A Transmedia Approach

Transmedia storytelling is where you tell one story across multiple platforms. You can see this form of storytelling happen with a number of different high-profile properties from the major studios at the moment, where they tell one massive story across film, TV, books, comic books, etc. And this form of storytelling is beginning to gain popularity amongst filmmakers for obvious reasons. By telling your story across different platforms, you can reach different audiences and even cross-promote your material across the various mediums you are telling your story.

However, the way that this idea has been pushed into the psyche of the entertainment world does, at least to me, come across as a bit romanticised. It can create this illusion that if you tell your stories across multiple platforms that you will without a shadow of a doubt build an audience, make a whole lot of money and, in turn, become successful. This is obviously not the case. The market might simply not be interested in your story no matter what medium you tell it in.

As a side note, there are a number of people who push this idea that you can be anything you want to be, that you should follow your dreams and ignore anyone who says otherwise. But this is really quite misleading and can even send people down a very dark path. What is missed here is that while you might be interested and even incredibly talented at a particular skill that doesn’t necessarily mean that the market is willing to pay you for that skill (at least not yet). And to become successful, from a financial perspective, you require both talent in that particular skill and the market has to value your talent, at least to the point where the market is willing to pay you enough so that you can survive on your talent. To say that you can be anything you want to be is like looking at one side of a coin. It doesn’t tell the whole story.

Anyway, back to transmedia storytelling, while there is this illusion that seems to be forming around transmedia storytelling, I feel that there is a more structured way in which we, as filmmakers, can utilise this approach in order to mitigate the risks that naturally come from filmmaking and remain in control of our stories, that seems so blatantly obvious, but is also not being done, at least from what I could find, by anyone else and, in turn, isn’t being shared. And so, let us use an example here to highlight this approach.

Let’s say you have an idea for a huge sci-fi film. The film has the protagonist travelling to various worlds, encountering various creatures, is action packed, etc., etc. This film is obviously going to cost a boat load of money. Let’s say the budget is $100 million. And just to make it even more difficult, let’s say you have never made a film before. Not a feature film. Not a short. Nothing. Now, firstly, most of us don’t have that kind of money to drop, and secondly, no studio would be willing to take that kind of a chance on an unknown property, especially when you have never made a film before. Not a problem.

What you could do is create a backstory for the protagonist in another medium, whether that medium be a written short story, or a podcast, or a video blog, it doesn’t really matter, but essentially, what you are doing is creating a story that relates to the grander idea you have for the film. Once that is done, what you could then do is sit down and theorise who might be interested in this story that you created in another medium (we’ll use a written short story from here on out to make the rest of the example concise), creating a list of demographics who might be interested in your written short story and then order the list based on who you theorise would be most interested in your written short story. You could then go down the list, from the demographic you theorise would be most interested in your written short story to the least interested, and vet your written story against these demographics to test whether or not your idea could find a viable audience.

Now, there is something to keep in mind here. There is a good reason why I chose written short story instead of a book. While books are great, and there are a lot of book enthusiasts, what you are testing is the response from these demographics and with a book, seeing as you will probably have to charge the person you are handing your book to in order to make up the costs of producing the book, there will be a barrier between you and what you are really after, which is market response. Therefore, the type of content you are looking to create here is content that ideally:

1) You can make for free (so you don’t have to incur any costs)

2) You can share for free

3) You can make money off of

This is why a written short story would be a great way to test market response, since you can write it for free on your computer, share it with people for free, either in person, via email or social media and can make money off of by suppling a link at the end of the short story so that the reader can donate money to you if they so wish to.

As you then share your written short story, what you will begin to realise is that in your list of demographics that one demographic will elicit a greater response, in that they are willing to send you more money, than the other demographics on your list. Once you have identified this demographic, you would then find more people of this demographic and share your written short story with them. The idea here is to focus on the demographic which elicits the strongest response so you can get the greatest return.

While you are doing this, and are beginning to build an audience, what you could then do is use the money that you are earning to now write a book. The reason why you are writing a book now is because you can further expand on the written short story you have and because you have an existing audience who are already interested and excited to see where your story goes. The book is written and shared with your audience, which increases your earnings, expands your community through network effects, and the momentum you have continues to build.

And with your further earnings, you could use that money to adapt your story into other mediums, even if this requires you to collaborate with other artists, which, in turn, provides more value to your existing audience, whilst at the same time, introduces you to potentially new audience members who could join your community.

It might be at this point where you’re wondering when you are going to make your sci-fi epic, and this is coming. But what you should understand here is where the studios – who are really the only people who could fund your expensive film – are coming from. What studios want is to make sure they can make a return on their investment. And what you are doing by building this audience is highlighting to the studios that you have a property that can give them a return on their investment.

Another idea that might have come to your mind is that while you are building your audience what you could also be doing is reaching out to these studios to pitch your film. But the studios don’t tend to allow anyone they don’t know, even with a large audience, to just pitch to them their film idea. You’d either have to have a connection that could get you in the door or they would have to reach out to you. And while networking in the film industry isn’t a bad idea to try to meet the person who could get you in the door, as you build your audience, it would make more sense to just continue to build your community, since that’s the very reason why the studio would be interested in you in the first place.

So, as you continue to build your community, at some point, it will all click and the person who could give you the opportunity to make your sci-fi epic is now able to do so. And even though the journey to this point might have taken longer than it might have otherwise – although, you can never know how long it would have actually taken you to make the film doing coffee meetings with people you don’t really know on an empty idea that hasn’t been tested against the market – you have more leverage in the meeting and can get more out of the opportunity. You can negotiate terms that work and make sense for you because if they don’t agree to it there is nothing to stop a rival studio from approaching you to make your film. You have leverage. You don’t have to take a deal out of some fear you imposed on yourself. You get to decide here.

Now, you’re probably thinking that this is all well said and good, but what if none of the demographics on our list are interested in your written short story. And this is a fair point. And it’s difficult for me to suggest a response with a hypothetical example. But what you’re trying to establish is whether or not the audience is interested in your idea. If the audience is just not interested in reading a short story, then adapt the story into another medium, a medium they would be interested in. And if they’re not interested in your idea, then no loss. It didn’t cost you any money to write the short story. Sure, you put in time to make and share the short story you wrote, but no much more time than you would have in trying to pitch a film idea to a studio. And really, what you gained here is the realization that there isn’t an audience for your film idea and that your film idea was never financially feasible (at least not yet). And guess what, that’s okay. You could come up with another idea, go through this process again and build an audience the next time around. At least this way, you’re not wasting time wondering whether or not your film would work by simply doing your homework beforehand. And after you’ve gone through the process and have built up an audience on a different property, there’s no reason why you couldn’t reintroduce your original idea to your audience now. You are at a different starting position than you were before, which you can take advantage of.

With all this in mind, this approach definitely isn’t for everyone. For one, we all come with different aptitudes, and if you simply don’t have the talent or the interest for it, then this approach isn’t worth doing. And personally, I am not following the example laid out in this blog post. I have adopted an approach that works for me, with my sensibilities and understanding of things. Not that my way of doing things should deter you from giving the approach highlighted in this blog post a go, but what we are putting forward here is that understanding yourself should come before any advice anyone ever gives you. If this is not for you, then this is not for you. It’s as simple as that.

However, what we have reflected here is an approach that doesn’t require anyone’s approval. You don’t need anyone’s permission to make films anymore. You don’t need to suck up to some exec just to get a film made. You have everything you need, right here. Now, show us what you can do.