Jeff Gomez, Member-At-Large of the PGA East Executive Board and CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, has been creating engrossing interactive environments since he was a teenager. In his recent presentation at the TEDx Transmedia event in Geneva, Switzerland, Gomez talks about how he was able to leverage his creativity and experience to become one of the most important producers specializing in transmedia storytelling. Whether he’s expanding the story of a pre-existing universe like he did with the transmedia campaign for James Cameron’s Avatar or creating enthralling worlds for Acclaim Entertainment and The Walt Disney Company, Gomez has not only embraced the opportunities of cross-platform storytelling but also continues to define the methods that transmedia producers will use for many years to come.
We had a chance to connect with Gomez after the conference and ask him a few questions about the challenges facing transmedia producers.
What is the most common misperception people have about the term "transmedia”?
Jeff Gomez: Some people seem to think that "transmedia” is simply a buzzword made up to replace previous terms like cross-media, synergy or branded content. It’s really not. Transmedia is specified by the fact that it refers to a narrative that is significant in scope and plays itself out across different media platforms (traditional and digital) in ways that leverage the specific features of that platform.
Our kids can enjoy The Clone Wars, but if our thumbs itch, we can pick up a controller and visit different times, places and characters within the same Star Wars universe and play through The Force Unleashed. It all dovetails and works beautifully together, bringing mass audiences new depth and realism to their story worlds. This is more than sci-fi or tent pole franchises, and it’s more than corporate synergy or branded content. Transmedia storytelling allows for us as producers to interface with mass audiences in ever more artful and deeply satisfying ways.
Transmedia is also signified by the fact that by definition transmedia narratives invite dialog with the audience. Technology allows us as producers to remain in listening with our viewers, our participants, allowing them to express themselves and allowing us to act on that expression. The possibilities are gorgeous.
What were the primary challenges you faced developing the transmedia approach to James Cameron’s Avatar?
Jeff Gomez: Much of what Starlight Runner discussed with Jim and his team remains quite confidential, so I can’t get into too much detail. The challenge in working on Avatar was unique in that we were dealing with a visionary storyteller whose grasp of the scope and history of his storyworld went beyond anything we had ever encountered.
Although we were granted complete access to the set, the actors and dozens of the production’s artists and technicians, our time with Cameron was relatively limited, so we had to be incredibly prepared during the hours we had with him. Without the right questions, you’re not going to get the keys that unlock the mythology and the essence of the narrative. Without those, you get crappy ancillary content and bad transmedia storytelling.
Perhaps the greater challenge in the case of Avatar, was the same challenge we faced with many of the studios a couple of years back: transmedia was an unknown term in Hollywood, and its value proposition had yet to be proven. Although there was some good content, we would love to have seen a fully realized transmedia campaign that slowly opened the world up to the excitement of Pandora months before the release of the film. It could have been followed by an array of rich content that continued to invite millions to participate in and nurture the ongoing mythos in the months and years between the first and second Avatar films. But such was not to be.
Then again, we’re fairly early in the life of the franchise, and there will certainly be more opportunities for Avatar from a transmedia perspective in the near future.
Transmedia is often discussed in the context of marketing campaigns -- for example, the signage, web sites, and additional video that enhanced the District 9 universe as a lead-up to the movie’s release. To what degree is it possible, at this point in time, to distinguish transmedia as separate from marketing? In your opinion, are the two disciplines more likely to grow closer together or further apart?
Jeff Gomez: I firmly believe that transmedia and marketing will grow closer together. Transmedia doesn’t replace marketing, it is infused into it, turning marketers into storytellers who are helping to enrich and expand the franchise. So many good (and expensive!) potential movie franchises have failed right out of the gate, not because they were terrible but because sometimes mass audiences need to be indoctrinated into these exotic worlds.
Peter Jackson has a fundamental understanding of this. He reached out to a doubtful core fan base of the Tolkien novels through a single web site and he turned them into torchbearers who beaconed millions into the theaters during the run of the Lord of the Rings films. He did this not only by respecting the source material, but by teaching the language, culture and mythos of Middle-Earth to them all.
More so, the film’s campaign was infused with the essence of Tolkien’s message of unity, diversity and making a stand against overwhelming odds. The marketing helped to tell the story, immersing audience members into this exotic world, generating true excitement for it, long before any of them purchased a ticket at the box office.
Transmedia will inform and inspire marketing, but it really can’t without the cooperation of the visionary and the producers. Without them, the marketers are making guesses. Why do that if we’re all playing on the same team? What is the question you get asked most often from aspiring transmedia producers? What advice do you have for someone interested in exploring transmedia storytelling as a career path?
Jeff Gomez: The question I get most is, what are the qualifications for the job of transmedia storyteller or producer? The answer "you have to be a Big Bang Theory-level nerd” just doesn’t cut it, though.
To do good transmedia you have to have an enormous sense of story: how it works, how it can be conveyed through various media platforms, and how the essence of the storyteller’s meaning must be preserved at all costs. If you look at story and immediately begin to assert how you would tell it differently, this may not be the field for you.
Transmedia producers help studios and visionaries vastly widen the scope of the narrative, giving them a much larger and more thrilling canvas upon which to express themselves. You have to be able to lead them there and show them what’s possible, so that means you have to understand the nature of these media platforms and be able to talk with the artists and technicians who build for them. Right now, all of these people are so used to acting on their own and being separated from other silos, divisions, companies, that they will act suspiciously toward so-called transmedia producers (the "great unifiers”). So you also have to be patient, diplomatic and willing to go the extra distance to prove the efficacy of the technique.
Of course, it also helps to keep mental track of the progress of millions of bits of information, both real and imaginary, but good producers do that anyway.
This is an incredible time to move into the transmedia space. You can still absorb nearly everything that has been written or expressed about the subject and become something of an expert yourself. But that window is closing rapidly. I would suggest studying everything about it, joining the community of practitioners and theorists on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, keying into the best blogs and forming your own opinions about it. For me, the Producers Guild of America has been the single greatest organized support system behind the technique, so if you’re a member, you’ve started in the right place.