Like any pop culture junkie, there’s nothing I like better than a good crossover – when characters from different realities step into each other’s world. Like when Laverne & Shirley or The Big Ragu appeared on Happy Days. Or when Batman and Spiderman teamed up to take on the Joker.
Crossovers happen in real life too. This past fall, I witnessed one of my favorites when Jeff Gomez and Henry Jenkins met at the Future of Entertainment Conference. Seeing these two transmedia giants interact was as epic and entertaining as any fictional crossover.
Prior to the panel discussion, Professor Jenkins had distributed a set of questions to the speakers to help them prepare. Gomez recently decided to revisit these questions and sent his current thoughts back to Jenkins. Events in the transmedia space have progressed so rapidly that he felt it would be valuable to keep the dialog moving ahead.
Over the next few days, we’ll be rolling out portions of the correspondence between these two transmedia heavyweights… it will be as entertaining as when the doctors from St. Elswhere crossed over onto Cheers for a drink.
Jenkins: Let’s start by examining the concept of “cult media.” What does this phrase mean to you, and do you think it accurately describes the kinds of projects you’ve worked on? Why or why not?
Gomez: To me “cult media” is exemplified by the slow crumbling of traditional media content aimed at huge swathes of the population, down to the more contemporary approach of designing content to engage subsections of that population or even smaller “niches.”
My company Starlight Runner works on “cult media” in that we work on projects that already have mass appeal or have the potential to reach mass appeal, but what those projects always have to begin with is a specific genre appeal that almost guarantees an extremely loyal core “niche” audience.
Starlight Runner also consults with movie studios, comic book and fiction publishers, and videogame developers to take their niche or “cult” content and prepare it for extension across multiple media platforms. In this case, we are acting as transmedia storytellers, developing and producing “cult” properties for exposure to a much larger audience.
Jenkins: The idea of cult media historically referred to films that appealed to a fairly small niche of consumers. But many genres, which once were regarded as cult — fantasy, science fiction, superheroes — have emerged as increasingly mainstream. What’s changing? What accounts for the mainstreaming of niche media?
Gomez: There are five factors that seem to be contributing to the “coming out” of cult media:
1. Baby boomers and gen-X’ers weaned on the explosion of pop culture spurred by the proliferation of television and movies in the aftermath of World War II have come of age and taken control of the entertainment industry. Naturally, they have a strong desire to recreate what they loved and share it with others who’ve had similar cultural experiences.
2. Genre product such as science fiction serials and horror films, which had been relegated to Saturday matinees and second or third billing in movie theaters, could now be given A-list treatment. The new moguls and visionaries could now apply top grade production value to this content, and hire marquee talent for it, secure in the knowledge that genre fare is more than likely to turn a profit. In the international market, a growing hunger for action and genre content could boost domestic failures into profitability.
3. Attention to quality extended to storytelling. Filmmakers, comic book writers, genre novelists and their ilk were better educated and more interested in stories that conveyed better character development and stronger verisimilitude. Star Wars was fueled by the work of Joseph Campbell.
4. Genre content became more reflective of the mood and politics of the time, and therefore resonated more powerfully with mass audiences. Note the nuclear spawned monsters of the 1950s, the “acid trip” sci-fi of the ’60s, the terrifying “evil children” of the early ’70s, the “gee whiz” hope of Star Wars and Close Encounters later that decade, the political morass and moral ambiguity of Battlestar Galactica currently.
5. Like no other time in history, devotees of this type of content have complete access to one another via the Internet. Fans whose imaginations are fired by these stories make a deep and lasting connection with them. They become “specialists,” intensely knowledgeable of the property, the way that sports fanatics memorize the accomplishments and statistics of their favorite teams. These fans become “apostles” for the property, devoting time, effort and creativity in celebrating the story and characters, collecting ephemera and licensed extensions of the brand, celebrating it with others of their ilk. They form the property’s core fan base, which in turn fuels the continued success of the brand.
Jeff Gomez (firstname.lastname@example.org), is the CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, Inc., a developer and producer of highly successful trans-media projects whose clients include The Walt Disney Company, 20th Century Fox, the Coca-Cola Company, Mattel and Hasbro.