Transmedia DNA of SQUATTERTOWN

Every now and then we will present a DNA map of one of our transmedia projects and discuss what happened inside the story universe and what have been project results as well as our personal takeaways. A transmedia project is a living thing, a constant emerging IP that keeps growing. Hence, we can only address intermediate stage results.

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Squattertown is one of our longest running transmedia project out in the field. The idea roots back to mid 2009. We wanted to try how a Hong Kong version of the Spaghetti Western would look like. By December 2009 we came up with a quick shrot named DUE PAROLE, TRE BUGIE that was created as homage to the famous Westerns and set at a small seaside village amongst old ruins of a former fort. The film proofed that we could pull it off and that the HK Western had very strong visual potential.

So we began to develop the concept of the Dim Sum Western. HK is an urban territory ruled by skyscrapers. Thus, a local version of the Western had to reflect this situation since all social issues are linked to narrow concrete blocks within this city. We learned about squatter housing structures on rooftops by a book called  “Portraits from Above – Hong Kong’s Informal Rooftop Communities”. Structures that appear like decaying elevated villages in the midst of new high tech glass palaces. Visually, the perfect setting for a Western. The idea of Squattertown was born. Since we were already about to break the rules of the impossible and attempting to push the boundaries of what was deemed achievable in Hong Kong we decided to go for the format mini-series. Except for one foreign filmmaker in town, no one had touched this particular format at the time.

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[click here to see full res image]

On August 8, 2010 we started the crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, thinking to hold the ultimate pitch: A Dim Sum Western webseries on Hong Kong’s rooftops with a social note. However, the four funding months to come were bumpy and chaos ridden. It needs to be said, that we were running Squattertown as a side project, parallel to day jobs and master studies. None of us made a webseries before nor had experience in crowdfunding. We did some open source projects prior, that involved crowdsourcing of content and interactive participation by the audience, but never applied to project finance.

To coin the subgenre of the Dim Sum Western a designated Twitter and WordPress blog was installed to provide more insight on the definition and what films might be already belonging to that special species.

As we developed and extended the fundraising campaign, literally on the run, producing extra content, linking social networks with the campaign page and pitching the project all over town, there was a time when things got serious. The Indiegogo campaign was stalling for most of the time. Money kept coming in, mostly via private sponsors in face-to-face meetings but we still could not make our small budget. On top, the actual shoot had to be prepared and there wasn’t even a script yet. This was 2 months before the scheduled shooting date.

So we hit the brakes a bit. Postponed the shoot for one month and went on another crowdsponsoring platform as Indiegogo closed with only 1/3 of the budget in. While we were successfully funded on the new German platform MySherpas as one of their launching projects, location scouting began and it was then when we became aware of the full social dimensions of our specific topic. Property developers were about to demolish all the locations we had picked and it became a race against time.

If you want to read more about our adventurous shoot on Hong Kong’s rooftops, dodging triads and security guards while staging knive fights in public read our production logs here.

Due to the harsh conditions, more less remote locations and very tight shooting schedule we could not open the production process as much as we were used to. Usually we would have live video streaming from the set and an on-site reporter giving updates on live chats and twitter. So we tried to reinstall those interactive components during post-production as well as the launch of the series.

The Facebook page was an integral part of the project, but not so much as interaction platform but rather as archive of everything that happened around the project. This made quite a lot of sense when Facebook introduced it’s timeline structure a year later. Central point however, was the simple designed project webpage that linked all social networks and internet channels.

Prior to the physical premiere event in HK, the series saw two preview screening session on a live video streamed internet radio show. Additionally, we went several times on air with the team of East Screen, West Screen, a local HK podcast show that turned it’s recording sessions into weekly live-stream events with chat functions and provided updates on the project as well as educated about transmedia.

On July 30, 2011 Squattertown premiered at Videotage in HK as closing event to the New Media Archeology project series. During the event the Austrian company RealLifeConnect supplied us with their RFID check-in solutions and helped to link up the premiere audience with an online audience. Most popular was the photo box solution where visitors could wear the series’ costumes and take pictures that were shared with their Facebook friends instantly.

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The interactivity impact of this event was overwhelming and online metrics went through the roof. Two days later, on August 1st, the series was launched online on YouTube and Vimeo. Subsequently, throughout the month, supplementary videos, posters, photos and additional story elements via interactive Flash maps were released.

When Google+ launched during the same time we tried to incorporate the new platform technology into the project and setup a “Squatter Town” account that became quite popular with over 1K of followers after only 2 weeks but got soon shut down by Google as it violated their identity regulations at the time.

Besides the regular video platforms we tried new self-distribution methods and became testers for EggUp’s web service. We also tried to create a mobile app but subsequently had to abandon the  idea due to technical and time issues. Ultimately we got in contact with MoPix where we are currently developing a series app as part of the beta tester program. A limited BluRay release has been issued in late 2011.

Eventually, we had to push Squattertown periodically aside in order to focus on other projects, which means we could not follow up on all opportunities at hand. Also, since the project was a test run in every aspect, this stage of the p
roject fell a bit short in terms of story development. There is a lot of potential and we created this vast story universe but had no real chance to dig deeper or go into details at points.

In January 2012, Squattertown started its successful festival run, first in Hong Kong, then abroad. Notable is the November 30, 2012 screening at the Unofficial Google Plus Film Festival that reflected the transparent audience approach and interactive note of the overall project.

According to our experiences from the past 12 months, it is quite evident that the format webseries has made a huge leap forward. While we struggled to get the word out in late 2011, things became much easier. A huge international community has evolved around webseries. It became a serious business, providing a living for some makers as well. The trend is clear, branded entertainment is not only a finance source to get the project produced but also a steady income source for the makers.

Of course, the webseries community is thriving in North America and parts of Europe at the moment. In Asia the attitude is slightly different. While branded entertainment is a common place for TV series and so called microfilms by now, investors and major networks focus on webseries more and more. Only, no one calls it webseries here. However, at this point in history, established and well known feature filmmakers are given exclusive chance to test such branded entertainment formats. It has yet to become a standalone business for independent filmmakers.

While local HK TV seems to be stuck behind the curve, unwilling to pivot to the market trend (no sign of transmedia or second screen apps), Mainland Chinese networks are far more flexible. Especially the major internet video platforms invest substantial budgets into such formats.

Different than in the West, independent filmmakers in HK are very reserved, yes even reluctant to adopt the new formats or even just try out what transmedia could mean to their storytelling. Most consider a Facebook page and a Weibo account as peak of their public appearance which they exploit soley for marketing purposes. As most aim for film festival and traditional press fame they forget to touch base with and build an audience.

But what is the future for Squattertown?

We still need to run in low gear mode as a side project. A concept teaser for season 2 is already online. Once finance is secured we start working on that fulltime. Meanwhile, we tackle to extend the story aspects that fell short for so long. Focus will be given to the Twitter account now. The adventurous tales from the Dim Sum Western universe are about to begin, 140 characters at a time…

More project links:

> Fundraising:

> Production:

> Release:

> Premiere:

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