Power to the Pixel 2012: what’s new in i-doc’s transmedia land

Power to the Pixel was held in London for the 6th year in a row, showing the world of media production that transmedia is more than a trend: it is a logic of production and an marketing strategy that fits the needs of our global media world.

As always, the Power to the Pixel proposition was spread during four days: one day of conference, one day of public  pitches, one day of tailor-made meetings and a final day for the VIP think tank. This formula seems to work well, as it puts together vulgarization of the form while creating a market space for projects to develop and be financed. As the press does cover the event very well, and you can also have a peek of some of the slides online, my aim here is not to summarize the event as a whole but to share some thoughts on how the transmedia trend is impacting the factual side of digital production, what we call here  i-docs.

The first point I would like to make is that fictional narrative still seem to be predominant in the transmedia world, but this is changing fast.

Fictional narrative lends itself very well to the idea of cross-media development: first do the viral campaign, then build your community online, release the film and then elongate the life of your film with a game… so it  can appear more flexible to this multiple packaging strategy- and maybe fictional producers are more used to think in terms of profits and life-cycles… And yet, Power to the Pixel is here to prove us that things are not so clear, and that a possible transmedia strategy is to mix fiction and factual under a unique umbrella, craftfully using different languages for different purposes . Four out of ten presentations this year were linked to factual content. Although a documentary film might not have always  been the core proposition of such projects, some factual elements always seemed to be part of the mix.

This is for example the case of the soon to be launched  iPad version of the War Horse book (a Touch Press & Illuminations & Egmont Press collaboration out on the 11th of November) where the core proposition is a book, but the interactive enhancement includes a timeline that allows the reader to link the story of the book with the day to day events that happened in the real world. Matching  fiction (the story of the horse) with factual (what happened in the real world during the time of the story) becomes a clever educational hook to be used by teachers at school. Not incidentally, this new proposition has high chances to increase both the sells of the book and of the iPad version, making  War Horse a must have for innovative teachers that do not see the book as a stand alone anymore. The film, the play and the iPad are more than mere translations of the original story: they potentially are ways to learn history, compassion, courage through a storyworld. And the iPad here is what makes the linking between factual and fiction fluid and fun: interactive tools are relational at their core and transmedia might just be about creating bridges in archipelagos .

The second thing that I have noticed this year is that films might not be the cash makers anymore. The viral campaign that preceded The Blair Witch Project in 1999 (often cited as a pioneer of transmedia) was meant to create a curiosity phenomenon so that the film would be a success. More than ten years after, the film element is not always crucial to the transmedia proposition.

A good example of that is the incredibly well thought five years plan strategy around Operation Ajax, an iPad graphic Novel produced by BoomGen Studios.

Operation Ajax 5 years plan (photo by SG)

This animated graphic novel tells the true story of the first CIA backed coup which toppled Iran’s democracy in 1953. Combining subtle animation with a film quality soundtrack, the story unfolds in a  cinematic reading experience. The app includes:  a 210 page interactive comic with sound and animation, 22 character dossiers loaded with photos and notes,  9 historical newsreels and 3 authentic declassified CIA documents. The app sells on iTunes for $4.99.

Operation Ajax demo (find the app here)

What I see as clever is that this edutainment product has levels of  facts and levels of information depth. One can buy the $4.99 version, but an academic version is also available. Here again the educational potential of the product is what seems to make it a winner. The game, the movie, the TV series will happen too but they are not the starting point. The relatively low cost graphic novel is the media phenomenon and, by the time the graphic novel is a success, financiers are chasing producer Mahyad Tousi to “do more” and be part of the transmedia life circle he has created. As Mahyad told me at the conference, American teenagers have zero interest for the USA presidential election that seems to monopolize the media at the moment. After all: they cannot vote so… why should they care? But if you give them a real story that is sufficiently unclear so that needs to be discovered … then you grab their attention, and Operation Ajax seems to do exactly that. And you know what? It speaks of a coup on Iran in 1953… who would have thought it could interest an audience? More: this is not only for Americans. Their are not “the market” anymore. The market is the whole world, it is the all the people that are normally not targetted by the majors… So the lesson that Mahyad is teaching us  is that transmedia is not only a change of mindset in storytelling, but also a change in marketing and financial models.

Finally, the third talk that was directly linked to factual/documentary transmedia content was Ingrid Kopp’s  (Director of Digital Initiatives, Tribeca Film Institute) presentation. The main message from the person that handles one of the few documentary  new media fund around was: “see stories as software and hardware”. With what effectively was a pledge to merge documentary with coder thinking Ingrid Kopp appeared to me as an innovator that was not just thinking in terms of economical cycle, but more in terms of possible “new languages” to discover, and create, through interactive factual narrative. Clearly inspired by hackerthorn mentality (she has announced a series of Open Source tools labs under the Tribecca umbrella) her message resonates loud and clear: “make the web, don’t just use it”.

Ingrid Krop (photo by SG)

And this brings me to my final point.

Now that no one has to convince anybody anymore that transmedia is here to stay, the important message  is for me to keep being innovative  – rather than trying to copy complex, and sometimes unnecessarily ambitious, strategies. As  Michel Reilhac (Executive Director, Arte France Cinema – although it was announced that he will step down in the new year!) did emphasize: we are maybe coming out of the over enthusiasm for connectedness and multi-platformity. Now that convergence is not an utopia anymore, we’ll might have to use it for a purpose. Is transmedia compatible with a logic of “less is more”?

Yes we can enter in the blockbuster logic of the 5 years life cycle and feel obliged to create the game, the app, the film, the website, the futuristic killer app but… do we always need it? Is this the best way to use convergence?

For those who came from a documentary sensitivity (and I said “sensitivity” rather than “field”, as most i-docs producers are now coming from the new media world), for those who are interested in “documentary for change” – and this can be in the small things – for those who believe in purpose as leading the creative process, and product life cycles as making it possible… are there not other aspects that we could hope to experiment with through transmedia?

Where are the niches, topics, ecosystems where transmedia really make sense? This is the question that is becoming more and more urgent for me…

More on this in  future posts…  (but feel free to add to this debate!!! use our website to express yourself and create an i-docs community that has a voice!)


Sandra Gaudenzi