The man who marketed Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean tells his story
Wealth beyond Hollywood's wildest dreams
Jeff Gomez is one of the world’s foremost transmedia storytellers and producers. He has worked with all the major Hollywood studios on franchises including Pirates of the Caribbean, the Marvel Universe and Avatar, as well as with brands such as Coca-Cola and Microsoft. In the nineties, he worked as a writer and producer for Valiant Comics, where he took some early steps in the transmedia world by adapting comics such as Turok for games on the Nintendo and PlayStation platforms. You may be left with one burning question: What on earth is transmedia storytelling?
The history of the concept is disputed – some trace it back to Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded, which spawned a series of early “merchandise” including paintings and themed playing cards, as well as unlicensed sequels and satires. But, it was not until the internet age that transmedia really began to develop.
Early online games like Ong’s Hat in the early ’90s required players to not only play within the game itself but find clues from bulletin boards, print and broadcast media, DVDs and photocopied pamphlets, in order to fully understand the game’s backstory and win.
In 1998, transmedia’s watershed moment came – as well as probably the first (and possibly the most successful) adoption of the technique by a movie. The makers of The Blair Witch Project, a film shot for under US$60,000 (Dh220,386), built a website. Purporting to be factual, it told the story of three filmmakers who had gone missing while making a documentary about the ‘witch’ in Maryland. There were also historical details, biographies of the filmmakers, interviews with locals and police and clips of recovered footage.
For more than a year, news on the “ongoing investigation” and new facts would come to light on the site – the film was barely mentioned at first. Books were published, newspapers tried to prove or disprove the story. The makers were so attentive to detail, an IMDB search of the film’s three stars revealed they were “missing, presumed dead”. By the time the film came out in July 1999, the website had attracted 22 million hits – a big number in pre-widespread broadband days.
As a final tour de force, the producers released the most talked-about film of the year on 27 screens, keeping the lo-fi mystique. When The Blair Witch Project went on wider release, it grossed $248.6m, making it the most profitable movie in history, until Paranormal Activity 10 years later.
The film had set a template, and Gomez was among the first to follow it, founding his own transmedia production company, Starlight Runner, in 2000. Gomez takes up the story in 2003: “When Pirates of the Caribbean came out, Disney were totally unprepared for its success. Pirate movies hadn’t done well recently, [and]Johnny Depp wasn’t a particularly big star at that point. The plot was convoluted and complex, and Jack Sparrow is such a complicated character, that no one really expected much from the film,” he tells me.
“Then it went huge. But there was no Pirates content available on any other platforms. You had this huge multimedia company with so many different departments, and they weren’t maximising the potential of this smash-hit movie. A lot of the divisions within Disney weren’t even familiar with the property. They didn’t understand why it was so successful, or how to replicate that with a line of toys or T-shirts or novels or comic books.”
By the time Disney drafted Gomez in as a consultant, “the train had already left the station,” he says. His job was to ensure the sequel was more profitable. Disney gave him carte blanche to dissect the movie, analyse its success and come up with a “guide book” to maximise the property’s multimedia success.
“You need to get right inside the product and understand why it’s so successful,” he explains. “If it’s just the star, how does that help with a comic book or a toy? It all has to be utterly authentic to people’s first experience of the brand as you jump to other media to explore other pieces of content that are set in the same world. You wouldn’t put Jack Sparrow on a tube of toothpaste – have you seen his teeth?”
Gomez and his theories have since become a cornerstone of Disney’s marketing strategy – he followed a similar routine with the Star Wars and Marvel franchises, and other studios have snapped up his talents, including Fox for Avatar and Sony for Spider-Man. Dubai-based film producer Michelle Nickelson, who is working alongside Gomez on the Antar the Black Knight comic and film franchise, recalls walking around the Middle East Film and Comic Con with her new colleague: “Literally every stand, it was ‘Oh – I made that. And that,” she laughs.
Gomez is modest about his influence, however: “I can’t take credit for the success of Marvel or Star Wars, but I’ll take a small bit of credit for some of their transmedia profits.” So next time you open your kid’s R2-D2 lunch box, you’ll know where the idea came from.