Caitlin Burns – Group 1

By in Discussion on October 26, 2014

Nwamaka Hunter
Jon Schober
Adrian Wagner
Nan Zhang


Transmedia producer Caitlin Burns has contributed greatly to the world of storytelling, as she has worked on numerous multi-platform stories such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Disney’s Tron Legacy. Undoubtedly, Burns illustrates an understanding of creating and developing successful stories across media platforms, and when she spoke for the Understanding Media Studies Lecture Series, she shared her insights on the matter.

In her discussion, Burns explored how a story can be stewarded across platforms, declaring, “stories are bigger than any one film, game, or book.” The idea behind transmedia storytelling is to create and communicate a story over a variety of media platforms. In this manner, we create spaces in which one story can reach a broad and diverse audience. Burns posits that when we utilize these platforms we give the audience a greater chance to explore the narrative. In order to execute this effectively, strategy or marketing plays a major role in creating interactive elements that appeal to multiple demographics. This strategic framing creates a unified voice for each platform, and can allow for a more fluid and holistic experience for the audience.

In this vein, transmedia storytelling fosters a sense of engagement, as it offers the viewer a chance to observe and participate in the processes of the narrative. This can be seen in multimedia franchises such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which utilizes film, video games, comic books, and television. Each medium serves to provide for greater understanding and connection with the narrative, as they help to introduce potential plots lines and provide background stories. These modes of engagement encourage the viewer to develop connections and become invested with the story. That’s not to say that traditional methods used to tell stories are lost or substituted, but rather we employ other techniques to build and connect a single story across platforms.

Naturally, we’ve developed a thirst for diversity of presentation in the media landscape, but with this comes advantages and disadvantages. While transmedia’s primary goal is to engage and connect more people with a product and its content, the fact is that there are demographics and populations that are marginalized. Sometimes a model of transmedia storytelling and its corresponding, immersive experiences just aren’t viable. For example, not all US-based movie-goers have access to a computer or Internet, and such access is even more restricted in other developing parts of the world. Audiences who do not use cutting-edge technologies might not care about the interactive feature of the media product they are consuming; the quality of the old-fashioned story is of greater importance. A movie still has to present an engaging story, regardless of what transmedia “paratexts” are swirling around it.

Story, by definition, is a very loose term that is applicable to a wide variety of narratives. It is relayed to an audience, from a point of view, over the course of time with a beginning, middle and end. Stories can take on myriad forms. For example, a play is a basic form of media in which text is used as a foundation to which we can add other elements to enhance the narrative, including actors, lights and sets. The play is a noteworthy form because of its relative simplicity as compared to other transmedia applications. The director’s goal, and the goal of everyone involved in the play, is to stay as true to the story as possible. However, in transmedia there are many more factors that come into play, and it can easily go spinning into dangerous directions when the element of profit and business is involved.

Nevertheless, the aspect of business in storytelling is nothing new, as Burns cites marketing and promotion as an integral part to a successful story. Traditional channels such as print magazines, newspapers and television, all consist of advertising and strategic marketing plans that are designed to increase awareness of products. It’s just a fact of the media landscape that creative products will have this financial foundation. If you are creating a world with the intent of reaching as broad and diverse an audience as possible, there will be money and marketing at hand. Art should be consumed by as many people as possible, and in as many ways as possible, and the flow of money into this consumption is vital to ensure maximum exposure. Turning a profit — especially in our modern, fluid economy — is a surefire way to let people know that a property is successful, has clout, and will be viable for years to come. You can still be creative within these boundaries.

For instance, many would agree that Pixar has made some of the most acclaimed animated movies over the past two decades, many of which pushed creativity to a new, refreshing level (see: Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Up). But Pixar is able to create such touching and wide-reaching films because of the gigantic cash flow behind the company who owns it: Walt Disney. Pixar and its parent have established a winning formula of marketing and storytelling that sees large returns. Its films have regularly brought in over $500 million totals in box office alone — and that’s excluding merchandise, distribution and other offshoots within the transmedia sphere.

Caitlin Burns used the example of a random billboard with advertising on it in the background of a Breaking Bad scene. That billboard — which featured a character on the show — (a) helped to substantiate that character’s storyline, (b) was erected as an actual billboard in Arizona, (c) directed viewers to an actual, corresponding website, and (d) allowed viewers to call an actual, real-life phone number. Two things come out of this: a genuine curiosity to explore from those who have no idea what the billboard may mean, as well as a truly sublime moment for those who are in tune with Breaking Bad and get the inside joke right away. Conversation is sparked, money is gained, a brand is extended and solidified, and all parties win without betraying the original idea.

Ultimately, Burns sparked a great deal of debate when it comes to the world of transmedia storytelling. Her works demonstrate clearly that storytelling across multiple platforms can allow for more cohesive, rewarding, and even profitable experiences. In effect, we are surrounded by an unprecedented amount of mediums which allow us to create stories in new innovative ways. These modes of communication allow us to tell stories that better connect ideas and engage audiences, but how we tell them impacts how they are received. For this reason, remaining connected to the vision of the story’s narrative is vital to communicating a successful product. As we continue to decipher and unpack how this will serve to shape and change the storytelling world, our continued interrogation of these concepts will provide us with the tools to better understand and navigate the media landscape.

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