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Transmedia projects have multiple points of entry that follow multiple storylines across several platforms. This kind of attention to detail can be overwhelming to a small team, and let’s face it, most transmedia projects function on micro budgets. Asking your audience to jump down the rabbit-hole with you requires finesse, timing, and above all energy. With so many moving parts it can be a daunting task to keep a project from becoming completely overwhelming.
In the spring of 2010 I joined a transmedia project already underway, called Zenith. Focused around a film (which was not set to release for months), our small team was tasked with designing and building a campaign that would invite our audience to engage with the film’s central themes and incorporate them into their own stories. This is how we did it.
Zenith is a science fiction thriller, which takes place in two separate time periods: the present day and the year 2044. The film alternates between the realities of the two main characters: Ed Crowley, a paranoid conspiracy theorist, and his son Jack, a drug-dealing ex-neurosurgeon. Ed predicts a future where a hidden society controls the minds and actions of the population. Ed’s future – Jack’s present – has become a bleak reality where people are permanently numb, yet pay dealers like Jack for pain from expired prescriptions. Jack is pulled into his father’s quest for the truth behind this genetic experiment when he is presented with the first in a series of ten VHS tapes that Ed has left behind.
Zenith’s director, Vladan Nikolic, first conceived the concept of multiple entry points for a project years before the advent of Facebook and Twitter. It wasn’t until production got underway in 2008 that Internet technology had reached a point to where it could lend itself to an engaging multimedia experience. The term “transmedia storytelling” was the latest buzzword in the film community and its definition closely matched that of the filmmaker’s vision of a new form of storytelling.
The transmedia project was multi-tiered. The first tier, an outreach campaign, was developed to connect with bloggers in the gaming, film, science fiction and conspiracy theory communities. The initial goal of the campaign was to get people talking about the conspiracy theory portion of the project, called Stop Zenith. With a tag line of “What is Zenith?”, the outreach garnered mixed reactions: some bloggers were afraid they had been accosted by a group of conspiracy theorists, while others embraced the deception with the understanding that this was all part of a much larger project. Partnerships with other websites were also developed, like that between Zenith and Above Top Secret (ATS), a conspiracy website with a multi-million member fan base. These partnerships were instrumental to attracting a larger, more engaged audience. They also showed our team that to keep the conspiracy plot moving, we had to think fast and build out our story lines with intelligence.
The second tier of the project was to develop online personalities who we would use to encourage conversation about Stop Zenith. One of my roles as a member of the transmedia team was to create over a dozen Twitter, Facebook and YouTube personalities to carry out the Stop Zenith message. While the concept was easy enough to start, we quickly found that managing so many feeds with such time and budget constraints were nearly impossible. Shortly afterward we scaled back the number of characters as well as their functions, limiting them to posting on The Conspirist, a transmedia blogging site.
Another concept we fleshed out was the VHS tapes. Ed’s creation of and Jack’s hunt for the tapes is a core component of the film. Our hope was that by releasing portions of the tapes from the film across video platforms like YouTube, we would attract an audience that would want to create their own versions of the tapes and continue the story. We started by asking friends and colleagues to create and post their own videos, and then reached out to others in the community. Though a few people were happy to jump on board, the reality was that many people were still not comfortable with downloading a video file from an undisclosed source to edit on their own and re-post. We released six tapes in total, the final of which correlated with the film’s release.
After the initial theatrical release of the film we scaled back on the Stop Zenith project, which had been planned early on. We instead turned our focus onto the second part of our distribution strategy, a cross-platform launch that incorporated the DVD with a VOD release while the film screened in independent theatres across the country. This unique strategy earned a lot of press for the film and the transmedia project. Filmmakers began to question whether a festival release (which Zenith chiefly avoided) was still a necessary requirement for an independent film. As Zenith made its calculated progression across platforms we took the time to build a new social media presence in the form of a singular Facebook page and Twitter feed to provide updates on the film’s distribution, showings, release information and reviews.
Zenith was met with both rave reviews and harsh criticism, which is to be expected with any experimental project. Some members of the audience embraced the transmedia component; others found it clunky and difficult to navigate. Overall, based on our viewing numbers and the amount of press we received, it can be concluded that we achieved success beyond any of our expectations. While certain components of the transmedia project worked before the release of the film, such as the outreach campaign, the partnerships and the websites, others benefited from the film’s theatrical release and distribution, including the campaign with the tapes and the social media element.
While I don’t believe every film needs a transmedia component, independent filmmakers shouldn’t rule it out. Transmedia storytelling is a creative way to engage with a film’s audience and Zenith proved that you don’t need a big budget or large team to pull off a project that gets noticed.