Can Transmedia Storytelling Poison An Established Franchise?

by Andrew Reiner on Dec 09, 2010 at 12:22 PM

A tornado made entirely out of cash sits at the heart of today's entertainment business. Its strong winds are rattling the motion picture, video game, and literary sectors. When a new intellectual property is created in one of these areas, it is engulfed by the storm. As it swirls through the dollar bills, pieces of it are jettisoned, falling like snowflakes across all entertainment mediums.

With any luck, that intellectual property will strike gold in each of these entertainment sectors. It happened to Star Wars, and almost every intellectual property holder hopes it will happen with their new creations as well. The term used most often to describe this mass media convergence is "transmedia storytelling."

If we could flash back to the eve of Star Wars' theatrical release in 1977 and ask George Lucas what the future of Star Wars holds, he'd likely say that he hopes it makes enough money to generate a sequel. Today, if George Lucas were asked the same question about a new intellectual property he was bringing to theaters, he'd likely say that he hopes it makes enough money to generate a sequel, not to mention a spin-off television series, multiple comic books, toys galore, video game adaptations, novels, and maybe even a weird sound effect app on the iPhone.

The variety in entertainment mediums opens the door for more people to become acquainted with a universe's fiction, and also give fans the option to dive deeper into something they love. Star Wars is an interesting example of transmedia working the way it should. George Lucas maintains creative control over the entire universe. I doubt he reads every script and idea that is presented, but he is still driving the ship the way he wants it to go. He's the creator of the universe, and as it should be, he's the one that lords over it.

Star Wars is a rare example, however. Most transmedia agendas are drawn up by the company that owns the property, not necessarily the creators behind it. Joss Whedon, the creator and guiding voice of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, recently learned that Warner Brothers will be rebooting Buffy without his help. "I always hoped that Buffy would live on even after my death. But, you know, AFTER," Whedon told E!Online in an email. "I don't love the idea of my creation in other hands, but I'm also well aware that many more hands than mine went into making that show what it was. And there is no legal grounds for doing anything other than sighing audibly."

This depressing development begs the question: If the visionaries behind the intellectual property are not involved, should the company retire it? By that logic, we would no longer have Batman or Spider-Man, Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny, or even Call of Duty or Resident Evil. Entertainment's most prized properties would simply cease to exist until the creators returned. Only devoted individuals like George Lucas and Shigeru Miyamoto, who have nurtured their creations since their inception, would have the authority to bring new content to established universes.

Most transmedia content available in the marketplace is not created by, or worse yet, approved by the people that dreamed up the story in the first place. When mishandled, transmedia can be detrimental to a property. If Warner Brothers' reboot of Buffy is a complete disaster, the people who sat through this film will be less likely to go back and watch Whedon's work.

If a person's first entry point to the Prince of Persia franchise is through the awful Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time motion picture, do you think they'll ever fork out $60 for a video game bearing the same name?

I recently had a conversation with a friend who said that he couldn't look at the book Where the Wild Things Are the same way again after watching the movie of the same name. He said that he understands that the book and movie are two separate things that should be judged on their own merits, but as he read the book again, memories of the film periodically popped up.

Can one thread of transmedia poison an established franchise? Absolutely. Especially if that thread is a person's entry point into that universe. Giving George Lucas a compliment in this day and age seems odd, but what he's done with Star Wars should be the blueprint for all transmedia plans. A watcher, gatekeeper, or dungeon master of sorts should be attached to all properties. A great example of this is the relationship shared between the Halo license and 343 Industries. This team was created to ensure that Master Chief and the Halo universe never lose their way.

I fear most transmedia plans factor in a company's bottom line more than the well-being of a franchise. I support the idea of giving fans more of what they want, but only if it maintains the same vision and quality. A bad comic series won't kill a video game series, but it will damage it.

Here's hoping Sony handles Uncharted with the care it deserves, and all other publishers look to 343 Industries and Lucas Film as transmedia leaders to learn from.