"Cult Media" MIT Style

"Cult Media" MIT Style

“Cult Media” MIT Style

by Greg Weinstein

On November 17, the PGA New Media Council member Jeff Gomez was a featured speaker at MIT’s Future of Entertainment Conference. (Download audio or video podcast here https://convergenceculture.org/futuresofentertainment/2007/program/)

Jeff was joined on the “Cult Media” panel by Jesse Alexander (co-EP and writer, Heroes), Danny Bilson (Film/TV writer/director, Game Producer) and Gordon Tichell (EVP of Business Development, Walden Media). The discussion was moderated by one of the leading voices in trans-media, Professor Henry Jenkins (Director, MIT Comparative Media Studies Program) https://www.henryjenkins.org/index.html

The three hour conversation flew by faster than an action-packed episode of Alias (one of the shows Jesse Alexander cut his trans-media teeth on before Heroes). When Alexander and fellow Alias writers began building out storylines across multiple platforms they had never heard the term “trans-media.” For them it was primarily an exercise in creative self-expression. Today, the Heroes staff approaches multiplatform extensions more formally, with what could be the first team on a network show dedicated to trans-media. This team provides oversight on all things related to the Heroes fictional universe. Their work, ranging from online comic books to “Create Your Own Hero” contests, has been wildly successful.

So why are shows like Heroes, Alias and Lost so popular today? The panel had a number of interesting insights. These shows draw heavily upon elements from Comic Books, Science Fiction and Horror. In the past these were not considered legitimate genres and relegated to B-status. But kids loved this stuff and now they’re grown up and calling the shots. They’ve combined the best features of these genres with top flight talent and story-telling techniques to bring them into the mainstream.

The shows appeal to a mass audience on one level and a niche audience on another. Archetypal characters allow the broad audience to easily recognize and identify with their stories. But beneath these archetypes lie a deeper and more complex universe for hard core fans to discover. Technology is the great enabler here… helping fans connect in ways never before possible. DVRs and DVDs allow viewers to watch and analyze dense storylines over and over again — discovering details they might have otherwise missed. And the internet provides an ideal outlet for fans to share knowledge and interact with additional content.

But low tech trans-media can be just as effective, as Alexander pointed out. When his team was approached by a toy company to license and sell a Heroes sword, they saw a trans-media opportunity. Writers created a comic book story for the back of box that told the story of the sword’s origins – contributing even more detail to the Heroes canon.

Using a variety of platforms to flesh out a property’s universe is an important component of trans-media, encouraging participation is another. Once kids crack that box open and start creating their own Heroes adventures, they’re connecting to the property in a significant and meaningful way. Jeff Gomez, in one of the most thought provoking statements of the afternoon, asserted that next generation story telling will harness the energy of fan participation and feed it back into the eco-system. Fans will become part of the story and their participation will be rewarded by moving them closer to the center of the action. The result will be more dynamic and engaging entertainment than anything we’ve seen from mass media to date.

The experts on the “Cult Media” panel expressed a wide array of opinions on trans-media story telling. Yet they all agreed upon one thing: for trans-media to be successful, the core property must be treated with a deep level of passion, integrity and respect. Fans will accept nothing less.