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Story Is the Story on SXSW Multiplatform and Transmedia Panels

HTML5At panel after panel at South by Southwest (SXSW), we saw the playing out of multiplatform and transmedia experiments, both by big and little guys. It turns out that story is key (probably not a surprise for filmmakers).

I participated in one of two panels on using html5 for film. (That “html5” stuff is actually shorthand for open, web-native video. Our panel, HTML5 for Film: Leading Edge or Bleeding Edge?, featured Mozilla’s Ben Moskowitz, Xavier Facon of the advertising firm Crisp Media, James Burns of Zeega, and filmmaker Luisa Dantas.

The answers:  It’s bleeding edge, but in a good way. (Or, to quote Moskowitz, “If It doesn’t bleed, it’s dead!”). No, open video is not for every filmmaker or story, but it creates new creative opportunities.  You can address your financial problems with open video, including incorporation of product placement and advertising. (Or, to quote Facon, “Advertising is the future!”) In Burns’ succinct formulation: Don’t think technology, think experience.  It’s not about the tools, but about the purpose. Although, Dantas pointed out, sometimes it is about the tools, because some parts of this are still a “dark art” for lack of standards. There is always a story, but now the users are a part of it. Sustainability is not solved, partly because it’s still not clear what we’re doing.

It was fun, then, to go to the other panel on open video, Does HTML5 Offer a Montage Moment for Web Cinema? , which also made a good argument for bleeding-edge status. There, Tribeca’s Ingrid Kopp, filmmaker/developer Brett Gaylor, developer Brian Chirls, and Jigar Mehta of the 18 Days in Egypt project discussed the formal and aesthetic challenges of this emergent art form. Chirls and Mehta showed how they solved some storytelling problems in combining five minutes of personal testimony about a moment in the Egyptian Spring with 15 seconds of video from that moment—foregrounding the testimony and using a looped version of the video as background.  The panelists argued that open video today is in a similar position to film before D.W. Griffith worked out the basics of narrative editing; we’re still working out the basic formal strategies.

Some takeaways:  Make sure there is a story to navigate; the viewer is going on a hero’s journey. Don’t use all the tools just to use them. Avoid what Chirls calls “the what-am-I-looking-at syndrome.” Perhaps most expansive was Gaylor’s pronouncement: The Web is a documentary.

I also enjoyed two panels that featured big-ticket, even extravagant projects. Multiplatform Storytelling: Frontline War Stories featured Dinas Benadon walking us through the development of a multi-million dollar Singapore museum project that immersed viewers in a digital typhoon, complete with a platform that sinks to give them the sensation of drowning (!).  Film director Jon Chu talked about the critical importance of social media to his film project with Justin Bieber, who needed to “anoint” him via Twitter so Bieber’s followers would accept his work.  Then, poor guy, he had to figure out what to do with his nePandemicwly acquired 350,000 Bieberite Twitter followers when he took the job of directing "GI Joe".  Lance Weiler walked us through an interative narrative, "Pandemic," which featured a treasure hunt at the Sundance Film Festival.  USC game designer and teacher Tracy Fullerton displayed a game imbedded in orientation materials for incoming freshmen, which generated an enormous amount of media in the process.

Some takeaways: Story first, story first, story first. (Noticing a theme here?)  The ultimate storytelling platform? Christmas. Fail quickly and often. Keep it simple. Go local.

At Creating the Code: A BBC Transmedia Documentary, we got a close-up look at a BBC production about mathematics in the world, which was simultaneously a longform program, online videos, and a game.  All of them had embedded clues that would help viewers solve puzzles. The show attracted world-wide attention, and attracted more younger and female viewers than BBC is used to for its science programming.
Takeaways: Make a transmedia project super-easy to get into. Embed your partners. Embrace uncertainty. Expect things to go wrong. You are guaranteed to make mistakes if the game is complex and you make it fast, be ready with a plan for updating and alerting. And finally, expect people to love it.

At Entertainment after Transmedia, executives from Microsoft, Blacklight and Random House talked about constructing huge franchise projects of the order of Harry Potter.  They all found the realities of today’s rather siloed media businesses to get in the way of big thinking. In particular, they noted that of the doorways to a transmedia franchise—movies, books, and games—the one to avoid was movies. The studios apparently have an inflexible approach to rights and a lumbering approach to multiplatform. They also cautioned against “premature world-building.” Their advice: make sure you have an anchoring story.