Transmedia case study-Guidestones

By Sheri Candler

In the continuation of our look at recent cross platform/transmedia projects, this case study will be particularly relevant to those working with low budgets and ambitious plans. Writer/director Jay Ferguson’s initial inspiration for Guidestones came from his late father’s fascination with serialized shorts. Growing up in the thirties and forties, Ferguson’s father went to the cinema and was ‘hooked’ on serialized shorts where bad guys tie distressed maidens to the train tracks and such. Ferguson thought that the internet would be an ideal place to try to recreate that experience for this century.

Again, thanks to Storycode.org for providing the video presentation (found at the bottom of this post) from which these notes were culled.

Jay Ferguson, writer/director, 3 o’clock TV

Synopsis

Two journalism students, investigating an unsolved murder, uncover a global conspiracy centered around the mystery of The Georgia GUIDESTONES, an enigmatic monument nestled in a farmer’s field in rural Georgia and inscribed with directions for rebuilding civilization after the apocalypse. The story is based on a real monument and on the real account of a Toronto woman’s experiences.

GUIDESTONES uses elements of transmedia and ARG storytelling to take viewers on a thrilling chase that crosses two continents and three countries in search of the truth. The project uses a hybrid mix of traditional narrative and formal and non-formal documentary styles.  Shot vérité style in Canada, the USA and India, the series moves seamlessly between the real world and the fictional account of how a young woman named Sandy stumbled upon a murder mystery.

Three minute episodes, 50 in total so far, with audience participation elements.

Intent:

Ferguson wanted to tell stories by professional storytellers that would guide the audience  an online and offline experience.  He observed that, though audiences wanted to participate in the story somehow, no one wants to pay for online content.  Also, how to keep audiences coming back? Too many webseries start out with the first few episodes being ok then die with audience numbers. Ferguson and his team have endeavored to keep up a fast paced, engaging story that pushes the audience to continue the journey.

Funding:

A mix of self funded, Canadian Independent Production Fund, some matching grants from the Ontario Media Development Council , sponsorship from Samsung, Carbon Clothing, Major League Baseball/Toronto Bluejays, Pizza Pizza (Canadian Domino’s).  The online platforms (Hulu, Youtube) did not put in any money. The total budget is around $300,000 CAD. Estimate to reproduce at market value would be $1 million.

Revenue streams:

Product integration, merchandise/music/ringtones, rev share from Hulu. Recently launched on iTunes and considering a DVD to sell. 

Audience demographic:

While there were certain demographics in mind, the production recognized that different audiences will want to interact with the series, so  different ways to view the project were developed. In the Push version, one can sign up for the show and have the episodes delivered via  e-mail to experience in ‘real time’ as the characters are exploring the mystery. The Linear version is for those who want to be more passive and treat it like a traditional serialized show.

Background of the team:

Jay Ferguson is an award-winning filmmaker who has contributed as a writer, director, producer and cinematographer to over 15 feature films. His work with institutions such as The National Film Board of Canada has garnered him several awards, including the top cinematography award at the Atlantic Film Festival (Animals, 2005) and from the Canadian Society of Cinematographers (Inside Time, 2008). He was nominated for a Gemini Award in 2005.

Jonas Diamond is the CEO of iThentic, joining the team in the fall of 2008. Jonas is producer of the award-winning animated series Odd Job Jack (52×30). The series received a Gemini, CFTPA Indie, Banff Rockie and Canada New Media Award for Best Cross Platform Project. Additional Accolades for Odd Job Jack include a nomination for Best Interactive Program (2006) and Best Animated Show (2005) at the Banff Rockie Awards, second prize for Best Interactive Design (2006) at Vidfest, Best Convergent Project by the Banff Institute as well as multiple Gemini and Canadian Comedy Award nominations. Jonasʼ producer credits includes Odd Job Jack, Hotbox and Bigfoot for The Comedy Network / CTV, Pillars of Freedom for TVO, Turbo Dogs for CBC / NBC, The Dating Guy, skatoony, Sons of Butcher and the upcoming Geofreakz MORPG for Teletoon, The World of Bruce McCall, and the interactive storyteller Legends of Me as well as many other projects for various platforms.

Actress Supinder Wraich plays Sandy in GUIDESTONES

Development phase:

It took 3 years from conception to launch.

Thinking through each platform:

50 webisodes were shot and edited for use as video links, the main storyline.

50 different websites were needed to house the clues for each webisode.

Content was hidden online for viewers to research the clues given during the webisodes.

One of the really hard things was creating 50 story arcs. Each episode is on average 3 minutes long and it is difficult to find an interesting opening, build the story and then a climax to lead into the next episode in such a short space of time. For feature films, you may only have to do one or two of those, but 50 is a lot. The interactivity was very difficult to make happen…very time consuming.

Production workflow:

The production used a very small crew and shot with a Canon 7d digital SLR in order to have flexibility and adaptability when on location. It allowed them to get into places that you regularly would not be allowed to shoot. In India, there were some places that do not regularly allow filming, but they were able to shoot some scenes in a few minutes and not bother anybody.

8 months in production, with 8-10 hour days

Location shooting: 3-4 weeks Toronto, 1 week in Georgia, 1 week in India

Post production meant bringing together all the elements of web and film. Before locking an episode, online properties needed to be created and sites linked to other sites so that the minute it was live, everything was in place for the viewer to experience.

Digital team included:

A graphic designer

Website builder

1 person to buy and manage urls

people to develop online presences on Linkedin and MySpace

2 editors full time

2-3 editors part time

a media manager

effects supervisor

effects editor

Brad Sears who designed the Push system and email system.

Deployment strategy

They launched the “push” system in February 2012. The viewers sign up via email address on their website to follow the episodes. Links are emailed to them with the episodes.  Emails are timed to coincide with the happenings of the characters (if something happens at 9am, the email is sent at 9am). It takes the viewer a month to experience the whole thing and it is evergreen which means anyone can start it whenever they like. There is no “starting” and “ending” period.

After launch, the team received a lot of feedback from viewers. High schoolers in particular were impressed that they could Google things they had seen in the show, and something was actually there online.  Also found that high schoolers do NOT use email like adults do. They communicate more via Facebook. Production team then modified the “push” system to run on Facebook.

For older people, they complained of too much email (50 episodes plus supplemental info). Some complained not enough episodes being released fast enough.  They modified their release pattern/experience. Now viewers can choose to experience via Facebook, email or in a linear version where they just watch the episodes on their own time instead of following along with the characters.  The linear version is on Hulu and on iTunes.

Building the Audience

Ferguson concedes that not enough money has been spent on publicity. Largely marketing has been a mix of public speaking, interviews in publications on the process, word of mouth by the viewers with a tshirt promotion for those who bring in 5 viewers. Brand sponsors are doing some of the promotion, particularly Pizza Pizza who play a 30 second ad for Guidestones in each of their stores across Canada. They are hoping that being on Hulu will help garner a larger audience for the project due to its large amount of traffic.  Both Pizza Pizza and Samsung have done prize promotions on their Facebook pages for the show.

Achievements

-The clue finding is actually going very well. People really love it and get excited looking for the content. The first season really taught lessons in how to create on-line interactivity…now the team wants to take it further and have many ideas on how to get even more interactive.

-Through connections gain on other projects, the team was able to broker an agreement with Hulu to host the series and have an advertising revenue share.

-The series is now selling on iTunes in the TV show section. The whole season download  is priced at $9.99 or one can buy them per episode for $1.99.

-The acting is critical to the storytelling and the believability of any story. Supinder Wraich (Sandy) and Dan Fox (Trevor) have a real honesty that is hard to find in actors. Both can act really well directly to camera because they are able to empathize with the characters and that brings this very genuine quality that audiences respond to, it is very hard to fake that emotion without the audience feeling it. Ferguson’s tip in casting is that when watching the actor closely, don’t worry too much about the words or the actor’s look necessarily, look into the eyes, see if there is a true belief in there. If they believe it, so will the audience.

Challenges

-To the conventional viewer, the non-totally immersed viewer, the Push system adds up if they are not able to get to the emails often enough and that became frustrating for some people who didn’t realize there was a more linear way to watch.

-The team was surprised that the South Asian community has not taken to the series yet as the “Sandy” character is a great character for the South Asian community. The series still struggles to get any real traction there.

-Promoting the show for a bigger audience. Most of the limited funds had to go into production. This is the classic conundrum for lower budget productions…all your money goes into making the thing and none into promoting it.[editor's note: A word to the wise, budget in significant money for a publicist (traditional and one geared toward reaching fans directly), online advertising, video seeding, promotions, Facebook promoted posts, etc].

- Post-production has been about a year long with four working on it full-time and six or seven people working on it part-time, unlike editing a 120 minutes of content  which can be done in a few months.  Every single step of the way requires so many elements – a ringtone,  a song, a site to house that audio, a site to house a different type of clue that has to be searchable only in a certain manner… all these things are endless and each has to be built because there is no preexisting system.

-The only way they’ve been able to do this on a low budget is that the studio where they work [for day job projects] has audio people, graphic designers, visual effects artists, people who can build apps, all in-house. While they set out with a specific road map and  60 to 65% of that might have remained the same, about 40% has definitely had to change in post-production because they found certain approaches don’t work and when one things is changed, all the elements have to be adjusted since everything is built together. Everyone on the team understands that they’re trying to prove a point with this, build a new model, but it is really hard to do unless you have infrastructure behind you. At one point, Ferguson thought if grant money and sponsorship money didn’t come in, he would still try to do this on his own, but he now concedes this was a ridiculous notion! “It would have taken me 15 years to do and I wouldn’t even have the skills to do most of it.”

A huge thanks to Jay Ferguson for sharing his details for the benefit of all who are interested in these new forms of storytelling. Below, please find his presentation

 

Other sources used in this post:

http://www.ithentic.com/p/2012/01/17/commentary-jay-ferguson-guidestones-webseries-tips/

http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/xedqq/iama_creator_of_a_web_series_alternate_reality/

http://wildeffect.com/jayferguson/