Transmedia Time

I’ve been reading Jonathan Gray’s excellent new book, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and other Media Paratexts (New York University Press, 2010), this week in preparation for a couple of summer writing projects, one that looks at cross-media adaptations in science fiction and another that examines how independent and do-it-yourself filmmakers have used paratexts and transmedia narratives as promotional tools for their films.  One of the strengths of Jonathan’s book is its loose definition of paratexts to include toys, games, trailers, and other promotional materials to show how they all contribute toward the production of meaning.  To name one key example, he shows how the Star Wars toys, in addition to being a form of marketing, played an active role in contributing to the meaning of the films (note Jabba the Hutt’s increased role in the films after he became a popular toy).

As Jonathan acknowledges, one of the complaints about paratexts is that they can often be dismissed as a form of marketing or advertising.  These complaints certainly focus on “cheesy” tie-ins, such as the Domino’s Pizza’s Gotham City Pizza Jonathan discusses (208-210), but have even become a part of the debate when it comes to the use of transmedia to promote independent films, with J.J. Murphy and Mike S. Ryan taking DIY-film advocate Ted Hope to task for his “Twenty New Rules” for indie filmmakers, in which Hope argues that filmmakers should be more savvy about using social networking and other tools to create a sense of anticipation for the movies they are producing, especially when that marketing work seems to take away from focusing creative energy on the film itself.

To address some of these concerns about “cheese,” Jonathan differentiates between “incorporated” and “unincorporated” paratexts (208-214).  Incorporated paratexts are those that fit neatly within the narrative world established by the storyworld and allow audiences to further explore that world, while unincorporated texts are those that serve simply to hype the text and “contribute nothing meaningful” to the storyworld, a la Batman’s pizza (210).  Although I’m certainly sympathetic to the saturation of marketing and promotion, I’m a little skeptical of this binary, if only because of the fuzziness of the concept of “meaning” here.  It’s certainly possible that any number of fans found meaning in the existence of the Gotham City Pizza, if only because it served as further evidence of the long tentacles of that movie franchise and as further expression of the film’s global marketing reach (recall that many Dark Knight fans hoped the film would surpass Titanic as the top-grossing film of all-time).

But in making this distinction (and in a discussion leading out of Lost and Heroes’ transmedia webs), Jonathan introduces another point that I found especially engaging when he observes in passing that “transmedia storytelling also has both rebooted and serial forms” (214).  The concept of the “reboot” has become commonplace enough in both industry language and academic studies and is a useful one for thinking about how franchises, such as the James Bond films, are given new life every few years through a reimagining of character, setting, and narrative.  But for whatever reason, Jonathan’s use of these terms here helped me to frame a question that I’ve been mulling for a while now:  Is there an effective vocabulary for thinking about the spatiotemporal relationships between paratexts in the era of transmedia?  I’d appreciate references here (either via comments or email, if I’m missing something obvious).  But I wonder if such a vocabulary might be useful, especially if we are trying to get away from value-laden dichotomies between “central” and “peripheral” texts?

I’ve jotted down a few “back-the-envelope” terms for getting started:

  • Serial Narratives: a series of ongoing, extended narratives; many TV series, including Lost and 24, rely on serial formats, picking up where previous episodes left off.  Film sequels also follow this logic, such as the Harry Potter films, which follow Harry’s growth and maturation (and, yes, I realize this is complicated by the fact that they are based on novels)
  • Reboots: takes an existing franchise or narrative and reimagines it, often to the point that the new franchise will retell a similar narrative, such as an origin story, a second (or third or fourth) time in order to establish the new diegetic world of the text.  Obviously the Batman franchise is one of the most powerful examples, with Christopher Nolan’s reboot serving as an ideal reworking of the Burton/Schumacher iterations of the franchise.  It will be interesting to see of some of the 1980s remakes (Karate Kid and The A-Team) successfully reboot those franchises.
  • Anticipatory: paratexts that build interest or engagement in a given “franchise” or text.  ARGs that come out in advance of a film might be included here, as would trailers, cast interviews on late-night talk shows, and other overtly promotional forms.  Many of the promotional forms that have been discussed by DIY filmmakers might be recast as “anticipatory” in order to see them not as mere marketing but as a form of creative production that is worthwhile and engaging in its own right.  These “anticipatory” texts can even become a form of political activity when groups such as Brave New Films encourage “fans” to promote upcoming screenings of their political documentaries by linking to video clips they have posted online.  And fan participation in the making of a film such as Iron Sky or The Cosmonaut (scroll down to my older entries) might fit here as well.
  • Extensive: paratexts that expand a storyworld, making it more inhabitable and detailed.  Jonathan cites a number of video games and ARGs that succeed in encouraging audiences/users to explore a world in further detail, but deleted scenes, making-of documentaries, and other special features on documentaries might fit into this category as well, as would attempts by documentary filmmakers to solicit participation after seeing a politically-oriented film (note the work of Participant Media in shaping forms of political activity).

I don’t think these categories are adequate to describe all of the relationships between different forms of paratexts.  I’ve tried to keep the term “extensive” relatively broad and to avoid imagining it as a “future” for an original text.  After all, people may come to a movie after playing the game or the movie may inspire a fan to purchase a game, a toy, or a Happy Meal.  These ideas are admittedly a little rough, but I think that a sharper vocabulary for thinking about these relationships might help us to escape some of negative connotations associated with term such as “marketing add-ons” and “ancillary texts.”


  1. Chuck Said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

    Rather than updating the entry, I’ll add here that I should probably have mentioned “spin-offs” as a more narrow version of an extensive paratext, with shows such as Cheers eventually helping to launch Frasier, to name one very successful example.

    Jonatan also points out that our definitions of “primary” and “secondary” texts often have real-worold implications in terms of how creative labor is defined and compensated. The belated recognition of a “transmedia producer” by the Producers Guild of America is a positive step in this direction, while the Writers Guild of America strike last year over compensation for producing transmedia texts is another key example, as Jonathan discusses (214-16).

  2. Jonathan Gray Said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 12:14 am

    Thanks for the free press, Chuck! Right back at you with the book kudos, btw.

    Not as writer, but as Star Wars nerd, I must correct one thing: Boba Fett achieved greater prominence, not Jabba the Hutt. Sorry 😉

    I like your divisions, and want to ponder them more. I also think you’re right to challenge me on the incorporated/unincorporated divide, espec. since I should’ve been clearer about how very subjective such distinctions are. But I’ll be really keen to see these projects of yours as they develop. Keep me updated

  3. Chuck Said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 8:58 am

    Wow, I really spaced out there. I will correct the original, just because I’m not sure that others will read down to the comments. I found myself more persuaded by the incorporated/unincorporated divide as I read and have been finding my categories too slippery, so I’ll have to work on them.

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