Monday, March 22, 2010

LA Story: SCMS Conference Wrap-Up, Digital Narrative Highlights

Here is my highly subjective report from the SCMS (Society for Cinema & Media Studies) conference in LA. Hearing and seeing the producers of the tv show Lost, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, on a panel on Transmedia was incredibly cool, and meeting them afterwards was amazing. Talking to the showrunner of syfy's Caprica, Kevin Murphy, about virtual worlds after he was on a panel about writing, was another highlight.

All three--and the others who were on these panels--highlighted the importance of storytelling, and for us in Digital Narrative, the story is what it boils down to, as well, because the form or technology, in the end, is not what is primary, is not the thing that drives the audience, but the story. In the industry, the tv show or movie of the franchise is called the "mother ship" and they see it as always being more important than the other transmedia components, whether it be a website, game, or Alternate Reality Game. In the example of Lost, Carlton Cuse used the metaphor of the show being the cake and the mythology being the frosting, but that a lot of people were interested in the frosting. But, as Damon Lindelof said, Kate and Sawyer don't care about the Hanso foundation, and they couldn't tell that backstory in the show itself in great detail, but they could in the highly successful ARG. The other platforms become ways to tell other stories, related stories--and note that they are still talking about STORIES.

Kim Moses from the Ghost Whisperer talked a lot about giving the viewers an experience --a "total engagement experience" that would be like a playground that would extend the show and then gently bring viewers back to the show, creating more loyalty and emotional investment.

There was also discussion of "monetizing" the other platforms, but this wasn't the speakers' primary focus in this forum, although I bet it is in others :) Lindelof, Cuse, and Javier Marxuach, who worked on the Lost Experience ARG, all talked about trying to incorporate sponsors and how difficult that was, and that ultimately what the ARG did was to keep the buzz alive during the offseason, which is nothing to shake a stick at, but maybe is not quantifiable. People also filled out contact information when they signed up for the Hanso Foundation, and so ABC has that information--isn't that a valuable asset, they wondered?

In the question and answer part, someone asked a leading question, based it seemed on his theory that in the future the ancillary media would overtake what the producers were calling the "mother ship" of the franchise, the movie or the series that spawns all the other stuff. The producers were incredulous. Someone, I think it was Lindelof but maybe it was Marxuach (it was hard to see and they were both so quick and witty) said something like "No way am I going to do homework to go and see Batman." Later someone connected it back to storytelling, to being told stories rather than playing a game, or doing a puzzle, really, to that kind of entertainment driving the big money and resources of the industry. It is a pretty interesting thing to think about, esp for us in this class. What place does interactive narrative have? How much agency do people want? Is it a story or an experience? Is a game also a story, or is it something different? Does it matter where on the paidia to ludus continuum the game is? How much agon, alea, mimicry, or ilinx? (Remember all of this from Caillois?)

This brings me to the really fascinating conversation I had with Kevin Murphy, who joined Caprica as a producer to work on the second half of the first season (ie: brought in to address some perceived deficit) and then replaced the showrunner a month later in November 2009 (the series premiered in January 2010). I wasn't interviewing him (or Cuse or Lindelof when I talked to them, either), but wanted to say hello as a fan and express how much I love their shows. We got to talking about virtual worlds, and I said I had been doing research in Second Life, making machinima, etc, and that I thought that part of Caprica was particularly interesting albeit an incredibly negative portrayal of a virtual world--all sex and violence and transgression without consequence. He said that there was only so far they could go with the narratives in the virtual world because the characters couldn't change the virtual world, basically didn't have agency within it, unlike the actual world. This is so fascinating--the way that the v-world in the text of Caprica is set up in their story limited their story, because it is not open-ended like Second Life with a high degree of agency, but more of a closed game. Zoe is a character who lives in some weird form in both the actual, physical world, but as a robot, and in the virtual world as an avatar, and nowhere and yet kind of in both as the young woman she once was. Her friend, who is dead in the actual world and exists only as an avatar, with no robot component, is even more intriguing, and a fictional realization of the idea of downloading the consciousness of someone so they can live on after death. The v-world storylines could explore the ideas of identity and avatars--of action and consequence--that are so fascinating. Which is more "real"--the robot, with its BSG red eye, or the avatar? What does it say to choose the robot over the avatar, if that is how the show is going to go, and that is how Murphy made me think the show is going to go. (And that is how BSG makes it seem like it has to, because as much as there is the level of the Six in Baltar's head, as much as the Cylon seem to live in what we can think of as an augmented reality by the end of the series, it is a visceral, physical, embodied reality that BSG excelled at).

Here is the information on the two sessions, both organized brilliantly by the Television Studies Scholarly Interest Group, who really delivered in these and other sessions for this conference:

The More Things Change…
Writing for Television in the 21st Century

Chair Sharon Ross
Columbia College-Chicago

Neal Baer NBCUniversal
Lisa Seidman NBCUniversal
Mark Brown WGA
Kevin Murphy Syfy
Noreen Halpern E1

Transmedia Studies
The Hollywood Geek Elite Debates the Future
of Television

Chair Denise Mann
University of California, Los Angeles
Co-Chair Henry Jenkins
University of Southern California

Carlton Cuse LOST, ABC
Tim Kring Heroes, NBC
Javier Marxuach DAY ONE, NBC
Kim Moses Ghost Whisperer,CBS
Mark Warshaw Alchemists
Damon Lindelof LOST, ABC

OTHER COOL THINGS at the conference:

There were some good sessions I went to, in particular, one on the museum and new media, and another on historicizing video games.

AND although my book I Love Lucy does not come out until April 15, there were copies at the conference at the Wayne State University Press booth, and for the first time, I held it in my hand (see below), cementing the place of the physical, actual, material object in its place in a hierarchy from which it will take an awful lot to dislodge. Read more about my book here.

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