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The Transmedia Approach to Documentary Development and Marketing

Exactly what is 'transmedia?'

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Because the transmedia concept and its manifestations are still works in progress, it's difficult to find a concrete definition for what is currently a buzz word in the documentaries world.

As it relates to the art and business of moviemaking, the term transmedia signals a multifaceted, multimedia approach to developing a film project, be it nonfiction or narrative.

Basically, it's a marketing approach. Ideally, a movie has a theatrical run, with broadcast, online and DVD release schedules in place, along with carefully timed release of associated 'viral' videos (about making the movie or director and cast interviews, for example) on YouTube and other online outlets, plus a thorough social media campaign to develop 'community' for the film, and release of interactive elements -- a game that's set up online, with mobile apps and at home digital devices -- to engage audiences as individuals or in community, in ongoing involvement with the film, its story and issue.

Major studios and distributors have successfully used transmedia marketing to promote narrative blockbusters -- the "Harry Potter" franchise is an obviously successful mainstream example.

Similarly, all categories of branded consumer products, ranging from Wrigley's gum to Nike, use transmedia exposure to sell their goods.

That documentary filmmakers have been slow to go with the transmedia flow isn't surprising. Many find the idea of developing projects with built-in marketing strategies discomforting. They want to tell stories that create debate about current issues and, when their films are finished, they don't mind making public appearances, placing trailers on YouTube and using social media to attract audiences. But they seem to feel that developing a marketing strategy while they're developing, researching and shooting their film would compromise their objectivity and catapult their documentary -- whether it's purely observational or a film with an element of advocacy -- into the realm of propaganda.

Filmmaker Concerns

Their concerns are justified. The larger, more serious consideration is one of ethics. Even when subjects and stories are pursued with meticulous objectivity, it's inevitable that documentaries reflect the filmmaker's perspective and discovery experience. In legitimate documentaries, the filmmaker's intent should be transparent.

Another concern is that when a documentary's social media campaign seems too contrived and in your face, it can be counterproductive, particularly when a filmmaker constructs a social media campaigns around him or herself, rather than around the film or the issues raised by the film.

When documentary filmmakers tour films to festivals and make personal appearances at special screenings, they' using themselves as marketing elements. But, whether they appear in their own films or not, when they present themselves to the public as a brand, they seem to lose rather than gain followers.

Transmedia Branding

Still, transmedia marketing of movies entails branding. With fiction features -- such as the Harry Potter films -- multiplatform branding across all media formats is based on story and characters. Harry Potter is the brand.

But when it comes to transmedia branding of a documentary, the task isn't that simple. Turn to the example of Garbage Dreams, which has successfully made its mark on multiple platforms. Just what is the brand that identifies and unifies Garbage Dreams's multiplatform campaign? It's not the film itself, although the title is used as the game's name. It isn't the director, Mai Iskander -- and, if it were, the multiplatform model might well collapse under the weight of what might well be perceived as filmmaker egocentricity. It isn't the three 'zeballeen' teens, although they are characters who face dramatic and gripping life-threatening challenges and are, in their way, as engaging as Harry Potter.

The Garbage Dreams multiplatform brand is the film's issue. More specifically, the brand is the issue of waste disposal, recycling and how all that effects human life on Earth. That's what the film's about. That's what the game's about. That's what the discussion is about. The issue is the brand.

Branding by issue is a different way of conceiving and developing a movie's marketing strategy, but it certainly seems appropriate for documentaries.

If transmedia marketing is to accomplish all that it might, its branding demands commitment and creativity. Just how do you get school kids to find it as exciting to team up to build an empire out of recycled waste as they do to gang up and Evanesco or Expulso each other?

Big Task. Big Rewards.

Enter Games For Change, a consortium of progressive multiple media wizards who develop games and other interactive media platforms that promote socially conscious behavior and goals. Documentary filmmakers who understand the potential of transmedia exposure, as well as documentary funders and distributors, and groups or organizations formed around special issues -- the environment, health care, judicial reform, literacy, music in the schools, etc. -- are forging collaborations with the pros at Games For Change and other interactive media programmers adept at social networking and the development of games and mobile apps that can 'brand' an issue that's brought to light in a documentary, and carry that issue to greater public awareness and engagement.

Developing Transmedia Partnerships

Partnerships between nonfiction filmmakers and interactive media developers are being promoted and funded by cinema-supporting nonprofits, including such major grant givers as the Ford Foundation, which recently infused the Tribeca Film Institute Transmedia Fund.

In the festival arena, Sheffield Doc/Fest leads the way to transmedia collaborations by presenting its annual Crossover Summit, which convenes nonfiction filmmakers and top notch interactive media pros to discuss multiplatform possibilities in very productive roundtable and panel meet ups.

It's not difficult to understand how and why the transmedia approach works and is especially effective for issue-oriented documentary films. Transmedia marketing is the wave of the future, one which nonfiction filmmakers and storytellers had best become adept at surfing.

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