The Extended Reality of Cross-Media Storytelling

As digital technology simplified the mechanics of filmmaking, it greatly expanded the methods of storytelling.  New opportunities exist for filmmakers who reach across platforms to engage their audiences.  No longer must films play to passive viewers, who watch at a distance as predetermined narratives unfold.  Now, audiences are closely tied to the content they consume, sometimes even helping to shape it.  Through the proliferation of social media tools and popularity of user-generated content, audiences have shown their desire to experience narratives on a more personal level.  Cross-media storytelling can take a variety of forms, but when it works to engage audiences in real world activities through interactive narratives, it takes the shape of something far greater than just a film.  This move towards social entertainment is not some new fad, but, rather, the result of a permanent shift within the creative industries.  Through innovative methods, filmmakers and other artists are reinventing storytelling and extending the boundaries of their fictional worlds into the real world, satisfying eager audiences – who are more than happy to help in any way they can.

The Dark Knight Interactive in NYC

The Dark Knight in NYC

The remarkable success of 42 Entertainment‘s interactive campaign for The Dark Knight illustrates the growing demand for social entertainment.   Steve Peters, former Director of Experience Design at 42 Entertainment, developed the Why So Serious? alternate reality game (ARG), which launched with a Joker scavenger hunt at the 2007 Comic-Con convention in San Diego.  Rooted in the real world, the ARG used a series of websites to introduce new media and gaming elements that enabled participants’ ideas and actions to affect the outcome of the virtual story.  Why So Serious? became one of the most popular ARGs ever (see video), reaching an audience of 10 million and helping The Dark Knight gain the greatest number of advanced presale tickets ever recorded – selling out its entire opening day, which went on to become the biggest of all time.  Sites like the popular Alternate Reality Gaming Network (ARGNet), which Steve Peters originally founded in 2002, reflect the growing number of opportunities within the industry for interactive storytelling.  More recently, the superhero film The Watchman used an online campaign that reached beyond the film’s fan base to lure those unfamiliar with the graphic novel into its story world.  While the film hosted a traditional website, it also featured several companion sites including, The New Frontiersman, and Six Minutes to Midnight, all of which allowed users to engage in various ways with related media.

World Without Oil

World Without Oil

More than just creating buzz for Hollywood blockbusters, social entertainment can help inspire people to make positive changes in their immediate lives and the greater world.  In the online story, World Without Oil, Ken Eckland partnered with the US Public Service Broadcaster’s Independent Lens to create a Web-oriented reality game programme that drew attention to the possible near-future global oil shortage.  As the key creator of the story, Ken designed the game to simulate the overarching conditions of a realistic oil shock and then called upon the audience to participate by documenting their lives – as though they were living under those conditions.  The project gained over 60,000 online visitors in just 32 days and garnered over 1500 submissions (see video). The central website linked to all player material (including blog entries, images and videos), which represented the players’ related experiences in their own lives.  Others could comment on this new content, which Ken then integrated into the official, daily-updated narrative.  Ultimately, World Without Oil stands apart from other ARGs because it engaged people with important global issues, offering its audience the ability to facilitate change – not just simulate it.  This focus on progressive social entertainment has carried over to Ken’s latest project, Ruby’s Bequest, which is a collaborative storytelling experience that asks participants to imagine the future of health and caregiving in the United States, in order to create real world solutions.

Lance Weilers Head Trauma

Lance Weiler's Head Trauma

Cross-media narratives do not always have to be projects, backed by broadcaster or studio funding.  Independent filmmakers, like Lance Weiler, have found ways to produce low-budget alternate reality experiences through hosting local, interactive events.  After managing his own 17 city theatrical release of his film Head Trauma, Lance determined that, regardless of the amount of energy and resources invested, traditional theatrical releases of  “truly independent films are a dangerous proposition” (see case study).  Lance instead prefers the “event driven” model, whereby, instead of organising a traditional theatrical run, he stages a series of one-off live events “that use a mixture of multimedia, performance and technology to remix the movie in a new way.”  These orchestrated, interactive events rely on actors and special effects and enable audience members to communicate with characters in the film via their mobile phones, gaining clues to help them solve a mystery.  Head Trauma illustrated the potential of this new distribution model (see video) and prompted Lance to incorporate a mobile and web-based interactive design into his new feature, HIM, which he pitched at the PTTP Project Forum Launch last October.  HIM, the story of a sleepwalking disease that affects anyone over the age of 21, recently won the Arte CineMart prize at the Rotterdam Film Festival.  Lance shared his cross-media knowledge in a presentation about the online festival From Here to Awesome and ran a workshop on building online audiences at the 2008 PTTP London Forum.

Expanding Universes Breathe

Expanding Universe's Breathe

As the Creative Director of Expanding Universe, Yomi Ayeni designs experiences that engage audiences, offering them the ability to interact in live and immersive multimedia environments.  But Expanding Universe’s interactive experiences are more than just alternate reality games.  As Yomi explains, “Our approach is rather about creating something that runs parallel to the real world, and then finding places where we can blur our audience’s experience to a point that it almost becomes real.”  Yomi’s latest project, Breathe, which tells the story of nightclub built in a vacuum that requires dancefloor movement in order to fill it with air, fully integrates the audience into the narrative, plot and conclusion.  Initially pitched at PTTP’s Project Forum Launch, Breathe has now entered into the early stages of production and will soon invite audiences to begin unraveling the story through immersive role playing experiences at popular London dance clubs.  You can learn more about Breathe from this interview or by watching the presentation Yomi and his partner at Expanding Universe, Carmel Landy, delivered at the 2008 London Forum.

Although still pioneering, cross-media storytelling is no longer a novelty and could quickly become a regular part of the filmmaking process.  With the growing number of social entertainment case studies, it is clear that cinema is becoming far less about watching a film and increasingly more about experiencing it.  As a mark of this movement towards interactive media, Power to the Pixel has officially changed the name of its main event in London.  Now, instead of being The Digital Distribution and Film Innovation Forum, the 2009 event is simply called The Cross-Media Film Forum.  More details will be announced soon, so keep watching.