Good morning ️
The year was 1999 and the world had just been introduced to the powers of online connectivity called the Internet — a borderless digital space where stories live and multiply by the second.
Back then, nobody would go to the Internet seeking accountable and trustworthy information; instead, people would go to the Internet with the same spirit they’d go to a séance — for the thrill of discovering the unknown. And that particular summer the world discovered American students had gone missing while embarking on a documentary project.
Faces of the students were printed on leaflets and distributed among communities. An amateurish website which looked as though it was put together by students ran notes and information on the documentary project meant to uncover mysteries behind the deaths of children at the hands of a local witch. While online message boards and chatrooms were all buzzing with questions around the safety of the missing students; and what the project had uncovered so far.
The documentary is titled the Blair Witch Project — and it isn’t real. The missing students weren’t actually missing, either. They are characters in the film, played by Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard. The whole thing was a marketing stunt led by Haxan Films to cast doubt around the story’s fictional quality. By the time the film entered its opening weekend, the film’s promotional website had accumulated over 21 million hits from around the world. In fact, it became the first movie to benefit from the power of the Internet.
With a modest production budget under USD500,000 the Blair Witch Project went on to make over USD 250 million, making it the most profitable movie ever made to this day — enabling the producers to spawn a franchise of merchandise, comic books, video games, novels, web series, mockumentaries and soon-to-be TV series.
The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first franchise to embrace transmedia storytelling — for this, we would have to turn to Japan, who pioneered the craft by releasing one of the world’s most powerful franchises, Hello Kitty in 1974 — but it was definitely one of the most profitable examples.
For decades, the Danish toy brand LEGO has managed to keep reinventing itself and its positioning by reimagining what’s possible. The product’s educational value and simplicity have brought it premium recognition as one of the world’s most versatile and functional toys.
However, technology, digital innovations and the way that our societies have grown more and more complex continue to threaten the brand’s simple offerings. In 2010s, as part of its growth strategy, LEGO began to explore transmedia storytelling and — for the first time — turned its brand into a multimedia entertainment franchise.
Today, LEGO is more than just a toy brand. It has spawned a series of blockbuster animated films, video games, mobile apps, podcasts and a slew of digital and social media channels.
By turning their brand into an experience — LEGO has accomplished what other toy brands can only imagine: a full control over the narrative of their products which they can multiply and expand without limit.
The genius of George Lucas was not in creating an epic space opera called Star Wars, but in cutting a deal with Twentieth Century Fox to waive his directorial fee for a percentage of all proceeds from Star Wars’ profit, including the sales of its merchandises and future franchises.
So began the first official collaboration between an industry hungry for stories (Hollywood) and a storyteller who understands very well the far-reaching potential of storytelling.
Star Wars made it possible for George Lucas to build his own private empire, Lucasfilm, which is responsible for other notable franchises, such as Indiana Jones. For forty years since its founding in 1971, Lucasfilm has remained truthful to its storytelling principles of building backstories to create new stories. It is truly a bottomless well.
In 2012, the tremendously profitable company was purchased by Disney in 2012 for USD 4.05 billion; yet in four years, the company produced four Star Wars films which grossed over USD 4.8 billion in total — excluding licensing fees, merchandises, toys and apparels.
The deal to purchase Lucasfilm was said to be one of Disney’s smartest strategy to grow its share in the streaming industry. Among Disney+ notable series is Mandalorian, another backstory to Star Wars franchise; the series is produced and directed by Jon Favreau, who is also instrumental in the success of Marvel’s Iron Man and Avengers.
Long Story Short
The key to a successful transmedia storytelling is in the teller’s ability to build backstories that lead to more stories.
Imagine carving a wooden man which you then sell as a novelty item and which you then call JON.
After a time, carve a wooden woman which you then sell as Adam’s partner and which you then call JANE.
Create a comic book where Jon and Jane live in a house on the edge of the world and spend their days hunting for bears.
Give that bear a name, and a personality.
Create a TV show about a bear living in a cave out on the edge of the world who gets chased by a man and a woman every day on his way to forage for food.
Give the bear a friend. A female bear who loves to sing.
Give the female bear a name, and an album. When it reaches platinum, give the bear couple its own musical.
Before you know it, you will have ended up with four lovable characters and a galaxy to explore.
Up next week: Fashion Stories. How do premium brands like Dior, Hermes, Louis Vuitton and Burberry use story to sell their products and ensure their brand positioning in a constantly fluctuating economy? And do these stories still matter at a time when luxury brands are seen as irrelevant to a new and conscious (read: woke) world?
Until next Monday, Feb 22 at 9 a.m.
Sing with me?
Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer
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