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The Third Age of Transmedia - PART TWO

The Evolution of Storytelling: Transmedia's Rising Influence

Following PART ONE, this is the second 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.

While many might expect a history of Transmedia to name creatives like Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas, Shatoshi Tajiri, or JK Rowling, our focus is on the economic minds that created the framework within which these storytellers and their universes could thrive.

The Transmedia 8, as we’re calling it, are:

Adam Smith, John C. Panzar and Robert D. Willig, Paul Samuelson, Richard Musgrave, Steven Weber, Theodore Vail, and Robert Metcalf.

We begin with Adam Smith, often hailed as "The Father of Economics". His seminal 1776 work, “The Wealth of Nations”, introduces the division of labour, which boosts production through task specialisation, spatial organisation, and tool standardisation.

More critical to our discussion, however, is his concept of Economies of Scale.

The relationship was simple and still holds today: the more you produce an item, the cheaper it will be to produce it.

By today’s standards the concept is nothing revolutionary, but it stood as the basic economic principle by which the first media and entertainment businesses were built when scalability was opened to them. And it is what ushered in the 1st Age of Transmedia.

1st Age of Transmedia: 1930s-60s

The blueprints to today’s modern media and entertainment conglomerates started in the early 20th century. US companies like Warner Bros. Paramount, what would then become MGM and 20th Century Fox all came into their own in the 1920’s, as the theatre business started to become a staple of American culture.

These companies were predominately rights-holders, which saw economies of scale in doing more with the same sunk costs. But by the 1930’s they weren’t only rights-holders, they were also venue-owners, with many owning theatre-chains which rendered them control of the distribution. Not only did they vertically integrate down, but they also integrated upwards.

There’s a wonderfully LA-reductive saying which goes something like ‘Hollywood came out of New York’, referring to the book publishing industry.

That’s where most of the studios found the material for their movies, such as Grapes of Wrath. Yet, the exchange between books and films wasn't unidirectional; film icons like Charlie Chaplin, Dean Martin, and Jerry Lewis also starred in comics, leveraging their cinematic popularity.

Historically, news and magazine publishing, among the oldest media industries, were tightly linked to early cinema, which often featured newsreels. Media tycoon William Randolph Hearst's empire had significant Hollywood influence; deals like Paramount's with Cosmopolitan gave film rights to magazine stories. Paramount's acquisition of book publisher, Simon & Schuster, furthered this vertical integration.

Meanwhile, radio was burgeoning as a key cultural phenomenon, with national networks like NBC adapting films and books for the airwaves, promoting studio works like "King Kong" and launching careers, like Orson Welles' with “War of the Worlds” on CBS Radio itself founded, peculiarly, by the music label Columbia Records).

The ‘Golden Era’ of film found its demise when two sequential events ushered its end:

  • In 1948, the Big Five Hollywood studios' dominance was diminished by an antitrust case that forced them to divest their theatre chains.

  • And in the decade that was to follow, the launch of the Television. Though initially dismissed by movie studios, posed a threat as it grew ubiquitous.

To compete with the convenience of television, film studios pivoted to lavish productions, launching colorful epics like "Cleopatra" and timeless musicals such as "Singing in the Rain" – itself evolved from an earlier film's song.

To make these large investments safer, studios often employed bankable stars like the duo of Fred Astair and Ginger Roger or musicians like Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington etc. It was around this time that movie soundtracks, particularly those of musicals, started being released by internal studio labels, like the case of Warner Bros. Records as part of Warner Bros. Studios. It’s from this integration that we can track some defining multimedia projects, such as the fictional music band The Monkees, inspiring the cartoon band The Archies to have their own TV shows, and in film “Yellow Submarine” became a transmedia exploration of the Beatles’ album.

The Yellow Submarine movie (1968) received widespread acclaim. However, apart from composing and performing the songs, the real Beatles' only participation was in the closing scene of the film; the voices of their animated counterparts were provided by voice actors.

Feeling the competitive pressure of radio, the record industry sought stability through consolidation. In 1952, Decca Records acquired a majority stake in Universal Pictures, marking the first classic Hollywood studio takeover by an external company.

With the film industry, completely devoid of cash from the big-budget tentpoles it tried to bank, the 1960s were marked by a spate of corporate takeovers that preyed on the weakened studio system and carried them onto the next age.

The 2nd Age of Transmedia: 1970s-2000s

By the late '60s, the faltering US studio system, once dominant, gave way to independent talent and production companies eager to innovate and captivate audiences. Out were the formulaic epic westerns and campy horror movies. In were… slightly different dressings of it - after all, good stories will never go away.

In the '70s, "Rocky Horror Picture Show”, a film adaptation of a London musical, had fans lining up in costume, foreshadowing the frenzy that "Star Wars" would later ignite. This era also saw the rise of 'New Hollywood', with directors like George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg, whose "Jaws" became a sensation in '75.

New Hollywood in action - Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) opens at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in LA.

Unbeknownst to them, a whole different entertainment medium was being created at the same time, that would end up using their creations: video games.

Interactivity had a significantly different retention power than passive consumption, but it still had to get people to want to play it for the first time, which is why, since the beginnings of the video game industry, games were trialled as extensions of popular movie properties.

But if you go now and play the “Jaws” NES game, or the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” ZX Spectrum game or even the “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” Atari 2600 game, they are all but a thin and paltry shadow of the original.

Nonetheless, this was the era where we had, for the first time, game IP birthing stories in other media - Zelda cartoons, Super Mario movies, Pokemon TV shows, trading card games, etc. - and Japan would take its throne as the leader in successful transmedia storytelling.

The Bizarre Economies of Scope

But as always, we’re interested in telling the less-known story of this period. So we go back to the aforementioned Transmedia 8.

This time, to professors John Panzer and Robert Willig. Their pioneering papers, published in 1977 and 1981, laid the groundwork for the revolutionary concept of economies of scope.

This concept, a somewhat natural extension of economies of scale, put it rather simply, is where you achieve efficiencies by increasing the number of products, primarily because you are maximising the utilisation of production pipelines.

For example studio space - or parts or the organisation - say Marketing, Supply Chain, etc. - into other products.

The result of this was a cocktail of acquisitions fueled by the 80s banking deregulation. The M&A bonanza that happened from the 80s to the end of the 90s was bizarre and created decidedly weird multi-product conglomerates, characterised by horizontal acquisitions, with the desire to expand to more adjacent industries. The below list shows but a mere sample of the craziness that ensued:

Film: Between 1989 and 1994, 4 of the Big 5 studios change owner.

Live: National Amusements buys Viacom, then Paramount; Disney’s Magic Kingdom opens.

Publishing: NewsCorp buys 20th Century Fox; Simon & Schuster ends up in Paramount.

TV: ABC buys 80% of ESPN, then gets bought by Disney; Turner acquired by Warner then AOL.

Gaming: Warner buys ATARI; BMG launches BMG Interactive (later bought by Take-Two)

Music: Sony buys Columbia Records; Matsushita buys MCA which then gets purchased by Seagram and merged with Vivendi and Canal+.

Aren’t we forgetting something?

Well, yes… this period is also the period that the emergence of a little thing called ‘The Internet’ takes place.

But before P2P even had the chance to take hold, the concept of interactivity wasn’t just going to be limited to that of a two-way conversation between humans and machine. No. The early internet, post-DARPA, saw the introduction of Telnet, a client enabling real-time communication between the users of different computers. This set the stage for Dr. Richard Bartle to create the MUD, the first multi-user dungeon game, transforming the solitary computer gaming experience into an interactive, networked, multi-player adventure.

This online, human-to-human interactivity ended up, still in this era, creating some amazing properties that are still beloved to this day, like the highly topical “Baldur's Gate” or “Warcraft”, which taking in the many-to-many tradition of the MUDs ended up creating the sensation that was “World of Warcraft”.

Entertainment was always made to be communal. In 2001, this took a digital leap with Spielberg's "A.I." The film's poster, embedded with mysterious numbers, which ignited forums and message boards into a frenzy of collaborative decoding. Unbeknownst to the participants, they were unravelling a masterful ARG - an alternate reality game - cleverly masquerading as reality, solved through the shared wisdom of the online community.

Players were led through a network of over forty websites created by Warner Bros. via clues left in trailers, print ads, posters, telephone messages, and live promotional events for the film.

This pivotal moment heralded a new age of shared, interactive storytelling. And where our current era starts.

In PART THREE we delve into the third age of transmedia, exploring how these foundations have paved the way for technologies like AI and community-driven platforms to redefine the creation and consumption of media.