Making Sense of Transmedia Storytelling

Posted on Posted in storytelling, transmedia

Transmedia storytelling is one of the hottest topics in the media industry, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe being the clearest example of how a transmedia strategy can be used to create a dynamic story world capable of supporting a huge number of products. And yet, despite the MCU spanning 16 movies (to date), seven television shows, as well as comics and video shorts – and despite it having earned more than any movie franchise in history – there is still considerable confusion as to what transmedia storytelling actually is and, perhaps more importantly, what it isn’t.

This blog post sets out to provide a clear picture of the transmedia landscape and, along the way, to answer some of the biggest questions I often get asked about transmedia storytelling including:

  • What is the difference between transmedia and crossmedia?
  • What is the difference between transmedia and a franchise?
  • Where do spin-offs and sequels fit in?
  • Are all transmedia products of equal value?

The Basics – What is Transmedia?
Transmedia storytelling is a term coined by Henry Jenkins to describe narratives that are dispersed across a number of different platforms or media formats, each of which provide a unique and valuable contribution to our understanding of a story world.

For the purpose of clarity, I would like to distinguish between a product (which is a particular movie, or videogame, or TV show) and a platform (which is the media platform on which a product exists). For example; Doctor Strange (2016), is a product, while its platform is film; Overwatch (2016) is a product, while its platform is game.

So, what we see in transmedia storytelling are multiple products, across multiple platforms, that are all part of a consistent story world. And there are numerous connections between these different products including characters, events, items, and places – what Geoffrey Long termed ‘migratory cues’ – with these connections helping the consumer to navigate between the different products.

The Transmedia Continuum
In order to try and make sense of the variety of different types of product, I created what I call the Transmedia Continuum, which you can see in the diagram below. It may looks slightly confusing at first glance but, don’t worry, we’re going to make sense of it!

Transmedia Storytelling
The Transmedia Continuum (Davies, 2017)

From left to right in the diagram, we move from products that have no connection to any other product all the way up to transmedia products.

Standalone Media Product (SMP)
This is a media product existing on a single media platform which has been developed as an original concept and which has no connection to any other product. An example of an SMP, which is launching on the day this article is written, is the movie Suburbicon (2017); an original script (not an adaptation) that doesn’t reference an existing story world.

However, whether a product remains a standalone media product is often determined by how successful it is. In most genres of entertainment, a successful SMP will result in a desire to expand upon the product’s story world by adding additional products; these products could be crossmedia, multifold media, or transmedia.

Crossmedia (CM)
This is a media product which has been based on an interpretation of a character, set of characters, or storyworld that already exists on another media platform. However, there is no attempt at maintaining consistency between all of the media platforms. Numerous examples of crossmedia can be found in movies (Beauty and the Beast, 2017), TV (Lucifer, 2015), games (Pokemon Sun, 2016), and other media platforms.

Jurassic Park (1990)

A word frequently associated with Crossmedia is ‘adaptation’; meaning that we often see versions of the same story adapted to different platforms. For example, the movie Jurassic Park (1993) is based upon the novel Jurassic Park (1990); both products draw upon the same story world (in which technology has been used to extract DNA and recreate dinosaurs, in where a theme park/zoo has been created where they can be seen by the public) and largely follow the same plot, but there are number of differences between the two products (for example, some scenes from the book are omitted from the movie, some characters are changed or downplayed, etc.).

But, crossmedia doesn’t necessarily require that an entire story be adapted; it can simply be that a crossmedia product draws from the same story world. Following on from the movie version of Jurassic Park, a videogame version (1993) was developed for Sega Megadrive/Genesis and Super Nintendo consoles; this allowed the player to take on the character of Dr. Alan Grant (one of the main characters from the novel and movie) in a platform game in which the plot was only vaguely linked to the source material. The in-game version of Dr. Grant is far less likely to use his knowledge, and far more apt to use a rocket launcher, to rid himself of the dinosaurs bothering him.

In the above examples, we see that all three products are based upon the original premise but they are all alternate versions of each other; there is no consistency between products. So, the novel of Jurassic Park began as an SMP but evolved to become crossmedia due to the fact that we have numerous interpretations and adaptations of it. In this case, the original product becomes known as the Primary Text; the origin of the entire crossmedia universe.

Multifold Media (MM)
This is a media product based on a character, set of characters, or story world that exists on a singular media platform (i.e. books, TV shows, or movies), and in which story world consistency is maintained. Multifold media can be linear (for example, a series of movies featuring the same character/characters) or can be non-linear (for example, a spin off TV show).

When an SMP is successful, there is often a desire for more on the part of both the creators and the consumers; when this product is one that appears on the same platform and features consistent story world and characters, we can term the result multifold media.

The Hangover franchise is an example of linear multifold media that evolved from the movie, The Hangover (2009) and spawned two sequels. All three movies feature the same four central characters (Phil, Doug, Stu, and Alan), all three movies exist within one consistent story world and reflect upon and refer to events that are occur within each of the other movies.

The so-called Arrowverse, which currently consists of the DC Comic TV shows Arrow (2012), The Flash (2014), Supergirl (2015), and Legends of Tomorrow (2016) is an example of a more non-linear approach to multifold media; all four TV shows have their own individual characters and stories, but they take place within one larger story world (with Supergirl a little more detached due to it being set on an alternate Earth), with events in one product rippling out to have effects on the story world, and thus the other products set in that world.

Secondary Transmedia Product (STP)
This is a media product based within a consistent storyworld, which acts to support, promote, or market a larger primary transmedia product in that storyworld. An STP is unlikely to be consumed in isolation of the PTP and the migratory cues generally flow from this product to the PTP rather than in a bidirectional manner. STP, while fulfilling most functions of transmedia (consistent characters and story world) do not provide enough narrative/reveal enough about the story world to be unique and valuable contribution in their own right. Thus, the STP is generally not a product strong enough to exist on its own. Examples include the Marvel One-Shots (2011-2014), the twitter/Tumblr account of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012), the movies that exist as part of the game Ingress (2013), or the VR tour of the spacecraft from the movie Interstellar (2014).

Primary Transmedia Product (PTP)
This is a media product based within a consistent story world that provides a unique and valuable contribution to our understanding of the storyworld. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008 to date) is the prime example of a set of PTPs that interconnect and support each other; although still the structure is dominated by the movies, with the TV shows generally only showing unidirectional migration cues (coming from the movies and not feeding back). There is, therefore, still potential for this type of product to become even more developed.


Those Questions, Answered
So, using the above we can answer the questions mentioned earlier:

What is the difference between transmedia and crossmedia?
Consistency is the key word here. Transmedia relies upon a consistent story world, in which the events of any one product are reflective of the events in all other products. Crossmedia provides either an adaptation of a story, or sees multiple products drawing from one premise or story world without providing any attempt at consistency.

What is the difference between transmedia and a franchise?
All transmedia are franchises, but not all franchises are transmedia. Franchises generally have a similar desire for consistency (the products reflect the events of other products) but many franchises are contained on only one platform, so we can label them multifold media.

Where do spin-offs and sequels fit in?
Spin-offs and sequels are another example of multifold media. Only when we see multiple platforms do we see the transition to transmedia.

Are all transmedia products of equal value?
I would argue not; I would suggest that secondary transmedia products only make a contribution in support of a primary transmedia product. If the primary transmedia product didn’t exist, the secondary transmedia product would be pointless since it doesn’t provide a unique and valuable contribution.


Worlds Within Worlds
It’s important to appreciate that we crossmedia universes that feature subsets of multifold media, or even transmedia.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)

Let me use Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) as an example.

The first novel in the Harry Potter series was published in 1997 in the UK, and was followed a year later by Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998). At this point we see an SMP evolve into multifold media – two products, each featuring the same characters and taking place within the same consistent story, but existing on only one platform.

In 2001, a movie adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released, as well as videogame adaptation. The movie narrative stays fairly close to the source material but it does make a number of small changes along the way, the game narrative broadly follows the plot but with some considerable differences. However, at this point, Harry Potter became a crossmedia universe as we see multiple products without a consistent story world.

But we can also view the books and the movies as two multifold media universes within a larger crossmedia universe; both series are telling the story of Harry’s rise from obscurity to his eventual defeat of Voldemort and both are consistent with the other products on that same platform.

Many transmedia universes exist as the subset of larger crossmedia universes; while all of the products within the MCU are transmedia and part of a consistent storyworld, the MCU is just a part of a much larger crossmedia universe that includes Marvel comics, the numerous movies based on Marvel characters that are not part of the MCU, Marvel games, Marvel novels, and a plethora of other Marvel themed products.


So, Where Next?
Transmedia storytelling is only set to become more important and, in order to be successful in implementing it, companies need to appreciate a whole range of different aspects including transmedia strategy (which platform for which product, which order of release, use of STP and PTP), transmedia dynamics (audience migration, types of migratory cues), and transmedia production (the necessary thinking that needs to go into this type of a creative venture). I’ll be following up this article with some thoughts and advice on all these areas over the next few months…

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