The Art of Immersion: The Digital Generation Remakes Hollywood

Burgeoning Transmedia Mogul, Guillermo del Toro

Here’s the 411;

The internet is transforming storytelling, Big Time. Stories are no longer merely narrative one-way entertainment, but are now transmogrified into deeply immersive, entertaining experiences, pulling the viewer/ reader/ consumer/ audience member ‘deeper’ into the story than say, a television drama, commercial, or theatrical movie allows. This ‘transformed’ story is (arguably) referred to by some as Deep Media and Transmedia by a great many others. “Immersion”, “Transmedia’, and “Deep Media”  are being used to describe a “rethinking of the ancient art of narrative for a two-way world.”

Wandering the earth amongst us mere mortals are a number of inquisitive folks tracking the Transmedia / Technology/ Story arc. Frank Rose, contributing editor at Wired and author of  The Art of Immersion; How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, is one of those folks. Frank has his finger on the pulse of the deep media corollary; he’s been writing about the collision of technology, media and entertainment for the last decade.  Frank also covered Trent Reznor’s (Nine Inch Nails) ground-breaking YEAR ZERO alternate reality game,  reflecting the theme of Reznor’s album, YEAR ZERO:

“The story of a future America ravaged by climate change, racked by terrorism, and ruled by a Christian military dictatorship. Where the album told this story in song, the game- a cascading sequence of riddles and puzzles that played out over several months, both online and in the real world- actually sought to give people a taste of what life in a massively dysfunctional theocratic police state might look like.” – Frank Rose

Hang on, it gets really interesting. Read Frank’s great article on the making of the YEAR ZERO ARG, Here.

From Frank’s site: “Not long ago we were spectators, passive consumers of mass media. Now, on YouTube and blogs and Facebook and Twitter, we are media. And while we watch more television than ever before, how we watch it is changing in ways we have barely slowed down to register. No longer content in our traditional role as couch potatoes, we approach television shows, movies, even advertising as invitations to participate—as experiences to immerse ourselves in at will…

This isn’t the first time the way we tell stories has changed. Every major advance in communications has given birth to a new form of narrative: the printing press and and moveable type led to the emergence of the novel in the 17th and 18th centuries; the motion picture camera, after a long period of experimentation, gave rise to movies; television created the sitcom. The Internet, like all these technologies in their earliest days, was at first used mainly as a vehicle for retransmitting familiar formats. For all the talk of “new media,” it served as little more than a new delivery mechanism for old media, from newspapers to music to TV shows.But what does it mean, exa

That’s what everybody’s trying to figure out. Technology has finally created a mechanism for people to have a voice, but authors are still working out how to deal with it.

I had a really interesting exchange about this with Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, the guys who ran Lost. The fans want a say in the story, Lindelof said, but they also want to be reassured that the producers know where the story is going–and those two impulses seem mutually exclusive. Except they’re not, really. Lindelof and Cuse demonstrated that themselves with Nikki and Paulo, the slimy lowlifes who turned up out of nowhere in season 3. Viewers hated them. So 11 episodes later, they got killed off in spectacular fashion–buried alive by the other survivors after being bitten by a fictional species of spider whose venom brings on a paralysis so complete it makes you look dead. So Lost took the whole idea of authorship-sharing back to where Dickens got it 170 years ago–which is progress. But it’s still a long way from there to the narrative version of an open-world game, where the author creates a world and sets the parameters for the player to live out a story.That was then…

In the months and years ahead, professional storytellers of every persuasion—people in movies, in television, in video games, and in marketing—will need to function in a world in which distinctions that were clear throughout the past century are becoming increasingly blurred. The Art of Immersion shows how this is happening and why, and what it means for us all.”

HERE you’ll find Frank’s awesome blog on Deep Media. BELOW, you’ll find an interesting interview with Frank and  JWT Intelligence contributor Marian Berelowitz on The Art of Immersion– and if this leaves you wanting more, HERE is a heady back and forth between author Frank Rose and Convergence Media Maestro Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism and the Cinematic Arts of the University of Southern California.

Buckle Your Seat Belts — we’re off!

JWT Intelligence:  What’s your elevator pitch for this book?

Frank Rose: Essentially, that the influence of the Internet is changing stories—by which I mean movies, television shows, games, advertisements, any number of ways that stories can be told. It’s changing them in a way that is making them immersive above all, but also non-linear, because the Web itself is non-linear. That’s making it somewhat game-like and certainly very participatory. In other words, no more passive viewing. It means taking a much more active role.

And what’s driving all this is the emergence of a type of media that’s participatory, that is the opposite of the mass media we’ve known for pretty much all of the 20th century. What you’ve seen in the past 10 years or so is the emergence of social media, of any number of other things online that’s, first off, giving pretty much everybody a voice that wants it and is at the same time influencing how stories are told on television and in other media.

So what got you interested in the topic and made you feel it was worth a book?

For the past 10 years or so, I’ve been a contributing editor at Wired and I’ve focused on stories that were at the intersection of media and technology. And by the middle of the past decade, I began to realize that something very different was happening. I think that until about 2005, 2006, 2007, the Internet was mainly having a big impact on media business models—obviously not a very good impact from the point of view of traditional media. But it wasn’t really having much impact on media forms—the forms that stories or entertainment or advertising or any of these things took.

Around four or five years ago, that began to change. I did a disconnected series of stories that to me began to point the way to some new form of storytelling emerging. I did an interview in 2006 with James Cameron when he was about to put Avatar in preproduction. He described Avatar as a movie that was the kind of science fiction that was almost fractal in nature; in other words, you could jump into it in powers of 10 and the pattern would hold up. For someone who really wanted to delve into the story, they could jump into it almost at any level of depth. And not only would the pattern hold up, but they would find something satisfying and enticing to explore.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails

In 2007, I did an article on alternate reality games that focused on the Year Zero game, which was developed by a company called 42 Entertainment for Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails. This was essentially a really new form of storytelling that had been evolving over the past couple of years. There have subsequently been more from the same people—a game for The Dark Knight and most recently one for Tron: Legacy. These took the form of telling a story in a way that engaged people online and in the real world in a series of very complicated, sometimes puzzle-like activities. It was so complicated that people had to get together online to figure out what was happening. But the upside of it was that people essentially told the story to themselves. They deciphered all these codes and things that were happening and pieced the story together.

That, too, began to strike me as a really interesting concept. And then I did a piece on the fact that during the [writers’] strike, many Hollywood professionals started getting into Web video, because that was one of the few things they could actually do. I realized there were a lot of people in Hollywood, writers in particular, who had gone from writing for television to writing for video games then back again to television or, in this case, for the Web. And their experience writing for video games made them want to create a new kind of hybrid form that would enable people to interact with the story in a way that gamers do. So putting all these things together, I began to think there was something much bigger going on.

It seems like many marketers don’t quite understand yet the potential here or how to go about this. Would you agree?

I think there’s a lot of experimentation going on. And it’s not entirely clear what the most effective way to do things would be. But I do think we are clearly seeing the demise of—or the beginnings of a demise of—interruptive advertising. People don’t want to have their entertainment disrupted by ads.

It’s not that they necessarily are opposed to advertising. If advertising can be informational and helpful to them, they’re typically more than willing to listen to it or take part in it. In fact, in many cases, as brands that have put up Facebook pages have discovered and in many other ways, they’re more than happy to carry some of the marketing function themselves, because people really like brands, they really like products. And if a product is something that appeals to them or if the brand is something that appeals to them, then they’re really happy to share with people that they want to know.

What kind of campaigns would you classify under the umbrella you’re talking about? And would you call this transmedia, per se?

Transmedia tends to be a term that’s specifically used for telling stories of any sort across different platforms. And certainly, this is something that the Internet and mobile technology make not only possible but inevitable. I mean, people now have screens of various types with them all the time. So if you’re trying to communicate with somebody, whether to entertain them or to get across an advertising message, it makes sense to engage them on all or on several of those fronts.

In terms of advertising, I think it goes beyond transmedia per se. People today, young people in particular, are incredibly media savvy, and they’re also, as a corollary, resistant to messaging. They don’t want to be yelled at, they don’t want to be shouted at. They are not willing to be blindly sold on the advantages of this product or that product. What they are willing, and in many cases eager, to do is to share information they have about products. And that goes, obviously, either way—if it’s a product or a brand they like or one they don’t like. And so because people are empowered, so to speak, by digital media and have a voice and a megaphone they didn’t have 10 or 15 years ago, it becomes possible and very appealing for them to do that.

What about campaigns that tell a story across platforms, like Coca-Cola’s “Happiness Machine” or the Audi “Heist” campaign? Do you think we’ll see a lot more like that?

If it’s going to work, it has to be very, very well done, as the “Happiness Factory” was. It has to be extremely engaging. There’s been all kinds of buzz for years now about viral marketing. But that’s really what it comes down to: You can’t make something go viral. All you can do is make something that’s appealing enough that people will want to share it and then hope that they do. Put it in places where people will find it and the places that will enable people to share it. The future of storytelling in advertising is it really has to be entertaining and engaging in its own right.

You can’t simply try to put a message across anymore. If you’re going to try to interrupt people’s entertainment, you’d better have something that’s as good as what they would have been watching. And, if it is, they’ll go seek it out and they’ll share it with their friends and you’ll get lots of attention. “Happiness Factory” was an example; the original “Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign for Old Spicewas an example as well. The reason it garnered so much attention in the first place was it was short, to the point, highly entertaining. It conveyed a message about the product, but that wasn’t the major and obvious focus of the ad. What made people want to see it and then pass it along was that it was just very, very entertaining.

Old Spice may be an exception here, because it seems that a lot of these campaigns involve a gaming element. Do you think we’ll see a lot more of that?

Yes, I think we will, because when you talk about participatory entertainment or media in general, what it comes down to is a gaming element. With the Old Spice campaign, the original campaign did not have a gaming element, but the response campaign, which ran during the summer, did kind of become a game. It became a game in which people competed with one another to craft the most interesting, fun questions. And getting your question answered or responded to on YouTube became like hitting the jackpot.

Where do you think we’re going from here? Presumably mobile will play a bigger part in these kinds of strategies?

Mobile certainly will. I think that’s still pretty much uncharted territory. It remains to be seen exactly how much people are going to want to engage on the basis of where they are, and the implication of that being that somebody knows always where you are. Those are the things that are still evolving, both on the ad side and on the consumer side.

But what really interests me are the bigger questions of—regardless what platform you’re using, whether it’s mobile or television or online or some combination of the three—the attitude you bring to it and the attitude you assume on the part of consumers. People expect to be entertained—or if not entertained, they expect to get something else of value. That’s the price they expect or the price they exact from giving attention to it in the first place. The hard sell approach is going to be increasingly counterproductive. People who complain that some of these campaigns don’t put enough emphasis on the selling points of the product are really missing the point.

Brand advertising for a long time I don’t think has really been about selling points anyway. It’s been about creating an aura and an image. And I think the best way to create that kind of aura now is to offer people something that’s of value, something that’s entertaining to them, something they can take with them. It can be entertainment, it can be information, it can be ideally some combination of the two.

It seems like as that happens, the idea of storytelling will become more important as a way to draw people in?

Yeah, I think so. I mean, the 30-second spot was built on the idea that you had a captive audience on TV. And the remote punctured that idea. It was always kind of an illusion, because people went to the bathroom or went to the refrigerator or whatever. But increasingly now, people in the ad business are realizing that you have to craft messages that people actively seek out. It’s not enough to just hope that people won’t avoid your ad, because they will.

And even if they don’t avoid them that much, as much as some people fear they might, it’s not going to be very effective if that’s the best you can say about it. The most effective kind of advertising is ads that really engage people, that offer them a chance to immerse themselves in the brand as much as entertainment is beginning to offer people a chance to immerse themselves in the story.

Engage. Immerse. Entertain. Yay!

Finally, what’s on your personal things to watch list?

What I’m really intrigued by is what’s going to happen with the tablet market. Obviously, Apple has an early lead and has managed to define it in a certain way. But Amazon has rebounded very well with the Kindle. A really good question is how that’s going to be different from Web surfing on a laptop or on a desktop. That’s very much an evolving area. I think it will be different.

Apple seems to be making some moves that I suspect are going to be self-destructive in terms of—Apple is not one for allowing a great deal of freedom. Apple tends to go too far, and that’s starting to happen in the app market for iPad. Just the fact that Apple wants to dictate the terms under which magazines can be sold, for example, is not good for Apple, it’s not good for magazines, it’s not good for anybody.

Something like the tablet is potentially an extremely good platform for consuming media, whether it’s watching a movie or a television show or reading a magazine or a book. It’s another portable—and hopefully in the next generation more easily portable—way to enjoy entertainment. And I want to see that evolve in a way that is healthy for all concerned.

And as far as things to watch relating to the topic of your book, any entertainment projects coming up that seem particularly interesting?

Some of the things Guillermo del Toro is doing are quite fascinating. He’s very committed to this what I call “deep media” approach of telling stories in ways that enable people to delve into them in greater depth and perhaps in different kinds of experiences. He is now doing a movie for Disney based on the Haunted House ride, which has been around since I think the ’60s. And given his fascination with horror, that’s pretty interesting. He has also set up a studio in Los Angeles called Mirada, which is devoted to the idea of telling stories across different media platforms.

It’s certainly intriguing that Christopher Nolan is working on translating the movie Inception to a video game form. It was a movie that was very much influenced in its narrative structure by video games anyway, and so it would be very interesting to see what he can do with it.

Here is an interview with Frank Rose and Ian Scheaffer, discussing Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), Mad Men & Deep Focus, and how movies, television series, and even brands are beginning to tell immersive stories that keep consumers engaged.

Add your thoughts!

(Original Post: Marian Berelowitz – JWT Intelligence)

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