A version of this article appeared in Fast Company magazine in 2008.
On a starry night in Los Angeles, there’s no shortage of conversation inside a dimly lit Sunset Boulevard restaurant called Eat. On Sunset. Just a few hours ago, news leaked of a deal to end the Writers Guild of America strike that shut down much of the film and TV business for three months. Everyone in Hollywood, it seems, is begging to know what the future holds. And in a windowless private room behind the bar, a group of scruffy dudes drinking vodka and munching on calamari have some answers.
Tim Kring, the lanky, goateed guy at the head of the table, created Heroes, NBC’s hit television show about superpowered people. To his right, in a black hoodie and narrow black-framed glasses is Damon Lindelof, cocreator of Lost, ABC’s island-fantasy juggernaut, as well as producer of next year’s eagerly anticipated Star Trek movie, directed by J.J. Abrams. Across the way is Lindelof’s buddy Jesse Alexander, co-executive producer of Heroes (formerly of Lost and the pioneering she-geek hit Alias). Nearby is Rob Letterman, the self-described nerdy director of DreamWorks’ next mega-franchise movie, Monsters vs. Aliens. He’s chatting up video-game creator Matt Wolf, who’s developing a project with Alexander.
“In five years,” Kring is saying, “the idea of broadcast will be gone.”
“Right,” says Lindelof. “Instead of watching Heroes on NBC, you’ll go to nbc.com and download the show to your device, and the show will be deleted as soon as you finish watching it — unless you pay $1.99; then you get audio commentary. You enhance it. It’s like building your Transformer and putting little rocket ships on the side.”
These guys are part of a closely intertwined, wildly influential unofficial 21st-century rat pack — call them Hollywood’s Geek Elite. Just as Star Wars‘ George Lucas and Star Trek’s Gene Roddenberry influenced them, they’re making iconic franchises for the YouTube generation. Separately and together, they have forged a new golden age of science fiction and fantasy, and they’re reinventing the entertainment economy in the process. Why them? Because their inherently dweeby shows are the most extensible brands in the industry, playing out seamlessly across platforms from TV to video games, Web sites to comics.
In the analog era, such efforts might have fallen under the soulless rubric of “cross-promotion,” but today they have evolved and mashed up into a new buzzword: “transmedia.” The difference is that cross-promotion has nothing to do with developing or expanding an established narrative. A Happy Days lunch box, in other words, does nothing to advance the story of Fonzie’s personal journey.
While such merchandising campaigns still exist, transmedia offers one big plot twist: X-ray vision. Today’s audience, steeped in media and marketing, sees through crass ploys to cash in. So the Geek Elite are taking a different approach. Rather than just shill their products in various media, they are building on new and emerging platforms to expand their mythological worlds. Viewers watch an episode of Heroes, then follow one character’s adventure in a graphic novel. They tune in to Lost, then explore the island’s twisted history in an online game. It is this “transmedia storytelling,” as Alexander puts it, that ultimately lures the audience into buying more stuff — today, DVDs; tomorrow, who knows what.
“We are literally making up the parameters of the intellectual property that will take the networks into the next generation,” Kring says. The others nod in agreement. “We’re the beta-testing ground. It’s a Wild West: There are no rules. Just take something that sounds cool and go try it.”
Kring and his pals aren’t the first to boldly go where Hollywood has not gone before. As they’re quick to point out, the big bang happened a long, long time ago, with two of the most extensible brands ever, Star Wars and Star Trek. To understand how Hollywood’s heavy hitters are harnessing the power of transmedia for a new generation, you have to teleport to the planets that spawned them. Star Wars and Star Trek taught them the most valuable business lesson of all: what it is to be a fan, and, more important, what fans want.
This is the topic of the night when a few others in the Geek Elite gather at the hillside Beverly Hills home of Naren Shankar, executive producer of CBS’s bulletproof forensic franchise CSI (full disclosure: Shankar is developing a movie based on a book by the author of this article). The long-haired bearded guy pouring straight bourbon is Ron Moore, creator of the new Battlestar Galactica, the SciFi Channel’s acclaimed reimagining of the classic series. The guy eating pizza on the couch is Javier Grillo-Marxauch, a veteran producer of Lost and NBC’s paranormal series Medium, who’s now having his own fantasy graphic novel, Middleman, turned into a series on ABC Family.
Long before running some of the hottest shows on television, these guys and their peers were just wee-geeks growing up obsessed with archetypal battles of good versus evil and mind-bending special effects. Star Wars epitomized how mainstream such fantasy could be. Star Trek, considerably more low-budget and hammy, with its campy Klingon villains and furry Tribbles, was for the die-hard sci-fi crowd. But both franchises deeply vested legions of powerless kids in their mythological worlds.
The problem was, as Moore and his cohorts tell it, in the pre-Web days of the 1970s and 1980s, fans didn’t have an accessible way to reach out to one another. And so they cheered mostly in solitude. “I was obsessed and thought Star Trek was just my show,” Moore says. Only when he wandered into a drugstore in his hometown of Chowchilla, California, and happened on a fanzine called “Starlog” did he learn that he wasn’t alone. “It was a revelatory moment when I realized there were other people who watched this show,” he says. “It was like a secret club.”
Around the country, members of this club poured their passions — and piggy banks — into their fandom. They road-tripped to conventions. And they loaded up on memorabilia — lots of it. “I bought all this crap,” confesses Shankar.
Grillo-Marxauch is nodding. “There were bumper stickers that said I Grok Spock,” he says.
“Spock ears,” says Shankar.
“Blueprints for the ship,” says Moore.
Fans didn’t just build collections; they wanted to participate in a virtual world and expand it. “It was a universe you wanted to play in,” Moore says, “so people bought anything they could get their hands on.”
As these guys know well, fandom saves shows. Fans wrote letter campaigns to save recent faves such as Jericho and Firefly. (Jericho was saved; Firefly wasn’t but went on to sell more than 200,000 DVDs in six months.) When Star Trek was almost canceled after its second season in 1968, a massive letter-writing campaign resurrected it for one more round. And after the show went off the air, fans kept the characters alive by creating stories of their own, which they would publish in zines and swap at conventions. “They had nowhere to go, and they wanted the show to go on,” Moore says.
After becoming friends at Cornell University, where Moore received a library award for having the biggest collection of Star Trek books, Moore and Shankar came full circle as writers on the early 1990s Star Trek series The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, ushering the former fanboys into the new class of Hollywood writers and producers. Moore, Shankar, and this emerging crop of writers began communicating with fans online, figuring that was exactly the kind of dialogue they had wanted with the Star Trek and Star Wars creators back in the day. Not only was it cool, it was a way to essentially build the value of their intellectual property. “If you can actually find people who like your stuff,” Moore says, “there are probably enough people who can make it a going concern for you — if you can find them, if you can monetize them.”
And there is one member of the Geek Elite — their Jedi master — whom they all point to as their inspiration. “That’s the genius of Joss Whedon,” Grillo-Marxauch says.
It’s a Smurf-blue morning as Joss Whedon, a gawky 43-year-old with short, wavy brown hair and a gray T-shirt, jogs up to his office in Santa Monica. Whedon works in a residential neighborhood, in a Spanish-style bungalow neatly decorated with gothic figurines and framed anime art. “I’m a huge fan of the Final Fantasy film,” he says as he heats up a pot of breakfast tea after his run. As his peers attest, Whedon defined a new generation of nerd worship with his iconic late-1990s series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a cheeky pop-culture powerhouse about a blond teenage demon killer. Then he continued his reign with a Buffy spin-off, Angel, and later Firefly. Today, he’s working on his next series, Dollhouse, which follows a young woman who can be imprinted with different identities to accomplish a variety of missions.
While not always runaway hits on the air, Whedon’s shows are renowned by his peers for spawning some of the most thriving aftermarket around. Whedon sheepishly admits his shows “do crazy” on DVD, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Whedon’s achievement, say his fellow geeks, is not just creating an isolated TV show but also building a universe that has earned its own nickname, the Whedonverse. As Lindelof puts it, “The Whedonverse was, like, if you have a core fandom, how do you get that core fandom to buy a lot of shit?” And perhaps more important, how do you sell them all that stuff with integrity, so you don’t end up burning your biggest fans?
For Whedon, it all comes back to his own years growing up as a fanboy in Manhattan. “I don’t understand creators who aren’t fans,” he says. “My experience as a fan was, things that I loved, I loved very hard — Marvel Comics, science fiction, Dickens, Shakespeare, Sondheim. The things I was a geek about, I was a serious geek about.”
When Buffy started to take off, in 1997, Whedon went to where the nerds were: the Internet. Trekkies and other hard-core sci-fi and fantasy fans were among the earliest settlers on the Net, in newsgroup discussions, early bulletin-board systems, and online games. Whedon’s tales of mythological empowerment tapped a new wave of Webby misfits. “They were starting to build clubs, and I was able to get feedback,” says Whedon, who maintains an active presence on fan sites devoted to him, such as Whedonesque.com. “I could do a show and go online and see what people thought of it right away,” he says. “That’s a crazy feeling.”
“Joss would email fans of the show, have a Web site where they’d gather, have parties where he’d meet with them,” says Alexander. And the more involved the fans got, the more they fed the aftermarket. “I’ve always believed that the only thing that’s important is back end,” Whedon says. “I don’t care what they pay me as long as there’s back-end money, because back-end money is success. Back-end money means people liked it. If someone pays you a huge amount up front, all you get is pressure.” But he is quick to add a caveat: “If I don’t have a purpose for repurposing — if there’s not a reason to tell a story that way — then I avoid it.”
Whedon is now experimenting with properties that originate online as short video series or Web serials. Part of the incentive is the creative freedom and low production costs. At the moment, he is creating a three-part, 30-minute serial about a hapless villain, called “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” which he plans to make available for free online. If that show gets picked up in another medium, Whedon will own a greater stake than if the show originated on network television.
The widest-ranging current example of transmedia success is Heroes. Gaps in story lines on the TV show get filled by products in ancillary markets. So in season one, the character Hiro goes back in time and falls in love with a waitress named Charlie; while viewers don’t see much of that affair on TV, the creators of the show decided to release an entire novel that revolves around it.
There’s more. Every week, Heroes puts up a five-to-seven-page online comic — complete with sponsorship by The Wide, Wide World of Heroes“).— that continues threads from that week’s episode. Each comic averages about 1 million readers. DC Comics ended up buying the series and then publishing it in print form. It was a best-selling graphic novel upon its release in November 2007 and is already in its second printing. A different example: When was looking to market a new line of surveillance cameras, they teamed up with Heroes to create a Web site for the fictional company Primatech Paper; users could explore the firm’s headquarters using a Cisco-branded interface that mimicked the new camera technology. Sprint sponsored a “Create Your Hero” contest designed for cell phones; players could choose the attributes of their new character, then submit it for possible inclusion in a future episode on the Web. There are weekly online and mobile trivia games (also sponsored by ), blogs written by the characters, wikis about concepts explained in books referenced on the show. The list goes on (see “
Though the specific financials of the sponsorship deals and online traffic are not being made public, DVDs of the first season of Heroes sold more than 1.7 million copies (for roughly $70 million) and became NBC’s best-selling DVD of 2007 — and the second-best TV-show DVD overall, behind Planet Earth. James L. McQuivey, principal analyst of television and media technologies for Forrester Research, puts the value of Heroes‘ online-advertising revenue at $50 million. But the biggest sign of bottom-line success, Alexander says, is simple: “NBC wants us to do more.” In fact, Heroes now is in the unique position of having two full-time producers devoted to transmedia efforts. It’s a massive undertaking, relying on contributions from more than 30 writers. Heroes’ executive producers maintain quality control, poring over every new detail in search of inconsistencies, which serious fans would spot in an instant. “It’s critical, because if you play in this space, you’re opening yourself up to the risk of catastrophe from one small mistake,” Alexander says.
Lost‘s backstory is also being filled in across platforms. An online alternate-reality game called “The Lost Experience,” for example, sent surfers on an online scavenger hunt that ultimately revealed the story behind the show’s enigmatic Dharma Initiative. But Lost also illuminates the risk of going overboard: The show’s TV ratings dipped an average of 21% in its third season, due partly, according to some critics, to the number of plotlines becoming so dizzying that only the most rabid transmedia fans could follow them all. Still, says Michael Gartenberg, an analyst for Jupiter Research, TV shows are no longer once-a-week events. They’re “one big circle.”
Dessert and coffee arrive at the Sunset Boulevard restaurant, and the Geek Elite’s conversation turns to a suddenly urgent matter: how to score a copy of “The Star Wars Holiday Special” of 1978. “I tell you what,” Lindelof says, “I challenge everyone to go home tonight and try to find the Boba Fett cartoon.”
“When we go home?” says Alexander, and whips out his iPhone. “It’s 2008, man!” With a few pecks, he boots up the Boba Fett clip on YouTube as the guys gather around to watch.
“Don’t fight the Internet, man,” Wolf says. “It will beat you every time.”
“You cannot fight it,” Alexander says.
“Wow,” says Lindelof. “There’s Chewie!”
While many dismiss the 1978 holiday special as an insufferably cheesy variety show — featuring the movie’s cast along with special guests Bea Arthur and Jefferson Starship — these guys say it also holds the key to the business model of tomorrow. “The special was, like, the worst thing ever,” says Lindelof, as he dips a doughnut into a dish of melted chocolate, “but there was this Boba Fett cartoon. He wasn’t a character in Star Wars. He was just an action figure, and it was like, ‘Send in a proof-of-purchase, and you get this Boba Fett.’ And we were like, ‘Who the fuck is Boba Fett?’ ”
For kids who obsessed over every bit of the Star Wars universe, this mysterious character was electrifying. They had to buy it. “It was the coolest toy to have,” Letterman recalls. Two years later, when Boba Fett walked onto the screen of The Empire Strikes Back, the action-figure buyers got the ultimate payoff: So this is who Boba Fett was all along.
Alexander cited the Boba Fett paradigm when he was invited to speak recently at the transmedia mother ship, George Lucas’s company LucasArts. “If you’re a producer now and you’re a savvy person who views your show as a product, you’re as much a brand manager as you are running the show,” says Grillo-Marxauch. “If you ask Tim Kring, he’ll say, ‘That’s how I run Heroes.’ How your brand is exploited is now a reflection of the creator’s relationship with technology.” The bigger the geek, in other words, the wider the reach. And the higher the potential revenues.
As network television migrates increasingly to the Internet, transmedia interaction is likely to grow only more important. “You’ll see more shows trying to capture this same viewing experience,” says Forrester’s McQuivey. “It’ll be interesting to see if every new season, there will be two new Lost and Heroes replacements.”
The Geek Elite are well aware that they’re creating a future that may ultimately pass them by. “There’s someone out there who will figure out how to relate the Internet and narrative beyond my old-fashioned notions,” Whedon says. “But I think whoever cracks that is not going to be someone who’s made it huge in television. It’s going to be some guy we just don’t know about yet.”
But odds are, he’ll be a fan of theirs.
David Kushner is a freelance writer who also contributes to Rolling Stone and Wired. This is his first Fast Company feature.