Berlinale Highlight #4 – ‘Crossmedia Storytelling’

WARNING – this is a fairly dense post –

But I think any storyteller out there, whether you’re a filmmaker or not, will benefit immensely by following some of the links and possibilities mentioned.


During the Talent Campus there were three separate panels devoted to the topic of Crossmedia Storytelling. Personally, these sessions alone were reason enough to hop on a plane to Berlin for the Campus – hopefully you’ll see why.

Let’s first start with a description of each of the three events taken directly from the program:

1. ‘Extending the Script’ :
For one hundred years of cinema, film stories have been restricted by running times, distribution formats and platforms. Technology is now impacting on the art and craft of storytelling. Now that audiences are engaging with media across multiple platforms and are moving from a passive viewing experience to active collaboration, how does the art of storytelling change? How does one develop stories and characters that can travel across screens and devices? Experts in cross-media and interactive/immersive storytelling will describe how to build story worlds that span across multiple platforms and engage audiences in powerful new ways.

2. ‘Extending the Finance’ :
As storytelling extends beyond the big screen and the 90 minute feature, what is the potential of building new financing partnerships across media industries and extending the value of the stories and intellectual property that you create? As traditional film finance routes dry up, this session will suggest possible new alliances and partnerships with online networks, multiplatform broadcasters, brands, agencies and other new financiers.

3. ‘Extending the Audience’ :
As audiences discover and engage with films across a rapidly expanding array of platforms and devices, distribution strategies for independent film are evolving. Looking at a variety of distribution case studies, speakers will demonstrate a variety of models and lessons learned from making films available across multiple platforms, sites and devices to simultaneous release strategies, special events and digital word-of-mouth campaigns.

While I learned something from each of the many expert-panelists, two stood out because of their case-studies and vision:

Alexandre Brachet & Lance Weiler –

Alexandre is founder of Studio Upian. He showed us two of his firm’s recent projects. The first, ‘Prison Valley’, isn’t ready yet but you should bookmark it and check on it later in the year.

His older project, ‘Gaza Sderot’, is still up and running and worth your time, especially if you’re interested in documentary work. It’s an online documentary made up of short stories of six characters from Gaza and six from Sderot. You can choose which characters you want to follow in a non-liner, interactive manner through these short videos and related blogs and forums. Basically the structure of the documentary is created by the viewer.

Again, do yourself a favor and check it out – it helped me realize that crossmedia isn’t just about creating video game tie-ins to big-budget films – it’s about extending the experience of a story by allowing various ways an audience can participate. As you can see from this simple example, it’s a way of taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary again.

Lance discussed his career from his first transmedia project, ‘Head Trauma‘, all the way up to his current project ‘HiM, which recently participated in this year’s Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab.

I don’t want to get into all of the various platforms he plans on distributing this horror genre story-world through because, in his own words, THERE ARE NO FORMULAS; each project is unique and the core experience you want to share with your audience will determine what type of platforms best express that.

As he discussed his career he talked about how he changed his title from writer/director to ‘story architect’ because it better expressed all the various activities he was pursueing in order to get a story and story-world out to the public. You can better understand this shift by the way he describes his new approach to writing:

“I used to outline or write a treatment — maybe create backstory or generate character notes. From there I’d move into constructing a three-act screenplay. Since I tend to work in the horror genre, I’d often find myself adhering to scripting conventions — scare in the first five pages, introduce all my main characters before page 15 — not to mention a host of other trappings that dictated the way in which I told a story. Convention dictated that authorship was within my hands and the more thought-out and developed the script was, the less likely it would be subject to outside interference. Also, not to mention, the intended experience from an audience perspective was a passive one. They would sit, watch and hopefully enjoy and then maybe tell someone else about it.”

“This is no longer the case. We are now in a time of open creativity when amateurs and professionals are collaborating around media in ways similar to how those in the open-source software movement work together to develop, share and maintain software code. As this emerging participatory culture becomes more common within media it will forever change the relationship between creator and audience. The audience will become collaborators and, ironically, could replace distributors, especially if filmmakers can efficiently cross-pollinate the audiences that they build with other filmmakers, musicians, game designers and/or software developers.” 1

If you want more details check out the following video with Ted Hope (producer of 21 Grams, The Ice Storm, Adventureland) and Lance where they discuss how technology is impacting the art and craft of storytelling:

Lance’s scriptwriting has become even more radicalized in that he depends on a ‘story bible’. This bible is akin to what you would find on a television series or video game, it delineates the landscape and characters of the world in full detail and –

“. . . shows the relationships between storylines, characters, locations and interactions online and in the real world. Media consumption habits of the audience are considered and there is focus placed on how to build story bridges that provide seamless flow across devices and screens.”

While the concept of crossmedia isn’t new, there are several recent forces accelerating its growth – social networking, broadband, independent gaming – making it easier and easier for us to follow the example of Lucas who –

“- turned his first “Star Wars” film into five more features, multiple TV shows, a panoply of books and an onslaught of toys and games. The feature films alone have generated a cumulative worldwide box office of more than $4 billion.”

“What Lucas did went several steps beyond old-style character licensing and brand extensions. He created a unified body of work with an extensive backstory and mythology, and he determinedly guarded its canon while simultaneously opening up peripheral parts of his universe to exploration by other contributors.” 2

Obviously you can’t sell a story based solely on the formats you plan on projecting it through – you still need a strong and compelling narrative. It is this story and associated story-world that will justify it’s transmission and consumption through more than one platform.

I will leave you with some wise words from Henry Jenkins, one of the first experts on the transmedia movement:

“Many of our best authors, from William Faulkner to J.R.R. Tolkien, understood their art in terms of world-creation and developed rich environments which could, indeed, support a variety of different characters. For most of human history, it would be taken for granted that a great story would take many different forms, enshrined in stain glass windows or tapestries, told through printed words or sung by bards and poets, or enacted by traveling performers. Sequels aren’t inherently bad-remember that Huckleberry Finn was a sequel to Tom Sawyer. But Twain understood what modern storytellers seem to have forgotten-a compelling sequel offers consumers a new perspective on the characters, rather than just more of the same.”


Here are some notes I scribbled in the margins of my notebook you might find useful:


  • Embrace the concept that you, the artist, create content and the audience will sort through it to find their own structure to the story.
  • Work hard to build your own fanbase/mailing list – the most valuable asset you can have is a direct link to your audience. THIS IS FAR MORE POWERFUL THAN FACEBOOK.
  • Data about your audience (place of residence, operating system, etc) is gold because it gives you the very parameters for how you should build your various platforms.
  • The bulk of money for such crossmedia projects is still in traditional means of financing – therefore when presenting a business plan make a ‘global budget’ for the entire project across the intended platforms.
  • Go to the core of what the experience is – what the story is about – in order to understand how to create appropriate platforms and related experiences.
  • Crossmedia doesn’t necessarily translate into a video-game tie-in for your film, you’re potential platforms are only limited by your imagination and what the story-world can handle, NOT BY THE STORY’S GENRE.
  • Maintain as much intellectual ownership over your story-world and characters as possible – remember what George Lucas did with Star Wars.
  • What has been a fringe phenomemon is becoming more and more accepted by the industry:
    • Brian Glazer’s Imagine recently formed a first-look deal with transmedia outfit Blacklight.
    • France’s ARTE, a champion of Middle Eastern Cinema, recently started accepting applications for transmedia projects
    • The Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab accepted their first transmedia project this past January.
  • Strive to build a faithful community around a story-world with multiple yet related stories told through a constellation of characters and plot points.
  • Transmedia projects are not limited to entertainment and profit, they can also be a formidable tool for activism – check out Transmedia Activism: Telling Your Story Across Media Platforms to Create Effective Social Change


If you’re inspired to start but need more case-studies and ideas I direct you to the following –




1. Filmmaker Magazine – ‘Culture Hacker’: Lance Weiler explains why filmmakers should expand their films into a “storyworld.”

2. Variety Magazine – ‘Transmedia storytelling is future of biz’


3 thoughts on “Berlinale Highlight #4 – ‘Crossmedia Storytelling’

  1. Very nice work synthesizing, Kasem. when i first started with PBS many many moons ago, the world was agog with the new narrative, with the idea that the audience would participate in the creation of the story and that it go from print to screen and back again seamlessly. (The idea that you could stop a video and explore another thread and return to the main narrative at will was huge) and people worried about how this was going to affect learning. The ADD generation had just arrived. But it really was a very limited set of choices that you had. Now the technology has truly caught up with the idea. My only thought is that the market place moves so swiftly that anything like facebook gets overcrowded fifteen minutes after they realize its potential. I think the personal list is probably the way to go. Just five years ago, an individual wouldn’t have had the technology to maintain one of sufficient sophistocation.

    Oh – and for the record – the first circulated script for Star Wars (not the one we read, a later draft) contained ALL THREE of the plots for the first episodes. The three episodes that came years later had nothing to do with the characters we all loved (it was good to see Yoda kick butt, however.) Lucas’s ability to retain creative control but that was only possible after he had made a phenomenally successful, beyond profitable, movie.


    • Thanks Professor for the feedback – I think you’re right about the fact almost everyone has a tendency of jumping onto the latest ‘fad of the moment’.

      I think a compelling, entertaining and unique story will always be the main factor in a film’s success – at least it’s the only formula we can try to follow as screenwriters.

      The other stuff – the need to deliver the story on multiple platforms – just reflects our current reality where we have so many different forms of entertainment in the household: the net, video games, dvds, facebook, etc.

  2. Pingback: How to Kickstarter Your Dreams | Kasem Kharsa's Blog

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