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New Book Reveals Why Marvel Is Trumping DC and How 'Star Trek' Changed the World (Q&A)

TV professor Michael Niederman, co-author of "Storytelling Across Worlds," shares secrets of transmedia storytelling -- and what Hollywood can learn from its past.

Storytelling Across Worlds
"Storytelling Across Worlds" cover

Is there a recipe Hollywood can follow to create the next mega-success like Marvel Studios’ The Avengers?

That’s a question Columbia College Chicago television professor Michael Niederman spends a lot of time pondering in his work studying the successful (and not so successful) attempts at transmedia storytelling -- stories which are told across multiple platforms such as comic books, films and television. They may also include stories told in a shared universe, such as in the multiple Star Trek TV series.

The short answer is, there is no magic formula. Niederman opines the industry has been “very hit and miss” with such projects.

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“Marvel did a fabulous job. DC not so much,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I don’t know if people have learned from the mistakes. That’s what amazes me. For an industry filled with really brilliant people, it doesn’t always seem lessons have been learned."

He holds up Star Trek, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ABC’s Lost  as examples of transmedia storytelling done right. And in a new book, he and three colleagues have created a guide of sorts for students and industry professionals to make such stories work.

Storytelling Across Worlds: Transmedia for Creatives and Producers is a collaboration from Niederman and fellow Columbia College Chicago professors Michael Fry, Josef Steiff and Tom Dowd.

Find THR’s conversation with Niederman below, which includes his thoughts on The Avengers and beyond and how Star Trek changed the storytelling world.

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THR: So who’s been doing transmedia storytelling right?

Niederman: Marvel did a fabulous job. DC, not so much. You can start looking at the fact that the merging into this large-scale story telling has really been hit and miss. I don’t know if people have learned from the mistakes. That’s what amazes me. For an industry filled with really brilliant people, it doesn’t always seem lessons have been learned.

I think Marvel did the right thing, because a very smart man stood in front of a bunch of reporters and said “We’re creating a Marvel Cinematic Universe.” They proceeded to do a lot of things right. The fact that they said "We’re going to create this universe, then we’re going to populate it with these pieces, that we’re clearly building toward this moment where we’re going to bring these pieces together." Could it have failed? Yes. But the answer is, not so much.

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THR: Why do you think many examples of transmedia storytelling come from comic books?

Niederman: Comics are a peculiar, interesting thing anyway. Comic book fans are very accepting of changing landscapes, because how many Batmans are there? If you come up with a brilliant version of Batman, you'll do fine. Look at recent history.

THR: What can studio decision makers or creative people take from your book?

Niederman: You have to think about the fans. That’s the mistake a lot of them make. One of the big change moments is when Star Trek was, through fan protest, brought back for a third season. The notion that connecting to a fan base and having a fair exchange with the fan base is incredibly important.

THR: What’s your take on the 2009 Star Trek and the new one coming out?

Niederman: Brilliant. There’s footage online of the 1975 fan convention at Chicago -- and yes I was in the audience, so I go back to hardcore geekiness -- I thought the last series [Enterprise] died a sad death.  It shouldn’t have. I thought how it was relaunched was genius. You were able to please the hardcore fans but open the property to the casual moviegoer. It made me smile.

THR: Relatively speaking, that fan convention wasn’t that long ago.

Niederman: It wasn’t. It took an odd circumstance. Why Star Trek? Right time. Right place. Right guy. Who ever thought Wagon Train to the stars -- which was part of the original pitch -- would change the world? I would argue it did.