Transmedia– 1000 Volts for the Dying Documentary Film

Part 2: Storyworld

Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Interactive, Transmedia, cross-media… today the content defies the medium as filmmakers graduate to multi-platform content creators. Many documentary filmmakers have moved on from editing footage together to screen a neat 90 minute film in a dark cinema, to seeking, even demanding deeper forms of engagement from viewers. Gone are the days of a documentary being watched with a bowl of popcorn in hand. Grab your mouse, as documentary filmmakers chart a new course, embracing some familiar tools in new ways to fold you into their story world.

Before we continue our examination of transmedia as it relates to current documentary film, let’s consider it on more broad terms. Built of the premise of invading an audience’s experiential space with a wide range of media or tools that are part of a narrative, we can also considering broader film marketing strategies as transmedia, on a basic level.

The Matrix or Lord of the Rings have graphic novels, video games, web experiences, board games, action figures, original soundtrack album releases and a multitude of other entry-points through which the audience can interact with the storyworld. Some may even consider following a Game of Thrones character on twitter at the same time you are watching it on TV is a form of transmedia experience. What documentary filmmakers are now doing is giving that multi-screen and multi-platform experience a more clear framework, infusing creativity and purpose, holding the strings like a puppeteer.

In recent years, the interactive aspect of divulging a story has become a key element in transmedia documentary. The fact that the viewer can make choices that will determine his or her own experience in the storyworld, or even contribute elements to the storyworld that will then be shared with or impact others interacting in that same story space, has become the foundation of contemporary transmedia documentary film.

Is it no surprise that many transmedia documentaries attack some not so simple social issues: animal rights, the prison industry, worker conditions, civil rights… There’s a link between these topics and the heightened emotional and experiential connection they demand from audiences watching or participating in these transmedia projects. Some would say this even gives documentary filmmakers an edge over others telling stories using transmedia platforms and tool.

But what tools should be used to engage audiences with our storyworld?

Online guides even exist now to help content creators select the best media tools adapted to their subject matter, helping them weigh factors such as desired audience experience and engagement, trends, available funding and resources, desired financial outcomes and demographics. It’s being boiled down to a science. (Ref: Robert Pratten’s Transmedia: Selecting the Right Platforms)

Now that we’ve gotten the documentary film out of the dark movie theater and shifted the focus from a passive consuming audience confronted with a filmmaker’s projected vision, to a broader playing field bridging multiple platforms and devices, are traditional film festivals, theater screenings and film funds out? How to gather funding and an audience to share our transmedia storyworld? Surprisingly, transmedia has created more opportunity than it has road blocks.

Close to home, the Seattle True Independent Film Festival (STIFF) upped it’s game last year and rebranded to become the Seattle Transmedia Independent Film Festival, creating a platform for transmedia creatives in a city bursting with filmmakers and home to what many are considering the backyard of emerging media technologies. The festival seeks to put transmedia projects center stage, while many festival still program transmedia projects as an aside to a traditional narrative film program.  Festival director Tim Vernon said it was an obvious transition to center the festival more closely around transmedia, describing transmedia as “the best way for independent filmmakers to become and remain relevant.”

He’s not alone. A few years ago, the Tribeca Film Festival hosted Storyscapes, linking artists from around the world to create an experience linking story, new technology and audience participation. Sundance’s New Frontier labs and residencies have become a breeding ground for “independent artists working at the convergence of film, art, media, live performance, music and technology” since 2007. The New Frontier exhibition at the Sundance Festival showcases their best curated selection of recent cutting edge transmedia creations. The National Endowment for the Arts has even broadened its guidelines for the ART WORKS grant to include transmedia storytelling projects.

The opportunities are there, and the technology is, too. Now it’s time to tell stories.