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The Third Age of Transmedia - PART ONE

The Birth of Transmedia Storytelling: Early Concepts and Pioneers

This is the first in a series of posts on Transmedia written by FOV Ventures Entrepreneur-In-Residence Tiago Correia. Transmedia storytelling is a way of independently telling a single story across different types of media and platforms like film, TV, books, comics, games, or even IRL experiences.

Today, we are witnessing a remarkable era in the creative industries, deeply rooted in the historical context of media.

The history of transmedia is important because it marks the point where culture became scalable, and the production and dissemination of art shifted from controlled channels to more open, technology-driven platforms. 

‘Transmedia’ underpins our vision of scalable, high-return content operations, leveraging tools like Scenario and M-XR to create engaging, enduring online worlds. This aligns with our vision for media's future: dynamic, accessible content that fosters community and connection.

TRANSMEDIA, a way of telling a single story across different types of media, is an industry term. One that, like many others, has its own lifecycle, alongside its trends or investment hypes, usually based on some sort of technological development. Internet of Things, anyone? Non-fungi... anyway, we could go on.

Cycles are a natural part of the tech evolutionary process. Think of this as a preface to the reason as to why we're interested in this term. Its creation dates back to 2006, yet it's gaining traction again now. We're delving into why it's resurging and what happens because of it.

Let’s firstly begin with what Transmedia isn’t.

Multimedia. Multimedia simply refers to the usage of more than one medium in a particular piece of content, like say for example a movie with an associated soundtrack.

It also isn’t, ‘crossmedia’, like adapting a book into a movie.

Transmedia instead, as coined by its creator Dr. Henry Jenkins (USC) is a story-telling technique, a way of telling a story across different types of media like movies, TV shows, books, comics, games, and even theme park attractions.

Each part of the story is unique and adds something special, but each part is self-contained so you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the game, and vice versa. Think of how stories like Pokémon or Star Wars are told through films, books, and games, each offering a different experience through various formats.

Star Wars isn’t just episodic movies. It’s an ever-expanding universe with stories spanning across film, books, television, video games, and other media. (thehypedgeek.com)

But both of these examples predate 2006… Well, yes. Buckle up, because Transmedia is as old as The Bible.

And actually, even a bit older. 

Storytelling from oral traditions to early written texts.

The narrative tradition, initially oral and communal, was pivotal to human cultural evolution. Polly Wiessner's 2019 study of the Ju/’hoansi tribe highlighted this: practical conversations by day turned into cultural storytelling by night with songs, dances, and tales around the fire. Alongside illustrations, these were the original formats for stories to be told.

It helps us understand what happened around 400,000 years ago, when humans first fully learnt to control fire, it was a breakthrough moment in human evolution.

It led to the specialisation of tasks, with some becoming hunters while others staying behind to tend to the fire, with their contribution primarily social in nature - as storytellers.

Narratives would shapeshift, as they were passed from storyteller to storyteller, as details were forgotten, or even altered for embellishment in an early form of what would now be called User-Generated Content.

As the saying goes, “those who tell a tale, add a detail”.

The advent of written text revolutionised storytelling by preserving narratives across time. The ancient Sumerian "Epic of Gilgamesh," inscribed on tablets like the Instructions of Shuruppak and the Kish Tablet, is one of humanity's earliest recorded epics.

It parallels the bible’s flood story of Noah’s Ark, with its themes of divine retribution, survival, and redemption, showing how narratives can persist and transform over ages.

This continued through the ages, like with Greco-Roman epics that blended with religious mythology such as Homer's Odyssey. During these times, many people were illiterate, so stories, despite being codified in texts, were transmitted through plays or in sermons and songs.

Or if you look at many of the stories that have survived from Europe’s Middle ages, they often draw inspirations from content that came before them. Camelot and the story of the Knights of the Round Table (circa 1136), is a story that’s been rehashed many times, with the Holy Grail first being mentioned in Chrétien de Troyes's “Perceval ou le Conte du Graal'' (circa 1180) with some historians believing it has pre-Celtic mythology origins (possibly 1st millennium BC).

A good story will survive the test of time.

This, really, shouldn’t come as a surprise. Still today, in many popular representations, we have the idea of a jester being offed by the regent if they’re not pleased with a performance. Imagine it as a form of darwinistic storytelling.

While the brutality of those methods might not exist today, this is not so different to a comedian testing new material and trashing jokes that bombed. If you think of it, this is really just a rudimentary feedback loop, where you iterate your product.

From this millenia-long collaborative filtering, what emerges are what Kurt Vonegut called story shapes.

6 or so, basic arcs on how a story starts, develops and concludes, filled with their own stratified character archetypes. The most famous of which, the ‘rags to riches’, follows an aspirational tale format told plenty of times before. So, if you wanted to have a modicum of a chance for success in the early days, you best stick to the tried-and-tested formulas if you wanted to succeed.

Centuries of storytelling taught audiences to expect the delivery of characters’ emotions in familiar shapes.

Pre-Industrial Revolution, cultural production - “media”- wasn't lucrative; financial backing came from patrons or familial legacy, with restrictive guilds and apprenticeships acting as gatekeepers. The primary media of the era—oral, visual, written, and performative—were regulated, with education and production often limited by social status and legal constraints. Even then, should you want your story to outlive you, by being enshrined onto a codec of sorts, really only the printing press offered some solution for still images and naturally text, with respectively prints and books.

Then along comes the first industrial revolution

and with it, an intense period of technological advancement that catapulted the arts onto a new world.

In 1822 Nicéphore Niépce took the first photograph in history. In 1849, Antonio Meucci created the telephone, an invention which Alexander Graham Bell brought to the world. Between Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s 1856 phonautograph and Thomas Edison’s phonograph in 1877, the world now had a way to record sounds.

The popular Lumière Brothers made the definitive contribution to the medium of film in 1895 and by the turn of the century, by 1901, Guglielmo Marconi had discovered how to transmit it all via wireless radio.

Often regarded as the most important movie ever made, "Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory" was first seen on March 22, 128 years ago.

In less than 80 years, the entire world order of culture had been up-ended. Just like that, not only was a completely new medium created, but you could no longer control the production or dissemination of art through controlled channels on most mediums.

Culture had just become scalable, and with it the doors to tech-driven cost reductions were open. This is where the modern history of Transmedia starts. 

From here, in PART TWO, we look at how this history of Transmedia laid the foundations for the blueprints of today’s modern media and entertainment conglomerates.

This next era birthed the consumption, the distribution and the production parts of the entertainment value chain setting the stage for a cross-platform, interactive future that is reshaping how we engage with stories and entertainment.