Seattle–The Future Capital Of Transmedia Storytelling?

What the hell is transmedia storytelling anyway? If you’ve got a vacant stare and question mark above your head right now you are not alone. The looming trasmedia revolution is misunderstood by many indie film makers, and/or completely off their radar. What is it? Who is doing it? Is this like the whole BluRay/HD DVD thing? And why is Seattle the perfect candidate for becoming the transmedia storytelling capital of the world?

There’s some debate as to what transmedia storytelling actually is, and if that is even a good name for it. Some call it multiplatform or cross-platform storytelling. The most basic definition of transmedia is:

telling a story across multiple platforms simultaneously to create a complete storytelling experience.

“Well hey, you mean multimedia, right?” Yes. And no. Multimedia–like it sounds–is the use of multiple forms of content and media to create a single medium. If you give a presentation at work and it contains text, images, video, and sound, then you have given a multimedia presentation. Some feel that multimedia and transmedia are two different ways of looking at the same thing and that the difference is conceptual,  rather than mechanical.

Transmedia has been around a long time, some citing the bible as an early example of a transmedia story experience. A more recent example is the Star Wars franchise. This is called the Franchise Model: 

Star Wars began as a film, and over time added books, video games, additional films, board games, toys, fan literature, etc. Each additional piece of content built upon the central story and gave consumers additional entry points into the story world. There are many examples of this approach, from The Bible, to The Matrix to Harry Potter to Barbie, and franchises have gotten their start not only with films, but with books, video games, toys, etc. A primary characteristic of the franchise model is that in general it develops into a transmedia product over time.

The other principal transmedia model is the portmanteau:

Examples of the portmanteau model include:

  • ARG’s (alternate reality games) like Dreadnot, which included working phone numbers and email addresses for characters, gave clues within the source code, and included real places in San Francisco.
  • Series like Australian teen drama Slide, which ecouraged viewers to view extra content via online apps, facebook, and twitter.

A chief difference between the portmanteau and franchise models is that a portmanteau is typically planned as a transmedia experience from the beginning, and the various pieces of the puzzle are more equally vital to gaining the entire story experience.

Transmedia is often used in advertising campaigns. So much so that one can be excused for thinking that transmedia equals marketing–for example, the wildly popular Game Of Thrones franchise. Their transmedia campaign was pretty fucking sick. It was based on the five senses. Here’s an excerpt from a case study:

The first sense in the campaign was scent – carefully curated packages including an antiqued box filled with custom-made scents from the regions of Westeros and illustrated manuscripts were sent to journalists, bloggers and influencers. The resulting coverage and “unboxing videos” kicked off an intriguing campaign for a wide audience.

View case study.


And this was not an ill-fated attempt at recreating Smell-O-Vision. If you keep reading the case study you will find that one of the pieces of content was dishes from around the fictional world of Westeros created by respected chefs.

How kickass is that?

Despite the fact that transmedia seems primarily to be used in marketing these days, many savvy narrative storytellers are jumping on the bandwagon. We all need to hop on that wagon. Or we’re going to get left behind.

Audience expectations are shifting. In the past viewers were content to simply consume content. Not any more. Consumers want interaction and engagement. They don’t want to see or read the story, they want to be an active part of it. And they want multiple options to experience the story world. What was once the domain of the sci-fi convention, larping, geek realm has now become main stream. Everyone is a fanboy now, and if you don’t cater to their lust for content they will go elsewhere. Or they will simply start creating their own content and consuming that. Take for example Slash Fiction.

Slash fiction appears to have got its start with a Kirk/Spock (hence the slash) story by Diane Marchant entitled, ”A Fragment Out Of Time.” Dianne explored the deep, manly friendship of Kirk and Spock.

Way deep.

Bad puns aside, slash fiction exploded, (in Uranus, heh) and it’s hard to find a franchise that doesn’t have a group of fans dedicated to creating this kind of specialized, adjunct, fan-created content. I wonder what William Shatner thinks of all this? I know what George Takei thinks.

Speaking of Star Trek, the Seattle based fan series Star Trek Phoenix is a prime example of user generated content that builds upon the story world of an existing transmedia franchise. Fans love Phoenix, because it gives them an additional way to experience the story world, one they can actually shape themselves.

Many creators of content–especially corporate ones–cringe at this loss of control: “This is my story (or product)! I can’t have the unwashed masses meddling in my brilliance and stealing my intellectual property!” But truly wise individuals and corporations are realizing that by giving away control they can be  rewarded with greater success in disseminating their content. Some make crowdsourcing a vital way that content is generated for the story world. In this way the fans become co-owners of the story world and become more highly invested than if they were simply viewers. An example of this is the local webseries, JourneyQuest. They requested and used input from consumers about where they would like to see the story go.

Of all the places in the world Seattle is the most eminently qualified to produce transmedia content. We are the home of Microsoft, for Christ’s sake. There’s so much tech savvy in this town it’s sickening. And Seattle is packed to the gills with talented, hungry independent film makers. Add to that a decadently rich artistic culture of performers, writers, illustrators, artists, sculpters,  puppeteers, you name it, and we’ve got all the elements to produce some wicked ass transmedia products. So why don’t we?

Because it’s an ass load of work, that’s why. It’s hard enough making an indpendent film or webseries, and it is prohibitively expensive. Most indie film makers struggle to get a ten minute short out the door without creating a disaster. Turning that story into a true transmedia experience? Fuggitaboutit.

Some local indie productions have done a fine job of having jazzy websites and additional content for their story world. Is this truly transmedia? In most cases, no. If the content is just a repackaging of the core content–for example making an episode available in multiple places–then it really isn’t. Now, if a production has facebook pages for its characters that viewers may interact with, I would argue that that constitutes transmedia.

An example of a nascent transmedia storytelling experience is the Seattle webseries, The Collecitbles. They have made a fine indie effort at creating some transmedia content: the aforementioned facebook pages for their characters, fake commercials, adjunct video content, action figures, and personal apearances by the actors in character at Comicon. They have even begun the process of creating computer animated content based on their characters and story world. Has The Collectibles created a robust, transmedia experience? Not yet. But it’s a great start. And we have to start somewhere.

We can’t keep doing shorts and trying to get them into festivals if we want to engage consumers. The festival model is at least fifteen years out of date and I’m not sure it was ever a viable model for most indies. Features? Forget it. Many indies are finally jumping on the webseries bandwagon thinking that it is the cutting edge wave of the future. And it would be, if this were 2005. Even though Seattleites in general are extremely tech savvy, Seattle indie film makers (in general) are not. They are quite the opposite, and extremely slow to adopt unfamiliar modes of storytelling. They’re like a bunch of grumpy old men who insist on mowing their lawn with an old push mower because “that’s the way we did it in ‘Nam.” 

The way content is being distributed and consumed is changing so rapidly, that what is cutting edge now may not exist in a year. Or a month. Take for example the plethora of sites that now stream indie content. As little as a year ago it was a big deal to get a distribution deal with a site like netflix or indieflix that charged subscribers a modest fee to view their film library. In a year, sites that charge subscribers a fee will no longer exist. If you invested in one of those sites or created one, you are fucked. (IMHO, but tell me I’m wrong here.) Anyone can and will be able to stream their content for free, and consumers will be able to access it for free. The market will become even more flooded with media that is the same as our own, only better. That is why independent film makers must use every tool at their disposal to engage consumers and pull them into their story world.

As always, people and companies with money will have an enormous advantage in producing transmedia storytelling content. Just look at what is currently happening with webseries. Industry professionals are already jumping on the webseries bandwagon. It’s not a fair fight, and indie film makers are about to get a black eye. It’s time to put on the gloves and hit the gym.

Therefore, I am throwing down the transmedia gauntlet before all indie film makers. Create a story using more than one piece of media, and make each of those puzzle pieces an equally satisfying way of entering your story world. Make use of the vast pool of technical and creative talent that surrounds you. Make a card game, a puppet show, create a flavor of ice cream that only appears in your story, give me an iPhone app, a children’s toy, tie it into a real place or real people. I want more than a short or webseries.

Everyone wants more. If you don’t give to us, someone else will.



  1. I think this should be a great conversation starter and an inspiring article for indie filmmakers making any type of low budget filmic product, especially a webseries-type story. There are tech savvy people all over Seattle, and if filmmakers are trying to get exposure, it makes sense to try to get it any way they can and use these people, seek them out; add more players to the team. Being really creative as well as practical in the ways that one goes about it is key. I mean, it does sound funny, but ice cream flavors, card games and even puppet shows are a step in the right direction, in addition to character profile pages, blogs, behind the scenes clips, etc. Interactive seems to be where it’s at – if people can be more involved – via skype or any kind of virtual Q & A thing – that’s good stuff, give the audience a broader experience… If the show’s okay but the other things are great fun, more people will want to follow the show, they might stick with it more, wait for it to improve, help it improve (some of these web shows just need time to get things ironed out, to find the tone or style or focus that suits them best) through feedback and inspiration… It’s logical that The Bible is one of the first transmedia storytelling Things, and certainly it’s a franchise. A book became a church became music, theatre, TV, etc etc and it continues to evolve and be financially successful. Interesting to think about… This is the first article I’ve read that put all these ideas in one place. Very interesting conversation piece all around. I look forward to reading the next article in this series if you keep rolling with it.

  2. dilettante douchebag

    I have to confess, a lot of this is a reworking of the logistikat.com blog. She’s been preaching this stuff since I met her.
    I really think this is where things are going, and Todd Downing, with the Collectibles is one of the few people I know locally that is making any effort to be transmedia. Go Todd!

  3. I am. Seven short films, three visual artists, written media, and a live theatrical premiere event in October. Free to the public. Oh and everything available via creative commons license. BOOYA.


    Also: cite your sources, sir.

  4. dilettante douchebag

    How dare you question my sources!

    I can’t wait to see this project. Do I get a preview?

  5. Created a four-part television series (DOC Channel in the U.S. & 10 foreign territories) and feature film (AFI Fest, SIFF, Mill Valley, iTunes, Netflix, Amazon ) entitled “Icons Among Us: jazz in the present tense.” Working on the digital portal & ebook now.

    It’s the way of future to be sure as indie producers can reach the their audiences with the messaging in multiple forms because of the reduction in cost and accessibility of both digital storage and transmission bandwidth.

    All we need is a partner for an experiential game entitled “Jazz Band” and we’ll be complete. Seriously, who would not want a trumpet accessory to play along with those lonely nights to Armstrong, Davis, Hargrove or Scott… Let me know if anyone has an idea…

  6. I think this has been a long time coming. Video Games have been doing this for 25 years at least. The problem as I see it however is the majority of Seattle Film Makers don’t take the time to learn things like cinematography, Directing, or even good writing in most cases. I have already seen one production totally screw up Transmedia with facebook characters for the movie and you actually had to go to the facebook page to understand the feature film. Even having done so I wished I had not worked on this project it was so terribly written and rushed to completion so that it would have continuity with their transmedia branches.

    The key to good transmedia it seems to me is good media. If you can’t create a good movie or even a good blog become proficient in one media before starting another or at least find somebody that can do it for you. But please get good at story telling as defined by others not yourself before you embark on a transmedia campaign. I say this as one who understands their short comings and strives to overcome them through hard work and experience not arrogance and denial of my very apparent lack of skills.

    • dilettante douchebag

      You got a point, if you can’t even do a good job in one media, how are you going to do a good job in several?
      Transmedia is a hell of a lot of work, you need to be wicked smart, and the writing is much more difficult. Normal screen writing is difficult to do well.
      Transmedia takes more man/brain power. The problem I see at the lower levels is that no one wants to share control. Scraps over control and pissing over territory are common in the lower echelons of indie production.
      The groups that push through these barriers will be the ones to produce good transmedia content. And likely they will have already produced good single media content.

  7. Yes, yes, and YES! To all of this, including the comments. Too much of the Seattle indie film scene is vanity projects, so relinquishing control is absolutely not what many producers want to do. Either that, or they’re not good enough to entice others of quality in different disciplines to come play.

    Not only that, but the legal issues become exponentially more complicated. And we’ve all seen the hot messes that pass for contracts in this town.

    Let’s do something about all of that, shall we?

  8. Pingback: Innovation Labs–An Opportunity For Indie Filmmakers | dilettante douchebag

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