In this short trend report, I outline transmedia trends from 2019, from storytelling and media events to emerging business models. To spot trends and patterns, we need to look back. In other words, forecasting always requires back-casting. By drawing from a range of prominent examples, I draw comparisons and look forward. We are in a complex media landscape, and this will persist.
1. Lines between media are blending even further
Transmedia content was booming in 2019. Adaptations, reboots and remix dominated the box office and streaming services. Rewriting sells, from Avengers Endgame and Netflix’s The Witcher to the live-action Lion King. But other media are changing their game. For instance, with the rise of Webtoon, web comics are in a shift, and moving away from grids and pages towards something more akin to cartoons. Think of the highly successful Lore Olympus, which retells the love story of Hades and Persephone. Webtoon’s formatting and easy-to-scroll interface, without grids or page limitations, gives authors more space to experiment in their panels. As an originally Korean genre, webtoons have been around for a while, but the platform Webtoons boosted their popularity and made them into an ad-based business model for creatives. We will be seeing more of this platform in 2020, I am sure.
Offline media and analogue play are remediated and remixed as well. This was the year of the role-playing revival in which Dungeons & Dragons experienced a full-on revival in podcasts, live-streams and other media. Both digital and analogue games are increasingly watched, listened to, and analyzed rather than played by their audiences on Twitch and YouTube. Some digital games are even produced to be watched. Death Stranding, for instance, follows the long legacy of Quantic Dream which has specialized in interactive films for years. But Death Stranding is not an interactive film, but a full-fletched action-adventure. It was a break-out hit this year by Metal Gear Solid creator Kojima. Its cinematography, cult story and surreal cut scenes with actual actors stand out. Cinema and evocative game play blend in this unique experience, that pushes the boundaries of existing media. We will see more genres blend in 2020.
2. The business and IP of transmedia characters matters
2019 was a character-driven year, in which we saw the redesign of Sonic, experienced Simba and Scar in full CGI, and saw Elsa fully develop herself in Frozen 2. Companies like Disney sell these characters. They are a franchise, a business model. Fans embrace these characters in their works, but creators are not always sure what to do with this. In the history of fandom, we have seen many copyright holders act out against fans. Famous authors such as George R.R. Martin and Anne Rice were vocal about banning fan fiction based on their products. In the early days of Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling sent cease and desist letters to fan sites.
Since the launch of Disney+ in 2019, fans have embraced the cute break-out character Baby Yoda (The Child) from Mandalorian. Disney, however, was keen to reinforce its IP, and pushed back, and for instance forced Giphy to remove memes of the beloved alien. Even though Disney is keeping a tight leash on Baby Yoda IP, its fans cannot be stopped. Memes, fan works, and unauthorized merchandise are still omnipresent on the internet and conventions. The Wall Street Journal reports that online sellers began receiving notices from Etsy that their listings had been deactivated at Disney’s request. In the article Etsy seller Jacqueline even remarks: “I have to say ‘alien doll’ because I got an email from Disney about copyright infringement.” What’s next for productive fandom, when businesses like Disney eclectically reinforce their IP and prevent some fan creations, but not others?
3. The streaming war is on
Many new streaming services launched this year with unique content and original series. Apple TV+ and Disney+ launched in 2019, and in 2020, we can browse on HBO Max and Quiby. Parallel to these international (Western) streaming services, we see the rise of many genre-specific smaller platforms such as Crunchyroll, and local streaming services that are continuously improving. Streaming film and television is just the start. New streaming services launched for gaming as well. But the biggest of these, Google Stadia, is unfortunately far from perfect. Without a good connection and servers, lag can happen and affect the game play dramatically. (Believe me, I tried.) Apparently some of the problems also relate to its use of Chromecast. Nonetheless, cloud-based gaming is becoming a thing, and holds great promises for the future. Playing blockbuster games like Red Dead Redemption on the go is basically the dream. And while Nintendo brought mobile gaming to us through new hardware, by launching the Switch Lite this year, other companies bet on cloud computing.
4. Virtual influencers are on the rise
At the start of the year, TechCrunch reported that the company behind Lil Miquela, Brud, was worth at least $125 million, as part of a pre-money valuation led by Spark Capital. Suddenly, virtual influencers are the future of ads, marketing, and commerce. Virtual influencer Lil Miquela has been popular on Instagram since her channel was launched in 2016. The celebrity has gotten immensely popular and launched various music videos this year (Money, Automatic). Last year Miquela supposedly got “hacked” by another account, Bermuda, but this was all part of the story world that the designers are creating around her.
But there are more virtual influencers emerging, like Shudu, a black woman designed by a white man. His representation of her literally drew from a special edition Princess of South Africa Barbie doll, as stated in an interview with The New Yorker. But augmenting this representation, and blurring the lines between reality and fiction in Instagram, is exactly the point of her creator, photographer Cameron-James Wilson. Still, virtual influencers are by no means a Western phenomenon or fantasy. They have a much longer history in other countries, like Japan, where there is a longstanding tradition of mascots and characters (“kyara”) to brand towns, products, and services. The fictional brand ambassadors of Sanrio (Sanrio Boys) are a good example. We will undoubtedly see more virtual influencers after Brud’s immense success. But will it work, or will this go down like Gorillaz? A trick that only works for one particular act or band?
5. Tokenization allows businesses to give back to fans
Blockchain is not a new trend, but this year it is finally settling in, and being applied beyond cryptocurrency. The advantage is that this technology is decentralized, peer-to-peer, transparent and keeps track of all digital transactions. Blockchain is secure and helps in terms of copyright, remix and validation. Another advantage is that it facilitates tokenization. By creating tokens, companies can give back to fans to valuate their engagement (e.g. comments, likes, clicks), and their user-generated content. Bjork rewarded those who purchased her latest album with special audiocoins, which can be spend on different goodies. We have also seen the rise of different fan tokens, such as Otakucoin, where fans earn tokens through reviewing that can be spend at special stores in Japan. One big success in the creative industries was Verisart, which raised 2.5 million in seed financing with its platform that certifies art and collectibles.
More companies are experimenting with blockchain and tokens. The interactive experience Doctor Who Time Fracture uses tokens instead of regular tickets for instance, though it is unclear if the tokens are stored on blockchain. Fans buy a digital ticket (a Gallifreyan Coin) in advance which functions as a utility token. Tokenization can mean a great deal for the future of fandom and the creative industries. It is fast, easy, and potentially allows industries to give back to fans. The one-sided way in which companies now use the content, data, and engagement of fans is problematic, and blockchain offers one way out. I expect that we’ll see more in the likes of Audiocoin and Gallifreyan Coin next year. More transmedia productions will undoubtedly follow suit.
6. Transmedia fatigue has kicked in
While Watchmen was a success, we have seen many reboots, adaptations and sequels this year that were not. The biggest disappointment of the year is perhaps The Rise of Skywalker, which retconned most decisions of The Last Jedi. It sabotaged its own transmedia formula and was more concerned with looking back, then going forward. Regardless of the creative decisions and production process, what fans were left with was more than a movie that lacked storytelling. Rise of Skywalker is a film with little heart, no emotional drive, and reduces its characters. Others, like Rose and Finn, are almost completely written out of the narrative. It did not feel like a contribution to the Star Wars universe, but like a Disney cash cow. If storytelling is done wrong in transmedia, audiences feel cheated. This is not my world, my Rey, or my Star Wars.
With Avengers Endgame, the first phase of the MCU also closed shop this year. But did it really live up to its expectation? New titles have already been announced, but by now transmedia fatigue has kicked in. Disney’s business strategies are overtly visible by now. What we once called transmedia storytelling has by now resulted in a standard business model. Keep building, and they will come. We are getting bored. Personally, I am looking for more fan-driven models that still have the heart, exclusivity and Easter eggs that once made Star Wars and The Matrix interesting, cool, and cohesive. What is next? Where are the new story worlds that we can dip into? The ones that mix media effectively, and with new energy? We are ready for a new storytelling paradigm, beyond Disney and MCU.
7. Algorithms are here to stay, but require transparency
And finally, narrow AI is shaping content production. This includes algorithms that curate content, moderate profiles, news feeds and recommendations, and offer other services (e.g. facial recognition and tagging) on different platforms. Facebook, YouTube, Twitch and Netflix would be out off business quickly without these algorithms. In a way, they are the most valuable asset aside from us, their users. However, users increasingly want more transparency in these algorithms. Why do they see certain ads on YouTube, Facebook or Twitter? Why does one user go viral with their video at the expense of others? Many platforms are more open about their policies in advertising and monetization, and changing them actively. Twitter has already banned political advertising. YouTube is changing its algorithm on 1 January, 2020 as well, so that children’s videos cannot be monetized through personal ads anymore.
Algorithms shape how, and if, content is monetized. They are here to stay, but for content creators more clarity in how they work is essential. Most platforms automate, and human moderation is rare. While Archive of our Own still has human “tag-wranglers” to moderate content, it is a rare exception. If we don’t want users to be estranged from platforms, insights in how they work are essential.