Jeremy Hanke, co-creator of the shared world, World of Depleted, shares his thoughts, insights, and observations on collaborative entertainment as a filmmaker.
What was your motivation for exploring collaborative world building and storytelling?
I’ve always been into imaginative stories, but I realized how much more fun it was to do if you weren’t the only person with a vested interest in them. I remember that game we’d all play as kids where you’d start a story and each person would tell their own portion of it and it would go all over the place, but everyone would enjoy it, even if the final story often resembled a cross between an acid trip and a pre-pubescent nightmare.
When I was in middle and high school, my father’s job caused him to change locations a lot, so I was rarely in the same school for more than a year at a time. As such, I would find the one way I could always fit into a new school was to learn about my classmates and incorporate them into a fantastic or science fiction story. Even in college it was fascinating to note how people would change their perspective and opinion if they could imagine themselves in another location or reality. Later exploration with paper-based role-playing games drove that point home even more, so I was always interested in trying to find something that took this form of intra-personal interaction to the next level.
What were/are some of the factors that influenced your decision to take a collaborative approach to world building and storytelling?
When I was a kid, I remember reading books like the Oz series (which, contrary to popular misconception, was not limited to the Wizard of Oz, but actually spanned 14 books, by L. Frank Baum) and wanting to make continuing stories about some of the characters in the stories. It was much easier to start the creative process when there were already building blocks in place. I remember knowing that I could never really get them published, but I still wanted to dream. Interestingly enough, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, Oz is actually one of the earliest explorations of this collaborative approach I would later work toward. You see, after the death of L. Frank Baum, Baum’s estate would select a new writer to continue the series fairly regularly, with each book in the series being part of the official tale. All in all, 42 books would be released in the series.
Later, as the editor in chief at MicroFilmmaker Magazine, I got a first-hand perspective of many filmmakers in the fan film community and saw what harsh rules were in place by Hollywood and the Studio system to penalize people who wish to collaborate in another property. To date, fan films are still illegal for any studio films, although the studios don’t normally prosecute people unless they try to make a profit from their films. I would watch people drop as much as $50K to $100K into a Star Wars fan film that they could never make penny from. That just never seemed right to me. Obviously, the owner of an intellectual property can’t permit their work to be watered down, but, if things were set up properly, it could add so much new blood to a franchise and everyone could benefit—contributors, fans, and the original creators!
Not to mention, there’s a sort of accountability that occurs when collaborators are involved. They force you to improve your own game and not stagnate. I’ve seen famous creators who grew so famous that they lacked all forms of accountability, and they started making decisions that severely damaged their franchises.
Your background is film, so it’s not surprising that World of Depleted is launching primarily as a film-driven shared story world. Many shared worlds are predominantly fiction. What unique advantages/challenges are you seeing with a shared story world founded on film?
Excellent question. The biggest challenge is it’s initially like push-starting a boulder, because film is the most comprehensive of all art forms. It requires ALL other art forms to exist. It’s a combination of writing, acting, modeling, makeup, composition, song, artwork, sonic effect, photography, and dance. Literally every form of art ever invented can be found in many, if not all, films. As such, it’s often a bit overwhelming for people to tackle at first. However, as Viking Productions creates more World of Depleted films and more content for Depleted contributors to use, it become a much easier proposition for people to create films.
The cool element with a film-based community is that, although it’s harder to get started, it has much more momentum as things get moving, especially since most of the films in this series will be short films that are ideal for viewing on video sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo. While there will be feature films in the series, included the Depleted feature which we have slated for next year, the dominance of shorter subjects will make it much easier for fans to get new content and new information on a regular basis.
So the advantages are about potency and immediacy. When it’s done right, film can be one of the most powerful and captivating forms of creative expression that we as humans are capable of contributing to. It combines every art form into a singular entity and can transport a person to another time, another place, and another world altogether. While I personally love reading, you can easily look at most world cultures to see that this pastime requires a certain reserve of time, concentration, and patience that not everyone has. However, this requirement is not true for a good film, which can often transport you fully, whether in a minute-long short or a three-hour epic. To drive this point home, one need only note that the number one export of the United States is motion pictures. Although the Bollywood industry in India creates more films than Hollywood in America, America’s concentration on more universal themes has allowed our films to be accepted and propagated by more cultures. This is no measure of the quality of all of Hollywood’s films, simply a measure of the impact of film in general, especially if it bridges cultural gaps.
On a more localized scale, one has only to look at the fan communities for movies like Star Wars or shows like Star Trek, whose enthusiasts have dropped as much as $100,000 to make a fan film they could never profit from. Clearly, you have to be really excited about something to be willing to do this, and I believe it’s the fact that film encompasses so many other elements that can evoke that sort of excitement.
You mentioned new content? What new content are you referencing aside from films?
Well, as I mentioned, when we first started World of Depleted, my initial thought was it would just be filmmakers, but I quickly became aware of people who loved the ideas in World of Depleted whose creativity was being excluded because we were limiting who could contribute. As I mentioned before, film is a combination of all art forms, so if people want to contribute other art forms, they will be able to invest their creativity in this series and they will also provide building blocks for others. For filmmakers, who often have to get all their own building blocks, to have part of them provided ahead of time makes the process much more invigorating, especially since we have taken the complicated part of contracts and simplified everything drastically. As it is right now, once someone signs up as a contributor, they can utilize any other contributor’s works in their new work and not have to sign any other contracts, if they don’t want to. Division of profits and proper attribution have already been arranged as part of the initial contributor agreement.
Currently, in addition to films, we have people creating 3D models, special effects, artwork, photography, music, stories, and scripts. There have been talks with some folks about creating both video games and comics in the series, so there are a lot of ways new assets could be coming into the series in the future.
What was a pleasant surprise you had with World of Depleted?
One of the most pleasant surprises with World of Depleted was finding how different people from completely different backgrounds could get into this world we’re creating. One thing I’ve often referred to this world as being is a “black sandbox.” We deal with a very destructive environment in which there are some awful things happening, so you really have to be willing to explore these concepts in this world. If you’re willing to do so, it’s a very cathartic experience, and it’s been really exciting to see those who’ve been willing to dive in with us!
I personally think that all civilizations have a belief in the end of mankind because there really is something important that’s stored in our very genetics related to this time in history. As such, seeing each person’s perspective of it might well give us all clues that might allow us to survive such a cataclysm. In that regard, even though I and the team at Viking know a lot of the main points in the World of Depleted epic, there are many parts that we are completely unaware of that other contributors will help us discover. That’s pretty cool.
What was an unexpected challenge you had with World of Depleted?
I think the biggest challenge has been time management, especially with the different prongs of releasing different elements in this World. Figuring out the best ways to make things available to fans has taken more time than I had originally anticipated, although, as with all things, the initial roll out is always the most time-consuming.
How much of World of Depleted‘s content is available for free (and how is paid-for content accessed – subscription? work-basis?)?
All contributor-created content is available for free for all fans, at least as an online streaming or viewing environment. Folks who sign up as official contributors get access to the highest quality assets that they can use and remix as contributors.
How can people participate in World of Depleted?
First, sign the contributor agreement by registering an account at the World of Depleted Contributors site. After that, get creative! Make something that fits in the Depleted world: films, photography, art, writings, poems, songs, special effects, role playing game materials, whatever appeals to your creative instincts.
Then submit your work to Viking Productions. We review submissions on two core criteria: are they well-created, and are they interesting? If the submission meets both criteria, it’s accepted into the Depleted world. If the submission does not conflict with existing Depleted world canon and explores the world in an interesting way, the submission is canonized and heavily promoted by Viking Productions. If the submission conflicts with existing Depleted canon but meets the other criteria, it is given “Apocrypha” status (it’s not part of the official World of Depleted, but it still qualifies for profit sharing).
You have already published two fiction contributions from fans. How have or how will these possibly affect your plans for future Depleted content?
Because all contributions are proofed for both quality and cohesiveness with current world status, we’re able to grant those stories that are accepted as Canon full impact status that is on par with those that I create or any of the Viking team may create. In fact, my co-creator, Chris Tanchyk, is a writer who is planning to write about a number of political events in the World of Depleted as a standalone contributor. Despite the fact that he helped us create the world, if a fan were to write a captivating tale about some area that he planned on writing about and it were submitted and accepted before his work, he would either have to rewrite his story to avoid the conflict or have his new work classified as ‘Apocrypha,’ since the earlier work (which is now Canon) defined something in the world that he couldn’t undo.
The only exception to this rule is if there are official story arcs that have already been slated within Viking for some part of Depleted’s future that have not yet been published. Obviously, it’s not fair to hold fans accountable to know what hasn’t yet been published, so if they happen to write about something that conflicts with one of our story archs, we’ll let them know how to adjust the tale to not exclude what’s already in the pipeline. (For folks who are interested in contributing to an area that we likely already have officially slated, they can contact us ahead of time and we can work with them so they can help flesh out these areas without fear of conflict.)
Other than that exception, anything that’s canonized officially changes the world for all of us. I might have to change a notion that occurs to me on a future film because of one of the fan’s whose work is canonized today!
For me, that’s very exciting. That means that, while I may have helped co-create the initial elements of this world and I may have certain “foreknowledge” of major events and certain tales within this world, I don’t even know what all this world will contain. That’s a very cool feeling!
How can contributors make money, and what rights do they have over their works?
When a contributor signs the Contributor Agreement, what they’re agreeing to is a way that two sets of intellectual property (Viking’s and the contributor’s) can be used and monetized in a mutually beneficial way. Without the agreement, neither party can monetize the content because of the overlapping intellectual property. The agreement does not affect the contributor’s copyright on their work (nor does it affect Viking’s copyright on its work), but it provides a special license for both Viking and the contributor.
Under this license, Viking can sell copies of the contributed work, so long as they evenly divide 50% of the profits amongst all contributors. For example, if contributor A created a short story, and Viking published a collection of five short stories, contributor A would receive 1/5 of the 50% divided amongst the contributors, or 10% of the total profits. On a smaller scale, if contributor B submitted a photograph which was accepted, and Viking created a T-Shirt featuring this photograph, contributor B would receive 50% of the profits, since there were no other contributors to split it with.
Now, if a contributor wishes to sell their own work that used World of Depleted content, they would be able to set any price they like but would pay a 10% royalty to Viking from the gross sales price. For example, if contributor C made a film set in the World of Depleted that was accepted, and they sold it for $20, contributor C would provide Viking with $2 from each sale. This offers a good incentive for creators who wish to sell their own content, as the royalty isn’t much more than sales tax in most states.
How does Viking Productions make money from the World of Depleted property?
To generate profits for both our contributors and our creative team, we sell physical versions and collector’s editions of films, books, music CDs, and asset collections, as well as a number of fan-based items like T-shirts, hats, posters, and the like. In that regard, we’re very much borrowing a page from the Nine Inch Nails book, who made a lot of their content available for free, but packed their collector’s editions with cool stuff for fans. Books will include never before seen artwork and information about groups in the stories, DVDs will include alternate versions of the films with new information about the World of Depleted, and other exclusive material.
Viking Productions retains 50% of profits generated from content sold directly by Viking. If the contributor licenses or sells their own accepted work, they retain 90% of the gross proceeds, with 10% going to Viking Productions.
Can a contributor’s derivative work be used by another contributor? How does the remixing of content work?
Yes, it most certainly can. Now, before we move on, we do need to clarify what is considered derivative in the World of Depleted. People contribute ideas (such as places, events, groups, and philosophies) in the World of Depleted that everyone can benefit from and use as they see fit. You are asked to credit anyone whose ideas you directly utilized, although you do not share profits with them. Now, actual work, on the other hand, such as a script, or a photo, or a film, requires both attribution of the creator (and any utilized contributors within that work) and, by default, an equal share of profits.
So that it doesn’t get confusing, all contributors submit a list of all utilized content with their work (which was not created by Viking). That way, if someone wishes to remix it, they can do so, but they will, by default, understand that they will be splitting credit and profit with the contributors whose work is used in their derivative work. All Contributors can separately negotiate arrangement with other contributors, but these are the default arrangements that don’t require additional legal contracts.
The success of shared story worlds is related to the size and level of engagement of audiences. How did you approach marketing for World of Depleted?
I had some very creative members of my marketing team who specialized in different dynamics of marketing. Each of these individuals had specialties that were beneficial to how we approached World of Depleted. Sheri Candler is a PR and marketing liaison specializing in Indie films, so she’s worked as our lead marketing person. She’s really helped us build a Facebook following and engage our audience. Ross Pruden, who watches alternative culture for trends and ways to engage audiences, has had a huge impact on thinking of Alternate Reality Gaming models to encourage audience engagement and has had numerous useful ideas for ways to release new content. Finally, Scott Walker, has a huge amount of experience with interactive story worlds and has done an amazing job of helping us think things through based on his background. Some of the most impacting elements of this world have been realized by this team, as they forced me to think through some of the complex backstory far ahead of what I would otherwise have done.
And how are you courting the creative community for World of Depleted?
In several ways. We have our own website, which is supported by the expected social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and we’ve embedded some “easter eggs” like QR codes in some video content that leads audiences to more information about World of Depleted. We’re also reaching out directly to communities with similar/shared interests, like Megaton, and we have been lucky that some of our supporters help spread the word in interviews, at conferences, on their blogs, etc.
Of course, we’re also making it clear that audiences don’t have to wait to jump in and participate. We’ve already had submissions from the creative community, and two have been published. That helps validate our project and our marketing messages, proving there is an interest in World of Depleted.
And it’s important to understand that as of right now, we still haven’t released the first internally-produced film! Everything we’ve done so far is focusing on introducing the world behind Depleted, introducing the main characters in the first film, and encouraging audience participation.
What advice would you give to a filmmaker thinking about launching a shared story world?
The number one thing I would say is that you’ve really got to think of things in a different way than most filmmakers do today. For a lot of years, we’ve seen filmmakers who wanted to be the next Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and George Lucas, hoping to beat out all the competitors and rise as a name in the world of entertainment. If you try to take that concept into shared story worlds, you’re already lost. You’ve actually got to think of the notion of providing a world that’s extremely beneficial to others, at least as much, if not more, than it is to you.
In my opinion, one of the plagues of low-budget filmmakers is the fear of others stealing their “ultra” brilliant ideas. If you’re going to be starting a shared story world, you’ve got to own the fact that you’ll actually be advertising many of your most brilliant ideas and asking folks to appropriate parts of them. The cool thing is that, when they do, they add their own unique elements that you could never provide, because they see things in a different light than you do. This then provides challenges for you to improve your own work and, in turn, challenges them to do the same. The eventual goal is that everyone is challenged to bring their best work possible and the entire community is improved because of it (and fans are increasingly attracted as the community becomes a hub of creative expression).
In regards to choosing a concept for a shared story world, especially one revolving around filmmaking, I would make a further suggestion that you don’t go for something ultra-niche or unbelievably unique. Overly unique ideas tend appeal to a smaller number of fans, and even smaller number of collaborators. I see this a lot in low-budget experimental films, which, while creative, aren’t terribly interesting to anyone but the creatives behind them.
Try to find a major component that has some sort of cross-cultural significance to focus on. In World of Depleted, we looked at a phenomenon that is common to cultures around the world: the study of the end of the world. We felt this singular thread was something that ties together every man, woman, and child, regardless of ethnicity or location. The terror and fascination of it have permeated every element of art for thousands of years, so there must something important to look at.
With that said, balance the broad-based/common concept (which can provide lots of nooks and crannies for audiences to explore) with unique elements that give the concept an unusual spin. For us, it was looking at an apocalypse that was accomplished not by plague, international war, or zombies, but by common man when he is at his most ruthless and brutal: when he’s afraid. That was our unique twist and it radically changed the way in which this world looked and felt from other apocalyptic worlds like Mad Max, Resident Evil, ZombieLand, or Book of Eli.
This relates to another consideration. If you want to make a world that is easily accessible by other filmmakers, you need to make sure it breaks budget and training restrictions. You want to be sensitive to the notion that there are a lot more filmmakers with very little money that might be interested in making a film in your world than there are those with buckets of cash. Consider a world that can be shot with creativity rather than money and/or special effects.
While the World of Depleted films I’m making do have some personally created special effects in them, the World of Depleted is one that people could shoot in with almost no money and no effects whatsoever. A video camera, a microphone, a few willing actors, and a broken down building could make the next amazing World of Depleted short, since our world is one that has been damaged by man’s civil violence, but not by catastrophic forces. As such, you don’t have to shoot in the desert like Mad Max or Book of Eli, you can shoot in any town, or city, or country that’s got a rotting or damaged building—and technically, you don’t even have to have that, as many locations in Depleted don’t have much physical damage to them, so, with a little creative timing, you can shoot almost anywhere.
Additionally, learn from other multimedia creative communities to get ideas for ways to pull in people who might not yet associate themselves with filmmaking but would love to take a shot at it if it weren’t so overwhelming. Personally, I got ideas from Runes of Gallidon on ways to create paperwork that would simplify the creative process for folks, so that they wouldn’t be scared to get their feet wet. I also got ideas from the Nine Inch Nails community, in which folks like lead singer Trent Reznor will actually make available completely alternate musical takes (and separate instrument tracks) from their songs for fans to re-mix, as well as video footage from concerts and behind the scenes stuff for folks to take a stab at editing. And finally, I got ideas from the Bethesda Softworks creative communities, where they provide the creation engines for their best selling Elder Scrolls and Fallout games for fans and allow them to create all sorts of mods, textures, and new content for the games.
All of these give assets and encourage the creation of assets for others to play around with in a legal and encouraged manner. As we worked to create World of Depleted, we had at first thought to restrict it only to filmmakers, but we started to see writers who wanted to write stories, and artists who wanted to make pictures, and musicians who wanted to create music. We quickly realized we wanted to limit the creative hurdles to participation, as we saw that even things which had nothing to do with film at first glance could easily be used as assets within films. For example, photographs could become matte paintings, music could be part of a soundtrack, and stories could be adapted to scripts.
When we took away the restrictions, we started to realize that there could be an active role for every fan who had any creative spark whatsoever. Additionally, we plan to make a number of assets from our movies, like the upcoming Depleted: Day 419 available for fans to play around with and mix. Amongst the assets we’ll be releasing are uncut narration, DJ tracks, music, and full rendered takes from the elaborate gunfight that fans can remix into their own gunfights!
Finally, remember there’s a difference between a creative community and anarchy. Too many cloud communities encourage expression in a certain vein but do not have proper guidelines or rules over what can be posted or included. It’s more work to have a group that oversees the entire world and makes judgment calls on what things have a place in that world, but, if you’re unwilling to do so, the potential long-term fans of your world will quickly lose interest as the quality and/or veracity of published work becomes impossible to predict or follow.