I’m a big fan of the Bourne films, and when Tony Gilroy grabbed the wheel to direct The Bourne Legacy, I got excited. Gilroy seeks to expand the Bourne universe in a big way; add to this the wide-open potential of a  transmedia push and things get really interesting…

Holding my Breath for Bourne

I’m waiting in eager anticipation for what Tony Gilroy has in store for we mere mortals in late summer 2012 when The Bourne Legacy drops. Hopefully, it’ll drop in a big time ‘transmedial’ fashion. I’m fascinated with Transmedia storytelling and the Bourne franchise, so after immersing myself in Simon Pulman’s recent post on what Director Tony Gilroy’s got up his sleeve, I just had to share. I invite you to have a go, below.

Expanding the Bourne Story Universe with Tony Gilroy

(Origional article re-posted here with kind permission of Simon Pulman @ Transmythology.com)

“There were some minor updates in the trades this past week regarding the status of the fourth Bourne movie, tentatively titled Bourne Legacy. Actors including Jake Gyllenhaal, Garrett Hedlund and Michael Fassbender are reportedly in the mix for the film, to be helmed by Tony Gilroy. The interesting thing is that the actors are not reading for the recast role of Jason Bourne (previously played by Matt Damon). Instead, Bourne Legacy is intended to expand the story universe in a way that builds upon the existing trilogy of movies, as explained by Tony Gilroy last October:

Tony Gilroy; Taking the high road.

“The easiest way to think of it is an expansion or a reveal. Jason Bourne will not be in this film,    but he’s very much alive. What happened in the first three films is the trigger for what happens. I’m building a legend and an environment and a wider conspiracy…the world we’re making enhances and advances and invites Jason Bourne’s return [down the road].

Everything you saw in the first three films actually happened, and everyone who got into [it] will be rewarded for paying attention. We’re going to show you the bigger picture, the bigger canvas. When you see what we’re going and see what we’re doing it’ll be pretty obvious….but Jason Bourne’s actvities in the first three films is the immediate trigger.”

Transmedia, Tony & The Really Big Picture

Amongst an increasingly reboot-friendly Hollywood paradigm, this is an incredibly ambitious and exciting approach to continuing a franchise. What Gilroy appears to be doing, of course, is consciously adopting a Transmedia approach to development – the notion of a “wider conspiracy,” a “bigger picture,” and rewards for the audience for paying attention to the bigger story (while presumably not alienating new viewers) are central tenants of Transmedia. Accordingly, I first want to touch upon why this is a good idea before discussing a few challenges Gilroy and Universal might face – and some techniques they might consider.

Continuing the story begun in the earlier films will actually benefit the franchise because it will necessitate the planning and expansion of the world around the story. Though Jason Bourne has proven to be an appealing, robust protagonist, he is still only a pawn in a much bigger political landscape within the world of the movies. By choosing to explore this bigger world – note that Gilroy talks about a “wider conspiracy” and a “bigger canvas” – the creative team will actually set themselves with the palette that will enable them to tell “Bourne” stories across multiple platforms and a large period of time. Audiences will tolerate reboots up to a point, but rebooting a franchise every time you need a new protagonist will ultimately kill it.

Which points to another boon of the strategy: the validation of audience trust. In the quotes above, Gilroy speaks of “rewarding” fans for paying attention to the story so far. Now, of course, the new movie will have to be totally coherent to new viewers. But by referring to the past movies, Universal is sending a message: the Bourne universe matters; it is meaningful. Every time you reboot a franchise, you have to discard the ground work put down beforehand. A reboot might bring in new fans, but it might also leave existing fans who have invested emotionally in the story feeling cheated.

Moreover, the strategy sends another message, this time to actors: the franchise is not about one person. As I’ve noted in the past, I have tremendous respect for (most) movie stars and I realize that they remain an enormous draw for audiences. However, it’s an unenviable situation for studios to be in when they have to negotiate a huge contract for a star with a massive first-dollar gross cut simply to get another story off the ground. To flip that around to the actor’s perspective, expanding the franchise beyond one protagonist permits the actor to avoid becoming typecast and, perhaps, “move upstairs” to a producer role (and keep benefitting financially).
Which brings me to something that I really like about Gilroy’s quotes: the distant mountains he presents in the form of Jason Bourne’s potential return. Now, I don’t know whether Matt Damon would want to return to the franchise in any capacity, or whether a deal could be struck to enable this. At any rate, it’s a wonderful tease for fans to think that the story could be leading to something big and exciting  that would bring together – in some respect – the “old” and “new” generation of characters. As an aside, this is one reason why it doesn’t always make sense to kill your protagonists even if you feel their arc has concluded – there might just be an interesting way to reincorporate them in another story “epoch.”

What Universal and Gilroy Need to Do
So the intent to expand the story is admirable; how do the creatives behind Bourne Legacy actually pull it off? Here are a few ideas drawn from Transmedia development techniques.

Firstly, they need to understand why the first three movies worked – aside from the superficial answers of “Matt Damon” or “lots of cool action.” Those two factors were important, clearly, but the Bourne series must have resonated emotionally with audiences for reasons beyond them (otherwise, I would guess, Green Zone might have done better). Thus, the Bourne producers need to look at the deeper themes that motivated the action in those films and the inherent conflict in the story. Though the Jason Bourne character may not be present, the struggles that he represented should be articulated – though perhaps expressed differently – through the new protagonist.
Secondly, Universal needs to work out where the Bourne universe stands at the moment – including any potentially confusing elements of the films to date – and thoughtfully consider how to expand the story world. Gilroy is clearly already thinking bigger picture, but Universal needs to understand that it is necessary not only to set up the ninety minute arc of the next film but to robustly calibrate the story world in a way that will tolerate a further three films, plus multi-platform Transmedia elements. In the new paradigm, truly world-class franchises must be able to be artfully distributed across novels, mobile platforms, video games and so on. This can only occur with thoughtful planning and upfront investment. I’d guess that for $3-4 million, Universal could put together a 15 year game plan for Bourne that would generate upwards of $500m of additional revenue. It’s a worthwhile commitment.
Now we come to the issue of informing fans of the new plan. A director is attached who, from what I can gather, has a concrete plan. The time to think about the seeding of the new premise with fans is right now – not while the film is being shot, or according to traditional marketing models. Those models, based predominately on P&A expenditure, may not be sufficient to convincingly answer the two key questions that will be asked of Universal by the average moviegoer: “where is Matt Damon?” and “where is Jason Bourne?” Fans need to be educated that this is not a thoughtless cash-in or shoddy spin-off, but an exciting development in an expansive story.

Door #3-  Transmedia

This is where Transmedia implementation can come in. Universal needs to construct a Transmedia plan that tastefully anticipates the coming film, introducing audiences to the shift in point of view in a way that fits into the story. The twenty year gap between Tron and Tron: Legacy was explained through an ARG and prequel comic that set up the story for the sequel quite well, and filled in a lot of gaps. Yet those stories, though relatively successful, reached a relatively small proportion of the mass audience that Disney wanted to attract to the film. Universal should begin strategizing now as regard to ways that the Bourne story can be set up so it reaches a large proportion of the movie going public. Some of that work can be covered by press and PR, admittedly, but that press still needs to point audiences back to story. How the project should be executed is up to debate – hence the need to invest time and money – but I would think that mobile technology would be a natural fit for the franchise.

A Final Note
Bourne Legacy is slated for an August 2012 release, so if Universal wishes to adopt Transmedia as it should, it ought to make a decision fairly promptly. It is important to stress, however, that this is not a light undertaking – it will require co-operation from the director, writers, producers, actors and various divisions of the studios. Yet, in my view, it’d be well worth it – there is the opportunity to redefine the way in which studios continue franchises and do something truly spectacular.

A big Thank You to Simon Pulman for allowing his kind permission to repost his article here.

(Original Post: Simon Pulman, Transmythology.com)

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