It’s a few days old, but David Bordwell’s discussion of transmedia storytelling has been bouncing around in my thoughts over the last few days. Coming across my radar at around the same time as Henry Jenkins’ thoughtful reading of the ongoing District 9 universe, Bordwell’s post has had me thinking again about how transmedia narratives not only serve as forms of marketing but also as enticing new storytelling modes. I like Bordwell’s approach quite a bit, both for his brief emphasis on encouraging media scholars to engage with media professionals and, more crucially for this discussion, for his reminder that transmedia storytelling forms weren’t invented in 1998 when The Matrix and The Blair Witch Project were born. Gesturing toward Gerard Genette’s discussion of “hypernarrative” in his 1982 book, Palimpsests, Bordwell describes the “taxonomic zeal”Genette brought to the study of sprawling, multithreaded literary narraives (think, for example, of the expansive, fictive Yoknapatawpha County forged by William Faulkner over the course of twenty novels and dozens of short stories). But there are a few key points worth emphasizing further as the practices associated with transmedia storytelling continue to generate discussion.
First, Bordwell is attentive to the ways in which these “‘immersive’ ancillaries” are often less focused on complicating a film or TV show’s storyline than they are in maintaining viewer interest. This claim, by itself, isn’t terribly surprising, and it now has become a form of industry common sense, one that often gets repeated at festivals, conferences, and in other meta-industry conversations. It also explains why these prescriptions for cross-media storytelling (to use Lance Weiler’s phrase) often frustrate (see also Weiler’s discussion of these issues in this month’s Filmmaker Magazine). Although I think that Weiler is correct to point out that a transmedia approach “extends the life of a project and builds an audience throughout the process,” it’s also easy to create transmedia texts that are simply transparent marketing and not something that will supplement the storyworld in any satisfying way.
As Bordwell’s discussion of Weiler’s approach suggests, transmedia storytelling has been discussed as a potential alternative in a struggling independent film marketplace. Weiler and Ted Hope recently addressed some of these ideas at the Open Video Conference and they were addressed further in a guest post on Hope’s blog by Anna Tovich from the New York Film Academy. I certainly agree that these transmedia approaches can build loyalty and long-term interest in a project–it’s something I address briefly in Reinventing Cinema–but I find myself feeling somewhat skeptical when it’s described (as Tovich does) as “a way out of the doldrums.” Sure, a successful transmedia approach can help a film, especially an independent, break through the media clutter, but I’m left to wonder if transmedia approaches risk limiting the narrative possibilities available to filmmakers who are more conerned about creating a larger storyworld. Bordwell is especially attentive to the ways in which some independent films may not lend themselves to transmedia models, or at least models that would offer anything more than fleeting interest. Tweets from Juno? Maybe I’d follow them for a day or two. Here, Bordwell may be right to acknowledge that some genres–horror, sci fi, mystery–may lend themselves more readily to transmedia treatment than others. He’s also right to point out that these new models are also leading to a need to rethink how we analyze texts, a point that Jenkins addresses from a slightly different perspective in his District 9 post: what counts as the film text when the film itself becomes a potentially boundless array of supplementary narratives?
That being said, I’m intrigued by other possibilities for transmedia textuality. In my book, I discussed the ways in which documentary filmmakers could take advantage of DVD extras in order to expand the story of the original film, singling out specifically Anrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans DVD, which includes not only a story update but also his original planned documentary (on NYC birthday party clowns) and footage from some the film screenings where subjects from the film were in attendance. As the role of DVDs and websites continue to shift, much of this content could emigrate online, sparking public conversations about the issues raised in the movie, but one area where this kind of storytelling could be especially useful might very well be in the realm of “transmedia documentary” (worth noting: the POV blog has been focusing on these issues quite a bit lately). At the same time, the focus on narrative may obscure other possible approaches–interviews with the cast, making-of specials–that might have originally appeared as part of the DVD.
No matter what, the experiments with these new forms continue to offer exciting new possibilities for filmmakers and consumers alike.