Monday, September 28, 2009

Starlight Runner, Part the First

The months leading up to the release of The Dark Knight were busy ones. There were codes to decrypt and websites to search, and clown posses and cakes and all sorts of varied components to be experienced before the movie ever hit the big screen. Before anyone knew what True Blood was, there were ads for the beverage on every bus stop in New York. Online, you can book flights on an airline that doesn’t exist, or read the press kit for the Tagruato Corporation, or their subsidiary company, Slusho! In the realm of marketing, it’s become something that fans expect: Products and experiences not necessarily directly connected to the work that spawned them. Viral campaigns to immerse them in the world of the property before it’s even in their hands. Worlds, as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has shown us, require skilled architects and great bookkeeping skills to create. So when a movie needs to expand its world beyond the edge of the screen, where does one go?

Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the highly anticipated upcoming Avatar all went to StarlightRunner. So: What is a Starlight Runner?

Jeff Gomez, President and Uber-Geek: A Starlight Runner is the kind of friend you can call at any time. It’s corny, it came from when I used to publish a magazine called Gateways and I had a column called The Cosmic Streetcorner—it was a magazine for kids, really, and I used to write about how we can be inspired by stories and apply what we learn from stories to our everyday lives. One of the subjects was friendship, things like that... Some of our clients used to think our name referred to a Broadway musical.

They’re not, though. They’re so much cooler than that. Starlight Runner creates transmedia, of which advertising (including the fun, viral stuff) is a part but hardly the whole. The company doesn’t just find new ways to expose people to product—they find new ways to make that product. When Mattel brought them Hot Wheels, Starlight Runner produced a story that started in comics, continued on the web and in video games and climaxed as an animated feature. The what of transmedia is fascinating. Here, have a breakdown, from the master plan man himself, Jeff Gomez:

The 8 defining characteristics of a transmedia production (by Jeff Gomez):
1) Content is originated by one or a very few visionaries
2) Cross-media rollout is planned early in the life of the franchise
3) Content is distributed to three or more media platforms
4) Content is unique, adheres to platform-specific strengths, and is not
repurposed from one platform to the next
5) Content is based on a single vision for the story world
6) Concerted effort is made to avoid fractures and schisms
7) Effort is vertical across company, third parties and licensees
8) Rollout features audience participatory elements, including:
- Web portal
- Social networking
- Story-guided user-generated content

But in our discussion we were more focused on the who and how in the hell. There are clues to the ‘who’s’ ( I feel like Dr. Suess. …Okay, it’s done) around their spacious Union Square office. A “Powersaw to the People” Dexter promotional poster, action figures, comics and manga and an Xbox 360...

JG: That’s an electromagnetic disruptor hanging from the ceiling, in case there are people with psychic powers coming to menace us.

Clearly, these people don’t *@&%! around. There is a comforting, permeating sense of geekiness.

Caitlin Burns, Editorial Lead: One of our prerequisites for working here is being a fan of things. It helps the process to be able to get really engaged and talk to other people who are fans and be able to communicate on that level, because to really understand the universe of a story, and work within it, you have to like it a little bit!

JG: There has to be at least one torchbearer for every property that we work with amongst our staff. We have to love it in some way or else we’re doing it a disservice, and we’re doing the clients a disservice… I think most of us here, when we were very young, we somehow intuited that we were different from other kids. [Wry laughter.] When you’re looking at things slightly differently than the way your peers are looking at it, and you’re falling in love with things that your peers don’t really understand there’s this inclination to go deeper and deeper into the mythologies that we love. But I think what also creates a commonality here on the staff was that at some point in time each of us made the decision that we would not become isolated from the rest of the world, that we wanted to reach out and connect with people, and so the trick that I had to face was: How do you stay connected to this fantasy environment, these wonderful worlds that I was learning about from Tolkien and all these authors, and Star Wars and so forth, but at the same time stay connected to the popular culture and sensibilities, so that I could have friends who were cool. So I could date girls.

EC: How was the concept of world building appropriated to do more with the property than just create the property itself?

JG: Learning that balance was what made us able to work with our clients who are major companies and need for their fantasy stories to be told to global audiences. The link between geekdom and mass culture was a little keystone that we collectively found here at Starlight Runner. So it wasn’t a great leap for us to jump from Pirates of the Caribbean to Coca-Cola. It’s not a big jump to start with Prince of Persia and end up with Dexter, or a die cast metal toy car and turn that into a giant racing universe. We’re forming that bridge and geek culture, you know, has become…hot.

CB: So much of what companies are trying to do today is figure out how to make use of different platforms, different media, to tell their stories. Monetize what is already there. And what we do automatically as fans is we go in and we look at the deep meaning of the work. We look at the universe; we like to know the details, we like to know the settings. And there are so many stories that can be told within a rich fantasy universe, a rich sci-fi universe, even a really rich dramatic universe like with Dexter, where you only have a sort of quiet, realistic setting. But it has enough emotional resonance, themes that you can look at it and say, “Huh, I wonder what’s going on there,” while we’re following this story. What we posit, and what we’ve been pretty successful in getting across so far, is that instead of just taking one story and repurposing it for each platform, you can tell a number of stories. There are a million avenues into a single property. And transmedia is a fantastic tool for any franchise that’s looking to expand itself into those fields, because it doesn’t bore the fan or the audience and it expands the storyline instead of simply doing the same thing over and over.

EC: Any favorite campaigns so far?

JG: We have a lot of properties that meet us with different kinds of challenges. There are a few that I think transcend everything and are truly favorites.

CB: For me, the first one that I worked on was Pirates of the Caribbean, and I got really into that really fast, because not only is it a really fantastic property, [but] I was just whole hog into studying the history of piracy, and Jerry Bruckheimer and that whole crew are so interested in that actual time period, in going in and finding what really was going on and weaving that into the fantasy universe. So for me personally that turned into a blog about piracy (, and it’s been very topical with the Gulf of Aden and the Straight of Malacca. There have been some pretty fascinating contemporary pirate stories.

JG: Now that I can look back on it, Halo was really fascinating, because it challenged me to my limits. A lot of our job is to kind of work with our clients to get them to appreciate the beauty and the spectacle of their own intellectual properties so they can best extend it into all these media platforms.

CB: Halo is a fascinating property as well because there is such a vibrant fan base, and each of the different companies involved with the franchise interact with the fan base a different way. Everyone we talked to there had a slightly different opinion about the universe. But finding those through lines was amazing.

EC: Are there certain types of properties that come in that are more resistant or less understanding of certain platforms you want to bring the property to?

CB: Companies are definitely becoming savvier to the idea of transmedia, and more so than just cross platform repurposing. But you’ll always find points where you have to evangelize what you’re talking about. I think as it enters the consciousness of more people in the industry, and it’s definitely a huge deal, new media, web media, a lot of people will use the word “transmedia” but not necessarily know it’s underlying meaning. In every case you have to explain your story, and when you’re dealing with transmedia, each platform has its own strengths and weaknesses. When you’re presenting a story like that you pretty much have to explain why you’re doing it the way you want to do it. Some groups are more receptive and some are less. People are looking for new ways to tell stories, people are looking for new ways to purpose things onto the internet, onto cell phones... So as a fan, or as a young creator, being able to explain to someone why you’re putting it on a cell phone, or being able to tailor it to a web series, or an alternate reality game, to explain to a group why you’re doing that is an essential skill, and if you can do it, you’re going to get work.

JG: A lot of our clients are also so big that they have their own favorite distribution channels. We adhere to the demands that they have and help to advise based on the set of platforms that are most appropriate to the property.

EC: How much of your artistic work is done in house?

CB: It depends on the company, really. It depends on who we’re contracted with. Some of them have seemingly endless resources and the best creatives money can by, internally. Others are more accustomed to licensing out. What we do for the most part is we have a core staff and then we have a much wider pool of freelancers who we draw from, depending. We do a lot of original work here, a lot of it is based on questions that come up when we’re writing the canon. How would we present this? And often times something we write in the canon will be brought back to us and they’ll say, well, how would you present this? And from there we can pick it up and run with it, and we’ve had great chances to do that in the past, and it’s fantastic amounts of fun.

JG: So if production is necessary, or animation, we’ll go out of house and get a crew or animation team to work with us, but for the most part what we do is develop the work, building a universe and conceiving how it will be implemented across these platforms. It’s a great treat once in a while to actually move into production.

CB: Often times we serve as kind of editors, because a lot of the mediums out there don’t have a formal editing process the way publishing does, so you don’t have a creative voice between the producer and distributor. We’ll come in and do the check work, we’ll look at it against the continuity, and we’ll make suggestions and often times those have been heard with, I think, really nice results.

EC: With the sudden flux in popularity of genre properties, is there a kind of property you’d want to work on that you haven’t yet?

CB: We have a lot of original stuff that Jeff has been working on for a long time that I’d love to get the chance to work on. He has some great original properties that we haven’t wanted to take the chance on until we could do them in as broad a spectrum as possible to do them justice.

JG: We don’t want to just go out and get a movie made of our idea or concept or story, we want these things to be implemented with transmedia, and in order to be very convincing about that we wanted to build a track record working with these wonderful properties and great clients to show people that we do know what we’re doing and that it can be really, really cool. Especially something designed from scratch, to be implemented across these platforms. So that’s one thing we really wanna do. The other is I’d love to work on a project that had a physical component, like theme parks, real estate, a resort. An exhibition of some kind where there’s interactive components, that you can walk through, and so forth.

CB: I used to throw events with all sorts of very theatrical settings, and costumes and storylines, but you don’t see it as much connected to properties. I know True Blood did a series of parties around the world, but at the same time those were not executed with the degree of spectacle that you might be able to gain, and they were only in, I think, five cities. Whereas the ability to get an audience out to somewhere that’s not New York City, where there’s not a party every night would be fantastic. I’d love to take the show on the road.

EC: What are you geeking out over now?

CB: I’m a big Battlestar Galactica fan, I watched it every week and I’m really looking forward to their movies in production, and seeing what becomes of Caprica.

JG: Wait ‘til you see Avatar. It’s going to be absolutely breathtaking.

CB: We got to see some of the early designs, and they blew my mind. And Jeff’s gotten to see more recent stuff… and I can’t even imagine what would be cooler than what I saw.

JG: We’re fans of Zoe Saldana, who appears in two of our projects. She stars in the original Pirates of the Caribbean, and she is Uhura in Star Trek. She will be the female lead in Avatar.

CB: I’ve actually been geeking out about Gears of War lately. Something that’s interesting about videogames—a lot of them have fantastic novels associated with them. Halo was very successful with its novel series. When the novels aren’t simply retelling stories you’ve seen in the video game, they provide a lot of depth. I played Gears of War, and then I read Gears of War: Aspho Fields, which goes back and forth between the two game stories and provides a lot of backstory. I was amazed at the experience I then had with Gears of War 2, because it made the stakes so much higher for me. It really gave layers that you wouldn’t see otherwise. Another novel just came out at the beginning of the month. There are things you can do with video games and accompanying novels. It’s not something that’s often tapped into, expanding the storyline of a video game. I’m starting the Mass Effect novels next, because I got really into Mass Effect.

EC: Star Trek and X-Men/Marvel have novels, but for some reason videogames and novel reading crowds aren’t necessarily associated.

JG: What’s cool about these new video game novels is that they’re in canon. Most Star Trek novels ‘don’t count’, they’re not part of the official continuity of the universe. The Halo novels and I assume the GoW novels take place in the game.

CB: Don’t get me wrong, I love playing video games. There are some conceits that the storytelling in a video game has for game play, and I understand that, but there’s such potential to work in and around the medium that people are beginning to pick up on and they’ll be really exciting.

Stay tuned for part two, wherein more geekdom is discussed, as well as the state of children's geekery and some of the problems facing today's young geek girls!