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Creating and Marketing Transmedia Stories

The first keynote at AoIR 2011 is by Mike Monello (who was also the producer of the Blair Witch Project). He begins by noting the importance of team collaboration, and says that Blair Witch emerged as a completely organic process involving its principal creators. The filmmakers wanted the dialogue to be completely improvised, and so created a deep mythology for the Blair Witch story; some of the (very realistic) clips recorded for the film were then broadcast on TV, and audiences were encouraged to go to the online community Split Screen to discuss whether what they’d seen was real.

The massive success of this online discussion then led to the setting-up of the Blair Witch Project Website, which contained the underlying mythology – fans speculated on the message boards and developed theories of what was going on, and the filmmakers themselves almost accidentally became involved in the story as filmmakers, therefore. While there was nothing on the site to identify the story as fiction, there was never any intention to mislead – and the site linked to information about the production process, too.

Further fan Websites also emerged, and the filmmaker provided some unreleased images to these eites; this was in stark contrast to the activities of major studios, which were at the same time sending cease-and-desist letters to the operators of fan sites for franchises like Star Trek, for example. Fans also provided further input to the backstory, wrote fan fiction, and helped with the promotion of the then still incomplete movie. Blair Witch also brought a new audience to independent movies through this process.

There was such a strong connection of fans to the movie that many of them sent letters of congratulation when the film was finally sold to a distributor – a strong sense of ‘we did it’. The distributor wanted to rebuild the Blair Witch Website, which was eventually handed over to them; meanwhile, the production company continued to release new footage through its own Website and thereby kept the core fan community alive. Additional media (books, games, music, etc.) also gradually emerged.

The distributor Artisan had originally only planned to release the movie on 15 screens across the U.S., as that was the reach of their marketing power; fans, however, persistently called cinema managers to demand to see it, and the movie eventually opened as a major summer release on some 2,000 screens instead. This opened movie distributors’ eyes to the power of Websites for movie promotion for the first time – and Mike has since gone into the business of online promotion for new cultural products.

There are a number of key principles for the creation of such transmedia products. In the first place, design communal experiences: this is inspired as much by the Greek amphitheatre as by New York’s Coney Island – customers would pay for and participate in the entertainment of other customers, in a mutually voyeuristic experience. This is something which Mike’s company Campfire has translated to the transmedia promotion of True Blood.

The audience types responding to the campaign which Mike has identified are skimmers (engaging only briefly), dippers (engaging casually, in undemanding ways, e.g. by posting on blogs and comment threads), and divers (hardcore fans exploring the full story experience) – and these types also influence and engage one another: divers attract dippers, dippers attract skimmers. Skimmers deal mainly with easily accessible, non-complex elements, divers with the more complex elements that also require significant marketing investment.

Mike’s company released materials to divers first, to get them involved; it then addressed dippers through more accessible content, and finally also released material targetted at skimmers. By the time skimmers are getting involved, there already is a vibrant community of dippers and divers to explore should skimmers wish to do so. But what will inspire divers to participate? Through Internet research, Mike says (awww…): through researching existing online communities (horror, goth, vampires, …) which may have an interest in a story like True Blood.

The second principle – storytelling vs. storygiving – puts these insights into practice: it provides an invitation for people to participate, rather than just telling the story itself; Mike’s company did this with an (earlier) alternate reality game around the release of the Audi A3 in the U.S., for example. The Art of the Heist was an elaborately staged story around the theft of the A3, starting from the theft itself from a New York dealership, reports of the event, advertisements asking for information, actors playing key characters in the story, deliberately pre-placed background information, etc.

The project fostered the discovery of clues by the audience, attracting them into becoming deeply involved divers (while also leaving clues that this was a fictional story) and making the story personal for them. Such participation should have narrative stakes – participants must be able to provide leads on the future development of the story, or at least feel as if they’re doing so.

Finally, this leads to the third key principle: building an expansive story world. The chain of tiki bars in the 1940s and 50s which created extensive backstories for their drinks and restaurants provided a detailed fantasy world for people at the time to be able to escape from their regular lives, for example; the stories provided the permission for people to act out their fantasies. Something similar happened around the Game of Thrones book and TV franchise; fan communities of the books long anticipated the TV series, and created an extensive range of Websites around the show before it was even released.

Mike’s company created a range of experiences to attract different types of fans to the show; it sent out exclusive fan packs to leading community members, provided a range of online experiences, organised food festivals to provide free samples of the cuisine in the fantasy world, provided various apps to connect audiences, and allowed fans to connect through Twitter and other online platforms as well as offline events. Important in this are tangibility (including physical items, but also real-world advertising ), context (consistent and interconnected communication), and connection (online as well as offline).

Central in all of this is also adapting to limitations – it’s necessary to think on one’s feet in all of this, and to respond quickly and effectively to the fans.