Writing Transmedia / by Heather Taylor

The Writer’s Guild of America East put on the great panel Writing Transmedia during the New York Film Festival Convergence weekend. The panel featured George Strayton (Wrote for Xena! and produced Transmedia content for Transformers 1 & 2, Stardust, Star Trek), John Esposito (Walking Dead, Teen Titans), Nick Bernardone (30 rock webisodes).

As this was a panel, I thought I’d capture what they said question by question to give you a sense of what we experienced as the content was all good!

How do you define Transmedia?

GS: Anything that’s not the direct intellectual property that the studio is producing. We were emmersing people in the film before they saw it. From Transformers with the Sector 7 website all the way to Star Trek live parties. JJ Abrams wanted Star Trek to be mainstream. He created the live parties at exclusive venues and then it was Star Trek themed inside. Transmedia is not just digital. It’s about transcending the medium of the originating project.

JE: I had to keep the integrity of the original world and play in their sandbox. I could create anything that links to the world in the same Universe. But there are limitations to the things you can’t do. We had to shoot first season’s webisodes for Walking Dead in 3 days and couldn’t use any original characters. They did allow us to use the Zombie Bicycle girl in season one, episode one and we created her backstory in 3 minute episodes.

NB: The greatest challenge is time as I also work on the show and do 60 hour weeks and then have to do something for NBC.com. I don’t have to worry about backstory/ continuity but it has a narrower scope.

How is writing Transmedia different? Process different? Technical concerns?

NB: We have smaller budget and space to work in. The webisodes are shot in between bits in the show and then do very simple, very one off productions. At 30 Rock, we lost the Emmy for our webisodes 3-4 years in a row, so trying to create an arc in this final season and are going to create a three part series with more story elements.

JE: Story is the same for us regardless of medium. The challenge is to create that in 2-3 minute bursts. Even though it’s a horror show, it’s very character motivated and at the core it’s about the survival of families. So how do you create back story on 2-3 minute shots? Time constraints are tough. Thank goodness they had the effects, so that was the same as show so had to come up with set pieces.

Because it looks like show, there is an expectation that it is the show the audiences watch on TV every week even though it doesn’t have the same budget. Because of this, we try to come in from a different angle. It becomes an entry point like a video game or comic book.

GS: I’ve worked in advertising for film and was a game designer before that. You have to ask what the demographic is. Sometimes you get this from studio – do you want to reach new audiences or are you building this content for the fans. Then you have to decide what medium to do in. (Comic books may reach more males and Pinterest may reach females for instance)

How are Transmedia audiences different? Are they changing? How much is filmed entertainment and how much is marketing?

GS: It’s tied directly into devises. The technology gives more outlets and more eyeballs. This is probably going to keep evolving forever. If China opens Facebook up, it will be massive and we’ll see even more engagement!

As for marketing vs content? It can be both or either but it depends on what you are doing. I always want it to be what you want to watch but you need to understand what marketing people need (Money usually comes from them for these types of projects with studios) For instance, the marketing budget for Transformers was 75 million but only a fraction was given for interactive.

So I have to think here’s the story. Now how do I split it up and allow you to follow wherever it is without missing anything by not seeing the rest and how does it lead to the main project.

JE: In one year, the producers upped the webisodes from 2-3 minutes to 5-6 minutes each for Walking Dead. Audience is tech savvy and wants to be there.

You have to tell the best story you can and have it capture your audience. I hadn’t watched webisodes when Walking Dead hired me. Irony was though it was like writing a script, you have to keep thinking as a fan who’s checking in on this.

What are some great examples of state of art for Transmedia and where is it going?

NB: We were up for an Emmy for short form fiction. But what won was something blending the line. Children’s Hospital was made for online. This is something finding the middle ground between 3 minute episodes (which feel more like marketing) and something that is a faster quicker TV show. It’s doing well and growing a niche audience.

JE: Maybe transmedia will become more interactive. Right now you can tweak as you get a response as you know what people are thinking. Because tech is there, it’s interesting to see audience telling their own story and adding to the current show. You can set up Skype and do anything you want like an elaborate game of telephone. Audiences already feel ownership. They are the uberfan and maybe it will lead to the fan base adding more stories themselves.

GS: TV shows that are online and move to TV to watch feel different. At the moment production costs are lower and at the same time it’s more interactive. We’ll see more media created in “own backyard” and become a show like what happened with “Shit My Dad said”. It’s happening quickly.

NB: Games are moving into where you can tell the story. The Star Wars and Walking Dead games are a step ahead of state of the art as you can create story in them.

JE: All this stuff belongs to us. Fans love the film and believe: “You can have the residuals but it’s my movie.” George Lucas has embraced this and there is a fan fiction movie awards each year, for example. He’s the biggest indie film maker in the world. Transmedia is a new catch phrase but it’s been around forever.

What’s NOT Transmedia? What’s tired?

NB: If you tell the same exact story on different platforms, you are not expanding the world. If you told Frankenstein 100 times in the same way, it’s not Transmedia. People thinking themselves in their environment is funny, is not. Unemployment is not a storyline

GS: Never had a producer as a writer of Transmedia. Just a studio executive who has the money. It’s both a writing and a producing job.

NB: It’s the filmmaker medium. You have to produce, write and direct. This is the medium for the do it all type of guy (or girl).

JE: There is this impression that Transmedia is a cheap marketing tool, but we do care as creators. It’s not about a fantasy world, it’s down to the core of the stories. We need entry into these stories that are real. When it becomes something else, it’s cause it’s in the air.