Sunday, July 24, 2011

What makes a leader a creative vision leader?

Lot's of passion and opinions on the subject but it's all so new!
Our highly convergent media world, is exploding with the rapid growth of new mobile formats, new publishing formats, new gaming formats, flash tribes, persistent tribes, Social everything, hypermediation, transmediation and a list of new concepts and titles that is growing faster than Wikipedia can keep up with.

In the newly emerged Transmedia industry there are new models, ideas and definitions being presented on a daily basis that suggest specific structures and processes that you can build or hire-in (sometimes for very large consulting fees). The creative and commercial results of all this activity, to date, have been occasionally good but generally mixed at best. No one has found the magical secret recipe, if one even exists.

If the rise of the audience is showing us anything its that systems need to be extremely flexible and able to adapt to each IP's unique needs in a way that is authentic to the specifics of its audience.

To be clear, I believe that over time, good insights and best practices will emerge from the tsunami of opinions. Change is ultimately extremely healthy and as long as there are articulate professionals aggressively gaining and sharing their knowledge, successes and failures, the debate will eventually yield "tools"that can be used by those trained to use them.

So who or what can I build my I.P. development program on?
If you are an intellectual property owner or steward, considering how to proceed with development, from a creative standpoint, it can seem like an overwhelming set of choices and decisions.

For today's post, I'm not going to comment or vote on definitions, structures or tools. I'm going to focus on a single role within the swirling possible choices for development. A role I believe needs to be at the center of any creative decision-making on any new Intellectual property.

That role is the Vision Leader.
The Vision leader is the accomplished and trained creative human being whom understands your I.P. on a personal, instinctual, and gut level. A person who cares deeply about every aspect of the narrative because it is personally meaningful to him or her. The vision leader is independent of what specific cross media development model you subscribe to for your I.P. expansion project. He or She will be your creative center no matter how you proceed.

Based on the work I've done across many different I.P. corporations over the past 25 years, I suggest the following broad guidelines in terms of how a vision leader fit into the parent organization and how they interact with partners, consultants and talent:

  • Voice: Vision leaders need to have a seat at the high level management meetings where strategic decisions are being made about "what" to do with the I.P./Franchise. Some corporations and companies don't have creatives at the highest levels or segregate them out of certain strategic planning discussions. The creative/audience voice is critical to have as part of the discussions in a world that has made a paradigm shift to audience empowerment.
  • Authority: Vision leaders need to be the cross-media nexus for high-level creative decision-makers across all media formats. This is easier to do as a licensor than as a corporation with internal divisions/formats. Fundamental structures and issues of Centralized brand management need to be addressed and adjusted.
  • Resources: Vision leaders need to have clear access and a budget to utilize company research efforts and to conduct exploratory creative work if needed. Vision leading is all about excavating creative opportunities that grow the I.P. in authentic ways. Without exploration that is agnostic of single media concerns, the role can become a simple yes/no function that doesn't generate insights into narrative possibilities.

In terms of who the vision leader works for or reports to I think there are lots of different possible combinations that can work. The chart above isn't an org chart. It's about the dialogue and creative decision-making at the highest level.  Broadly, this role is most effective at insuring true creative quality when all questions of a high-level creative nature come to his or her office for input and decision. This in no way disempowers specific media creatives, brand management or transmedia producers from doing a fantastic job however it is defined.
 I don't recommend that the vision leader role get combined in the same person with one of those other roles, or any other roles for one simple reason.

Truth: "You always get the behavior you incentivize for"
You need to have a high level creative authority in the development and franchise expansion mix whose primary job is to advocate for the Narrative, the Art, the quality and connectedness of the experience and...most importantly, the audience. That person is your vision leader.

If that person is also managing schedules, deliverables, talent contracts, or any of the hundreds of other specifics of a single or multiple media execution, then they are being measured or incentivized to place those concerns above others and will change their decisions in subtle and profound ways that will not be the best for your overall creative franchise health. It's also why I believe it's important not to combine the vision leader role with any of the various descriptions of a Transmedia producer.  However you define it, Transmedia Producer is a big job with a great deal of management and coordination duties. Combining the vision leader with that role, I believe, sets up conflicts of advocacy. 

In entertainment, great commerce happens because the audience falls in love with the Narrative and finds it meaningful and empowering. It is the role of the Vision Leader to be the primary voice for all of that and for creative consistency and narratively authentic growth.  The vision leader does not have to be the author or the writer.

Description of a vision leader's qualities:

  • Understands narrative - preferably, someone who is trained in some form of quality storytelling/creating but can be someone who's life work has proven that they do this on an instinctual level.
  • Communicates and Advocates well - A vision leader's primary job is to advocate for the authenticity of the narrative in all its forms.  He/she is the voice of the audience in the room.
  • Can see and expand on possibilities - A vision leader must be someone capable of engaging with new possibilities and accepting, adjusting or rejecting them based on what is good for the "growth" of the IP, not just for where it has been.
  • Is highly creative - The vision leader is not the source of all ideas in a Transmedia world but must be able to engage with and be additive to those ideas.
  • Is concerned about the commercial success of the property - Though the vision leader's primary role is to be the steward for the creative aspects of the I.P., he/she must be fully engaged in the process of commercial expansion and success as well.
  • Is a member of the community he or she is creating for - My previous post "are you a member of the community you create for?" covers this subject in greater detail. If possible, finding that person who feels the I.P. has deep personal meaning for them, can bring a whole different level of creative management to the project.
  • Ideally, is conversant in development in a number of key formats - This is very additive but not necessarily a price of entry of the individual is very good at all other measures and is collaborative and able to work well with key creatives for each of their own media formats
The thoughts on vision leader I present here are conclusions I have come to from many years of working directly for, and/or helping various large entertainment and entertainment product companies to expand their Intellectual properties to do much more than the single media or product category that birthed the I.P.

There are many points of view on all aspects of this subject and I hope my perspective helps in stimulating the discussion.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Are you a member of the community you create for?

A number of years ago I had the pleasure of working with Bill Rose from Wizards of the Coast. They are the company who created and built Magic the Gathering, the wildly successful Trading Card Game as well as the publishing program, Cons/Tournaments, fan clubs and much more that eventually grew from the original concept. I asked Bill how they constantly seemed to get it right in terms of what their audience wanted from them.  His answer was simple and applicable far beyond card gaming:

"You can't create well for a community unless you are a member of that community!"

Think about this for a moment. What do we know better than anything else? We know what we like and we know what we do. If we are parents, we know exactly what it's like to have and raise kids. Each day is full of thousands of personal observations and insights into being a parent. If we love race cars, maybe our dream job would be to work for Nascar in some form or fashion! If you have the qualifications needed for the job, your passion would add to your value.  If you're developing or marketing fashion, you've got to be in the thick of the right fashion scene to read the nuanced and fast-moving influences and you have to wake up caring deeply about it in a very personal way. Net/net, when you are it, you feel it in your gut.

There is a great deal of real world evidence supporting the practical business application of this principal as well.  As an example, Mattel has made no secret of the fact that they hire designers and marketers who are passionately personally interested in the brands they are developing and marketing.  They have shown remarkable growth across several key categories in part, because a significant percentage of the product and ideas they are coming up with are just plain good and really get the smallest of details just right for their kid and collector audiences. This happens because all decisions, micro and macro, have advocates in key places in the process who are actually the audience themselves!

Movies have long been created and talent signed-on based on passion and affinity. It's how you get depth and true insight in the greatest possible amounts.

Does this fly in the face of the mid to late twentieth century belief that building a good senior manager means you need to keep moving him or her around from category to category, or even company to company? In part, I believe it does. Much of our legacy structures for thinking and managing come from the 20th century's adherence to a military industrial model.  We used to be in the business of making many of the same things over and over again in mass quantitates. Management became a repeatable process somewhat agnostic to the specific product. Change was more metered and success was all about quantity and repeatability. Even our schools are still built on this outdated model, but that's a different discussion for a different blog.

We are now in an age where, for much of the content world, it is about a growing social component, personalization, new mixtures of traditional and mobile, the power of the community and breathtakingly fast technological change. Though there is evolution happening, the rapid changes in connectedness and technology continue to far exceed even analysts predictions.

What does this mean to Transmedia and Meta-story? It means that choosing who works on the Meta-story and who the Transmedia producer will be is anything but one-size fits all. It is critical to identify Senior Creative and Strategic participants:

whose passion and personal connection with the project stem from who they well as what they know. 

This may mean that "The Vision Leader." (the person with that gut-level creative connection to the property...more on this role in a later post) may not be trained in Meta-story development.

Because true cross format narrative development and competencies have been on the scene for all of twenty minutes, there are not legions of fully trained individuals capable of doing this work across all categories of possible content. (Evidence is that there are no, I repeat, no major colleges with Meta-story curricula in place).

The solution, for now, is a partnering of the vision leader with a trained Meta-story developer.

This raises another key question however. In moving to a Transmedia model and employing Meta-story development, is the management in the parent company capable of making the decisions and/or recognizing good ideas from not so good ones? If we return to Bill's marvelous insight and apply it to management we get some interesting answers.

Let's use the fast growing and highly audience-influential area of Social media to make the point. Here's an illustration of what appears to be a broad disconnect in the area of social media usage based on income.  Within this report from Kissmetrics (which I became aware of from a Linkedin post by Maciej Fita) one note of interest is the severe plummet in social media users above the $75K per year income level. Executives are in this group.

There may be some execs who use it in a significant way, but from my experience, it is a minority. Blackberry's aren't analogous to social media. Without direct experience or contact with your intended audience, decisionmaking becomes dependant on reports and analysis.  Those can be quite helpful but reduce the likelyhood of intuitive decisions dramatically and certainly slow down making opportunistic moves in a fast moving ecosystem. The best decision-making employs both.

For Meta-story development it also can have a strong tendency to drive management to look for consensus from media stakeholders versus being a strong advocate for the total narrative as the audience will experience it with "input" from media stakeholders.

Here too, the remedy lies in elevating the role and voice of the vision leader. Story and Audience advocacy is fundamentally the most commercially responsible position to take as the corporate world rethinks how it works in this fantastic and quickly evolving environment!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Missing Meta-story management affects toy movie effectiveness

Attached is an interesting article from Toy News online that describes a glut of underperforming movies that haven't driven the toy sales to the level the brand owners expected.  It underscores the need for true Meta-story development for these properties and these formats.

Large organizations like toy companies can make formulaic decisions about story that really have nothing to do with good Meta-story creation. Early success can make a whole industry certain that all they need is their own competencies to move into another form of expression. here's an example of how some of that thinking translates into unsuccessful direction:

"If there is a direct relationship between rating/box office and toy sales, that must mean that the more they see my toys the more they'll buy them!" This leads to "product cramming" and losing the key empowerment and narrative in service of product placement and feature opportunities.

Many of the movies that have failed to perform at box office and in product retail have this particular belief baked-in to the development.

Here's the article. Read it through and below is a few additional things to consider:

Toy movies in 2011 - Has Hollywood gone too far?

Having read the article, several things pop out.

First, as pointed out by the author of the article, it is astonishing just how many of these movies are demographically right on top of each other.  The first transformers was sharing the demographic audience Pie with just a few others.  Now, its a pile-on so naturally, all slices are going to be much more hard won.

 Second, is that not all of these movies are what the toy industry calls "Toyetic." Through Meta-story, we learn how to deeply understand the nuanced but profound needs within each product and media format. Within the toy industry, no one expected John Cameron's Avatar to be a runaway hit for kids. It never contained the right kind of aspirational empowerment for kids to adopt it given where they are in their psychosocial development.  The same is true for Kung Fu Panda, Tron Legacy, Thor and Pirates. Just because a movie has cool things in it doesn't mean that those things translate to sustainable role play for kids. The movies themselves can even be wonderful cinematic triumphs (Kung Fu Panda) but performance in other media and formats is independent of single media success. I'll repeat what I always say to clients about shaping their narratives:

"Stories are like software. If you don't build them to run on their intended platforms from the beginning it is likely they won't perform well."

Third is that in spite of lower box office for Cars 2, it is such a spot-on concept for kids that it will still drive sales of product quite well over time.

Fourth and perhaps the most important, is that in the rush to create huge movies out of toy properties, executives seem to be forgetting that what makes a story become a lifestyle brand is when it becomes so meaningful to it's audience that it become "beloved!" Product doesn't make a story meaningful. At times the play you experienced as a child does but, if you can't excavate what is driving the meaning and empowerment for your audience and move that to the forefront of your development, then you risk doing damage to your narrative and franchise by making it an advertisement.  Cool is not the primary measure of a successful kid's lifestyle and product brand. Kid-Empowerment is.

We seem to be stuck in a whirlwind entertainment trend to spend enormous amounts of money making gigantic special effects movies that are mostly very edgy and full of intensely cool action.  High School and College guys are loving this no doubt but why are we surprised when children of 4 to 11 don't seem to be captivated by the same things we were in love with when we were kids? Because we've turned those stories and themes into entertainment that is mostly out of their reach and/or inappropriate for their aspirations.

Friday, May 20, 2011

TV and social media

Attached is a link to a very interesting article in the NY times Media and Advertising section. It describes an interesting transmedia execution connecting social media with TV for the purposes of helping drive up the ad value of programming on TV. Some of what is covered here speaks to new approaches being put into market where the audience member's cell phone is used during ads or during programming. Here's a quote from the article:

As Cyriac Roeding, chief executive of Shopkick, put it: “The cellphone is the only interactive medium that you carry with you while you’re watching TV and while you’re shopping in the store. The cellphone is therefore the only interactive medium that can function as the bridge between the TV screen and the store shelf.”

Because technology, transmedia, Hyper-mediation and more, are all new possibilities (or at least new in the tools and choices available on a weekly basis), it's incredibly interesting to see the different models being developed and brought to market.

I would love to see more thinking and execution around narrative and meaning itself being the connective tissue leveraged for commercial success in addition to coupons, bonuses and purchase incentives. Those are certainly valid and make sense for an advertiser to find very attractive. They may even be very successful as this all evolves.

There is, however, the opportunity to not interrupt the narrative reasons that the audience is participating in your show but instead enhance it to bring them to other places (including social). There's a fair amount of experimentation going on there as well amongst the networks and IP owners.

It's important for us to remember that the audience that comes to social media doesn't spend a lot of time passing along advertising for the sake of sales. It's about connecting around common interests, light social touch, lots of humor, personal expression and meaningful declarations of self.

Networks Try a Social Media Spin at the Upfronts

Monday, April 25, 2011

More excerpts from RISD lecture

This is the second posting of content from the Meta-story lecture delivered at RISD on 04/21/11and a continuation of the video content from the last post.

This video speaks to the incredibly rapid changes happening in entertainment habits of the audience due to the explosion of new mobile technology and tablets.

The think tank that explores the intersections of Mobile, Play/Story and Cloud services referred to in this video is called Moveablecode.

 The two charts shown in this video contain information from the most recent KPCB publicly posted trends report.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Excerpts from RISD lecture

The lecture on Meta-story at RISD held on thursday the 21st of April was a very good event on all levels.  The turnout was excellent, the students were a terrific audience with great questions and real enthusiasm for the subject and discussion of Meta-story.

I want to extend my sincere thanks to those students and the teachers and administrators at RISD who made the lecture possible.  Clearly, there is the talent, drive and desire to be true thought leaders alive in the professionals and students at RISD.  We're now all part of the same tribe that is having the vital discussion about Meta-story and its role in transmedia distributed mythology. A special thanks to Shanth Enjeti, Nicholas Jainschigg and Natalie Hogan for all the professional support and enthusiasm.

The entire two and a half hour lecture was video captured and I will be posting a few brief excerpts from it here on the site over the next few weeks.  The lecture was focused on introducing the foundational understandings of what Meta-story is, how it came to be, what its role is in today's Transmedia distribution world and why its critical for creators and vision leaders to learn this craft to insure quality and human meaning in these big mythological stories.

The professional lectures and seminars I'll be rolling out in a few months, will also cover the introduction but further include segments with a great deal more detail as well as workshops.

I will start with several short videos today.

The first video I am posting speaks to the definition of Meta-story. I would like to expand on the credits for Henry Jenkins, who's definition I refer to and credit in this video.  His role, when he created the concept of Transmedia at MIT, was creator and co-director of the comparative media studies program.

Here is the talk on "No room for the Muse" discussing the transmedia created pressures on the act and process of creating grand mythology.  Of note, the chart used in this video segment to represent the present state of how Transmedia producers are functioning is accredited to Simon Pulman who is a Transmedia producer himself and a blogger on the subject.

During the lecture I also covered a bit of why telling and listening to stories is evolved into us.

Here is an overview of how the various media formats, product, licensing and social media fall into "anchor" categories grouped by what function they perform for the narrative.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The rapid growth of E-books, harbinger of changes in the audience

Over the past year, I have been involved in several very interesting efforts in a think tank that focuses on the intersection of mobile, narrative and play, and cloud services. Through this very forward looking group, named Moveablecode, I have had the great pleasure of getting vanguard exposure to things that are coming in the mobile space and capabilities that are fast rising in terms of apps, cloud services and much more. One thing has become abundantly clear.  Change is happening at an exponentially faster rate than many of the established industries and companies are fully recognizing. These changes are broad based, technologically driven, and unlike the explosion, come with applicable business models, many of which are direct to user/audience in nature.

For now, tablet and phone based mobile technologies are largely carrying the majority of this revolution (there are certainly other areas but none quite as pervasive and convulsively immediate yet).

I am struck at seeing and hearing the anxious application of "tried and true" thinking in terms of when to jump in and start working with the emerging newness. I have seen first-hand, leading companies in several industries convincing themselves to wait until this all sorts itself out. This wait and see mindset has largely developed from hard won experience in jumping in to new technologies too soon.  Big investments in vanguard tech can leave content companies and play companies reeling from picking the wrong side in an app or tech battle. Additionally, most of the audience aren't "early adopters" so the companies seeking to sell and market to us don't want to be either.  because of this, most content and play companies like to wait and see what emerges on top and then follow on.

I believe there is something fundamentally different at work this time in regards to what is being enabled with content and play through technology.  Access to content FROM ANY SOURCE is quickly becoming more democratized by affordable mobile devices with simple interfaces so much so that the audience isn't taking years to change its habits. Its happening in months.

I am posting a link to an article on the explosive growth of E-books here to make my point. "E-book sales triple in February to surpass paper!" Witness the extreme growth in e-books. This is not only a dramatically less expensive way to consume books but its far easier and more immediate. The new e-formats have opened the direct ability for authors, artists and specialty groups to publish direct to audience without having to worry about getting a large publisher to say yes to their content.  Large content distributors console themselves by saying that they have the financial and structural depth to advertise far better than individuals and to some extent this is true.  However, non-aligned reviewer blogs, special interest communities and social sharing can all add up to awareness over time.  Authentic community distribution has already yielded proof that direct-to-audience distribution of your content is not only possible but can be quite successful.  Even the economics of this alternative and direct relationship with the audience carries with it different thresholds of what is considered an economic success.  Do you have to reach as large an audience as a mass market distributor when a much larger percentage of the profit falls through directly to you?  Perhaps not.  There are already smaller and more entrepreneurial companies rushing in to the space between mass and self distribution to supply lists, interim management and development services and simple to use software to enable this possibility.  What seems certain is that the distribution landscape is going to have a lot more flavors to choose from on a go-forward basis.

I also firmly believe that we will see significant changes in how connected the content in "books" will be over the next 24 months and beyond. This has wonderful and huge ramifications for Meta-story. When a reader can explore more than what is on the next page whenever they want, those stories with deeper content will find their audience even more effectively and not always have to go through a large multi-divisional conglomerate to do so.  There is nothing stopping larger corporations from developing parts of their companies to aggressively expand into these new developments with the audience but waiting to enter this market and waiting to aggressively explore it while it is evolving, may have some significant downside.

To be clear, I love traditional books and will always buy them. I believe they have a place in the future and that place will likely have to do with legacy purchases, collections, gifts and keepsakes, precious objects, upscale value and much more.

 It will still be necessary to write great and captivating stories and all manner of form and format will be possible on E-formats from traditional page turners to fully interactive and interruptible content. The audience will decide what works and what doesn't.

This same radical change is well under way for TV, motion picture, toys and much more. I strongly suggest to all those industries to not stand by and "wait" or those lighter, faster, more aggressive or new companies/individuals as they will quickly gain primary foothold in this new "direct-to-audience" world.  Investing in your own obsolescence is critical these days because others outside of your company are certainly doing it for you.  Now is the time to create disruptive enclaves protected from the core culture to think differently and find solutions that a contiguous publicly traded culture can't.  If you are in the business of stories, this is where Meta-stories can help.  Meta-stories and Meta-story creators, by their very nature, have to be engaged in the evolving edges of narrative.

Even if the large corporations do get on the tips of their toes and lean forward to run faster, they will have to think in very different terms. So much of the new relationship is about community, authenticity, giving in order to get, and showing that you have earned the right to sell and exchange with the tribe. These things have always been at the heart of truly good storytelling and I find that I am excited about the audience gaining more voice. They empower creatives and creators who have conviction and vision and a connection to the larger tribe. This is becoming increasingly clear as new commerce moves to those who can change and get the connection with the audience right.

In many ways, this isn't a wildly new way of connecting and sharing stories. The technology is new and the formats are incredibly exciting (and bring with them new narrative needs and strengths that need to be understood and created for).  Though this is all true, what is really happening is a simplification of the relationship between storyteller/creator and audience. It's beginning to resemble the more personal, connected and tribal relationships that groups of humans have had with storytellers since before the industrialization of the world and the creation of large corporate structures. I believe the control in the relationship is partially returning to the audience/tribe...with all its quirks and human imperfections.

What this suggests is blanket, or "push," marketing will be less and less effective in certain categories of stories and play.  Direct and unique relationships with the audience will continue to show their strengths.  (I am including a link to an interesting article about why Justin Beiber is a unique relationship with his audience and not a template for brand success).  Over time, audiences will demonstrate that brands and franchises need to have continually expanding narratives that have true, relevant, meaning and empowerment in order to have lasting value.  These success elements in a connected and self-selecting tribal media environment favor creator-driven meta-stories.

As an aside: It is interesting to see the rush to name this new age. Information age, social age, connected age, etc... Words are important because we build on them like raising a building up. The foundational interpretation becomes part of the structure and defines it. personally and for now, I'll go with "digital tribalism" because it incorporates the idea of self-selecting tribes enabled by the new communication technology.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Meaning, the superstructure running throughout Meta-story

“Without consistent and empowering Meaning, throughout all Transmedia expressions of a Meta-story, the audience will lose their connection with your Franchise.”

With big Meta-stories that have big worlds, it seems that there is a limitless menu from which to choose what to base additional media expressions of the core story on.  Well-built Meta-stories do indeed have a lot of possibilities to work with.  However, all of those potential narrative slices through the larger Meta-story must all share a very important foundational block.  That block is the “Meaning” (with a capital “M”).

Let’s take a moment to be specific about what Meaning in a Meta-story is.  Meaning is the mythological lesson, the ethos of the story that structures everything within that narrative.  Structuring around meaning is part of classical story craft so those who train in and study story will recognize this discussion but let’s take it a step further.

There are many examples that I can use to illustrate meaning at work in a Meta-story and the omission of meaning in other media expressions to the detriment of the franchise and IP.  I will use James Cameron’s Avatar as my example for both.  
James Cameron is a world builder and an artist, producer and director who creates grand mythology that can rise to the level of a Meta-story.  I have a lot of respect for the thought and depth he puts into his work.

Avatar’s “Meaning” is “the power of discovering the connection between all things.”  This Meaning permeates all choices Mr. Cameron made for this movie.  His characters are all different takes on connectedness. 

Sully is a man who has lost all connections:  His family, his place as a warrior, his belief in anything, even connection to his own identity of being a whole man. 

Colonel Quaritch has chosen to disconnect himself from everything but fighting and winning.  He is the anti-connection.  He’s not connected to what is best for his country or world, certainly not connected to humanity, only to himself and making all things submit to him.  Keeping all things separate allows him the freedom to do and think the most horrible of acts and thoughts for his own purposes.

Doctor Grace looks for proof of connections.  She is the scientist studying the church and suspecting the transcendental.  She has yet to connect with her nascent belief without science and facts.

The Na’vi are the achievement of connectedness without loss of the individual.  They represent the possibility of salvation through submitting to connectedness and as such, their connectedness is fragile and the barrier to blind progress.

The Meaning, connectedness, or its lack also drives the imagining of the world and all production designs.  The flora lights up when touched showing the beginnings of connections.  The Na’vi physically connect to the beasts and the Mother Tree.  
The human’s protected enclave of walls and steel, dust and dirt, masks and weapons contrasts all this.  A place where connecting with others is all but impossible except within the rules and missions that the company proscribes.

Even further shaping the narrative, the story unfolds and drives forward by shaping discovery, wonder, stakes and the costs of finding and then fighting for a connection so profound that it engages all living things on the planet.

Whether you agree with the choices or not, Avatar is purposely-structured, deeply considered and richly crafted in great detail.  Those of you who may have artistic or directorial criticisms let’s hold them for now in service of a point to be made that is not about critiquing the quality of the movie but exploring the Meta-story’s effectiveness in Transmedia execution.

With the primary media being so clearly crafted around finding and fighting for the wonder of connectedness, how then is it that the video game completely missed this most important of foundation stones? 
Though the video game is full of action, it simply allows you to choose to play as Na’vi or human to fight one against the other.  The context and conceptual/visual coolness of the movie is represented but the reason why so many people were moved by it to see the movie multiple times, the Beautiful and wild Meaning in connectedness, is wholly missing in the gaming mechanic.

It’s critical to understand why your audience loves your property and continue to deliver that meaning in all expressions.  Anything short of that feels hollow at best or worse still, betrayal on behalf of commercialism even if there was no conscious decision to make it so.  In the Avatar game “The Currency of Power” needs to flow from achieving and accumulating connections in some form or another.  If I loved the movie, I am looking to advance my relationship with the world and the narrative.  I don’t just want to play as a Na’vi, I want to care about life and my connected world like one. 

I have been involved in many projects with big Franchises quite a few ways that moving a narrative into Transmedia expression can go awry.  Those include:

Movie companies, for reasons of security, not willing to give critical information about the story to other media licensees in time for them to include it in their product or media development.

Licensees not understanding the critical role of the Meaning of the original story in their work and simply applying their media's "success dogma" like a one-size-fits-all approach.

The Licensor’s licensing management group focusing too intensely on a predetermined “style guide” or “franchise bible” that defines the property as merely and only the contextual elements found in the launch media.

I don’t know what the case was for Avatar but the example of losing the Meaning in the Transmedia translation into a video game stands as very clear example of what can happen even when the creator of the narrative is a great world builder and a good narrative structuralist, if the meaning isn’t carefully shepherded, communicated and discussed as to how to use it in each additional media expression. 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Story and the Social/Behavioral Soup

“The heroes that we aspire to be in the popular stories we choose to tell, effect the nature and health of our society.”

Narrative Responsibility
Today’s post, rather than focus on the ABCs of Meta-story, is going to talk about the effect that stories have on our world.  As part of this discussion I’m going to raise the notion of “narrative responsibility.”   This is the idea that the storyteller/creator bears a responsibility to be aware of the culturally transformative power of narrative and the nature of the aspirations he or she is putting into our collective consciousness.  The ideaological, social and cultural effect of a narrative is something that is sometimes unconsidered or even ignored in exchange for marketable sensationalism, angry ranting and other unhealthy motivations.  This is an especially important discussion in our increasingly Meta-story enabled Transmedia world because of the pervasive quality and mythic power that these largest of stories can have.

This is not a discussion about censorship or regulation.  I leave those debates to the lawmakers, regulators, agencies and our legal system and hope that they tread lightly.  This is also not an ideological discussion about my values and beliefs.  I certainly have them and include them in my narratives and my life.  This discussion is simply asking that as storytellers and Meta-story creators we consider the significant effect that our narratives can have on the audience and world culture.  Our goal is to be very successful at reaching the largest possible audience and moving them with meaning and mythology so thinking carefully about the aspirations we will represent is important.  Realize that stories can and have changed the behaviors of individuals and countries and influenced the times and events throughout history.

Cultural Soup
Let’s begin this subject with a truth about the effect that being so connected has had on us all.  We are all floating about in the same cooking-pot full of our cultural soup!  Every narrative we put into the broth contributes a little or a lot of flavor for all the rest of us to soak up.  There is no such thing as isolated content that can’t spread (unless you are talking about secret documents and even then, those are finding their way into the larger kettle to boil about these days). 

Let’s also dispel another popular notion.  There is no such thing as public content or narrative that doesn’t have a lasting effect.  It all influences us.  If it’s entertaining and moves us emotionally, then, over time, it can change the way we think, feel and act even if we don’t realize it’s happening.  Seemingly harmless but voyeuristic narratives that use the “easy” emotive triggers to gain interest and audience share, over time, elevate the “entertaining” but caustic values, behaviors and beliefs they contain to true celebrity status.

“Culture of Celebrity”(link to interesting article with additional links in psychology today)
Once celebrity status is granted, much of the audience imbues content and characters with many of the qualities and power that in the past, we attributed to royalty.  Those qualities include: a better class designation, access to greater voice with significantly greater credibility assigned to that voice and a lessening of critical questioning or evaluation. Increasingly today, once granted, popular celebrity brings with it an almost irrational and extreme tolerance for forgiveness of socially unacceptable or damaging behavior. 

From Entertainment to Power
Our media connectedness and a number of other factors have resulted in creating a path directly from entertainment value to legitimacy, cultural influence and even political power.   There is no proof or consistent examples that show any automatic correlation between entertainment celebrity/popularity and socially beneficial ideas and actions.  Those benefits lie in the narrative’s meaning and underlying human truths and insights and should be judged and elevated on their own merit.

There is also no direct relationship between how successful a narrative or media product is and how humanly meaningful or insightful it is.  I am not suggesting that, as story creators, we should only create high human mythology or profoundly meaningful narratives.  Entertainment plays many roles in our lives and the success and growth of those various formats is proof that we both want and need them.  Many forms of successful and satisfying entertainment are nothing more than fun, simple, distraction.

Instead, I am suggesting that some of the narratives that can be entertaining can also have significant unintended consequences for our human culture and behavior and we should be aware of them to make conscious choices that are responsible. 

“Acceptance linking”
Our Hyper-media-soaked lives supercharge a very simple mechanism that for now I’ll call “acceptance linking.”  It works something like this:
I like something.  I want others to like it and like me.  I share it and we expand our relationship and friendship a bit further because we now share a like.  The thing we now both like, takes on an importance beyond itself.  Not liking our shared like means you don’t like a bit of us.  The bigger the “us” the more powerful the effect.  Soon we grant the “like” its very own celebrity status and all that comes with it because it helped us to extend and define our community and ourselves.  Meaningful stuff yes? 

“Embarassment TV?”
Here’s where it can be not so healthy.  All humans have curiosity about the not-so-good behaviors and intentions in the human spectrum of behaviors.  Many a psychological study has shown that all humans have these urges and thoughts but learn to suppress them for their own good and the good of the community/tribe/culture.  How do we learn this?  Our stories!  Parents, schools, siblings, societies are all chock full of the stories that shape us into good citizens of the tribe and of the planet based on the values it holds.  Some of those stories model the best in us facing off against the worst and some model the bad in contrast with the worst (and many forms in between).  All can be quite compelling and really give us insight into the human condition in highly entertaining and motivating ways.

However…there is an entire class of entertainment that has grown up in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century that is driven by this voyeuristic curiosity to see into the bad boy and bad girl side of life.  I’ve heard it called several names such as “Embarassment TV, Anguish TV, Conflict TV and Humiliation TV.”  Some of this kind of content lives on the web, shared by mobile and beyond.  Our interest in it, though not our proudest moment, is natural.  The issue arises when we aren’t fictionalizing that experience and/or we aren’t showing appropriate social and human consequences for it either.  Remember, “acceptance chaining?” It happens even here and quickly.  Once the no-consequences bad behavior and its stars become acceptance linked and get granted celebrity status, we create aspirations for the audience that are truly unhealthy.  Soon, some of the audience will want to be these characters and act like them because…it made them celebrities and…their social group has linked around these stories and internalized them in subtly approving ways.

I’ve had a few friends and acquaintances tell me “it’s just a show and it’s just fun and I know the difference between what I see on TV and real life!”  As one proof point that there are changes created in our society's behaviors by these narratives I offer the terrible rise in bullying behavior in our school-age children.  Though there are most likely many factors contributing to this epidemic, it’s hard not to see a clear link between emotional and physical bullying and some narratives such as:

The various “real housewives” glorified but venomous, snarking, narcissist behaviors (heavily watched by tween girls),

Jersey shore’s real life self-absorbed “stars” slapping and fighting in excessively hedonistic situations (also heavily watched by tweens),

Charley Sheen’s ranting and self-absorbed tirades (invited to colleges to give speeches like a scholar or hero) and other celebrity status bad behavior turned entertainment.

I could continue with examples but I think the point is clear enough.  The stories we tell (and yes, even reality TV tells stories) express what we want others to see, hear, understand and learn.  Transmedia enables it all to travel and grow much more quickly and powerfully.  Be aware of that power and help by making choices that make us all better when we experience your story.  Show us the grit, the grime, the bad choices, bad people and behaviors, as well as the consequences that come with it.  It is human drama after all and it draws us like moths to a porch light. 
 It’s important to note here that the audience also bears responsibility in this by rewarding those narratives with purchases and viewership.  When it comes to stories, we all need to be aware of the choices we’re making and be careful not to inadvertently build momentum behind human behaviors that history shows us are not good for us, our children, our communities, our world.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Robert McKee insights

Those of you who know me, know that there are certain "shoulders" I feel we all stand on as lifelong students.  We refine and deepen our own knowledge of our areas of expertise as we pursue our craft and subject.  Meta-story™ is built on the solid, historic foundations of how humans tell and accept stories.

Robert McKee is broadly considered to be one of the foremost experts on screenplays and story structure.  I am including a link in this post to share with you some segments of an interview he has done with  In this interview, Mr. McKee speaks of a number of perspectives and truths, as he sees them, that are relevant to the Meta-story™ discussion.

In this interview "writing is about conflict," he speaks about the key differences in how conflict occurs in TV, Novel and Motion Picture.  Conflict is one of several key factors that a Meta-story™ creator has to understand how it changes in each media format.  Since, of his own admission, Mr. McKee's area of expertise is within screenplays, he doesn't offer thoughts on how conflict is uniquely different in various gaming forms, product forms (such as toys) and even in the social media formats.  Those too are key to understand for good Meta-story™ crafting for certain I.P.

Robert McKee

There is an excellent point raised in this interview by Mr. McKee about creators and writers discovering how they naturally write or create and finding the media format that best fits your talents and propensities.

This helps to bring into focus one of the key challenges in a Transmedia world.  If I am a creator and want to create for the bigger canvas of Meta-story™, do I have to write and create all the different forms my story will see expression within?

I can just feel the stomach aches, sinking feelings, therapy sessions and wholesale dismissal of the broader concept of Meta-story™ that could get rolling if the answer to this question was "yes."

Thankfully and practically the answer is emphatically "No!!"  It would be absurd to expect any creator to perform such an endless task.  What Meta-story™ craft does is to allow any creator to understand how to create his or her narrative, world, characters, themes, meaning and empowerment to be able to become as expansive as possible.  That creator(s) could singularly work in any  of the different key media as their chosen field and still be the creator of a powerful Meta-story™ that then becomes Transmedia.

I will address the structures and practicalities of how the Meta-story™ can powerfully expand into the other media forms and remain vision-led in future posts and in the lectures and seminars later this year.

 (As a note: I do not subscribe to some of the strong opinions about other artists and creators expressed by Mr. McKee in some of his other interview segments but that does not lessen my appreciation of his skill as a master of screenwriting art and craft.)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The diverging practical definitions of "narrative"

Yesterday I spent a couple of very enjoyable hours in Cambridge MA listening to a lecture by one of the worlds leading design thinkers, Bill Moggridge.  The lecture was on the subject of his new book Designing Media and it was truly fascinating and extremely well done. 

Bill Moggridge
Over the course of the lecture, Bill shared excerpts and quotes from a number of interviews he had done with thought leaders and successful big entrepreneurs in the expanding new media landscape.  I won’t spend the time here to review the very interesting observations and summaries of those interviews and will instead suggest that you get the book and/or read the chapters (which are all apparently available online for free, a bold and exciting experiment in and of itself).  Instead, in this post, I want to expand on some of Bill’s observations to talk about the notion of what “narrative” means for the purposes of defining a common understanding within which to talk about Meta-story™.

For me, one of the things that Bill’s well-delivered talk brought into sharp focus is that the ongoing incredible creation and expansion of new formats and venues for content, communication and expression, are also quickly stretching and changing the meaning of the words we are using to discuss and explain what we believe we understand about what is happening.  The words themselves aren’t evolving to differentiate as quickly as the formats and how we are using them.  As a result, it’s quite possible to use a word in a discussion with participants from different media and formats resulting in each of the participants drawing a different conclusion from the discussion!

Though this was neither an observation nor an insight in Bill’s excellent talk, it became interestingly clear to me that what certain words mean can be largely dependant on what the prevailing market or commercial truths for a particular new media or format are. 

If “success makes us certain,” then meteoric success can make others uncertain and question their understandings and actions.   For this reason, emerging media-based differences in what words we share in speaking about those successes and our crafts, could have a big impact on conclusions we draw and insights we think we gain.

The upside to all this interest in big success is that it helps change to move through our established thought cultures with a bit more muscle (and believe me it needs it when dealing with many of the commercial and creative cultures that have had their own certain successes decades ago).  Insightful visionaries like Bill and others help us to do that by sampling our new realities and organizing them for further insight thereby evolving our understanding and constantly adding depth and subtlety to our knowledge.

The downside of wanting to follow wildfire success is that reaction to it can turn into a kind of rush for a shiny new hammer to pound everything with.

 “When all you have is a shiny new hammer, everything looks like a nail!” 

 I have found that it is rare that 100% of the success dynamic from one format ever translates fully into another format.  There are often new indications and opportunities that are important to aggressively pursue in this quickly changing landscape but it requires the courage to change coupled with the wisdom to understand what remains, what evolves, and how it all fits into the new tribal landscape.

At the core of our communications and discussions with each other to navigate this extremely dynamic, exciting and fast evolution, is the language we use to discuss and define concepts and meaning.  Just like the varied success factors, use of language within each media is varied and subtle and we must endeavor to learn to translate with and for each other in order not to create shiny new hammers.

One of the best examples of diverging variations in meaning and use of a shared word was “narrative.” 

On Facebook, the audience and their connections within the community wholly contribute “narrative.”  This kind of narrative is the capturing of conversations and personal expression and it spontaneously evolves and spreads organically. 

On Twitter, "narrative" has an even more immediate and fleeting context and meaning in that it converts the activity of the moment into a simple personal connection of light social contact.  It too is socially shared to spread and fade quickly.

Many of the hottest forms and formats in new media, to a large extent, share this tribal and viral “narrative” immediacy and some varying level of impermanence.  Narrative, in these cases, is less about structure and designing of the user’s path through the content and more about capturing and enabling a matrixed sharing of the collective exchange in service of simple human “grouping.”  This allows the audience to find and explore their connections and form “flash tribes™” or “persistent tribes™” in the process.

Contrast this to discussions at a traditional book publisher where "narrative" clearly means a story carefully crafted by an author.  Here narrative is the result of a singular act of creation that has been painstakingly put through a rigorous craft that likely has taken years to learn and perfect.

Narrative, as defined in publishing, has a great deal more in common with formats like Motion Picture and television than it does with social narratives.  That is not to say that they aren’t all about human issues, themes and ideas.  It is more to point up that the act of creation and development in these different kinds of narratives is profoundly different, and each is successful in its own format.

All these different forms of narrative, and more, have things they can learn from each other.  It is important to learn how narrative is evolving and the many new and different forms it is taking.  This is especially true since “convergence” is just in its infancy enabling the audience to move freely from one form of narrative experience to another.  Learning when and how to enable that movement to perfect our knowledge of Transmedia story presence is a knowledge base we are just beginning to contribute to. 

Does this mean that creators will be writing everything that appears on Facebook and Twitter in regards to their narratives?  No, because that is one of the new and joyous roles for the audience in the new media landscape.  Can we be aware and listening to what happens to the narrative as it processes through the audience?  Absolutely!  The social relationship with the audience no longer needs to exist only after the release of a launch format.  There are many examples of engagement through social media that brings together tribes around a singular creative expression both before and after its release.

At the other end of the scale, does this mean that book authors should hand over their narratives to a room full of media producers and creatives and expect the end result to be creator-vision driven? Consensus is not often a friend of new excellence in creation (input, feedback, research, observation, yes).  This is however, the prevailing model today in part because book authors aren’t trained in anything other than writing books.  Perhaps it is asking too much of certain book authors to even consider these other format needs.  I suspect in many cases it is.  That isn’t a statement of failing of any sort.  All creators should find and work on the canvas that is a size that best suits them.  It does mean however, that some creators, given the right knowledge, will be able to create for a broader canvas.  Others will create single media concepts that will require another creator to take the work and envision it larger for the greater creative and commercial opportunity.  Both approaches are valid insofar as the end result remains creator-vision driven.

Equally important to maintaining this nuanced and questioning perspective on narrative, is to not assume that a wild new success in one new format should wholly transform all other formats (keep the shiny new hammer in the garage).   Crowd sourcing an author’s book makes no more sense than editing and single sourcing social exchanges. 

Now to bring this home for perspective on the kind of narrative a Meta-story is.

Meta-story, in terms of defining what kind of narrative it is, is a vision-led, creator-driven, form of narrative.  As I’ve covered in other posts and lectures in the past, this is important because of the simple truth that to make a Meta-story that functions in a truly Transmedia fashion, it has to achieve a kind of “grand human mythological state.”  It's not only what makes it creatively and mythologically successful, but the follow-on of broad commercial success requires that same singular vision and excellence.

 Combine this with the truth that not one of the great, generational, commercial, fictional stories from any time throughout history has ever been created by a large team of people and you begin to understand why I believe in the simple equation:  

Grand fictional commercial mythology = Creator-driven vision.

There is a huge difference between observation and insight: 
“Observation is what we see.  Insight is what we learn that makes us think differently about what we see.
Creating transformative insight within your audience that then delivers human meaning and lasting empowerment (two elements critical to Meta-story and Transmedia success) is extraordinarily difficult even in the most ideal circumstances.  This is why there simply aren’t that many big fictional mythologies that work well.

There is something profoundly human in a creator’s relationship to their story that is fundamental to delivering moving and effective Meta-story™ narrative. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Meta-story™, achieving storytelling excellence in a Transmedia world

When heart, relevance and human excellence in storytelling are still only achievable through gifted storytellers and creators, Meta-story is the process that delivers the critical knowledge and tools to achieve that excellence in a Transmedia environment through educating and empowering creators.

If you are a creator or an I.P. holder who believes your story has a nascent power within it to move your audience in many ways, Meta-story is a craft and process that informs your creation and development with the knowledge and tools to achieve those powerful possibilities but in ways that are organic and authentic to your story.

"The act of creation is not a team sport. None of the grand stories of today or yesterday were created by a team of people."

There’s been quite a rise of consulting groups and internal corporate teams espousing the value of bringing large, multi-media groups of creatives, strategists and distribution experts to bear on an I.P. in service of making it into a “Transmedia enabled story.”

The “cross-media teaming” effort creates both energy and ideas and is very valuable once you are ready to execute and move to market. However, it defeats the singular brilliance and vision of a true “creator-driven” process if employed in the actual creative shaping of the core story itself.  Excellence and success in story creation is incredibly hard to achieve even in the most ideal of environments and circumstances.

"We need to endeavor to inform the muse, not crowd her out of the room."

I believe that rather than fighting this truth, that virtually the entire history of storytelling has shown to be true, we should embrace it and empower it in this new and expanding narrative landscape!  Protect the heart, soul and creative/commercial integrity of your I.P. by learning and/or employing the Meta-story process. Given the opportunity, knowledge and tools, key creators will rise to the challenge of making stories for the Transmedia world.

Cheers, Kevin Mowrer

Monday, February 21, 2011

Steampunk Writers and Artists Guild interview

Recently I had the pleasure of doing an interview with Lia Keyes, the founder of the Steampunk Writers and Artists guild and author of several blogs on writing and publishing. The interview covered some interesting aspects of Meta-story and its process.
Hope you enjoy. Cheers, Kevin

Click image to go to interview