Several years ago, I asked a leading producer of animated features how much creative control his team exerted over the games, toys, comics, and other products that deployed their characters. I was reassured that the distribution company handled all such ancillary materials. I saw the movement of content across media as an enhancement of the creative process. He saw it as a distraction or corruption.This past month, I attended a gathering of top creatives from Hollywood and the games industry, hosted by Electronic Arts; they were discussing how to collaboratively develop content that would play well across media. This meeting reflected a growing realization within the media industries that what is variously called transmedia, multiplatform, or enhanced storytelling represents the future of entertainment.
Let’s face it: we have entered an era of media convergence that makes the flow of content across multiple media channels almost inevitable. The move toward digital effects in film and the improved quality of video game graphics means that it is becoming much more realistic to lower production costs by sharing assets across media. Everything about the structure of the modern entertainment industry was designed with this single idea in mind-the construction and enhancement of entertainment franchises.
And the push isn’t just coming from the big media companies. The kids who have grown up consuming and enjoying Pokemon across media are going to expect this same kind of experience from The West Wing as they get older. By design, Pokemon unfolds across games, television programs, films, and books, with no media privileged over any other. For our generation, the hour-long, ensemble-based, serialized drama was the pinnacle of sophisticated storytelling, but for the next generation, it is going to seem, well, like less than child’s play. Younger consumers have become information hunters and gatherers, taking pleasure in tracking down character backgrounds and plot points and making connections between different texts within the same franchise. And in addition, all evidence suggests that computers don’t cancel out other media; instead, computer owners consume on average significantly more television, movies, CDs, and related media than the general population.
While the technological infrastructure is ready, the economic prospects sweet, and the audience primed, the media industries haven’t done a very good job of collaborating to produce compelling transmedia experiences. Even within the media conglomerates, units compete aggressively rather than collaborate. Each industry sector has specialized talent, but the conglomerates lack a common language or vision to unify them. The current structure is hierarchical: film units set licensing limits on what can be done in games based on their properties. At the same time, film producers don’t know the game market very well or respect those genre elements which made something like Tomb Raider successful. We need a new model for co-creation-rather than adaptation-of content that crosses media.