I recently had the pleasure of talking with leading transmedia developer Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment. Jeff is an expert in transmedia narratology and storyworld design. With his team at Starlight Runner, he has worked as advisor on building blockbuster franchise properties like Pirates of the Caribbean, Avatar, Transformers, and Amazing Spider-Man. Our conversation focused on the art and craft of transmedia development, with discussion venturing into the successes and failures of franchises like Dark Universe, Star Wars, Marvel Cinematic Universe, and more.
TL: So firstly Jeff, thank you for so generously offering your time to have this conversation. To begin, can you describe what your role involves as a transmedia developer with Starlight Runner Entertainment?
JG: At Starlight Runner we see ourselves as producers with a very strong bent towards writing because in the entertainment industry, from our perspective, writing is the source of all media projections of an intellectual property. Our staff are highly experienced writers and also experienced in the study of stories as narratologists.
Historically, the role that we play primarily is to help large companies examine their intellectual property and maximize its value across multiple media platforms; this is not done through an old-school approach, which is simply to repeat that story over and over again, but to develop the storyworld so that it plays differently on different media platforms in a concerted fashion.
We also try to remind our clients that the story is not simply the narrative that is contained in the content: the story has to be thought of as inclusive of the audience, the way that the audience thinks, and how the audience interacts with the story world. If you ignore that aspect of the meta- or mega-story you’re depriving yourself of something very valuable in the building out of the storyworld—the persistence of that storyworld in terms of both time and success, and the use of audience feedback in dealing with the potential challenges or flaws in the storyworld. That’s been a more difficult aspect of our jobs, because the broadcast model has largely been about staying on one side of that storytelling process.
TL: In 2018 you published the chapter “Transmedia Developer: Success at Multiform Narrative Requires a Journey to the Heart of Story” in the collection The Routledge Companion to Transmedia Studies, edited by Matthew Freeman and Renira Rampazzo Gambarato. In this chapter you share your experience working with Starlight Runner on The Walt Disney Company’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise property and you explain how instrumental this work was for developing an effective creative process for transmedia entertainment franchises.
In this chapter you note that your work on the Pirates franchise also charts Starlight Runner’s “evolution from experimental transmedia storytellers to professional transmedia developers” (p. 207). Can you further elaborate on this evolution from experimental to professional transmedia development and explain how this journey shaped your creative process?
JG: From our perspective transmedia development takes place very early in the process of what we would call transmedia storytelling. The development process in this case is about examining how to tell a story in an orchestrated multiplatform fashion. We do this whether the intellectual property comes to us already established—where it’s already a script or a series of movies—or if it’s something that is brand new and just being conceived.
Transmedia storytelling was not called as such by myself in the early 1990s when I was working on projects like Magic: The Gathering (1993) for Wizards of the Coast or Turok: Dinosaur Hunter (1997) for Nintendo. It was more about being inspired by Japanese media mix mentality to create this kind of orchestrated universe. It was a combination of those exciting experiences I had with anime, which were not necessarily adherent to a formal canon, mixed with the Marvel Comics sensibility of an integrated universe that cared a bit more about the integrity of continuity. By taking those two things — which I loved so much as a kid — and integrating that approach in Turok and Magic, I was intuiting a transmedia mentality. It was experimental, but the results were a big success.
We actually called what we were doing a “trans-media approach” (with a hyphen), but it wasn’t long after that — a year or two — when I came upon the writings of Henry Jenkins. When I read Jenkins’ papers and book on transmedia storytelling, I was thrilled because it just lent an academic credence to what we were doing spontaneously. And I loved that: I loved the grounding that the academic approach gave to the kind of work that we were doing.
About seven or eight years later, we moved from doing this intuitively to creating a procedural transmedia development technique. We were negotiating with The Walt Disney Company and there was a contractual necessity for us to formalize our thinking and break it down in terms of a step-by-step procedure for Pirates of the Caribbean. This is because of business concerns like pricing and schedule, and what was required of the various talents that we were using in-house. It also had to do with how Disney would be furnishing us assets from multiple divisions and silos, and how we would need to navigate this complex global company. So out of necessity we developed a formal process that we use (with some refinement) to this day.
TL: That’s a nice segue for me to bring up the work of Jenkins and the academic study of transmedia storytelling. In his blog, Jenkins provides a refined definition of transmedia storytelling as “a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.” A definition like this is often cited in scholarly work on transmedia storytelling; is this definition also productive for development and production or do you have another definition that works in a practical context?
JG: I appreciate that specific definition as an evolution in Jenkins’ thinking. The general definition we use at Starlight Runner, as with everything we do, has a practical component because we’re talking with people who are not academics. We approach transmedia storytelling as a technique or toolset: the process of conveying messages, themes, or storylines to a mass audience through the artful and well-planned use of multiple media platforms. And we add that the method is also distinguished by the required inclusion of an architecture for dialogue.
That’s basically what Jenkins is saying in his definition but we’re speaking to a variety of different kinds of clients and partners who are trying to apply transmedia storytelling in a variety of different ways. So, our definition has been very productive for us and in no way contradicts the academic definition.
TL: The notions of storyworld essence and the primal message are the most crucial components of the development process you promote; in your chapter you describe the story essence as the “unified theory” (p. 210) of a storyworld that constitutes a “core set of narrative tenets [and] a system to which various creative stakeholders can adhere in order to generate consistent and persistent content” (p. 213). And the primal message is “the central theme of the storyworld” (p. 210) as opposed to the theme of an individual movie or novel based in that world. However, despite the importance of these elements, they are also perhaps the most abstract.
In your chapter you also describe how Disney and the various stakeholders involved in producing Pirates content expressed concern about your development documentation being dense and difficult to understand (p. 211). How do you express or workshop the idea of storyworld essence in practical or concrete terms for practitioners? Particularly across a process that involves so many creative and industrial stakeholders.
JG: Well you never stop learning. Frankly, Disney had a point. In our early years, we could get lost in it and those sections of our franchise Mythology work were at times a bit too academic. Some of the best advice we’ve received has been from true visionaries: Jerry Bruckheimer, James Cameron, and Walter Parkes who produced Steven Spielberg’s early films. And they all communicated the same thing: give me your insight, but keep it simple.
TL: So that comes back to the precision and simplicity of the high-concept pitch…
JG: Yes, yes it does. It’s important to be able to keep it brief and to break down complicated concepts and not assume that our reader knows everything. If a reader does know about something they can skim through paragraphs and get to the part that they need. But we do need to keep those paragraphs in there because there are some readers who don’t understand. And breaking down the brand essence is also important to the process of communication—within a large media company, and between that company and the talent producing the stories, and between that company and the audience. This has taken us years to learn how to do efficiently and in ways that are going to be as helpful to everyone involved as possible.
For example, we declared that one of the key archetypes of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles characters is that they were Ordinary Guys. Nickelodeon came back to us and said, ‘What are you talking about? Our Ninja Turtles are superheroes! There’s nothing ordinary about them.’ So, we had to explain to Nickelodeon — without getting lost in Jungian psychology mythology — what a brand archetype is and what that means for the work we’re doing. All twelve archetypes can be superheroes, we told them. The Ordinary Guy is the type of superhero archetype represented by the Ninja Turtles. Spider-Man is another Ordinary Guy archetype. And then they understood. But it’s not an easy process because there’s potential for offense if the abstract concept and its function isn’t properly explained. So, breaking it down and keeping it simple and not getting too far into the weeds is something that we’ve learned to do.
TL: Have you encountered any projects where a failure to adopt and embrace story essence had unfortunate repercussions?
JG: Well for a while we were slightly disappointed with our work on Spider-Man, on which we had worked for years starting with the Andrew Garfield iteration. There were problems with its development, which we thought were fixable and would have allowed that version of the franchise to persist. We felt that version was out of sync with the essence of the Spider-Man storyworld. We really tried hard but were ultimately rejected by the franchise visionaries—the filmmakers, not by Amy Pascal who was the head of Sony at the time. Pascal embraced our documentation and she loved our assessment of the Spider-Man mythology. The traditional Hollywood studio approach to directors as auteurs, however, prevented her from asserting it onto the filmmakers.
But with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) Pascal was unencumbered, and the pure storyworld essence of Spider-Man was infused into that animated feature. In making Into the Spider-Verse, she wasn’t even tethered by the Marvel-Disney machine, and she came out with something that is absolutely beautiful and reflective of the essence of Spider-Man — Ordinary Guy archetype and all — even though Peter Parker wasn’t even the central hero. So, to us that is a quiet victory because it’s proof that when you nail that brand essence and infuse it into the content it’s super successful. Pascal now has a new franchise to work with and that confirms what we’re talking about here.
TL: So, it would appear that extendable transmedia universes are a trend in Hollywood over the last few years. How common has transmedia development been as a storytelling strategy for blockbuster franchises?
JG: The successful intentional development and production of content in the transmedia fashion is actually still rare and some of the studios still don’t know how to do it very well. We’ve seen a few pretty spectacular failures in recent years, with the Hollywood rush to producing shared universe movie franchises, for example. That’s because the creative process is not taken seriously as a kind of discipline. There are a number of factors that go into the creation of a successful shared universe. They’re not simple to do, but the payoff can be fan ardor and billions of dollars. Disney obviously is doing very well, but not always. Around the world we’re seeing more of this kind of transmedia intentionality but it’s still rare to see it done exceptionally.
TL: Obviously the Dark Universe franchise is a quintessential example of a failure of transmedia development?
JG: Oh boy!
Really, it’s disappointing. We were there. We were called in several times to talk about helping with the project and it didn’t work out from a business standpoint. But I got the sense that it was because they had a very specific approach in mind that was really quite two-dimensional in its thinking—they were scriptwriters, not world-designers. So, for example, in the early meetings with the Dark Universe producers we sat down and they asked, ‘So what do you think you can contribute?’ We said, ‘Well of course a cosmology’.
In the Dark Universe you have these creatures—Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, Jekyll & Hyde—many of which were borne out of a kind of religious mythology. This means that they have specific relationships with a kind of deity — the Judeo-Christian God, for example — but also with the devil. So, the first thing we need to do is establish if this worldview is what we’re maintaining in the Dark Universe cosmology. If that’s the case — and you have a global franchise, which must be embraced by people who have all kinds of religions — what is the consideration given to Asian or Islamic beliefs? The Dark Universe producers were very overwhelmed by that kind of thinking and that kind of storyworld design, and said they’ll get to that when they need to. That was a fundamental difference in development approach and within ten minutes we were already at an impasse. If you don’t have a cosmology, how are you tying these beasts and creatures together? What is going to be the philosophical underpinning and messaging of the entire franchise?
TL: So it seems there was a resistance to identifying and activating a storyworld essence, which is the core component of your design process…
JG: That’s it exactly. It’s a rejection of the messaging of an entire storyworld, because of an adherence to auteurist filmic approach. There was a moral to the story of The Mummy (2017), such as it was, but that was entirely related to the Tom Cruise character, not the Mummy creature, and in no way was it applicable to the entire Dark Universe.
This has been the very same impasse and fundamental stumbling block experienced by the DC Extended Universe at Warner Bros. A primary filmmaker in Zack Snyder is selected, and we’re following his unique vision, which was formed in his childhood during the 1980s when comic book superheroes were in the process of being deconstructed. So now we have a bunch of deeply flawed superheroes on the big screen who are being deconstructed in front of a generation that doesn’t even understand their construction. The audience rejects some of them because it’s so dark and doesn’t make any sense.
So, the process of transmedia development involves these considerations, which put the intellectual property—the storyworld—über-alles. The question has to be: who are these mythic characters? What is the best way to communicate their narratives so that the essence that has made them work for the greater part of a century resonates with people who have no basis with what happened to these characters thirty or forty years ago? That’s a very difficult process when 1960s auteurist theory still drives so much of the Hollywood machine.
TL: So, do you think the auteurist model is completely incompatible with the transmedia approach?
JG: Not at all!
TL: For example, I’m thinking about Marvel Studios, which has shown the potential for an auteurist vision to work as a strategy for differentiation across its storyworld, with directors like Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok (2017)) and Ryan Coogler (Black Panther (2018)).
JG: Absolutely! And I would even say that this has made the franchise even better for Marvel.
TL: But of course Marvel built a strong foundation before they could consider incorporating particular auteurist visions into the MCU fold…
JG: Exactly. It doesn’t mean that there is no room for auteurs, but rather that the mythos of the franchise has to come first. If you want a Hercules movie and Hercules is nothing like what he was in Greek mythology — or he’s the inverse of what he was — and doesn’t go through what he needs to go through to become Hercules, then the audience is going to question the story and the premise. And this has been a problem for many of these shared universes, including DC.
TL: How, then, does the notion of a “franchise” operate within this process? The terms “transmedia” and “franchise” are often unproductively conflated in most criticism and commentary. What terminological distinctions, if any, do you make between “transmedia” and “franchise”?
JG: The word transmedia simply means ‘across multiple media,’ likely in an intentional and concerted way. It needs a modifier to mean anything more than that. A franchise can be one of the results of good transmedia storytelling, but you can have a franchise without transmedia. Law & Order (1990–) is a wonderful TV franchise — it is highly successful but has not really featured anything transmedial. And you can have transmedia without it being a franchise. I don’t know if you’d call The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012–2013) a franchise. Or a record album that uses multi-platform tie-ins, like what Trent Rezner produced with Year Zero (2007).
The word franchise presumes a level of success that is quite astronomical. So, the times when franchise is used is when we’re working with something that has been truly established across a number of media platforms or has been a movie series that is considered a franchise unto itself. Those were what franchises were called long before the age of transmedia storytelling. So transmedia and franchise practices are distinct, but can overlap.
We love the idea of the transmedia franchise. That term was something that was deemed desirable, for example, by Microsoft in our early discussions about Halo: we have a successful video game franchise, but we want a global entertainment franchise. So that word was used in our work, but it didn’t have that much to do with our sense of what went into transmedia development and what then went into the foundational work for Halo’s transmedia storytelling. The franchise was what emerged as a result, because 343 Studios pulled off their transmedia storytelling really well.
TL: Following on about the legal aspects of transmedia development: much of the criticism towards franchising derives from the perceived restrictions of licensing around the intellectual property. Do these legal conditions restrict the storytelling process, or is there potential to produce innovative and complex work within these industrial conditions?
JG: Oh, not at all restrictive. Actually, for us at Starlight Runner it has been very enjoyable to work with projects that are not intuitively shared universe properties. We had a fantastic time working on Hot Wheels. Now Hot Wheels cars were super protected by Mattel and they had strong concerns about anything that pushed their perceived limitations of narrative. In the beginning of the conversation when we started talking about the idea of an immense universe—where there were characters, including female characters and so forth—their druthers were to simply have cars racing in a circular track (“do we really need to see the people inside the cars?”).
TL: This sounds awfully familiar to the resistances you described with Dark Universe…
JG: Well yes! But, in the case of Mattel, if you shook the brand perception for that child or that child’s parents and push it too far outside of that brand comfort zone you can lose the customer, because a competitor brand like Matchbox is right there on the next shelf. I think we achieved a fair degree of wonderful storytelling and imagination—albeit for a 3–5-year-old child—by playing to the strengths of the brand and storyworld essence: the things that distinguished those cars from Matchbox, Johnny Lighting, or Corgi Cars.
As we investigated, the list of Hot Wheels’ unique features became surprisingly long: Hot Wheels are more magical, they have those brilliant orange tracks, there’s the huge loop and the fire logo, and they had this brand ethos of speed, power, performance, and attitude. These were interesting elements upon which to building the foundational narrative of a storyworld and because we kept playing into that essence Mattel felt comfortable enough to permit us to tell a grand story.
So, our thinking was, if these toy cars are embodying this core ethos, then why not the characters? Why not the messaging of the greater story world we were developing? The world began to expand in a kind of fractal way, we were able to grow that universe quckly. When the child is watching that animated Hot Wheels video, that transmedia development work is infused into that animation and into the packaging of the toy, and into the video game that the child can play, and it’s all of a piece even though each piece of content embodies a different story.
Each story felt as though it was set in the same universe, and the child truly enjoyed it because it all felt like an extension of their experience of playing with the cars. That really is the answer to everything we do: to fundamentally understand the psychological interplay between the audience and the intellectual property—if it’s established well! (If it’s not, we have a lot of work to do!) Once we get that brand or storyworld essence, then everything else becomes a lot easier and that for us is the crux of transmedia development.
To this day, the approach is not well understood by some of our clients and our students because they think we run into the room and ask, ‘What’s the video game?’ ‘What’s the app?’ ‘What’s the novel about?’ and then groove on what that story is from there. And we don’t do that—at least at first. That’s transmedia production. Transmedia development is what we’re talking about here.
TL: Can you further explain the distinction between transmedia development and transmedia production? Is there a relationship and how does your role relate to these practices?
JG: As developers of intellectual property for transmedia extension, we take intellectual property and make alterations to it and inform it so that it is extensible across multiple media platforms and so that it is no longer a singular beginning, middle, and end storytelling experience. We become experts for that storyworld, capable of seeing the forest for the trees.
As transmedia producers we understand the production processes across many different media and can perceive the content not as a singular storyline but as a narrative universe. The transition from a flat, linear story to a transmedia storyworld takes enormous amounts of concentration, time, effort analysis, and creativity. It requires production know-how across all these different platforms, as well as how the production process operates, so all the required content can roll out in concert within a certain span of time.
Transmedia production also requires an understanding of how corporations work with a number of licensing and merchandising interests. Knowing the licensing process and the role that merchandising plays has been critical to our work. We also need to understand how the global roll-out of an intellectual property works, because we have to make ourselves available to people all over the world who need guidance around all aspects of the property. That’s why the work we do is expensive: we’re not making a beginning, middle, and end; we’re making the gift that keeps on giving. We’re imagining narrative in its epic form. It cannot repeat itself and it cannot simply cycle over and over and over. We have to be careful and think about all those things because franchises can run out of steam. That’s what makes us transmedia storytellers.
TL: This is also a deviation from traditional development practices where we think about development as the screenwriter or a writer’s room. For example, in your chapter you note that the franchise Mythology document that you developed for Disney “differed from the standard Hollywood show bible in terms of how deeply it explored every facet of the world, the entirety of the known history of the Pirates universe, and the story world essence” (p. 211).
JG: That’s right. And what will never happen in a writer’s room is identifying the meta-narrative: the narrative that serves as a two-way dialogue with fans. What is going to be the way that this narrative relates to the real world and makes its audience feel validated and celebrated for participating in the narrative? This is a requirement now.
TL: In your chapter you also explain that the job of the transmedia developer is “to craft multiple streams of narrative so that they each remain true expressions of the core creation (the story world as envisioned by its creator), and yet act in concert, weaving a tapestry of story that surrounds, immerses, and interacts with the audience” (p. 207).
How does the transmedia developer work to balance this complex tapestry with self-contained storytelling that doesn’t overwhelm or alienate audiences who might not engage with all expressions of the world across all platforms?
JG: At this point in time, as mass media storytellers we cannot expect the audience to know everything about a storyworld and simply be able to pick up a new piece of transmedia content that provides no context for its story. That’s like walking into the middle of a long movie, or just flipping open a new book to a random page and starting to read. You’d get lost pretty quickly and to a lot for a lot of us, we’d give up soon after.
Starlight Runner advises our clients that the best transmedia include an array of stories that are each to a degree self-contained and enjoyable by themselves. In each of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies you get a pretty good standalone story, along with any number of transmedia allusions to other aspects of the storyworld that have either been referenced in other movies or exist in the TV shows or comics.
The exception to this, of course, is Avengers: Infinity War (2018). A number of critics said the movie doesn’t make a lick of sense without having seen at least a dozen other MCU movies. For me, that’s fine! Infinity War and the upcoming Avengers: Engame (2019) are rewards for loyal fans of the film series. There are more than enough to make them profitable. That’s an evolution in transmedia storytelling.
TL: And does that self-contained story approach also account for audience members who may not like or feel connected with a particular character, style or expression of a property, and skip that iteration?
JG: Yes, exactly. Not big on Ant-Man? Not a problem. Move on to Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017).
Also, there remains beauty, elegance, and deep satisfaction—as well as value to a storyworld—in telling stories that are self-contained capsules. There was a recent article about Marvel and the fact that, Endgame has a three-hour runtime. People are complaining that there is no reason it should be that long and Marvel should take characters and create side-stories and put those episodes on streaming services. So, you can have those stories and then there’s the mega-story in theaters. I guess that would be cool, but how much sense will the side-stories really make if you’re coming to them cold? Are we ready for that? Maybe. But I’d be a little concerned about stories that would only make sense if you were plugged into something else right off the bat. You don’t want to make a habit out of completely splintering a storyworld to get the job done.
TL: Your work involves an expert understanding of the mechanics of classical storytelling structures—most particularly the traditional Hero’s Journey as per mythologist Joseph Campbell—but more recently your work at Starlight Runner has looked to developing what you call the Collective Journey, which is a storytelling structure more in tune to our contemporary creative and cultural landscape. Can you elaborate on this and explain why you think it’s necessary to reconceptualize storytelling in this way?
JG: Collective Journey acknowledges that the popularized version of the Hero’s Journey, particularly over the course of roughly the last century of mass media storytelling, has become too simplified. It tends to elevate a white male with highly masculine traits into the role of savior, a singular hero who is trained to assert rightness upon wrongness through physical or psychological violence. Once he accomplishes this, he can grab what he needs to save everyone and salvage the community.
And hey, that can be fun — I’m the first to enjoy a good Hero’s Journey. But because we are no longer in a one-sided, broadcast media model, and because people all over the world are beginning to realize their own efficacy and self-determination, they are finding their voices. Those voices want to see themselves in those narratives. They want their perceptions, beliefs, and physicality reflected in popular stories.
This has been troublesome to standard broadcast narrative systems. And it has also had a seismic impact on the way that the planet is operating. I became concerned about this and I started to examine new models of storytelling, which behave in a highly participative fashion — almost like bird murmurations. The walls between storyteller, story, and audience have become so thin, we are all operating in concert, or we will break apart.
Narrative has become porous, whether that’s through advertising narratives, movie narratives or political narratives, and we can now move inside and outside of those narratives. We can comment on them, chastise them, and we normal folk now even have to power to alter them. We need to understand what’s going on because these meta-narratives and communal narratives function entirely differently to our common understanding of the Hero’s Journey.
TL: Can you describe what the Collective Journey involves as a creative process or looks like in its narrative form?
JG: In practice, Collective Journey involves a series of steps that aren’t simply analogous to the stages of the Hero’s Journey, which are, for example, The Call, Refusal of the Call, Crossing the Threshold, Belly of the Beast. The steps in Collective Journey are very different and diverge from that sequence from the very beginning to become an entirely different narrative process.
The heart of Collective Journey is less about a wrong that needs to be righted as it is about a system that is flawed. Every single character, each with their own specific perspective, is part of that system. In a good Collective Journey story, if that flaw goes untreated then problems will arise. The system is in danger of breaking down, and can eventually collapse. People can get hurt along the way. The community can ultimately be endangered. No matter what’s happening inside that system, there needs to be some kind of reckoning, or reconciliation, because the idea that’s going to fix the system is unlikely to be that of an individual. It is most likely to be some kind of juxtaposition of ideas, or even an entirely different concept that is projected by the absorption and combination of various characters’ perceptions within that system.
That’s tricky because it’s not something that we ordinarily see in a Hollywood movie. It is something that I think we’re seeing in television series like Game of Thrones (2011–), Orange is the New Black (2013–), and The Walking Dead (2010–). These are interesting because there isn’t a clear distinction between good and evil, and oppositional forces are absorbing one another and learning from that absorption. Those make for intriguing new stories. They’re stories that hinge on the diversity of their characters — races, beliefs, philosophies, attitudes. After a whole lot of conflict and reconciliation, they are then sometimes able to project a potential solution to the flaw in the system. They can save themselves before Winter, or the zombies, or the prison system wipes them all out.
A wonderful, quintessential example of a self-contained collective journey is Arrival (2016). It sets up a planetary system, with a potentially apocalyptic problem, an alien visitation. The problem was resolved through the juxtapositions of perceptions, mentalities, and diversities of the characters; it wasn’t just the heroine — she wasn’t the savior. Her sacrifice was poignant, but the world could not have been saved without global participation.
TL: You’ve said that Collective Journey in some ways harkens back to the essence of Campbell, before the Hero’s Journey was popularized by George Lucas and Star Wars. While this might be a new approach to Hollywood storytelling, it seems that Collective Journey is actually a return to the dialogic dynamics of older storytelling structures.
JG: Well what’s interesting to note here is that my thinking about Collective Journey actually crystalized a few years ago, while my team was working with the Indigenous community of southwest Australia. I discovered that the narrative systems of these ancient cultures did not operate on a contemporary Hero’s Journey narrative model. Rather, they operated on a collective mentality, which had been damaged by the trauma of colonization. When we peeled away that trauma to find what was underneath, the narrative essence of the Indigenous Aborigines and Torres Strait Islander mentality was rooted in a mythology that was entirely unfamiliar to us and operated in a nonlinear, highly networked, pan-gendered, fully participative, and highly visual capacity.
This was shocking but wonderful to me. It allowed us to come up with multiple solutions in our work with them that yielded positive results almost immediately. The gift I received in return was an ability to articulate Collective Journey — because pervasive communication across the whole world had somehow become an amplification of this ancient narrative model.
TL: I’d like to give final word to a specific example of a franchise I know you identify as making a transition from an explicitly Hero’s Journey narrative structure to a Collective Journey modality—that is, Star Wars and specifically The Last Jedi (2017). You’ve written about how this transition has signified a moment of self-disruption in the storytelling system of the series. I also have written critical reflections on The Last Jedi, with a similar perspective. Do you think The Last Jedi is a good example of Collective Journey storytelling and do you expect to see the franchise continue in this direction?
JG: Well, I’m on pins and needles with Star Wars because I feel Lucasfilm and Disney didn’t take our hand as an audience and gently move us into the Collective Journey approach. Some feel they rammed it down our throats—which, by the way, I think is kind of awesome from a punk filmmaking perspective. Lucasfilm truly granted the director Rian Johnson enormous leeway.
But the fandom didn’t respond kindly. Starlight Runner didn’t work on The Last Jedi, but when we advise our clients we insist on building an architecture for dialogue with the fandom. We would have reminded everyone involved with Disney—from the actors all the way up to Kathleen Kennedy—that it would probably be best to expect conflict and behave like enlightened Jedi in response to the belligerent reaction from the certain factions within the fan community.
But they didn’t—rather, they behaved defensively, often fighting fire with fire. Attacking your customers, the equivalent of calling them “deplorables,” rarely works. Instead Disney Lucasfilm’s disdain poured fuel on the fire, sparking an even stronger backlash.
While the studio perceived the numbers of that backlash to be tiny, it metastasized, and you don’t want that. It can result in damage to your licensing and merchandising program, because fewer people are buying your toys. It can result in lower box office on your next film. It can sew seeds of doubt in your executives. So, although they created a Collective Journey work in The Last Jedi, they weren’t behaving in a Collective Journey fashion around it. Instead they played into fear and asserted their right upon the fans’ wrong. As Yoda said, fear leads to anger, hate, and suffering.
But I do have a lot of optimism for Star Wars. It’s the single most successful transmedia property in history. It’s the first to be fully redeveloped to generate a deep, canonical transmedia storyworld. The comics, novels, and animation have been quite satisfying and are certainly infused with the essence of the Star Wars brand. The Last Jedi was a bumpy transition, but I believe the results will be a richer, more fascinating, more artful and complex fantasy universe—one that reflects, per Collective Journey storytelling, a diversity of valid perspectives.
TL: Well I think a new hope for Star Wars is a great sentiment with which to end our conversation. Thank you again for your generosity in time and insight, Jeff.