Tackling transmedia at Ryerson University

Charles Falzon on how Ryerson is taking on an area he says too few broadcasters, prodcos and agencies have invested in, putting them at risk of being "the Kodaks of tomorrow."

“It’s the climate change of the media industry.”

That’s the analogy Charles Falzon, chair of Ryerson’s RTA School of Media, chooses to describe transmedia and the industry’s collective response to it. While many talk the talk, he says too few broadcasters, production companies and creative agencies have invested in the necessary R&D that will keep them from becoming “the Kodaks of tomorrow.”

In the face of this inconvenient truth – that key players have been sluggish to integrate new technologies and storytelling methods in the conventional entertainment media business model as the public’s consumption habits have changed – Falzon offers his electric car: The Ryerson Transmedia Zone.

On the second floor of the Rogers Communication Centre at Ryerson’s downtown Toronto campus, a space that was previously dedicated to video post-production processing has been transformed into a shared workspace for 11 teams of creative producers.

Here, in the Transmedia Zone, a mix of students, recent grads and business startups selected through an application process congregate to develop their transmedia concepts. With access to Ryerson’s facilities and guidance from an advisory board made up of industry experts and leading transmedia thinkers, the program offers anyone with a transmedia concept the chance to apply for a four-month cycle with the zone. The inaugural batch of teams, in place since the winter school term began in January, are free to reapply to extend their residency.

Richard Lachman, director of the RTZ, says all the projects have at their core the intention to advance the art of storytelling. Projects range from Ghostcatcher, an interactive, geo-aware steampunk mobile mystery set within real city blocks to Bipartate Symbiosis, a narrative that unfolds between two robots with a symbiotic relationship that can be affected by audience interaction.

Falzon and Lachman do not set strict curricular guidelines as to what the teams must accomplish in their time at the ideation lab, rather they are there to help members set reasonable goals and facilitate experimentation, offering a safe space to “fail well.”

Unlike the many startup incubators now active in the city, including Ryerson’s own Digital Media Zone, there’s no pressure on RTZ teams to produce or follow through on a business plan. Although, an entrepreneurial spirit is encouraged and some teams have made sales.

While he has moral support from many in the industry, Falzon would like to see more material support from large media entities without the expectation of immediate results, although he is realistic about the pressure to turn a profit.

“I get it, they’re not going to change business models until there is a business model to change to,” he says. “But, do you want to be at the table when the next version of HBO or specialty TV comes along?”

Falzon hopes the enduring legacy of the Transmedia Zone will be to change the mindset of RTA students and the industry at large by creating a generation of graduates who have internalized the principles of transmedia.

“It’s a catalyst for the whole school,” he says. “Now, everybody’s talking about transmedia. They’re still talking a lot about linear media, but now everybody is thinking about [transmedia] opportunities when they’re writing scripts. We have new courses coming out on transmedia writing, marketing, game development and interactive. So, creative producers coming out of (RTA) in the next few years, it’ll be part of their psyche. That was the objective.”

- Image courtesy of Shutterstock

This article originally appeared in Playback‘s Summer 2014 print issue.