Transmedia Storytelling: Making Fans Part of the Story

11/21/2016 04:56 pm ET

This article was co-authored by Chris Hadley, who writes for the online web series magazine Snobby Robot, and for the film music magazine Film Score Monthly Online. In addition, he is the writer/creator of the cable news satire/parody THE LATE, LATE NEWS.

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The innovative world of transmedia storytelling makes it possible for fans to be as much a part of each show as the characters they love. Transmedia storytelling makes use of many different social media tools, including first person video blogs (sometimes called vlogging), specially designed character pages on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, or partnering with popular apps to add greater depth and background to the expansive worlds of web series.

In this post, we’ll explore the transmedia storytelling worlds of four web series: The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy, Social Medium, Classic Alice, and Secret Identity Show.

The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy

Co-created by Shawn deLoache and series co-star Kyle Walters, and produced by co-star Paula Rhodes and Jenni Powell (executive producer of Social Medium, and producer of pioneering transmedia series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Emma Approved and Welcome to Sanditon), the award-winning The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy puts J.M. Barrie’s classic characters in a decidedly modern setting as they try their best to ‘grow up’ in a rapidly changing world.

The is unique show blends existing social media networks and supplemental content, including the fictional town newspaper “The Kensington Chronicle” into a potent interactive experience for its viewers. In fact, according to series transmedia producer Emmett Furey, many of its loyal followers have been inspired to contribute their own unique additions to its constantly growing story universe.

“Instead of merely interacting with the characters on social media as themselves, some fans create their own characters and the social accounts to go with them, role playing as if they lived in Neverland alongside the official characters,” says Furey. “What’s more, myself and the rest of the producing team do our best to canonize as much of the fan-created content as we can.”

Social Medium

Social Medium follows the exploits of Beatrix Beckett (played by Tara Jayn), a ‘hipster psychic’ who, in addition to updating viewers through vlogging, uses social media to make contact with the afterlife. The show takes an extensive approach to its use of transmedia by encouraging viewers to participate in the show’s continuing paranormal missions through its partnerships with well known brands like Spotify, Loot Crate, Patreon, Yelp and dating site Match.com. Combined with blogs and social media pages for each character, Jayn says that the series’ unique interactive presence across multiple platforms adds greater depth to Social Medium.

“For us, these elements are essential to the story. We always start with how we can organically marry our monsters and/or demons to the website, app, or electronic device. Then the story unfolds from there,” she explains. “They are so woven into the fabric of the show that, without them, the episodes just don’t work.”

Classic Alice

Created by and starring Kate Hackett in the title role of a young collegian whose daily life is heavily influenced by some of literature’s greatest novels (think Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and Homer’s The Odyssey), Classic Alice seamlessly melds those traditional standards with character social media pages, podcasts and Tumblr blogs throughout each of its seven seasons.

Working alongside Classic Alice’s transmedia producer Dana Shaw, Hackett developed an incredibly organized assemblage of sites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and SoundCloud to build upon the stories and characters featured throughout each episode. At the same time, the system they developed made it easier for fans to reach out to the show’s cast and crew.

Classic Alice was created as a transmedia experience in order to capitalize on multiple platforms of engagement. If you can be found in 6 places, you’ll have more viewers than if you’re only working on the one,” Hackett says. “We streamlined all platforms to point to YouTube and used all of them (Twitter, Facebook, SoundCloud, etc.) to craft both the major story and “B/C/D” plots throughout the show. Characters you maybe didn’t see much of got some time to shine in the confessionals, and on Twitter, or elsewhere.”

Secret Identity Show

Secret Identity Show, created by Jillian Austin, focuses on the adventures and hilarious mishaps of a group of professional superhero impersonators as they seek fame and success in Las Vegas. At the same time, the series integrates multifaceted interactive transmedia elements like vlogs, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to further enhance its impressive outreach to live audiences (more on that ahead). Popular ride sharing app Lyft and video-based shopping service Clicktivated also serve as an extension of Secret Identity Show’s storytelling.

While Secret Identity Show uses apps, character-centric vlogs and web sites to expand its overall experience, its characters reach out to viewers far beyond the limits of the computer screen. As Austin explains, the show’s malevolent super-villain Lex Lucifer (played by Paul Stuart) made quite an impression on unsuspecting attendees of a recent business conference in Las Vegas.

“He is a billionaire character, so we had him speak as a billionaire keynote speaker. We worked with the conference. They made up their program, which included actual real people who were speaking, but it also featured Lex giving a talk about redefining and owning your personal power, and redefining the idea of evil,” recalls Austin. “Nobody who was in the audience knew that he was a character. He had websites, he had companies, he had a bio, pictures, and a Twitter. People were like, ‘oh, is he real? This has got to be a real guy.”

Once the truth got out about who Lucifer actually was, Austin capitalized on the stunt’s success by winning over more viewers to her series. “After he gave the talk, we explained to everyone (that) he’s a character in the Secret Identity Show. All the people at the conference were like, "man, that's the most amazing thing I've ever seen.’”

It’s All About the Fans

The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy’s innovative use of supplemental content earned it an IAWTV (International Association of Web Television) award for Best Transmedia Experience during its first season. While such acclaim is an honor for any transmedia-based series, perhaps the most critical measure of success for shows like Peter and Wendy, Classic Alice and Social Medium is determined by how it maintains the strength of its relationship with audiences.

“I loved how much our fans interacted with the (Social Medium) characters on Twitter. It was a challenge, keeping things organized and continuous on Twitter, fleshing out the characters and giving them real lives, while still not giving away too much of the story spoilers,” Newlin says. “I think the best reactions we received were when we went all out and had the characters conversing with each other. Fans would jump in and respond, give advice, and give us, the writers, a better understanding of what people thought about our show.”

“In an era when fan activism can make or break traditional television shows, and see canceled series get new leases on life on other networks or platforms, fan loyalty is an incredibly valuable commodity,” Furey responds. “And the goodwill you earn by truly listening to your fans, and turning what is essentially fan-fiction into fan-fact by canonizing their contributions to the story world, is something no amount of money can buy.”

Actors and filmmakers who seek to make their own impact through transmedia-based web series would do well to learn not just from the experiences of those who’ve preceded them, but also from how successful projects like Social Medium, Secret Identity Show, Classic Alice and The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy developed and refined every aspect of their production.

“I would advise any creators to really plan out your transmedia content carefully. It’s really easy to slip up and make a mistake in releasing things in order, or fumble the technical aspects involved in websites or easter eggs,” Newlin explains. “Watch as much successful episodic television as you can in research and developing your skills as a storyteller. Transmedia content is getting more sophisticated every day. Cheating on cinematic basics like shot framing and pro actors will lose viewers pretty quickly.”

Walters stresses that creators both should consider the effectiveness and usefulness of the sites and apps they seek to use, and how much of an impact they’ll make on the storytelling aspects of the shows they want to make. “Think about what type of medium(s) would work well for the story/theme that you are working on,” he says. “Not every story needs an in-world newspaper or to use Twitter. Maybe your characters (and audience) are younger and Snapchat is the way to go, or the simple visual format of Instagram fits with your themes.”

WHERE TO WATCH

The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy: http://newpeterwendy.com/

Secret Identity Show: http://secretidentityshow.com

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