Recently, Latitude launched an innovation study on The Future of Storytelling. Why? So we can uncover the questions, challenges, and aspirations of tomorrow’s storytellers and identify how they can better align with audience’s changing expectations. Every week for the next several weeks, Latitude will share its conversation with a different influential individual. We’ll follow the series with a summary of best practices and insights for content creators and businesses from Latitude’s former SVP, Neela Sakaria.
This week’s spotlight on Dave Schlafman:
Dave Schlafman is a two-time Emmy-nominated producer, as well as an award-winning animation director, and children’s book illustrator. He has worked in children’s media for clients such as Penguin Publishing, Hasbro Toys, Parker Brothers, UNICEF, PBS Kids, Scholastic, as well as American Greetings. In 2009, Dave founded CloudKid, a transmedia studio dedicated to creating character-driven interactive content for families. CloudKid developed and produces PBS Kids’ first web-only series, Fizzy’s Lunch Lab.
Thanks for speaking with us today, Dave. As the founder of CloudKid, I’m interested to know a little bit about your experience creating content on different mediums. What do you think are the opportunities inherent in that?
I went to art school and worked for Hasbro Toys after college, then ended up going on to work for a Scholastic-owned Animation Studio in Boston. While working in TV production, I always thought that there must be a better way to tell stories than just sitting in front of a television for 11, 22, or 42 minutes at a time. So, in 2007, I left the studio and started creating a Web series just for fun. They were these really short clips and didn’t go too far, but they got me thinking about the medium and that not many people were creating episodic content specifically for online.
That’s the opportunity; people are still primarily creating content for television—character-driven content which, in the children’s media world, is the main goal for most producers. But kids interactive media is still wide open for great characters and stories. Yes, online there’s MMOGs such as Club Penguin, but there are few examples where characters really, really drive the story and the experience. I still think that’s a need which isn’t being met by content providers and that’s—when you throw in the whole interactive side of things—that’s what gets us really excited.
Absolutely. From Latitude’s own research with kids, we know that they have a strong desire to be active participants in—and, often, creators—of their own content experiences, not just passive recipients; they crave that element of interactivity you mentioned. So, why do you think there’s some reluctance to pursue that path? What do you see as the challenges?
People still don’t know how to monetize it. With a couple exceptions, there’s very few networks doing original online content, and we think it’s such a missed opportunity because there’s so many new and great ways of telling stories. Today, it’s possible to have much richer character experiences where the kids can interact with plot elements and they can be brought into the environment a little bit more.
We traditionally call these experiences “games” but they can be more than that: when these experiences are directly tied in with episodes, you’re getting to interact with the characters and their world—but the networks aren’t there yet. In some cases, they don’t want to monetize the Web component because it’s competing with their brands that are on TV—and that advertising revenue, of course.
What do you think needs to happen in terms of communicating the value of these “transmedia” experiences in order to convince networks that creating these experiences—and discovering how to monetize them—is a worthwhile pursuit?
First, I think that aligning themselves with studios and partners that have the capability to do it all would help. That’s really key because things get lost when the process is disjointed: when one company is doing some of the content and the other one’s doing the interactive experience.
The second thing is that not every children’s property needs to be a multi-million dollar commitment; it’s a marathon, not a sprint. The Internet makes it possible to roll out content strategically over a long period of time. For example, with Fizzy’s Lunch Lab, we release one short every week for 50 weeks—but the shorts aren’t 11 minutes long; they’re 2-5 minutes long, and we can be much more creative on the programming side about how the schedule works. We’ve done a lot of experimenting, and we’re finding that 80% of our traffic comes back. The reason why is we’re constantly rolling out little nuggets of content—videos, games, and recipes—almost every week.
Definitely. Of course, the Web is creating analogies to that in all kinds of ways—with music being released as singles instead of entire albums, eBooks being published in installments, and so on. So what role can breaking content down and designing it to work across various media or platforms play in engaging the audience and increasing “stickiness”?
We’re working on a pitch right now for a network with a transmedia component to it. One of the first things we’re thinking is, “Okay. How can we use the characters in potentially limited content—not 11-minute episodes—to further develop these characters and drive more kids to the site?” For example, this could mean creating a simple game that includes the show’s main character and a co-play element where you and a friend must help him. That way, kids can get to know the characters while playing with friends, and it helps the viral nature of the experience. So then, the social aspect becomes a large part of the experience. Co-play games can have an offline component so there’s some playground chatter around it.
I think it’s key that content creators and networks start thinking about how to really build rich story experiences. “How can you bring these characters to life, not just in a linear, regular narrative?” “How can you bring a character’s personality through in a game for what makes them unique?” Also, I think that, a lot of times, networks are fixated on having one type of episode, and thinking the storylines have to involve all the characters. But, really, they don’t have to. With new online and transmedia formats, you can bring the brand to life through experimenting with video content or the way a character is portrayed in a game.
Is it correct to say that part of transmedia is just getting away from this idea of having just one linear storyline so that, instead, you’re broadening, developing laterally, and having each character have his or her own storyline—so, ultimately, the whole storyworld is continually expanding?
Right. These characters transcend different types of media; they exist outside of the TV. I can hang out with this character on TV, but then I also have a game with him and then I have these recipes to make in my kitchen that also relate to his character. That’s when kids begin to think, “Is this character more than just a cartoon—does he live in other places than just the TV?”
Transmedia, especially in the kids arena, is really starting to open up dialogue about where you can meet these characters and what role they have in their universe—but also how you interact with them outside of just the TV. That’s pretty powerful.
What are some of your best practices for building a storyworld that spans these different places? How do you know where to put each part of the story or what format you should use?
It’s just about knowing your property and your characters, and sticking to what makes them unique. If your character isn’t a space ranger, don’t create a game that makes him or her into a space ranger going to the moon, just because it’s cool. Just don’t break those rules.
Do you have any set rules around interactivity and audience participation, especially if they’re intended to be co-creators? How do you know when to get kids involved, and how to do that in a successful way?
We always ask ourselves, “How can we create more meaningful experiences and give kids more meaningful decisions?” We use the word “meaningful” because there’s a lot of user-generated content apps out there—but they’re often too complicated for kids. I think user-generated content for kids somewhat teeters on this line of, “is it really content? Is this going to be watchable by other people?”
The kids are going to feel the sense of ownership over it; they’ll probably show it to their parents but, if you’re creating a content business, chances are probably not. That’s the big thing we’re trying to work on: how do you give kids meaningful tools to create great content? I think it’s all about enabling kids to put their own unique thumbprint on their content.
Does there need to be one component of these transmedia or interactive experiences that somehow ties them back to the real world? In other words, should we be thinking of the real world as platform?
Yes, definitely. Lost is a perfect example of this—because it spurred so many conversations and social interactions about it. In some ways, it brought me closer to a lot of my friends and colleagues. I think it’s partially J.J. Abram’s approach of putting out Easter eggs so that people will look, interrogate and ask questions.
I guess this begs a bigger question that I would ask people: do audiences want to go out of their way to engage with content? How far are they willing to go? I think that’s the whole key to the real world component—but it all starts with great characters and stories.
Image credit: Lance Shields