April 25, 2011

Elephriend & Emmy-nominee Bob Soderstrom on “Social Benefit Storytelling.”

Image: Tribeca Film

Honored to host this guest post by longtime elephriend Bobby Soderstrom, with whom I’ve shared many heartfelt, fun adventures over the (many) years—including last month’s Coachella. ~ ed.

Tim Kring’s Conspiracy For Good Storms London.

We launched the Conspiracy For Good in 2010 in London as an experimental form of entertainment called “Social Benefit Storytelling,” which allowed for real people (the audience) to participate inside a fictional story to do good in the real world.

Two things were novel about what we did.  First, we distributed the story over many different platforms, like mobile, the web, Facebook, songs, Twitter, so that audience members received different pieces of the story over time.  This is what we call cross-platform storytelling.  It’s like taking a 30-minute TV show and breaking it into 30 one-minute pieces and sending those out as text messages.  Except that we created over 10 hours of content that was released over four months.

The audience would then stitch together the pieces of the story, reconstruct it so to speak, to learn what was occurring with certain characters.  It’s almost like they (the audience) were privy to the characters’ private lives and missions, and able to discuss how to help them and put the puzzle together.

It all culminated with four live events over a month in London, where the fans showed up to meet the characters and go on scavenger hunts that took them deeper into the story.  Our partner, Nokia, provided this remarkable technology that allowed people to use their mobile devices to pick up digital clues that we hid in graffiti to guide participants through the streets.  It was street theater meets high-end technology, and the streets of London were the stage.

The second element that was novel about the Conspiracy For Good was that we wanted people’s participation in the story to be a force for good in the real world. As Hollywood writers, Tim Kring and I have become a bit fatigued with fictional stories that millions of people watch, but nothing good comes from it.  It’s just a story you consume on your couch and that’s it.  The whole Conspiracy For Good experiment was based around a central question that Tim posed long ago: “What if a fictional story compelled people to do real good?”

So, we wrote a storyline that involved a fictional character, Nadirah X, who has a dream of building a library for her pupils in Chataika Village, Zambia, where we did part of our shoot.  However, Nadirah’s dreams are dashed by this ominous (fictional) corporation that we created called Blackwell Briggs, headed by an evil CEO, Sir Ian Briggs.  And we learn that… Nadirah has the silver bullet to take him down.

But here’s the real part of the story: this amazing NGO called Room to Read (based in San Francisco) really did want to build a real library in Chataika.  So, we challenged the audience to actually fund the library, by purchasing Nadirah’s songs, buying merchandise, raising awareness, posting news to Facebook, and contributing books through WeGiveBooks.org. I’ve got to give credit to John Wood and Rebecca Hankin at Room to Read, because they agreed to play along with this whole experiment to see if it would work.

So, if you’re still following me, we challenged the audience to get involved in this story—which unfolded over four months—to help build the library.  In traditional television, the story comes at the audience.  In our experiment, the audience went and found the story.  They did this with mobile and the web by hacking the servers at BlackwellBriggs.com, and all kinds of other challenging stuff.

It was a very ambitious production to say the least, but also really rewarding.  We had 130 people working on this in five different countries.  I mean, we actually hid items around Europe for fans to find, and if you can believe it, sure enough some fan is crawling under a bridge on the Thames finding documents that we had hidden and uploading that footage to ConspiracyForGood.com to share with other fans in Tokyo or wherever.

We made mistakes making the pilot, but we also learned a ton.  Overall, it was incredibly rewarding.  We produced over twenty webisodes, had about a million downloads of our mobile apps, and created sixty video drops/digital tags hidden in the streets of London, in addition to the four events which ended in secret underground concerts with some killer music, by the way, like the Noisettes, Mystery Jets, and Chapel Club.

So was the library built?  In the end, the Conspiracy For Good’s participants showcased and facilitated the successful funding of the library in Chataika, and also the stocking of four other libraries in Zambia.  We also funded 50 scholarships for girls in Chataika and donated 10,000 books through a campaign at WeGiveBooks.org.  We are really pleased.

Check out this demo reel of the Conspiracy For Good:


Bob Soderstrom is a writer and Emmy-nominated executive producer of the Conspiracy for Good, which was created by Tim Kring (creator of NBC’s Heroes and Fox’s upcoming Touch). He lives in Los Angeles.

This article was previously published on TribecaFilm.com.

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