Interview with Skot Leach of “Lost Zombies”
What was your motivation for exploring collaborative world building and storytelling?
I’ve always loved story telling, and I’ve always loved technology. For me, the best stories were the most immersive, and the most exciting technology was the most interactive. I thought if I could combine the two in some way I could create a collaborative film and at the same time overcome many of the problems I saw with filmmaking (cost, production, distribution).
What were some of the factors that influenced your decision to take a collaborative approach to world building and storytelling?
I went to film school from 1997 to 2000. While I loved it, I felt the whole system for getting a film made and distributed was broken. Worse, I was being taught to obey the broken system. The way I saw it, in order to be successful you had to overcome four massive hurdles.
First, you needed to get the funds and resources together to make your film. Second, once you had the budget and resources, you still needed to make the movie – no small feat. Third, you needed someone else to step in and distribute your film. Fourth, you needed your film to be well received and profitable.
So after taking a break from film to work at a startup, I came up with the idea of a community-generated film. My thought was that if you had lots of people working on a film you could solve the budget and resource problem. I knew the film would never have the gloss of a Hollywood film, but I also knew that it would have something else: many unique voices from all over the world and footage from all over the world.
Basically I figured I could create an aesthetic that Hollywood could not match. I also felt that with enough people involved, they would each become advocates for the project and spread the word via their social graphs. I concluded that the cost would be so low we could distribute the finished product from the site and make some kind of profit.
It’s changed a bit, but those were the seeds of the idea.
How do you like to describe Lost Zombies?
I usually say, “Lost Zombies is a zombie themed social network with the goal of creating a community generated film.” It’s short and easy to remember. Most importantly, this description almost always gets a response or a series of questions. Really though, it’s a story world that the audience can explore and contribute to. I can talk about what it is all day, and sometimes in talking about it I confuse myself. It’s a living thing.
What do you mean by the word, “living,” in terms of a shared story world?
I believe there are two forms of storytelling.
One is where I go off and write something, maybe a film, maybe a novel, but I write it in solitude and then it’s done. It’s dead. I don’t mean that to sound negative, I just mean that the story is done. People can have an experience with it, but generally speaking the story won’t change.
The second way to tell a story is to open the telling up to others and to accept that you as a creator are not solely in control. This allows the story to live. It can change. It can be influenced by others. Its potential increases, and you are able to see it in a new way. I think one of the most important lessons about creating collaborative story worlds or any interactive thing is that it must be living.
What was a pleasant surprise you had with Lost Zombies?
I’m grateful to say we’ve had many. But the one that set everything off was winning two Web Awards at SXSW 2009, though it wasn’t at all about the awards. It was that a community we respected was acknowledging us. I felt validated.
What was an unexpected challenge you had with Lost Zombies?
Actually making the film we set out to make. I thought when this project began that I could scrape together 20+ filmmakers from my old film school contacts. I honestly thought each of these 20+ would shoot a few minutes of footage and we’d have a film in a few months. I never expected thousands of people to join.
How much of Lost Zombies content is available for free (and how is paid-for content accessed – subscription? work-basis?)?
All content is free. It all exists in some form on lostzombies.com. We do have a book being published that will be for purchase [note: you can pre-order “Dead Inside: Do Not Enter” at Amazon now]. That will be the first chunk of content that’s not free. I suppose you could argue that even that is free because you can see the content that makes up the book on the site.
How can people participate in Lost Zombies?
They can join lostzombies.com, which is essentially a social network. If they like, they can treat it like a social network, chat, use the forums, friend other users. If they want to be more involved, they can submit pictures and video. We have calls-to-action asking for specific content we need to complete some facet of the story world. The site caters to everyone from zombie enthusiasts to hard core filmmakers.
Can contributors make money? If so, how?
Currently no. Since we don’t sell anything yet, there’s nothing to make. Our original plan was to offer money to contributors of the film, but we still have no idea how that will work. We want to be fair and straightforward with our community. The straightforward answer is that we just don’t know what will happen with the film. We are currently considering releasing it under a Creative Commons (CC) license, allowing users to freely distribute and remix the project.
What rights do contributors have over their derivative works?
As of now, contributors own everything they submit. We own the Lost Zombies logo and story spine that establishes our world. We’ve really just been focused on building our story world. We don’t think about rights much – which will make for a nightmare later – as much as keeping the momentum going. We found that focusing on that [legal] stuff just kills everything.
We promise our users we will never use their content without their permission, and we’ve stuck to that. As I mentioned before, we are fond of the idea of a CC license for the whole story world, but we’re still in a wait-and-see mode. Regarding the book, it will not be available under a CC license, though we did secure rights from the contributors whose content was used in the book.
Can a contributor’s derivative work be used by another contributor (i.e., can fans remix other fans’ submitted work)?
We have no tools to allow that, but users do collaborate with each other’s permission.
How do you view the relationship between world building and storytelling? Does one drive the other?
For me, they drive each other. When we launched Lost Zombies we started with a simple notion of creating a community-generated zombie film. That was our world. We thought we needed more so we created complex plot points to flesh out the world. Initially our audience rejected those plot points, so we dumped them and adopted a broad world: zombies are real. That was our world.
As we gathered content (stories) we began to inject more structure into the world. Then came more stories and then more world. They feed each other. An analogy of how I view it might be, the Lost Zombies world is like twitter and the tweets are like stories. Twitter began with the platform (world), and as it was fleshed out with tweets (stories) the platform updated. You see how people are using your world and then you adapt.
What have you learned about storytelling through collaborative world building?
People love telling stories. They don’t always want to be a passive observer. Some want to contribute. Some want to get closer. I think that’s the big thing. I think we all want to get closer to the story, we want to access the story world in a way that is much more intimate then what we are used to.
What were some of the inspirations for creating Lost Zombies?
I draw inspiration from all over the place. A huge inspiration was technology, specifically knowing the tools finally existed to be able to pull something like this off. In terms of creative inspirations, there are several: ilovebees, David Lynch, Lance Weiler, Mark Z Danielewski, George Romero, Stanley Kubrick, and the Halo and Animal Crossing video games. I get little bits from all over.
What were some of the website design considerations you had to incorporate as a result of Lost Zombies being a shared world?
We built Lost Zombies on the Ning platform. We had some flexibility on features and design, and while we were limited in some ways too, my priority for the site was usability. I knew we were doing something pretty unique and new, and we needed to make sure the calls to action were very clear. That was the most important thing. I leaned heavily on my product design experience.
Can you describe what happens to a submission? What’s the review/editing process like? How much editing does Lost Zombies do on submissions?
A user submits a video or picture as they would on Facebook or any similar social network. That content goes into a queue for approval. Our moderators approve the content and publish it on the site. Our rules are pretty simple: what you submit must be zombie related and must be your own. The site is more of a metasite where we discuss the story world and how we all contribute to it, versus a site that represents the story world. As a result we don’t need to refine content all that much. It’s more like we’re building a world here, and we need some dirt and some bricks and some wood.
What advice would you give regarding the submission/review/editing process to someone starting or managing a shared world?
You need to have something you can hold on to rigidly, and then you need to be completely flexible with everything else. Our rigid component was a community-generated-zombie-film. No matter what, we wanted to walk away from this project with that. Let the audience figure out the rest. If you don’t let them drive every now and then they won’t stick around.
How did you approach pre-launch and post-launch marketing for building awareness and an active audience?
We created a bunch of accounts on YouTube, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Digg, basically every social site out there. We seeded these accounts by friending zombie enthusiasts and filmmakers. At launch we released a few videos and pushed our social graph toward the videos. This created a big wave of traffic that drove the video up the ranks at YouTube. We repeated this process every couple of weeks and each time the wave got bigger.
Another big success for us was stickers. We created Lost Zombies stickers and gave them away. Users would sticker them in creative spots, and we would publish the photos on our site. This created a kind of feedback loop that resulted in more and more stickers being distributed and photographed. It actually drove a lot of usage to the site.
What are some of the more popular or interesting storylines happening in Lost Zombies?
For me the most compelling experience was watching users draft handwritten notes from the perspective of someone living in our Lost Zombies world. Members created a scenario where they were leaving notes on a bathroom wall. That triggered the idea for the book we have coming out later this year.
How do you balance internally-generated content (that keeps things interesting/dynamic but can dramatically alter the world) with the need to provide contributors a relatively stable world foundation?
Our overarching scenario and story rules are pretty well fixed. We’ve created the world in such away that contradictions and surprises are minimal. The default state of our world is post zombie apocalypse. A vast majority of the population is dead or undead. There is no cure or end in sight. If members want to tell a story that exists earlier in our timeline they can. We’re pretty flexible.
What mediums would you like to see in Lost Zombies (or see more of)?
For me as long as it’s authentic to the story world, I’m open to any and all mediums. The book we did is a great example. The book is made up of handwritten notes that the community wrote from the perspective of individuals surviving a zombie apocalypse. The book consists of photos of these notes. It really is beautiful, and to me the ultimate example of what’s possible with a story world. In this book you have scribbles that are some times funny, sometimes sad and always very, very human. When you see in those notes is a unique glimpse into a world, one that you could never get from the medium of a film or a piece of music. It’s tactile and it feels true and real.
And, of course, we do certainly want to finish the film!
What is your view about the future of collaborative commercial entertainment? Has it changed since you started Lost Zombies?
If you mean do I think the Entertainment Industry will adopt collaborative methods of production, promotion and distribution, I would say maybe, eventually. If you mean will individuals and small creative groups achieve financial success and wide-spread popularity, then I think there’s huge potential. I see three big changes since Lost Zombies launched.
The first is how connected people are. Between mobile platforms and social applications, people are much easier to reach. Second, there are so many cheap and accessible tools at our disposal: HD cameras, social networking, video hosting sites, mobile devices, tablets, etc. Third, we now have access to store fronts like iTunes, Android and Amazon. All of these things are going to grow. So now we have the tools, the audience and paths to revenue for shared story worlds.