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Film Festival Lessons In Transmedia Storytelling

Filmmakers at the Mill Valley Film Festival spoke about how transmedia storytelling boosted their projects

Author: Mike Kuczkowski

The rise of what many call “transmedia storytelling” has been both exciting and disruptive for communications professionals. My former Edelman colleague Steve Rubel speaks and writes usefully and at length about this concept; I’ve lectured on it to college classes and found it quite a powerful organizing framework for communications efforts.

The concept involves developing a single piece of content or a theme, and activating it across multiple online and real-life channels. For example, a company might develop a piece of “owned” content, such as an interactive CSR report, on a corporate web site, “share” an infographic from the report on their Facebook page or other social media, and pitch elements of it to traditional (or “earned”) media and so-called “hybrid” channels, such as blogs or new digital media. Steve and Edelman use a cloverleaf construct to describe it; I use a solar system model. No one model is right or wrong, and as new channels and platforms emerge, the models themselves evolve.

The “Active Cinema Toolkit” panel at the Mill Valley Film Festival seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore the topic from a new perspective. It was billed as a discussion with “filmmaker-innovators” who would discuss new ways platforms could support filmmakers to inspire engagement.

I assumed filmmakers would be on the cutting edge of this.

I was wrong.

The panelists had no more of a playbook for what’s happening with new digital channels than anyone else. But, their stories did offer compelling lessons for communicators.

Here are synopses of their projects:

  • Denise Zmekhol, a Brazililan-born filmmaker, talked about “Trading Bows and Arrows for Laptops,” a project born out of her own documentary, Children of the Amazon, in which an Amazonian tribe collaborated with Google on a project that trained members of the Surui tribe in the Amazon how to document their tribe’s cultural history on Google Earth.
  • Filmmaker Helen Demichiel embarked on a traditional documentary about activists who were trying to change the way children eat in Oakland’s public schools. As the cultural and policy conversation about childhood obesity gained momentum, the project morphed into a Website with webisodes, activist tools and curriculum guides, and a forum for community engagement.
  • Kenji Yamamoto and his partner Nancy Kelly produced Rebels With A Cause, the story of how activists saved the Marin Headlands as open space starting in the 1950s. He talked about how social media tools allowed him to organize around the project, overcome barriers and become his own distributor for the film.
  • Zeresnay Berthane Mehari wrote and directed Difret, a feature film about a 14-year old girl who was abducted for marriage and later became the first girl in Ethiopia to be acquitted of murder on grounds of self-defense. The project, which took six years, has won multiple film festival awards and is this year’s Ethiopian entry for the Academy Awards.
  • Wendy Levy, the executive director of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NEMAC), described the Oakland Fence Project, a large-scale interactive art project that will debut in Oakland’s Jack London Square in 2016. It’s built around a fence on which 6-foot-high photographs will be displayed. Observers will be able to get more information about the photos, artists and NGOs the artists support from their mobile phones while they stand in front of the pictures. They’ll also be able to buy the art or make a donation in the moment. It sounds brilliantly counterintuitive: a fence symbolizing a gathering place, as in “Meet me at the fence,” rather than a dividing line.

With each film, the rise and availability of new digital channels—though not necessarily case studies for integrated, transmedia storytelling—played different and important roles in their success.

For example, Yamamoto said he was unable to get a Bay Area theatrical release without a review in The San Francisco Chronicle. But in a kind of Catch-22, he could not get a Chronicle review without a guaranteed San Francisco theatrical run. He and his wife secured a screening at The Roxie, in San Francisco, and persuaded the Chronicle to review it.

Yamamoto and Kelly then self-distributed the film, securing week-to-week renewal deals with several area theaters, including what became an 11-week run at the Smith Rafael Film Center. They then used social media channels and screenings in small towns to drive further buzz and turnout. Interestingly, the power of good old-fashioned celebrity endorsement was key: After a celebrity agreed to promote film on her web site, their Facebook and Twitter views jumped from 5,000 to 26,000. They secured a deal with American Public Television to distribute the film to PBS stations, and hired a ‘station relations’ person to persuade more than 300 broadcast station managers to air the film, getting 83{71a4cc7669554682ce4c28c009bc386d179a3b116f3b1bc1bd8b52f78ec542dc} of PBS stations on board during Earth Week 2014.

Mehari, on the other hand, started out wanting not to be an activist and being rejected by NGOs because his feature film was a non-traditional approach. Over time, though, he found support from an NGO that led to a dramatic spike in fundraising efforts, including two Kickstarter campaigns and a series of sponsored dinners in New York and London. (As with so many so-called “overnight” successes, Mehari had toiled for years without getting traction.)

Of all the projects, Levy’s seemed the only one to be designed as a multi-channel storytelling effort, with all the depth and dimensions that the technology allows. Hers is still in development. And while the interactive elements sound engaging, I wonder whether mobile devices will enhance or detract from the experience of viewing public art.

Here were my takeaways from the discussion:

  • Change is hard: Filmmakers, as creators, think of themselves as storytellers specific to their medium. So, while I might have thought that the rise of short-form video would naturally play to their strengths, it’s not necessarily so. As much as we say “form follows function,” in this case the functions have been emerging so quickly that it has been very disruptive, and hard to master, even for skilled artists.
  • Adaptability is critical: No single “model” dominates. Some filmmakers used multiple channels to raise money, some used it for publicity purposes. For the most part, it seemed that the filmmakers flexed to changes in their environment, and allowed themselves to explore new approaches in the face of unexpected challenges or opportunities. Demichiel made it clear that it wasn’t easy for her to let go of the concept of a full-length feature documentary, but the emergence of the childhood obesity issue and the needs of the activist community around it led to the webisode and resource center approach.
  • New skills are needed: As much as filmmakers know how to produce a film, they also needed to acquire skills in social media or, as in Zmekhol’s case, technology tools. Her videos of Google training Surai tribesmen and women in coding skills, so that they could embed their cultural map in Google Earth, was itself a fascinating story.
  • Old skills still matter: Yamamoto and Mehari said each said that a lot of what worked for him involved old-fashioned networking and pressing the flesh. “If I can’t look someone in the eye,” Yamamoto said, “I’m not going to be able to understand how to work with them.”
  • Passion counts: Asked by a novice filmmaker in the audience how to raise funding Mehari replied, “I could tell you the story of how I raised money for my film 500 different ways, but it would never happen the same way again. Ultimately, it’s about the passion you bring to the work; that’s what people will see in you.”

At bottom, the slow adoption of new media channels by filmmakers may be a comfort to communicators who have taken a similar “go slow” approach. Levy recalled dealing with the filmmaking community in 2004 through her involvement in NEMAC. “They’d say, ‘I don’t need a Web site.’ I’m a storyteller. We’d get lots of resistance,” Levy said. “Then in 2008, they would say, ‘I don’t do Facebook.’” In time, those answers changed, she said.

Fastforward to 2014. The ad hoc experiences these storytellers have had with various social media channels shows they are now more open, and more willing to experiment, when it comes to emergent digital channels. Imagine the power they’ll unlock with a truly integrated, transmedia storytelling approach in the future.

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