BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS: What 100 years of experiential entertainment can teach us about transmedia storytelling.


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MIKE MONELLO Co-Founder Campfire, Co-Producer The Blair Witch Project (USA)

What 100 years of experiential entertainment can teach us about cross-media storytelling.

Video of this presentation is here:

Calling all storytellers! Technical jargon, academic complexity, and marketing double-speak cloud the discussion around transmedia narratives, creating layers of complexity and confusion that frighten off even the bravest storytellers. Platforms and technology are constantly evolving but the principles that make transmedia stories so compelling to audiences and so rich with creative opportunities are quite simple, and they provide a framework for thinking about stories not bound to any single platform or media. Michael Monello, one of the producers of The Blair Witch Project and a Founder of Campfire, will explore these principles by looking back at some inspiring and funny examples from the last century of experiential entertainment.

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  • This presentation was made at Power to the Pixel on October 12, 2010.

    The slides are mostly visual accompaniment to the stories, so I’ve added most of the text in the notes, as well as some links for additional information. A video of this presentation will soon be posted at

  • Back in the summer of 1998, we were deep in editing The Blair Witch Project, and something funny happened along the way.

    Some clips of the film were shown on a small cable channel in the US, and it grabbed people’s attention. They wanted more, and so we launched a threadbare website and a discussion board to try and keep them interested.

    And that was the trigger that started us on a path of telling the Blair Witch mythology online, largely in reaction to these fans.

    It was a dialog through storytelling and it was unlike any experience I had ever had - it was a constant adrenaline rush.

    When the whole thing hit the zeitgeist and exploded into pop culture, it took us all a little while to process everything, but in the end, I just couldn’t get excited about making another movie.

    It didn’t help that Hollywood wasn’t prepared to look beyond the feature film when it came to financing.

  • But marketers approached us right away, and they were willing to experiment.

    So we formed Campfire and since Blair Witch we have developed several transmedia narratives for brands and entertainment companies. Visit for case study videos on specific programs.
    Along the way, there has been an enormous amount of attention paid to transmedia storytelling. There is an excellent reason for that:
    Audiences are already engaged with our stories as transmedia experiences, whether we’ve planned them that way or not.

  • People don’t differentiate between licensed video games, activity books, comics or the official “cannon” movie – to them it all comes from the same story universe. We aren’t on the cutting edge here, we’re just trying to catch up to the audience!

    But I LOVE telling stories that are not bound to any single media or platform and I wonder why more of my filmmaking and storytelling colleagues aren’t as excited by the possibilities as I am.

    I see many storytellers intimidated by technology.

    I see others trapped by the paradox of choice, overwhelmed by so many opportunities that they can’t figure out how to start.

    So when Liz invited me to speak I set as my challenge to present a simple approach to transmedia storytelling because the appeal for audiences isn’t driven by Facebook or YouTube or mobile devices or complex technologies at all, even though we may use these tools.

    It’s rooted in simple human behaviors and desires that have actually been successfully employed for centuries in experiential entertainment.

    And that is wonderfully reassuring, because it means that Transmedia storytelling isn’t just the latest buzzword, but it is actually the form of storytelling that is closest to the way we experience the world.

    Since this conference is about storytelling, I want to tell you about Coney Island at the turn of the century.

  • Coney Island is actually a peninsula at the southern end of Brooklyn NY. and from the 1890’s to the 1930’s, it was a perfect storm of entrepreneurism, creativity and technology. Very much like the times we are living in today.

    It’s been said that the 20th century came crashing into America through Coney Island, and it was a major destination for traveling dignitaries like Sigmund Freud and Maxim Gorky, who called it a “Fantastic City of Fire” due to all the activity and electric lights.

    And at the center of all this innovation in experiential entertainment was an entrepreneur named George Tilyou, who opened an amusement park called Steeplechase in 1897.

  • George built an assortment of rides along a stretch of the beach.

    There was a giant swinging ring that looks like an insurance company’s nightmare.

    A rollercoaster called the loop de loop that was notorious for snapping people’s necks and eventually shut down.

    And there was this fantastic human roulette wheel made out of polished wood. Everyone would sit in the center and it would spin around getting faster and faster until it sent men and women tumbling over each other off the edge. In 1897 you took your thrills any way you could get them.

    But for George, it wasn’t really about the human roulette wheel, or the rides themselves.
    He had an amazing insight that informed the overall design of Steeplechase -- he built viewing platforms for many of his rides. You can see in the picture of the Human Roulette wheel there are actually two viewing platforms, one on the ground and a balcony above.

    His most famous ride, the Steeplechase, was a mild rollercoaster with horses on tracks, which they sold as “Half a mile in half a minute and fun all the time.” George made the Steeplechase riders exit not through a gift shop, like theme parks today, but onto a small, well-lit platform.

  • On this platform you had to navigate some crazy contraptions like shifting floors and shaking stairways while clowns with electric cattle prods would harass the men and push the women over air hoses that would blow their skirts up.

    He called this the Blowhole Theater...
  • ...because all of this was for the amusement of a packed audience.
    And audiences could not get enough, they loved it.
    It was so popular, Tilyou would have to darken the stage and force people out to make room for the others clamoring to get inside. The Blowhole Theater ran for 70 years, it was New York’s longest running show.
    Tilyou’s insight was that customers would pay to entertain other customers, and that people liked shows, but they loved seeing other people more.
    That sounds a lot like YouTube, doesn’t it?

  • Tilyou brilliantly designed Steeplechase as a COMMUNAL EXPERIENCE.
    Communal, shared experiences are more meaningful for both audience and storyteller.
    The Internet gives communal experiences massive scale and visibility.

  • Think of it as a Greek Theater: The audience reacts best when they can see each other.
    People crave participation so design communal experiences as part of your story.

  • You can see this principle in action in a transmedia program we developed for Audi called Art of the Heist, to promote the launch of the A3 in America.
    The story involved a sequence of stolen data hidden inside a number of Audi A3s that had been delivered all across the country.
    Our main characters reached out for help, and people would meet up with these characters and go on missions to recover the stolen data.
    These missions took place in real locations - Audi dealers, the Coachella Music Festival, the E3 Video Game Convention, and they were streamed live to the internet or recorded and released immediately.
    In the context of the story, some of these retrieval missions were successful, others not so much, but in all cases, people took center stage as an essential part of the story.
    The missions bonded the audience with each other through the story, and those moments were the most electric and exhilarating of the entire program.

    Use the audience as your muse.

  • Let’s talk about babies -- premature babies.

    Baby incubators are in almost every hospital, saving the lives of thousands of premature babies each year. Probably some of us are here today thanks to incubators. In the 1890’s, Dr. Martin Couney had been experimenting with new techniques for saving infant lives and he needed funding and equipment and peer support. But the medical establishment had essentially given up hope on these premature babies and instead concentrated on the health of the mothers to try and avoid premature births. There had been previous attempts at incubation, focused on keeping the babies warm, and while that was met with some success, it wasn’t enough. Dr. Couney’s research showed they also required isolation, extraordinary hygiene, proper feeding, and a warm, humid atmosphere.

    But he could not get funding or support from the medical establishment. They just weren’t interested.
  • So in 1903, Dr. Couney set up a permanent exhibit in Coney Island, where he and his nurses saved the lives of thousands of premature babies in full view of people who paid for the privilege to see this miracle technology with their own eyes.
    You can see the queue there in the left photo, where people would pass by.
    And the medical establishment turned up it’s nose, condemning the practice. But word travelled pretty quickly, and infant incubators spread to other parks at Coney Island, the Atlantic City Boardwalk, they appeared at World Expositions here in London, in Berlin, and eventually the medical community took notice.

  • Dr. Couney’s story didn’t take root until he made it tangible.
    The more digital our lives and relationships become, the more information and data flows past our screens that we just ignore, but people make instant connections to tangible stories.

  • For the first season of HBO’s True Blood, we launched a 5-month transmedia prequel by mailing just over 1000 letters written in dead languages to horror fans.
    These fans immediately took to their social networks posting pictures and video of the mailings, and quickly began recruiting people to help them solve this little mystery.
    This was instant tangibility for those who received the mailings as well as those who saw the pictures and videos, because these mailings happened in real life.

    This mystery thrust audiences into a story about Vampires discovering a synthetic blood and deciding to come out of the coffin and announce their presence to the world. And as the story built, we treated this synthetic blood drink, called True Blood, as if it were a commercial product.
  • When the massive media buy in the US hit, people didn’t see these posters, billboards, full page print ads, and TV spots as advertisements but as tangible pieces of a story they had been engaged with for months.
    People were blown away when they were suddenly surrounded by these pieces of a fictional story surrounding them in real life. And for those seeing these ads for the first time, they served as a tangible entry into this vampire universe.
    By the time True Blood premiered on HBO in the US, a world where Vampires walk freely amongst us was no longer a preposterous notion because it felt like it was happening everywhere.
    Multiple platforms offers us enormous opportunities to make our stories TANGIBLE.

  • And that takes us, quite obviously, to buns. Or more accurately Hot Dogs, which were invented in Coney Island by a guy named Charles Feltman, who sold them for 10 cents each in an enormous restaurant called FELTMAN’S.

  • In 1916, a cook named Nathan Handwerker saved up his money and opened up his own hot dog stand, called Nathan’s Famous just down the street, in front of the subway station.
    Nathan charged only 5 cents for his hot dogs, cutting Feltman’s price in half.
    But that first season people came off that train and they saw Nathan’s stand with his giant sign advertising those frankfurters for half the normal price... and they walked right on past to Feltman’s.
    People were just sure Nathan’s 5 cent hot dogs had to have something wrong with them, and this rumor quickly spread, but Nathan tackled this problem in a pretty unique fashion.
    He dressed a bunch of carnies in doctors and nurses outfits, and when the subways arrived dumping people into the street in front of his stand, he had these so called doctors and nurses eat his hot dogs right there in front of the crowds.
    It didn’t take long for the rumors to completely go away -- if doctors and nurses eat them they had to be healthy, right?
    Nathan could have taken out ads extolling the quality of his hot dogs, he could have issued a press release, he could have made a newsreel on how they were safe to eat...
  • ...but what he did was give people the opportunity to discover it for themselves.
    We are so used to the idea of a big launch with massive PR, and we want to drive people to our TV shows and movies and get them in the door that first weekend, and the stakes are high when you are talking about mass media properties like TV and film, but transmedia offers us an opportunity to really foster discovery.

    When your stories aren’t locked in by any specific media, the opportunities to foster discovery are incredible. It’s a powerful way to earn fans. When we discover stories we take ownership of them, we share them, and they are more meaningful to us.

  • For the record, the original Nathan’s Famous is is still operating at the corner of Surf and Stillwell on Coney Island, and it’s said you can’t get elected to political office in New York unless you are photographed eating a hot dog at Nathan’s.

  • Going back to the Art of the Heist, we launched that story with a very simple event designed to foster discovery.
    On the last day of the NY Auto Show, we replaced the display of the first A3 in America with this sign, and within a couple of hours, the story of the Stolen A3 had hit automotive blogs and publications throughout the US and in Japan and Germany as well. People were so excited by the discovery of this story they shared it immediately.
    About a week after this event, I received a call from a producer at the FOX Network in the US who wanted to develop a TV series based on the premise of our story.
    People are delighted when they discover a fantastic story on their own and they become eager participants anxiously awaiting more.

  • Let’s leave Coney Island for a bit and talk about a b-movie filmmaker named William Castle.
    Hollywood called him King of the Gimmicks, but I think he was doing something much more interesting then mere gimmicks.
    In 1959, he made a Vincent Price horror film called The Tingler, about a centipede-like creature that attaches itself to your spine and feeds on fear, growing until it kills you. The only way to stop it is to scream, and let the fear out.
    At the climax of the film, the Tingler actually gets loose inside a movie theater, and you see the shadow of the tingler across the screen, as if it was in front of the projector. The projector suddenly goes dark, and Vincent Price’s voice exclaims:

  • “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Tingler is loose in this theater! Don’t panic, but SCREAM, SCREAM FOR YOUR LIVES” and the seats, which had been wired with buzzers, started shaking and people went nuts!
    The Tingler was a huge hit.
    You didn’t just watch The Tingler, you experienced it for yourself with a theater full of people, and when you walked out of that cinema, the story you told was your own:
    “The Tingler broke loose in my theater, I felt it!.”
  • Everyone walked out of Castle’s movie with their own personal Tingler story to tell. William Castle often broke down the 4th wall to make the movie going experience personal. For House on the Haunted Hill, he had a sequence where the characters are reacting to a floating skeleton, which emerged from behind the screen and floated over the audiences heads. This skeleton was reportedly a wonderful target for boys with slingshots.
    His autobiography is recently back in print and it’s a wonderful read:
    When you give people personal experiences rooted in your story, you are essentially giving them the raw materials to pass your story along to their friends and social networks. This is a very powerful way to think about how to make your story become a part of the culture.

  • Discovery Channel has a program called The Colony, a reality show about 7 survivors of a biological disaster forced to live together and rebuild society. Leading into the premiere episode, we made the story of this biological disaster personal by using Facebook Connect to simulate how your friends and family would react in such a disaster.
    We pulled in names, pictures, data such as where they lived, and we brought the story to life as if it was happening via your social network.
    This screen grab up here is actually my Facebook profile presented in the context of The Colony, and while these people are my friends, what they are posting and talking about is actually the story of The Colony.
    We then inserted the characters from the show into the mix, which led people from this online experience into the first episode of the series. People spent a lot of time with this story before the season began, and the personal nature of it really resonated with audiences and made the TV show more immediate for them.
    Personal experiences rooted in your story allow people to see themselves in it and emotionally connect with your story in powerful ways.
  • OK, enough about the apocalypse, let’s hit the Tiki Bars.
    Starting in the mid 1940’s, a couple of guys named Trader Vic Bergeron and Don The Beachcomber kicked off a craze that we now call Polynesian Pop. These were a couple of restauranteurs who created personas for themselves as rascally adventurers who had lived loose and free in the South Pacific.
    There’s Tradder Vic on the left, chilling on a barrel of rum with a couple of topless Wahines,
    Don The Beachcomber is over on the right, laying under a palm tree and calling himself “Host to Diplomat and Beachcomber, Prince and Pirate.”
  • They built elaborately themed restaurants and bars and they served potent rum cocktails with secret recipes, that were hidden even from the bartender.
    They would actually bottle their own pre-mixes and number them, so the recipe might be 2 parts mix number seven and one part aged Jamaican rum. This was to insure that if the bartender quit or was lured away by another tiki bar, he couldn’t steal the recipes.
    But it was also to convey story.
  • The drink menus didn’t tell you what was in these cocktails, they told you a story. Some of these cocktails had creation myths, others would imbue you with special powers, which I’m guessing was the ability to make the room spin while sitting perfectly still. They had names like the Mai Tai, the Zombie, the Navy Grog, the Suffering Bastard, and the stories behind these drinks helped fill out this elaborate Polynesian Fantasy.
  • The attention to detail was astounding in these places. They had waterfalls and fountains and incredible lighting. Many had live shows with Hula Girls and Samoan Fire Dancers. This picture is from the Tonga Room in San Francisco -- that little boat is actually a stage for the band that floats to the middle of the pool and once every hour the lights dim as rain falls from the ceiling into the pool to the sounds of gentle thunder.

    Now, all of this stuff is completely unnecessary for a successful restaurant. They didn’t have to build this elaborate world but they did it anyway, and it was central to their success.
  • People flocked to these Polynesian Palaces, because the deeply rich environment these guys created gave people permission to loosen up and play on their own terms. People really dressed up and acted the part. For a few hours you could completely forget where you were and you could flirt, you could take off your shirt and wear a flower lei and nobody took notice or offense.
    They called it “going native,” and they would take home souvenir ceramic tiki mugs to remember the experience (Tangibility at work).
    Tiki Bars were a global phenomenon from the 1940’s onward, they helped set the stage for the swinging 60’s, and quite a few are still around today.

  • Your world should seem larger than your characters.* It’s important to surround your audience with a rich universe that gives them room to play inside your story. Not everything you create needs to focus on your characters or plot.
    In Transmedia stories, loose threads that fill out the world are not just acceptable, they are essential to instigating role-play and content creation from your audience.
    *Andrea Phillips has written an excellent post on this:
  • This was at the heart of what made The Blair Witch Project so fascinating to so many people.
    Within the larger Blair Witch myth, the story contained in the film was really just the most recent event in a giant mythology that went back over 200 years. The mythology was so deep that people would pretend to investigate the legend of the Blair Witch on their own.
    They filled websites with theories and drawings and pictures to present their own evidence and they discussed and debated these theories with each other. The world was so rich that many had been engaged with it for an entire year before they could even see the movie. The Blair Witch world is much bigger than Heather, Mike, Josh, and the events of the film, and that’s why so many people became so entranced by the story.
    But I do have a cautionary tale about building a deep world.
    When Artisan, the film’s US distributor, made a sequel to Blair Witch, their script completely violated the world and the mythology, even though it tied directly into the original movie. When it came out, it was almost universally hated, because it walked away from the rich universe that people had been deeply connected to.
    I believe that is a big reason why it bombed. You have to honor the world you create.

  • These five simple guidelines transcend technology and social platforms and all those wonderful gadgets that are so very temporary.
    We need a universal framework when thinking about how to design our transmedia stories, because everything changes all the time -- there will always be new opportunities, new platforms, and new ways of reaching audiences, but the things that delight us, that connect with us emotionally, that resonate with us, are eternal.
    When you are in the foundational stages, don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be. Don’t get lost in the technology or the complexity of managing platforms and moving people between them.
    Don’t just check off boxes and bolt on platforms to your story because you can.
    If you design your transmedia story with these principles in mind, everything else will fall into place. You’ll understand how to produce it, which technologies and platforms you should use and how to use them, and which skills you need in your collaborators -- all of it will fall into place.
    But it starts with your story and how you tell it.

  • I want to tell you one last story, back to Steeplechase Park on Coney Island. In 1907, Steeplechase Park burned to the ground. The entire park was destroyed. The morning after the fire, George Tilyou posted a sign that read:

  • I urge all of the storytellers in this room to jump in, experiment, push the boundaries, and trust that no matter what happens, you’ll use your skills as a storyteller to make the best of it.

  • BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS: What 100 years of experiential entertainment can teach us about transmedia storytelling.

    1. 1. BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS: What 100 years of experiential entertainment can teach us about transmedia storytelling. Michael Monello Email: Twitter: @mikemonello
    2. 2. 1998-1999 BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 2
    3. 3. Campfire BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 3
    4. 4. Toy Story BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 4
    5. 5. George C. Tilyou & Steeplechase BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 5
    6. 6. George C. Tilyou & Steeplechase BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 6
    7. 7. The Blowhole Theater BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 7
    8. 8. The Blowhole Theater BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 8
    9. 9. 1. Design for communal experiences. BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 9
    10. 10. Greek Theater BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 10
    11. 11. Communal Experience BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 11
    12. 12. Babies BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 12
    13. 13. Baby Incubators BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 13
    14. 14. 2. Make it tangible. BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 14
    15. 15. Make it tangible. BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 15
    16. 16. Make it tangible. BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 16
    17. 17. Buns BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 17
    18. 18. Nathanʼs Famous BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 18
    19. 19. 3. Foster discovery. BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 19
    20. 20. Foster discovery. BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 20
    21. 21. Foster discovery. BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 21
    22. 22. Buzzers BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 22
    23. 23. Buzzers BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 23
    24. 24. 4. Make it personal. BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 24
    25. 25. Make it personal. BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 25
    26. 26. Tiki Bars BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 26
    27. 27. Tiki Bars BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 27
    28. 28. Tiki Bars BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 28
    29. 29. Tiki Bars BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 29
    30. 30. Tiki Bars BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 30
    31. 31. 5. Build a world larger than your characters. BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 31
    32. 32. Build a world larger than your characters. BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 32
    33. 33. 1. Design for communal experiences. 2. Make it tangible. 3. Foster discovery. 4. Make it personal. 5. Build a world larger than your characters. BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 33
    34. 34. One final story BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 34
    35. 35. “To enquiring friends: I have troubles today that I had not yesterday. I had troubles yesterday which I have not today. On this site will be built a bigger, better, Steeplechase Park.” BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 35
    36. 36. “Admission to the burning ruins – ten cents.” BABIES, BUNS AND BUZZERS 36
    37. 37. Thank you. Michael Monello Email: Twitter: @mikemonello