes, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, etc.?
What are some interesting transmedia examples from brands that you’ve seen lately, or newer approaches?
A brand I’ve been really impressed with in the marcomms space is Red Bull. They’ve taken branded content and activities to another level, and they genuinely tell amazing stories that are different, edgy and actually building a new audience. And then what Disney are doing with Infinity, creating this digital sandbox with their characters that already have so much cultural and social resonance. It also taps into different generations and key demographics, building this open world that the users can become immersed in.
In the U.K., Channel 4, the TV company, has done great work around their shows. There’s a show Utopia, which is being adapted for the States and David Fincher is directing it. From launch it was supported by great digital and social media content enhancing the world of the film and an intricate, complex storyline. The digital side of it lets you really delve into the world and try and work out what’s going on.
When it comes to interactive film, the National Film Board of Canada has led the way with interactive documentaries, and if you go to their website, they’ve got a fantastic selection.
When you talk about experiments in the moving image, what’s happening in that world that’s really interesting?
The way people are adapting to finding an audience: What you’re seeing is [independent filmmakers] taking an innovative approach to building an audience with their film from the earlier stages, sometimes even before the script is finished, keeping an ongoing relationship and then using that to do clever things with the way they release their film. A lot of this is through necessity; now that so many feature films are being produced, the market is saturated. It’s so tough to get distribution. Filmmakers are taking the initiative and creating new models for getting their film seen and using smart, relevant tactics to promote their films.
In the U.K., Channel 4 released Field, and it was the first high-profile feature film that was launched on every platform at the same time in the U.K. It was aired on free broadcasting TV, it was out in the cinemas, it was on video on demand. If it was more commercially successful than a more traditional cinema release followed by DVD, VOD and TV is debatable. However, what it achieved is open up the doors for filmmakers to take more risks with their films and shake up the more institutional elements of the industry.
There’s a new platform, We Are Colony, that gives filmmakers the chance to monetize every aspect of their film, creating ancillary revenues. So alongside selling the film online for, as an example, £2.99, you could create a short behind-the-scenes documentary and sell this for 99 pence or copies of the screenplay or even sell dinner with the lead actor. Kickstarter and crowdfunding helped kick off the popularity of perks and creating additional benefits around a film. Colony is taking the concept of perks and enabling filmmakers to monetize them, but also encouraging filmmakers to create an ecosystem of content around their film.
Curated distribution of films is also going to become more relevant. Examples are platforms such as MUBI and VODO. VODO, which started out as a legal BitTorrent platform for films, are also licensing and curating content. If you subscribe, you will get a themed package of content, which might be made up of iPhone games, films, e-books, that are all based on a specific theme, whether that’s horror, romance. We’re so overwhelmed by choice that curation is becoming so important, and audiences are going to start trusting other people to try and curate their content for them.
It’s interesting that with VODO, it’s any form of content that relates to this theme.
I’ve downloaded the last couple of their packages, and there’s some cracking content I would never, ever have discovered by myself.
Discovery is now such a big issue, because there are so many different ways to find so much material.
When I open Spotify, there is so much choice that I actually have to return to my iTunes and music collections to remind myself what I like! Vimeo curate staff picks, and as a filmmaker, it opens up a much greater audience if it’s selected. The power will move a little bit over to the curators, and those curators aren’t just necessarily platforms, they could be individuals, such as strong influencers on social media.
For example, Stephen Fry, the actor and comedian, has over 7 million Twitter followers. His Twitter feed has become a very powerful media platform. There is an online process in place to submit requests for Stephen to Tweet about. It says on his website, if you get a retweet from Stephen Fry, your website needs to be able to handle at least 500,000 unique users per 20 minutes or whatever. In his case, the focus is on promoting good causes rather than monetizing that platform. If a key influencer likes and shares your work, or even better, expands upon it, then it is authentic, organic promotion that resonates with audiences because they trust that influencer.
How do you think new viewing behaviors are starting to change film and TV content?
Whereas five to 10 years ago, you had online video, TV, cinema as distinct types of moving image content, now these lines are becoming blurred. The availability and cost of high-end production and post-production tech and software mean that the same tools are being used to make all of them, and they are being shared and distributed in similar ways. The old boundaries are becoming irrelevant. The only difference is the duration. TV shows such as True Detective, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones are made with the same talent, craft and technology as high-budget features but get to tell a much longer story.
Feature films will continue as a form of moving image as long as audiences are going to the cinema, however current trends are showing increasing popularity of both longer forms of visual storytelling—our devouring of box sets in single sittings—and digital content getting shorter and shorter. I know people who rather than watch TV, will happily sit watching comedy Vines for an hour on their phone, and they’re six seconds long. Vine and Instagram videos are great for capturing the essence of something, moments that trigger emotional reactions. That’s why slapstick comedy is so popular and effective on Vine.
Now we’re used to engaging with multiple activities concurrently instead of sitting in front of a ledger or a book or a film or a TV show and focusing. The chances are, we’re negotiating with five or six windows on our laptop, maybe texting a friend on our phone, and then trying to focus. Undoubtedly short-form content will become more prominent and relevant, especially when you get to developments such as Google Glass and then maybe in 10-15 years’ time, things going straight into a contact lens or being hardwired into your head, which I think it will.
Those involved with producing films or TV shows are thinking about that and focused on how they can engage their audiences on Vine and Instagram and online with two-minute trailers and additional content. The trailer for Captain America 2 probably got more hits than anything else on YouTube that day, so what the studios are doing is building anticipation about a trailer as much as the film itself. And now you’re getting six or seven versions of the trailer, and that shows you the power of shorter online content and how this can build word-of-mouth.
And on the opposite end, you have binge viewing, where people are watching hours and hours at a time.
You can sit and watch five hours of Breaking Bad, but a lot of people will probably do it with a laptop or an iPad, and so bingeing enables you to get on with a bit of work and email some friends and be on Twitter. If you’re watching a series like Breaking Bad and you miss a few moments, it’s not such a big deal. You can always rewind. Some broadcasters are really focused on second screen and how they can enable people to interact with the shows while they’re watching them.
And how do you think the cinema experience will evolve?
What you’re seeing is more attempts to make the cinema experience more engaging and different and unique, and I’m not quite sure what form that will take. I’ve seen things that are like 4D, which is bringing smells and tastes and things like that into the cinema experience. It will be challenging to go beyond 3D and beyond 2D cinema, and come up with something that’s going to become widely popular.
Immersive activities and the event cinema space is really exciting: building experiences around the cinema experience, bringing in live music or Q&As or themed activities, theatrical activities around it. Secret Cinema is the obvious example in the U.K. The challenge is to be able to do that for new films. They did in the U.K. for Grand Budapest Hotel, and the reason they could do that is because Wes Anderson has such a following.
Immersive theatre can be wonderful. Punchdrunk take a lot of tropes of cinema when it comes to storytelling and production design, and build that into an immersive theatrical experience that hinges on great performances by the cast. I hope these types of immersive experiences will grow and evolve. They give the audience a chance to focus 100 percent on the story world and the narrative, in stark contrast to the way we engage with some technologies. In a different way, this could be a broad shift in audience behavior that Oculus Rift and its like could trigger.
To wrap up, anything you haven’t mentioned already that’s especially cool or innovative?
When it comes to specific projects, I recently came across Loves of a Cyclops, which tells a story across different media but also invites content and contributions from anyone. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a sci-fi transmedia project called Cloud Chamber, which is the first really strong attempt I’ve seen at delivering a high-end, slickly produced genre interactive experience outside of gaming.
In the brand space I like the approach of agencies like theAudience, focused on authentic content and social influence. It’s smart for brands to enlist storytellers and influencers that have an audience to interpret their brand without telling them what to say or simply pushing an ad through bought media. A 16-year-old nowadays can do a good job of avoiding ads, so if you’re a brand, you’ve got to facilitate content that supports your message but is also going to be shared.
And I recently completed a project called Cumulus. It’s an animated multi-screen documentary produced entirely from the social media content and digital data of Imogen Heap and her fan base. The film uses Imogen’s innovations with technology and communication with her fans to explore how our digital personas evolve and grow through sharing and repurposing.