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The current licensing system typically generates works that are redundant (allowing no new character background or plot development), watered down (asking the new media to slavishly duplicate experiences better achieved through the old), or riddled with sloppy contradictions (failing to respect the core consistency audiences expect within a franchise). These failures account for why sequels and franchises have a bad reputation. Nobody wants to consume a steady diet of second-rate novelizations! 

Franchise products are governed too much by economic logic and not enough by artistic vision. Hollywood acts as if it only has to provide more of the same, printing a Star Trek logo on so many widgets. In reality, audiences want the new work to offer new insights into the characters and new experiences of the fictional world. If media companies reward that demand, viewers will feel greater mastery and investment; deny it and they stomp off in disgust.

So far, the most successful transmedia franchises have emerged when a single creator or creative unit maintains control over the franchise. Hollywood might well study the ways that Lucasfilm has managed and cultivated its Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises. When Indiana Jones went to television, for example, it exploited the medium’s potential for extended storytelling and character development: the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles showed us the character take shape against the backdrop of various historical events and exotic environments. When Star Wars moved into print, its novels expanded the timeline to show us events not contained in the film trilogies, or recast the stories around secondary characters, as did the Tales of the Cantina series, which fleshes out those curious-looking aliens in the background of the original movie. When Star Wars went to games, those games didn’t just enact film events; they showed us what life would be like for a Jedi trainee or a bounty hunter.

On the other end of the scale, independent filmmaker Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy, Clerks), a longtime comic fan, uses this lower cost medium to fill in gaps and extend character background within his New Jersey film series. Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, similarly uses comics to extend his storyline backwards (Tales of the Slayers) and forward (Fray) in time, depicting huge spans in the history of the Watcher’s Council and the Slayers. Sony used the Web to offer new insights into the characters of Dawson’s Creek, mimicking the title character’s desktop, so that we can read his e-mail, sneak a peek at his journals, or even plagiarize his school essays. A team of writers updated this content each week in response to the aired episodes, using the Web to both plant seeds for future plot development and provide background to remind viewers of past actions.

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