As a narrative form, film is supposedly self-contained. Solomon Northup is kidnapped; he endures twelve horrifying years of slavery; he regains his freedom. A shark attacks a New England beach; a policeman, a scientist, and a fisherman join forces to hunt the shark down; they kill the shark. Films and their narrative arcs are one and the same. They end with the closing credits. You, as a filmgoer, just have to sit back and let the filmmaker’s story resolve itself.
In the real world, taking in a film is more complex. You think about what you will be seeing before it starts. You bring your life experiences with you to the cinema. These expectations and experiences shape your movie-going experience. After the movie ends, you think about it some more. Over the days, weeks, and months that follow, your takeaways subtly shift. Film may not be an inherently interactive medium but viewers interact with it nonetheless.
This is normally a one-way relationship: filmgoers are engaging with a work that is static and unresponsive. But what if this was a two-way relationship, one in which filmmakers give their audiences the opportunity to actively engage with the stories they are telling?
Transmedia offers a vision for how this two-way relationship can work. The term, which was first used by Henry Jenkins in a 2003 MIT Technology Review article, refers to a narrative universe that exists across multiple media forms and is shaped by the actions of its audience. In a transmedia narrative, you may first meet characters in a book, be reunited with them on the big screen, and ultimately select their fate in a videogame. You follow the story and the story follows you.
As a new concept, the uses and limitations of transmedia are currently being tested out. Transmedia projects are being used as promotional tie-ins, tools to enhance preexisting films, and ways to tell immersive stories from scratch. For all of their differences, all of these transmedia projects use interactivity and multiple media forms to draw audience members into the stories they are trying to tell.
Take This Waltz is a movie about the opportunity costs that crop up in long-term relationships. Margot (Michelle Williams) is happily married to her husband of five years, Lou (Seth Rogen). Complicating matters, she also finds herself attracted to Daniel (Luke Kirby), who happens to live across the street. In her attempt to untangle the situation, Margot must reckon with different forms of romance: domestic contentment and visceral passion.
When Sarah Polley’s film was released in 2012, it was accompanied by a transmedia project that allowed members of the public to reckon with the same questions as Margot. The Conversation About Love called on participants to respond to prompts such as “When I let go”, “It takes courage to”, and “My heart is”. Answers were collected using photo booths at events as well as Facebook and Twitter. They were then compiled and published on the now-defunct website theconversationaboutlove.com. Images from the photo booths can still be found on Facebook.
Although it was billed and justified as an “experiential marketing campaign,” The Conversation About Love was also an extension of Take This Waltz’s narrative world. It transposed the film’s central questions into the lives of its audience members, forcing them to think about the questions Margot reckons with. Sure, those who answered the prompts may not have also lived in Polley’s stylized Little Portugal, but Take This Waltz’s narrative universe has less to do with its location than its central dilemma. In that respect, The Conversation About Love encouraged participants and more passive readers to engage with Take This Waltz for longer than its 116-minute runtime.
Transmedia can also be used to change the viewing experience of movies that have already been widely seen. Take Secret Cinema’s restaging of The Shawshank Redemption, for instance. Audience members are ‘arrested’, tried, and plunged into the world of prison life that Frank Darabont’s film depicts. This, according to Jon Vidar, goes on for five hours. Only after this prolonged immersion into incarcerated life does the movie’s screening commence.
Change is a complicated word in this context. It suggests a radical shift in meaning, an aggression to the original work. If you have never been jailed, Secret Cinema’s event should change your impression of The Shawshank Redemption. How could it not? Yet it is not a hostile reinterpretation; it seeks to tell the same story by different means. The five hours of incarceration allow the audience to more fully recognize details in the film they would otherwise have overlooked. By playing to the strengths of different narrative forms, transmedia makes these kinds of connections possible.
The Conversation About Love and Secret Cinema’s immersive The Shawshank Redemption, for all their merits, are transmedia projects working around the edges of a static film. The form’s real potential lies in purpose-built projects, where film works hand-in-hand with other storytelling tools to create a truly immersive experiences.
Door Into The Dark is a sensory experience that traffics in sensory deprivation. The documentary forces its viewers to grapple with issues of blindness by putting them in a dark, walled-off environment and having them follow a rope. You don’t watch Door Into The Dark so much as you live it.
The story that Door Into The Dark is telling could not realistically be told as a traditional film. A dark screen would just be a boring film. Staring into the darkness would convince you that blindness is unpleasant but would fail to put you in the shoes of someone who is actually blind. Transmedia makes stories like Door Into The Dark possible.
In addition to expanding film’s narrative universe, transmedia creates new opportunities for empathy. That is the common thread that connects transmedia projects. Door Into The Dark, Secret Cinema’s The Shawshank Redemption, and The Conversation About Love all allow participants to connect with film in ways that a traditional movie-going experience does not.
Accepting film’s limitations is not a slight against the medium. Good movies have always recognized and made the most of these limitations. Be it in the form of a marketing campaign, an add-on, or an original project, transmedia allows storytellers to circumvent some of film’s limitations. In all likelihood, you already took the characters you saw on-screen home with you. Now they can join you on that journey.