Talking transmedia with Anita Ondine

The producer and transmedia guru talks to Playback about the challenges of financing projects in the new media space.
12-21-11 Anita Ondine

“I really don’t want to limit people’s imaginations in terms of how far we can go with transmedia. If you think of transmedia as a way of telling stories, you can use it to tell any kind of stories.”

So says transmedia guru Anita Ondine, a U.K.-based producer with an investment banking background who has developed a specialty in consulting and educating in the transmedia space.

In town next month to run a transmedia lab at the Merging Media event in Toronto, Ondine took a few minutes to chat with Playback about the state of transmedia today and some of the challenges facing its widespread adoption as a storytelling strategy.

How do you define transmedia?

There is no real industry-approved version of what transmedia means. To me the essential elements are that you need to be telling a story and it needs to take place across multiple platforms. I believe it needs to be not just interactive but participatory, and I want to make that distinction clear because I think they are two words that get mixed up or confused. Interactive is where the full set of outcomes are pre-determined.  The person creating the experience knows everything that can happen as a result of what they are programming. Whereas participatory to me is the next step. To me, this is the power and the potential that transmedia promises – the ability to go beyond interactivity and to create truly immersive, participatory storytelling, where the audience has the opportunity to participate in the story and potentially impact the outcome of the story in a whole new way, in a way that even the storyteller might not envisage. There’s an organic quality to it.

What are some of the most successful genres or IPs currently utilizing transmedia as a storytelling mechanism?

What we’re starting to see in Canada in particular are a lot of documentarians extending the story world from the big screen to websites and community outreach programs and really starting to utilize the whole broad range of tools to push the boundaries of storytelling. 

Other than that, [transmedia is] very suitable for those kinds of genres and stories where you have an alternate universe. It could be period piece, horror or thriller, anything where you are altering the way the world is. On the fictional side, because we’re creating a space where the audience can effectively enter the story world, [they can] participate as a character in the story or potentially impact the way the story goes. That idea of entering a story world is quite key.

Who’s doing well in the space? Who’s monetizing it effectively?

That’s a very difficult question to answer, because obviously people don’t reveal that information. Things that appear successful on the screen may not have paid dividends. If you look at which projects have won Emmys – they haven’t necessarily made money or had a huge audience either.

It is a structural flaw in the development of the transmedia industry because if you look at the way financing works, a producer will be looking to finance based on known models of financing…and  we don’t have that kind of data.

In order to make the transition from transmedia being an emergent discipline to an established discipline is the transition from not a lot of data being shared to a position where we actually understand and have some kind of data or industry standards for collecting information about things like number of hits, audience, and levels of participation.

Even something as basic as the concept of reach in advertising – it typically has just been a number, the number of people you hit, in a sense. Transmedia, because you have so many different possible levels of engagement, needs a more nuanced approach. You could reach 6 million people – they could see it – but you might have 100,000 people that are deeply engaged. And they are very different people and their value is different to advertisers and investors. So I think a level of sophistication around all of these kinds of issues around data and reach, around income streams, needs to get significantly better. I’m an advocate of producers getting together to collaborate and incorporate around that. I really think that’s an essential step in moving forward, making the transmedia industry more mature.

Where does the onus lie to help make that happen?

I think the onus is on the production community to help solve these kinds of problems, in collaboration with finance providers – they are struggling with how to finance transmedia because they don’t have their own in-house models to deal with this either. I come from an investment banking background, so I know for sure that nothing we had would have dealt with the situation that we have with transmedia. There are no financial models to run for it. A person comes in asking for finance and how do you evaluate that? We’re just starting to see that – we’re at the beginning of that phase, the modelization, if you will, of systemization of the financing process for transmedia.

I see all the large broadcasters, cable nets, etc, very keen and interested conceptually, and clear on the fact that they need to be engaged and know more about this in order to go forward, but at the same time, still very risk averse. It takes someone like the BBC to step in and do a Doctor Who[-style execution] – I don’t think a commercial broadcaster would have done that. It was both a creative and commercial risk. I would love to see more broadcasters step up to the plate and say ‘we want to experiment with this’… That’s the primary reason I got into education in transmedia, beyond being a producer. What I was finding was that we were having fabulous conversations with forward-thinking broadcasters but we lacked a common vocabulary to talk about it. We were trying to explain what we did and we found that every single meeting we went into, we were explaining it all from scratch again. And so what we decided was, let’s start educating – that way we share the knowledge. I believe that if we have more good examples out there in the market for people to see, that is going to have a ripple effect out into the market so that people can start having real conversations because they can refer to things. To me education is a key part of that.

Merging Media takes place in Toronto Jan. 19 and 20, 2012. The deadline for participation in the transmedia lab with Ondine is Dec. 31.