6½ Questions With: Robert Pratten (Part 1)
Robert Pratten is a
UK-based San Francisco-based, UK-born filmmaker who has directed two features, London Voodoo and Mindflesh. His posts on transmedia and the independent filmmaker at the Workbook Project should be required reading, and he is currently launching TransmediaStoryteller, an online platform for designing and delivering transmedia experiences. Here, Robert answers why forward-thinking filmmakers should be thinking about transmedia, and why it's much more than a buzzword. He gives some great in-depth answers to my questions, so I'm splitting the interview into two parts - think of this as 3.25 Questions With.
1. The word "transmedia" is beaten about like a piñata these days. However, for most filmmakers, it's still just a concept that they're planning on using at some point in the future. How can Transmedia Storyteller help filmmakers implement their transmedia ideas today?
TransmediaStoryteller is all about audience engagement. It allows filmmakers to build and nurture audiences through the timely publication of content and through interactivity. It allows filmmakers to develop their creative projects with baked-in audience participation and social media marketing. It does this by engaging audiences in a full storyworld: the story that exists outside and around the feature film, for example.
But let’s take a step back to look at how the industry has changed and where it’s going because that’s where filmmakers can see the real power of TransmediaStoryteller. Many filmmakers today have their heart set on making a feature film and they follow the age-old process of writing or buying a script, trying to raise finance, shooting the movie and then trying to sell it. But that process doesn’t work the way it used to. If you’re lucky enough to come through that process you’ll know that budgets are lower and production times are shorter because distributors aren’t paying what they used to for movies. And they’re not paying the same advances because audiences aren’t spending what they used to. There’s too much competition from piracy, user-generated content, webisodes, TV, games, social networking and lots more leisure & fun activities. Not to mention a multitude of crowdsourcing and charitable activities that further eat into the audience’s disposable time.
That’s why it’s been said that attention is the new currency. But I’d take it a step further and say engagement is the new currency. Attention only gets you eyeballs - it doesn’t get you money. Engagement gets you money. It’s the difference between a surface attraction and falling in love. You need your audience to fall in love and while there are some who fall in love and first sight, most need to build a relationship over time. Many filmmakers think this means a personal relationship - responding to email, being active on Twitter, Facebook and so on. This does have strong advantages for indies because being an “accessible auteur” is part of the attraction for those into indie films. But it’s also about the audience developing a relationship with your content. Shy or private filmmakers can build relationships by letting their work speak for them - delivering work that reflects and responds to audience aspirations and desires. This can only be done with periodic and (preferably) episodic content - not a single feature film that may take 1 to 4 years from development to distribution. With only the feature you’re shooting at a target too far off in the future and by the time your content arrives the target has moved. Without ongoing “course correction” (adjustment based on audience feedback) your feature film is like a huge ocean-going tanker that gathers inertia and becomes increasing more painful to adjust the further along you get.
Filmmakers should imagine engagement as each audience member being a spinning plate on the end of a pole: you have to release content frequently enough to rotate the pole and keep the plate spinning. Those spinning plates are an engaged audience. TransmediaStoryteller automates some of that plate spinning.
I think that many filmmakers recognise the need to build an audience ahead of their feature and are now releasing “making of” and behind-the-scenes (BTS) content - either videos or blog posts - during development and through into festival screenings. But this only appeals to one segment of the audience and it doesn’t get anyone engaged with the story. Instead of only doing the BTS stuff, create content and stories around the movie. The fictional characters in the feature had lives before the movie started and they continue after the audience leaves the cinema; the locations also have a life and a history that’s bigger than the movie.
2. One of the taglines for TS is "profitable audience engagement." Does TS offer direct monetization tools (like a shopping cart), or do you mean "profitable" in the sense that the transmedia elements lead to increased sales of something else (e.g., DVDs)?
Profitability has two drivers - cost and revenue. TransmediaStoryteller has a direct impact on lower costs because it simplifies the creation, management, delivery and operation of transmedia projects and in many cases removes the need to develop custom software. It’s intended to be an off-the-shelf tool that you’ll use like FinalCut or Premiere except that instead of editing a movie you’re editing an experience.
But now let me talk about revenues. What we’re developing is a new business model for filmmakers. I sincerely want filmmakers to be able to distribute and sell their own work without having to rely distributors or the curators at iTunes or Netflix. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for those players, I’m just saying that I don’t want us to be dependent on them and I don’t want all the retail power to be in the hands of a few stores.
Developing a new business model means we’re not developing another shopping cart or another pay-per-view online distribution service. First and foremost we’re developing an “experience designer” and what you’ll see grow with the service is a new way of commercializing an experience that exists around your content. In later releases of TransmediaStoryteller we’ll have more explicit revenue tools that fit the new business model but in the first release you’ll still have to sell the usual content externally.
We know that audiences are reluctant to pay for films so we - as filmmakers - need to migrate to experiences that they will pay for. That doesn’t mean you have to abandon the feature if that’s where your passion lies and it doesn’t mean that transmedia is some online fluff to spruce up a lackluster movie. It does mean that your movie can’t live in a vacuum or stand on its own any more.
Filmmakers have been trained to deliver a meaningful experience over 15 to 90 minutes (or more) in one medium - film or video. Now we have to deliver a meaningful experience from movie inception through to the time we’re bored with it (and I don’t mean after the last edit!). Many filmmakers will be horrified at the long timescales but that’s the reality. You have to bake in the marketing and distribution so that as the movie evolves you’re building audience. And you can only build an audience through engagement and engagement comes from meaningful experiences.
3. Does TS help execute "global events" across multiple mediums -- for example, if we have a mobile application, a facebook game, and a web site, can we have a nuclear bomb go off -- on all of those properties, simultaneously? How would TS aid in such storytelling?
What we’re trying to do is remove the need for programming so that filmmakers can use the service as though it were just another storytelling tool. To accomplish what you’ve described in the question would require some coding on the side of the mobile app and the game. In a later release we’ll have an API (application program interface) that will allow all those applications - the mobile app, Facebook game and the website - to be triggered to do something and they can request data from TransmediaStoryteller to make independent decisions.
In this first release we don’t have the API so it’s not so easy to interface to custom applications - it would have to be done using email or Twitter which will work with the right programming on those apps, but doesn’t feel like the best solution for the case you’ve described. I think the important thing to hold in mind is that having a game, a mobile app, an ARG and so on doesn’t make your project interesting in its own right. You have to think about the story and how it’s told across those platforms. And that means filmmakers who don’t have the resources or the inclination to tackle software projects won’t be at all disadvantaged if they stick to what they know: video, text, images, audio. “Release 1.0” of TransmediaStoryteller will allow you to schedule emails, Tweets, blog posts, videos and images so you could have a bunch of content all explode at the same time. But we can also be more controlled and subtle by using event-driven publishing which would look at the number of views or comments on a video or listen for an incoming Tweet or email and then take appropriate action once that event had happened.
Transmedia storytelling isn’t about ticking all the technology boxes, it’s telling a great story with the resources you have, at the right time, to the right people and with the right business model.
Stay tuned for Part 2 with Robert later in the week.
Robert Pratten is an experienced marketing consultant and transmedia producer. Before the Internet boom and crash of ’99 he was an internationally recognized expert in the field of Intelligent Networks having advised clients such as Ericsson, Lucent, Telcordia and others on international pricing, positioning and market entry strategies. Since that time he trained at the London Film School and has written, produced and directed two award-winning, critically acclaimed feature films - London Voodoo and Mindflesh.
He works with independent producers, writers and directors advising them on cross-platform storytelling, marketing and distribution. He is currently working on LowLifes, an original transmedia entertainment property with a social activism component and is the founder of Transmedia Storyteller a subscription-based service for cross-platform audience engagement. Robert’s exploits are usually documented at Zen Films.