Transmedia Storytelling: What Is It?

Transmedia Storytelling: What Is It?

Wait a minute, what exactly is 'transmedia storytelling' again? We explore the concept in advance of next week's PSFK SALON LOS ANGELES.

John Ryan
  • 20 april 2011

We get confused ourselves, and who could blame us? Transmedia storytelling could be a fictional property, or the method by which that property is marketed, or both, or none of the above. In advance of our PSFK SALON LOS ANGELES, we’ve prepared a primer on the different voices articulating what transmedia storytelling is or isn’t.
Henry Jenkins, USC professor and developer of the concept of ‘transmedia storytelling,’ defines it as such:

Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.

Or as the Producers Guild of America defines the term:

A Transmedia Narrative project or franchise must consist of three (or more) narrative storylines existing within the same fictional universe on [multiple] platforms

The Star Wars franchise is often held up as the ultimate example of transmedia storytelling: the core films, comic books, novels, videogames, and even toys all tells parts of the super-narrative in different ways, on different levels, creating feedback loops between the authors and the audience. As media writer Frank Rose observes:

So stories and games are intimately connected because they’re two sides of the same impulse. Stories give rise to play, and play gives rise to stories. Think of Star Wars, and all those action figures, and the fan fiction that came out of it–story transmuted to play and then to story again.

Tim Kring, creator of Heroes and Peter Hirshberg of The Conversation Group at the DLD Conference pointed out the overwhelmingly positive fan response to appearance of a small side-character Boba Fett in an otherwise throwaway Star Wars TV Special prompted creator George Lucas to develop him as a major character in subsequent sequels and prequels, moving a character from a sub-form of media to the master narrative. Transmedia storytelling requires this kind of expandability. As ARGNet’s Daniël van Gool reports on Starlight Runner CEO Jeff Gomez’s masterclass at the Cinekid festival in Amsterdam last October, not all media franchises are transmedia narratives:

JK Rowling only allows licensing of products that are based on the narrative between the first and the last page of the Harry Potter novels: she wants to control the quality of the story. But that means the world of Harry Potter has a self-imposed expiration date: there’s only so much you can get out of a limited universe. Jeff Gomez wonders out loud what Warner Brothers will do to keep making money off the Harry Potter universe after the last movie comes out.

Jenkins holds up true examples of transmedia storytelling to be open mythologies like Marvel and DC superheros, The Wizard of Oz, and even The Bible, citing his seven core concepts of transmedia: drillability vs. spreadability; multiplicity vs. continuity; immersion vs. extractability; world building; seriality; subjectivity; performance. Complex a concept enough for a handy cheat sheet.

Confused yet? Let’s ramp up the complexity with another element of transmedia storytelling and marketing, the Alternate Realty Game. First developed by Elan Lee and team to promote Steven Spielberg’s A.I., The Beast was a mystery puzzle game played across multiple media, masquerading as reality: advertising posters, websites, working phone numbers, flesh and blood actors players would interact with to reach the next level of the game. Lee continues to produce ARGs with his Fourth Wall studios, both as marketing and as original works, and the ARG is a full-fledged popular genre, involving all modern media has to offer: smartphones, augmented reality, GPS, etc. Watch this trailer for The Witness, an ARG being played in real locations in Berlin this month for an example of the possibilities.

ARGs and a full range of transmedia techniques were used to promote the television series Dexter: personalized viral Youtubes, fake newsstands on real streets stocked with imitations of real magazines all about the fictional character, animated webisodes, and so on. An interesting case study of the vast Dexter transmedia marketing campaign is here.

So far we’ve only discussed transmedia in terms of a fictional storytelling or the marketing of fiction, but what about using transmedia techniques to market non-fictional products? As strategist Will Renny observes:

It’s definitely true that most products in themselves are generally not all that interesting; they have to be placed into context, sort of hyper-reality brand stories, to explain their relevancy. Brands need to be ‘made’ interesting or, rather, made relevant. Their values need to be demonstrated, but at the same time, they also need to create a fantasy or ideal, with which to vault their products into a depiction that incites desire. In transmedia terms this means building brand ‘worlds’ or mythologies that tie every communication and experience back to a brand’s underpinning values, offering up a different part of the world or story in the different places it populates.

Wieden + Kennedy had been experimenting with transmedia for years with ARGs for Coca-Cola and Levi’s before hitting pay-dirt with their much-vaunted Old Spice campaign. But are agencies using multi-platform in a truly transmedia way, creating open mythologies that transform consumers into co-creators?

Multi-platform producer Gary Hayes uses a metaphor of transmedia storytellers being explorers in the new worlds of media, each inhabited by indigenous cultures with strong cultural differences. It’s up to us to learn the language and build bridges, not just to conquest and conquer.

Be appropriate with whatever your offering in these new territories. After a few visits you will start to get a sense of what the cultural values are and how your ‘story/product/extension’ may be relevant to both the medium and your overall distributed narrative. Beware of being a bully-like invader, delivering out of context messages – you will be branded as an unwanted spammer. Expect not to get your VISA renewed in this case!

It’s a brave new world and a long, strange journey. We hope to explore all the issues above, find some answers or even more questions at our event next week. Come join us!


World of Transmedia Map by Gary Hayes,


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