“I’ve figured it out. I can open the door, but they have to walk through it.”
Thus starts the innovative, interactive experience that is Futurestates.tv, the online platform for the final season of ITVS’s "Futurestates." The cryptic message invites the audience to explore a selection of short films and related videos that offer a glimpse of what technology could become in the future – and what such advancements might mean for us as a society.
"Futurestates" is a series of independent short films from established and rising talents in the filmmaking industry that examine today’s most pressing social issues through the lens of future possibilities. The first four seasons consisted of stand-alone episodes. For the fifth and final season, the show’s creators at ITVS decided to do something different: for this season, each film is interwoven into a cohesive online storyworld.
Earlier this month I had the privilege of meeting with "Futurestates" producer Karim Ahmad, Senior Digital Content Strategist at ITVS, to talk about the origins of the series and the evolution of Futurestates.tv. From reflection on the power of science fiction to advice on building interactive, user-sensitive storyworlds, what follows are just a few of the valuable insights that Futurestates.tv can offer independent media makers.
The concept of "Futurestates" emerged from a desire to explore social issues in an edgier, more sensational format than your typical broadcast documentary. “There's still a big audience for which watching social-issue documentaries feels like taking medicine,” Ahmad said. “A narrative like science fiction doesn't feel like that.“
Science fiction is deeply rooted in social-issue storytelling, said Ahmad: “Sci-Fi in all of its incarnations has a long history and tendency of using surreal, supernatural, and fantastical story elements to exaggerate what already exists in society.” In fact, one of the early inspirations for "Futurestates" was “The Twilight Zone.”
The window between science fiction and science fact is also much more narrower than it used to be, Ahmad added. That makes science fiction increasingly relevant to our daily lives. The themes and story ideas brought out in science fiction often speak to very real issues that we may find ourselves facing in the not-too-distant future.
When it comes to utilizing new media technologies, though, Ahmad feels that nonfiction filmmakers currently have the advantage. “They have a background in outreach just by the nature of documentary film, and they’re used to exploring digital outreach tools as a way to engage with the community,” he said, noting that there is more support available for makers trying to tell nonfictional rather than fictional interactive stories.
Fiction is a bit of a newcomer to the interactive space. “I always talk about it as the Wild West of transmedia,” said Ahmad. “It’s this space that's very fringe and experimental.” But that’s also changing, he said, and it’s a gap that ITVS is working to bridge. For instance, ITVS is already at work on their next transmedia project, a “next-gen web series incubator” called ITVS Storylab.
Futurestates.tv is unique in that it brings together a variety of independent creators, writers, directors, and filmmakers and lets them express different visions, while at the same time uniting their works into a cohesive experience. Creating such an experience poses an exciting new challenge for independent media makers.
To help tackle this challenge, ITVS brought in a design and development team from the New York-based studio Murmur. “They came in and worked with us in a very collaborative way to figure out what was the user experience of the series, how do we experience all the different stories, what is the visual manifestation of the story world?” Ahmad said.
Ahmad feels that collaboration is becoming an increasingly important part of the new media landscape. “There're so many new means and platforms developing all the time,” he said. “Your sandbox, your playground is getting exponentially bigger in a way that can become increasingly connected from platform to platform.” Entering into this new, multiplatform space can be daunting for traditional filmmakers, but Ahmad is confidant that great things can happen if we embrace "the collaboration and the relinquishing of creative control that are required to really enter into that space.”
“We really wanted the experience to be very sticky,” Ahmad said of Futurestates.tv. “We wanted you to be able to, if something compelled you within the storyworld, feel like you could go to a different piece of the content and still be in the same space, exploring the same themes.” This sense of continuity wasn’t available in earlier seasons of "Futurestates."
To create it for Futurestates.tv, the team developed an overarching narrative to function as the “connective tissue” tying all the films together – the story of Evelyn Malik, whose innovative technology pushes the boundaries between man and machine and features in many of the films. The decision to include Evelyn as a physical presence on the site evolved organically: “As we went deeper into trying to figure out who is this character, what is motivating her to make this change, what is her specific role in society, it just became more and more natural for her to be a character in the experience in a really robust way.”
As Evelyn’s story developed, she also became the natural social media spokesperson for Futurestates.tv and the issues raised in the series. Evelyn let the team reach out to audiences in a way “that was not promotional but was about extending the storyworld” across platforms. “Any marketing campaign or outreach campaign is really only as successful as the narrative at its core,” Ahmad said.
And Evelyn turned out to be a pretty successful character. Her technological background enabled her to share real news articles and videos about actual technological advances that mirrored those in Futurestates.tv, and engage both experts and everyday people in the conversation. “It was all very character-driven, but at the same time really focused on getting everyday, ordinary people to really express and think about what they felt about these particular shifts in technology happening in society,” Ahmad said. “Evelyn” was very active in responding to tweets, and some users got really invested in having conversations with her.
One reason for Evelyn’s success was that she created new access points for users to enter into the world of Futurestates. “Any time you tell a story, whether you want to or not, whether you are conscious of it or not, you are building a storyworld,” said Ahmad. “And as increasingly crowded as the content marketplace is becoming, it is really important for content creators to think about, what are the access points that you are creating to allow people into your story?”
“Being this transmedia, multiplatform experience has enabled us to reach out to different communities in that space in addition to the more traditional Indie film space,” said Ahmad. “In terms of our goals of trying to expand the reach of the series and raise awareness of the issues, having these additional tools, having the series be different things to different communities, has been really advantageous for us.”
Creating an interactive world also helps audiences engage with the content. “Taking this approach has allowed the series to go in new places and be a subject of discussion in a way that the original conception of the series wasn't able to, as individual disconnected films,” Ahmad said.
If he could give one piece of advice to media makers creating interactive experiences, it would be to tailor the experience to the audiences they want to reach. “Always think about, how are you providing the experience that the user wants, keeping in mind that different user groups are going to want different things out of that experience? That's always a learning process for us from project to project,” said Ahmad, “and it continues to be that for Futurestates.”