Transmedia vs. Franchise Development

Last week I had a very interesting conversation with Kathy Franklin, President Franchise Development at Lightstorm Entertainment. Kathy has a long-standing background in franchising after having worked at Disney for almost eleven years and now heading the franchising efforts for James Cameron’s Avatar. During our chat, Kathy pointed out a very important challenge for traditional franchise development in the face of transmedia: Until recently, the goal of developing franchises was usually monetization through repurposing, whereas the concept of transmedia storytelling focuses primarily on the (more costly) expansion of the story itself. While this was, of course, no news to me, Kathy’s statement stuck with me for a while. In a way, I had somehow assumed (naively, maybe) that transmedia was really the next step in franchise development. Pitting traditional franchising practices and transmedia storytelling against each other in this way it almost seemed as if transmedia would be unable to persevere, given that everything boils down to profitability at the end of the day and entertainment executives tend to make decisions that maximize their revenues. From a business perspective, re-purposing intellectual property is naturally a lot cheaper than producing new content.

Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on your own position within this equation – economics does not only involve supply but demand as well. Needless to say, we’re already in the middle of media convergence, most of us owning a smart phone, a laptop, a television, sometimes combined with a games console and/or an ipad. We are used to consuming media 24/7 on many different platforms, and every single one of them is vying for our attention. As a result, in order to stand out from the infinite supply of media content, it is not enough to just have exceptional content, but also to offer several different touch points to engage with this content on different platforms. To truly set themselves apart from the competition, intellectual properties need to engage their audience again, and again, and again.

The question that then remains is – will consumer be satisfied with repurposed content (franchise development), or will they demand more (transmedia)? I myself believe in the latter – audiences will want something new at each touch point. It has been scientifically proven that attention spans decrease rapidly, and in a world where new, exciting content is offered to consumers at every turn, I very much doubt that a mere repetition of an existing story will captivate audiences.

With one exception: Children/families. As parents and Disney found out very early, children will watch the same movie or listen to the same story again and again without growing tired of it. As a result, children (and their family as their financiers) are the ideal target for franchising and repurposing content.

What this means then, is that “Transmedia vs. Franchise Development” is not a fight with only one winner. Instead, it is a compromise and a question of integration. Transmedia will not completely replace franchise development, but franchising as it has been practiced in the last decades will have to undergo some serious changes. Most likely, this will mean that traditional franchising development will be geared mostly towards a younger demographic, i.e. 0 – 10 year olds and maybe devoted collectors/fans. Novelizations, toys, action figures, and games re-telling the same story as the driving platform (still movies in most cases) will meet the demands of the youngest audience members, but with increasing age they, too, will look for truly engaging cross-platform content that continues a meta-narrative rather than reiterating one part of it.

Back to supply. Entertainment companies will have to find the most profitable franchising-transmedia combination, and more importantly, ways to really monetize transmedia storytelling. In my opinion, subscription and micro-payments are probably the best options here, with subscriptions appealing most to families who tend to share media content amongst themselves, and micro-payments catering to individuals and non-mainstream IPs. The cost of producing new content instead of repurposing existing stories remains, but particularly for large media conglomerates, producing and distributing cross-platform content should be relatively easy and cost-effective to do due to their existing infrastructures. At the same time, it must be remembered that a large production budget does not automatically mean quality (see the Green Lantern movie, for example), and that a compelling story depends on artistic skill more than it does on finances, offering great opportunities to small and large players.

The bottom line then, is that entertainment professionals and executives must join the likes of Kathy in terms of thinking ahead and finding ways in which franchise development can remain relevant and enriching to nowadays’ audiences. Even if expanding narratives is more expensive than repurposing, a complete refusal to update one’s business practices can quickly become even costlier, to the extent that it can turn into a complete business failure if consumer demand is no longer met.