Just to set the record straight, I didn’t really start this 3-part series to brag about things I had done or to say how backward the studios are. If it came across that way, I apologize, although I have spent some time slapping my head (as one commenter put it) in meetings. My intention is to illustrate what my personal interactions with the studios have taught me about their general view of “transmedia”. (I put it in quotes because, at the time, we weren’t even calling it transmedia.It was just new, interesting avenues to tell stories.) I hope it can be helpful or at least start up some good conversations about how people working in the transmedia space can be taken a little more seriously by the folks with deep pockets.
Let me tell you a story. I promise there is a point to it.
In 1987, for various reasons, my parents and I moved in with my Grandfather in Torrance, CA for a while. I was 14 and had never lived outside the goat farm in Pennsylvania where I grew up. My grandfather is an amazing guy but we often came to blows over the television and one particular facet of the television. To him, you turn the television on once a day and leave it on all day until you go to bed at night. That means you generally turn it on in the evening only because you want to save on electricity. His logic behind leaving it on is that all the tubes inside the television need to warm up and each time you turn it on, warming them up takes some life off them. Turning it on for one show or, heaven forbid, for 5 minutes will damage the tubes, as all of that heating and cooling will eventually fry them. I am not nor have I ever been a television repairman, so I have no idea if his reasoning was ever based in fact. But he was my grandfather, patriarchal head of the household and he paid the bills so I listened to him and did as I was told (at least whenever he was home). Whether or not it was true in 1987, I’m pretty sure it’s not true in 2011 for his 42 inch LCD. Yet the rule still stands that the TV goes on once a day and then stays on. And he is still the head of the household, so we all, from me to my nephews to my parents and uncles, still listen to him. At least whenever he is home.
The studios these days are kind of like my grandfather. They understood how things worked at one time. They understood it better than anybody. It was a pretty cut and dried formula. You put John Wayne on a poster in every newspaper and put commercials on Sunday football and people came and saw your movie. Just like for my grandfather: when he pressed the power button, the tubes inside the television heated up and he got a picture. For my grandfather, the picture hasn’t changed so the device that delivers it must not have either.
Things have changed. Media has changed. There’s no denying it that the entertainment industry is a new animal these days. You can’t really fault the studios for holding on to what they know any more than you can fault my grandfather for his holding on. Something they know really well has changed without either of them knowing how or why.
It all looks the same. To studios, it’s still moving images where actors play roles and stories are told. To my grandfather, it’s still television. To the rest of us, we know things have changed and we’re willing to embrace that change, but some people can’t. You can’t fault them for it. I really couldn’t get angry with my grandfather and call him an ignorant old man, especially when he still pays the electric bill.
It’s scary to admit that something has changed beyond your understanding, especially when it’s something you own. Something that is yours. That you control with the flick of a button and does exactly what you tell it to. By admitting it, even to ourselves, we admit that things have moved beyond our control. That we don’t understand the inner workings any more. That technology has somehow moved beyond our knowledge base.
The analogy I’m making here isn’t full-proof, I admit. My grandfather’s stubbornness isn’t going to starve him or make him throw his grandkids out of the house. The studios understand that media is changing and are terrified on a deeper level than Grandpa ever will be. But, in general, it’s making them clamp down even further into their set ways. People there are scared to lose the jobs that they worked years, some of them decades to get into, even though those jobs may not be valid in a few years. I try really hard to remember that these are real people who worked very, very hard to get where they are and have families and mortgages and car payments. And now, every day those jobs are becoming less and less secure as the face of the changing world of media.
Let’s look back at the Cowboys & Aliens example that I mentioned in Part 2 of this series. Based strictly on the box office numbers, the movie ultimately failed. Would my plan have made a bit of difference? Who knows? I’m not going to for an instant suggest it could have saved the thing by bringing in another $100 million at the box office. It might not have made a bit of difference at the end of the day. But it certainly would have cost less than most parts of the campaign they ultimately went with did. And that’s precisely why they couldn’t let it happen. If it had had a noticeable, measurable difference in the marketing of the film with a far slimmer budget than was actually spent on it, their entire way of living would have been jeopardized. Then many people in that big marketing meeting would have lost their jobs and their families would have been in danger.
It’s not even from a standpoint of marketing, either. If you’re creating content that is seen by more people and is a greater ROI than, you are also a threat to their entire way of life. “Charlie Bit My Finger” has been viewed by 381 million people at the time of this posting. At an average ticket price of $8 per person, Charlie would rank slightly above “Avatar” in world-wide box office take. Would any of us pay $8 to see two hours of Charlie? Probably not. But Charlie also didn’t cost 200 million dollars to film. Would we pay $2 for “Charlie Part 2″ that blends interactive chatting with the ability to shoot little chomping Charlies down as they attack a finger all while reading a series of comedic online cartoons featuring Charlie and his brother? Maybe. That $2 times 381 million would only make Charlie slightly below “Star Wars Episode IV” on the all-time worldwide grosses and all of those transmedia elements that I just added to Charlie still wouldn’t add up to the $13 million George Lucas spent on the first installment of his franchise, much less the hundreds spent since.
Transmedia projects have the ability to reach more eyeballs than a “Cowboys & Aliens” or a “Green Lantern” can ever dream of. Studios are terrified of that, and justifiably so. The people in charge, who all have extremely big pockets and an extremely long history of success, are terrified of what Charlie can become, but they understand Charlie just enough to be scared of him.
So what is it going to take to get the studios to embrace “Worlds at War” or “The Unique Experience” or even “Charlie Part 2″? (Going to start pitching that tomorrow, by the way.”) I’m afraid it’s going to be up to money at the end of the day. The studios can point to Avatar and show it made $2.8 Billion worldwide, even though it cost $250 million to make. Somebody needs to prove concretely that that same 11 to 1 return rate that Avatar made its investors is possible on a transmedia program. I’m not sure that has happened yet. If I’m wrong, somebody please correct me.
Everyone knows it is possible. Everyone sees the potential. And the head of the media “family” is terrified of it. My Grandfather must know somewhere deep inside him that this 6 inch thick flat screen television can’t possibly have tubes in it, no matter how tiny they are. Until somebody breaks one open in front of him and forces him to understand every tiny part of it, that’s not going to change. And who has the balls to do that to Grandpa?