A story worth telling is not enough, its just part of the equation. If we’re going to engage an audience with a creative experience we have to consider a more holistic equation of how we marry a complex system of elements:
NARRATIVE - the story’s ability in events, actions and metaphors to compel an audience.
GENRE - the expectations the audience hold for what they are engaging with.
DISTRIBUTION - how does your audience but find and access the narrative. On what platforms, in whats spaces, under what contexts.
Traditional narrative media - like feature films - have had consistently determined structures of these elements over time. Particularly in the context of distribution, the means by which audiences accessed a feature film were, by and large, predetermined and predictable.
But the digital age throws a spanner in the works and whilst many attached the traditional hierarchies of distribution based on theatrical-release trickle-down have wrestled with how to protect, defend or prop-up existing business models and distribution mechanics, other creative folks are excited by the opportunistic damage the digital spanner has done.
One of the more prevailing sacred cows that is being spanked by the digital age is the idea that the Theatrical Release is the prime way to experience a screen narrative. This idea has created an unspoken (and sometimes subconscious) notion that other screen forms are somehow secondary or ancillary or ‘lesser’ than the theatrical release cinema-theatre event - that all other things being equal, the cinema is the best place to experience a screen narrative.
This notion of an experience-hierarchy is entrenched and embodied in traditional distribution hierarchies that see theatrical release as the first-run of a film after which, in a trickle down of release windows, subservient screen forms (TV, DVD, Cable, online) are only later employed.
A surface level perspective on this idea sees the external fidelities of the theatrical experience as dominant - the screen is bigger, the room is darker, the sound is louder. And this is the reason to conclude the prime nature of the cinema-theatre and pursue the traditional theatrical release trickle down. Yet, considering these three elements of Narrative Genre and Distribution, in a connected rather than abstracted way, we might come to different conclusions.
Haunting Melissa, the first release from newly formed Hooked Digital Media, is an example of a company seeing a more direct relationship between Narrative Genre and Distribution that leads to a decidedly un-theatrical point of view.
Hooked Digital was founded by Neal Edelstein, the LA producer best known for his work with David Lynch (Mullholand Drive and The Straight Story) as well as (what i would argue is the best contemporary Horror film since The Exorcist) the US adaptation of The Ring.
Hooked Digital (and their first project, Haunting Melissa) focuses on horror narratives, delivered directly to audiences on mobile tablet devices; episodic narratives told as downloadable pieces, encapsulated with a unified single-app experience. In this rather simple but fascinating approach, Hooked have made that connection between Narrative, Genre and Distribution in a way that circumvents traditional thinking that sees Theatrical as prime and rejects assumptions about audience desires and habits.
By delivering episodic rather than feature-length narratives, Haunting Melissa exploits that most compelling of narrative patterns - the opening and closing of dramatic questions over time. Chaucer knew it, Dickens knew it and the golden age of TV writers we currently live in know it. Stories told in pieces with carefully constructed patterns of closure and expectation affect viewers at a level of complexity and emotional engagement in a way that feature-length narratives rarely, if ever, can.
Hooked deliver direct to audiences via a delivery channel that moves from producers to audiences down a digital pipe free of middle-men, distributors, exhibitors and all the other bottle necks. By doing so Hooked are able to do to a few important things - namely to be significantly more efficient in production and able to spend more their budget (and subsequently see greater return) directly on content creation and creative production values, rather than feeding the standard hierarchy.
And finally, the approach of Hooked in focusing on genre-specific Horror narratives and experiences, puts them a position to leverage the very specific emotional expectations of their audience and connect that experience with the platform itself.
When people ‘buy a ticket’ for a horror narrative experience they are signing up to a contract that guarantees what they are about to see delivers on their feeling-state expectations: fears and thrills, the excitement of dread and terror. These feeling states of the genre have little to do with size of screen, loudness of sound or scale of the auditorium audience. They have everything to do with psychological intimacy and personal immersion in very particular high stakes emotions. If we recognize that these emotions are paramount to the genre expectations of horror audiences then we can conclude that certain types of platforms may be able to deliver these emotions even better than the theatrical release. Sitting up in bed, headphones on, glowing iPad screen 40cm in front of you is a pretty fucking intense way to experience a horror story, with a punch way beyond the theatrics of the cinema.
And so with these set of observations around Narrative, Genre and Distribution we get Hooked Digital Media - horror stories delivered direct to your mobile device.
When i first encountered Hooked, and waited in daily countdown to the release of Haunting Melissa, I got very excited by the perspective Hooked and Neal Edlestein were offering because it resonated as consistent with the ideas that underpin my own work with PORTAL Entertainment. It’s nice to know you’re not alone in how you’re reading the zeitgeist and where you are seeing opportunity when so many others see only chaos.
The focus of Portal Entertainment is interactive horror and thriller experiences told on mobile devices. Stories that draw upon the rich mythology and narrative depth of these genres and present an experience where the audience must take part in the story, be immersed in it’s telling as both witness and participant.
Like Hooked, Portal sees the bigger picture connection between distribution, narrative and genre. The power of narratives told in episodic pieces to compel audiences to return for more; the distribution of creative product direct to audiences; And the intimacy of the mobile device platform to deliver the primo experience of horror and thriller genres and deliver, with gusto, on audiences emotional expectations.
The first Portal production to roll off the current project slate is called THE CRAFTSMAN and will be released world-wide in June 2013. A dark thriller that plays out over 5 days, exploring voyeurism, art, secret societies and sacrifice. Like Hooked Digital Media, Portal is looking to reshape the established ‘narrative-genre-distribution’ patterns and build a very audience-centric way of creating and delivering experiences.
After nearly two years of labour on the Portal Entertainment vision it’s really satisfying to see not only other players sharing the vision in different ways and with different, forward-thinking perspectives; but even more gratifying when those other players are of the calibre of Neal Edelstein and Hooked Digital Media. I feel like we are in good company. :)
Hooked Digital Media and Haunting Melissa have also been getting significant press.
“The brainchild of American producer Neal Edelstein, Haunting Melissa isn’t a webseries or a movie sliced up into viral videos, he says. Filmed in Calgary and featuring Canadian crew members, the project was conceived as an app-told tale from the ground up, incorporating the medium’s unique requirements and environment: from unique sound and display specifications to push notification technology and built-in social media sharing capabilities.”
“We created this pending technology called “dynamic story elements.” What that means is that if you go back and watch, things change. If you saw something the first time, you may go back, watch it and it might not be there.”
“Haunting Melissa is a ghost story created to be consumed in a dark corner with headphones on and iPhone or iPad in hand.”
On Bloomberg TV, Neal discusses the approach of Hooked Digital and the future of distribution.