Alvy Singer forever and ever? Welcome to transmedia

Transwhat? Transfat? Transgender? No, transmedia. Have you heard of it? It’s one of the latest buzzwords from media guru, Director of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program, and Convergence Culture author Henry Jenkins. Jenkins has strong opinions on the future of screen-based storytelling.

In his 2007 article “Transmedia Storytelling101,” he outlines this theory:

“Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. So, for example, in THE MATRIX franchise, key bits of information are conveyed through three live action films, a series of animated shorts, two collections of comic book stories, and several video games. There is no one single source or text where one can turn to gain all of the information needed to comprehend the Matrix universe.”

Basically, he’s arguing that stories can now occupy “complex fictional worlds” instead of a boring ol’ beginning, middle and end structure wherein some random characters show up for two hours, or five television seasons, and then disappear forever. Keep them around! Expand! Never let it end.

I passed the article to my graduate students last week with two questions:

1. Is this just an opportunity for more and more marketing? Action figures galore? Or, is there some value in breaking open story and approaching it from differing vantage points, possibly with different authors, complicating traditional models?

2. Does Jenkins’ theory only hold water for certain genres? He mentions THE MATRIX, for which one can easily imagine a whole extended family of comics and games. What about for smaller independents? What would transmedia storytelling look like with Laurent Cantet’s documentary-like film about one year in a Parisian high school, THE CLASS? Or a more widely-appealing indie, like LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE? Would it even be interesting to continue to follow these characters, reading their journals online, or seeing the follow-up web series featuring Olive Hoover after the Little Miss Sunshine Beauty Pageant?

Student responses varied. They could see both the value and the danger of expansion, some fearing that corporations would simply ‘own’ storytelling, others seeing that there are now some exciting new challenges for storytellers. Most saw that both good and bad could co-exist in our ‘new world’ that is becoming more and more internet-dependent. I think I agree.

On question #2, there was less discussion. For me, I’m often completely satisfied having my favorite movies live in their perfectly-constructed 90-minute worlds, no more, no less. I can’t even imagine cracking open some stories that I consider flawlessly pristine – the detached melancholy of Sissy Spacek’s voice over in Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS is simply just enough.

Really, I only want to see Alvy Singer in one movie line with Annie Hall, going crazy because of the blow hard spouting off behind him. Do I actually want more Alvy Singer? I don’t think I do.