ucla usc transmediaLast Friday’s second annual UCLA / USC Transmedia Hollywood Symposium capped off an extremely vibrant month of confabs and overall reporting from the transmedia trenches. Almost a year to the date from the Producer’s Guild of America officially ratifying the “Transmedia Producer” credit, the media industry at large is realizing it can no longer ignore how multi-platform storytelling continues to evolve in our digital age—no matter how much the actual definition of the word “transmedia” remains debated.

The Transmedia Hollywood event notably rounded out weeks of buzz surrounding the topic that included countless panel discussions at MIPTV in Cannes to an intimate Transmedia Los Angeles Meetup hosting industry luminary Jeff Gomez.

Moving from USC to UCLA’s James Bridges Theater this year, event Co-Directors Denise Mann and Henry Jenkins moderated four distinct panels that resulted in a marathon day of shared insights from some of the top creative and academic minds actively pioneering a wide range of new storytelling experiences. The moderators steered panel discussions with a decidedly design-centric focus keeping in mind the Conference’s subtitle of “Visual Culture and Design.”

In particular, panel one, entitled “Designing Virtual Worlds–From Screens to Theme Parks and Beyond,” provided a welcome focus on the “experiential” impact that amusement park rides can have in expanding the story universes created around franchise-worthy intellectual property. Immersing fans into an environment that can trigger sense memory emotions associated with production design that used to be limited to an onscreen experience creates a business opportunity only limited by imagination.

And the conference audience was treated to a lively dialogue between imaginative geniuses including production designer Rick Carter (Avatar, Sucker Punch), art designer Dylan Cole (Avatar, Alice in Wonderland) and Disney Imagineering’s Chief Creative, Bruce Vaughn. Rick Carter summarized the overall panel’s thrust when he noted that “portal” moments in film can provide experiences of immersion, transcendence and transference that can be translated to other platforms.

hollywood transmedia symposium

Pictured: Henry Jenkins; Caitlin Burns, Transmedia Producer, Starlight Runner Entertainment; Abigail De Kosnik, Assistant Professor, UC, Berkeley (Co-Ed., The Survival of the Soap Opera: Strategies for a New Media Era); Jane Espenson, Writer/Executive Producer (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica); John Platt, Co-Executive Producer (Big Brother, The Surreal Life); Tracey Robertson, CEO/Co-founder, Hoodlum; Lance Weiler, Founder, Wordbook Project.

The three panels that followed touched on similar themes while focusing on other key areas of transmedia design including character design for multi-platform properties, how “gameification” of storytelling can spur fan engagement and communities and the importance of structuring time in creating transmedia narratives. Panel three’s game focus was rounded out with some clever banter and Hollywood war-stories from television veterans Steven DeKnight (Spartacus, Buffy) and Marvel Entertainment’s Jeph Loeb (Heroes, Smallville).

The other panelists reinforced their cautionary tales about handling a fan community’s sense of ownership over a property or character. Creators must walk a fine line in protecting a property’s IP and the overall quality and integrity of any story world foundations, while still encouraging such things as fan fiction or customization of characters- as Disney permitted within the video game for Toy Story 3.

Overall, the conference highlighted many of the pitfalls that can occur if transmedia design is not executed without a purposeful, strategic plan. This remains one of the hurdles hindering corporate adoption of tactics designed to expand IP in a sprawling, sometimes unwieldy fashion. However, all of the panelists concurred that the wild west of multi-platform storytelling is here to stay and, more importantly, that such narrative handled thoughtfully can be a transformative force that not-only gooses the corporate bottom-line, but potentially holds the power to change the world on a socio-economic level as well.

Independent transmedia producer Lance Weiler reinforced transmedia’s potential for social change during the final panel by alluding to the collective storytelling element of his Sundance interactive movie Pandemic that demonstrated the power to unlock an “audience awakening” to larger social issues.

The general enthusiasm expressed by both panelists and audience for transmedia’s potential to revolutionize the creative, business and social implications of storytelling in a digital age thankfully drowned out any distracting calls for a clear cut definition of transmedia at Transmedia Hollywood 2. As one person live tweeted, those interested in the semantics behind the term “transmedia” should work at Websters, everyone one else should get busy designing better stories.

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Guest author J.C. Christofilis is founder of LA-based marketing agency DILEMMA, a firm that specializes in branded entertainment initiatives utilizing multi-platform storytelling tactics. Their transmedia horror project Chopper starring Tyler Mane (Halloween 1,2) launches this Summer.