What Ever Became of the Transmedia Movement?

Transmedia guru Jeff Gomez has moved his theoretical framework away from the “hero’s journey” to a new and broader framework, “The Collective Journey,” as presented at StoryWorld3.

By Nick DeMartino


Remember “Transmedia”? At the beginning of this decade ‘transmedia’ was a buzzworthy catch-all term describing an emerging group of media formats and practices that seemed poised to become a major force within the entertainment business.

I found myself pondering the fate of transmedia after participating in three events in California that had once been hotbeds of the movement:

  • StoryWorld 3.0, a scaled-down edition of an event that, as much as any, showcased the theory and practice of transmedia when it premiered in 2011;
  • Digital Hollywood, now in its 24th year, a sprawling array of media, business and tech sessions that closely track buzz and trends; and
  • San Francisco-based TV of Tomorrow Show (TVOT) that has been tracking interactive and advanced television developments for 12 years.

Transmedia became a handy and very elastic term for the kinds of content powered by the rapid adoption of mobile devices and social platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Stories and entire story worlds could be consumed across multiple media, and could invite direct audience interaction. Dozens of format experiments by producers from around the world began to coalesce into a movement that some called “transmedia.”

Even as movie studios, TV networks, game companies and brands began to underwrite projects that they eagerly labeled “transmedia” in order to catch the buzz, there was a less commercially oriented group that resisted, preferring small-scale efforts like “alternate reality games.” These folks pushed back when the Producers Guild of America designated an official credit for “transmedia producer,” igniting a war of words, as I reported at the time. Indeed, my own work as a consultant and observer was fully caught up in the movement during its heyday.

Today, we rarely hear the word “transmedia” when trying to describe the contemporary media production, distribution and consumption landscape. And so, yes, “Transmedia” per se is dead, victims of what transmedia producer and author Andrea Phillips called the transmedia diaspora. Name-brand leaders of the movement like Jeff Gomez and Lance Weiler, both of whom presented at StoryWorld 3, are still in the field, but like the movement they helped spawn, focus upon the mechanics of story, not the nomenclature and categorization of the movement.

The truth is, the principles championed by the transmedia movement can be seen everywhere today across dozens of programs, platforms, formats, entertainment experiences, and media types. The reality of our media ecosystem and audience behaviors have demanded that all media is, without much fanfare, transmedia storytelling.

Here are some features of today’s media ecosystem with roots in the short-lived transmedia era.

From UGC to Digital Brands

It was barely 13 years ago when YouTube invited users to produce and share their own videos under the banner “Broadcast Yourself,” unleashing a massive volume of content, new formats like the “video blog,” and incorporating viewer engagement and niche community-building as core media values that have permeated throughout many other media. What started as “user-generated content (UGC)” has become an empire built on a new type of audience consumption and engagement that continues to evolve.

“What the audience of the YouTubers reacted to were YouTube stars who spoke directly into the camera as though they were talking to the audience and the lower-quality production was a feature, not a bug,” said investor Mark Suster in a recent post

This new generation of YouTube-rooted celebrities, now universally known as “influencers,” have used authentic connection with enormous audiences now exceeds the influence of conventional media stars. An entire industry has emerged to package the output of talent, with the first wave of “multi-channel networks” evolving into sizeable media companies, often attracting big investments.

Take for example Jukin Media that has developed a model discovers, acquires and licenses UGC clips, generating content sites like FailArmy. Or Otter Media (co-owned by ATT and Chernin Media) with brands like Crunchyroll, VRV, Fullscreen and Gunpowder & Sky. TV4 Entertainment runs 30 genre-oriented video destinations, what they call the largest collection of OTT (over-the-top) networks in the world. Seeker Media specializes in video and VR content about science and technology topics. New Form finances, produces and distributes digital original series, many in partnership with talent that has emerged from the YouTube pool. And of course, Amazon’s Twitch platform has created a new user-engaged format around the watching of videogame play.

Multiplying Platforms

One of the key innovations of the “transmedia” era was multiplatform storytelling. In its commercial form, there is a primary platform like television, and ancillary engagement tools like Twitter, YouTube, blogs, etc. That tradition continued with HBO’s recent mini-series Mosaic, starring Sharon Stone and directed by Steven Soderbergh. The linear story unspooled on the network while backstory was available in a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ style iOS and Android. A sample of other examples I learned about from Sandra Lehner’s presentation at StoryWorld.

  • “Skam” is a multi-platform series developed in Norway that has been adapted in several markets, including in North America via Facebook Watch. “SKAM Austin” popped up with no warning, with fragments appearing on Facebook, as well as Instagram, comments, and texts – what the New Yorker posited as “the future of TV.” Well, we’ve heard that before, for sure, but it will be interesting to see if and how Facebook differentiates its digital native series by adding a social layer.
  • “Five Points,” a scripted drama about high school kids from Chicago’s South Side from producer Kerry Washington and studio Indigenous Media is another Facebook Watch series, with additional content on Instagram and Facebook groups.
  • T@gged is an American psychological thriller about online stalking -- a web original from Awesomeness TV, which unspools on Hulu with extensions on Instagram and Twitter.
  • #karmadraama is a Finnish original video series that appeared on Instagram in near-real-time with the events depicted, with the entire package aggregated on YouTube.
  • South Africa’s Uk’shona Kwelanga is the country’s first ever WhatsApp drama series.

The Triumph of Immersion: VR, AR, MR, XR

Facebook’s purchase of Oculus in 2014, setting off a frenzy of development in virtual reality and its related technologies and content, and pretty thoroughly upstaging any pretensions that “Transmedia” was a credible method of immersing the user in a story. Along with augmented reality, VR has sucked much of the creative energy away from entertainment formats like Alternate Reality Games that offered limited forms of “immersion.”

With varying degrees of immersion, the “XR” family of technologies subsumes many of the inventive and game-like features of transmedia experiences, whether it’s finding Pokemon figures or battling the bad guys in the real world (both from Niantic). With photo-realistic world-building inside VR applications, a sense of true wonder has permeated the trajectory of new media content development that surpasses even high-density cinema with surround sound.

Get Out: Digital Devours the Physical World

Full-scale digital interaction in the real world is, however, alive and well and quite innovative in the so-called “out-of-home” industry, which includes theme parks and other physical destinations. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios lets visitors ‘become’ a wizard, with wands that seem to empower them to perform tricks.

The wizards around the corner at Disney Imagineering are loading up on interactive features in the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attraction, to open in 2019, allowing guests to “live their own adventure.” The team has been working for years on incorporating a ‘story engine’ to automate interactions in real time at scale. Disney has also invested in Utah-based VR destination operator The Void, and has launched Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire as their first fully immersive commercial VR experience. The Void’s downtown Toronto venue features an immersive Ghostbusters experience. New capital will allow the company to build a total of nine centers. The Void is only one of a half-dozen VR-fueled destination chains to emerge to attract curious audiences.

Denise Chapman Weston from Apptivations is another indie inventor and park designer (Magiquest, water parks, much more). She is retrofitting many of her iconic destinations with digital enhancements and MR functionality. 

The whimsically named Meow Wolf offers a surrealistic theme park blending media content and physical spaces, including many commissioned from artists in its home base in Santa Fe. New venues open next year in Denver and Las Vegas. The company is rumored to have a deal to deploy augmented reality in partnership with secretive mega-company Magic Leap. Meow Wolf represents the success of less corporate forms of themed entertainment, though with the level of their success, the team is already planning a kind of reverse metaverse with the production of movies based on their attractions.

Linear Media is Still Winning

All of these proto-transmedia offshoots are small potatoes in the context of the global media war between tech giants (Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft) and the incumbent media players, e.g. the content studios and networks. A wave of mergers and acquisitions among the latter is underway as old businesses respond to the global scale and massive budgets of new tech-powered competitors with better business models.

Both groups are spending billions to deliver an embarrassment of riches, including the mega-metaverse movie franchises (Marvel, Star Wars, etc.) and the phenomenon known as peak TV. Almost none of this content is interactive, multiplatform or user-centric. But looking at the media business today, the winner seems to be linear storytelling by a mile.

Transmedia, R.I.P.


Nick DeMartino is a Los Angeles based media and technology consultant, retiring as Senior Vice President of the American Film Institute after 20 years. He is chair of the Investment Advisory Group for IDEABOOST, a Toronto-based media/tech accelerator program and is a partner in Startupbootcamp MediaTech. A slightly different version of this post was commissioned by the Canadian Film Centre and can be found here.