How to organize a hackathon for a media franchise

Franchise owners are increasingly opening up to their fans and starting to embrace fan art. AMC and HBO for instance created Tumblr blogs for Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, where they curate and share fan art. But they could go even further by taking inspiration from technology hackathons. Far from being an end goal, a hackathon is only a mean, and should be seen as one piece of a larger marketing strategy. These participatory events are fairly low budget, and low risk. If carefully planned and executed, the return on investment can be consequent.



Fans are already creating quality content inspired from their favorite TV shows, books and movies, regardless of copyrights or moral rights. Right now, most franchise owners simply ignore derivative work, and sometimes condemn it. But they could leverage this talent and collective intelligence in a productive and positive way. Organizing a hackathon is only one way to do this. It consists in creating an official framework for fans to create derivative work. A hackathon is an exclusive opportunity for fans to create derivative work with other fellow artists and makers, get coaching from experts who worked on their favorite show or movie, and pitch their ideas to the show’s producers or distributors. For media networks, it is a unique opportunity to meet their community, better understand their needs, purpose and motivation, turn fans into evangelists, spot talent, and crowdsource ideas. IP owners can also orient the type of content created by crafting specific challenges, providing expert advice to participants, or by publishing “story APIs.” Fans are extremely active online; hackathons make a good opportunity to pick their brain, and leverage collective intelligence to innovate.

Example of great fan creations: Game of Thrones interactive spoiler-free map; Game of Thrones character relationship infographic; a concept album to reignite Blade Runner


Technology companies have been organizing them for various purposes: spot talent, improve a technology, raise brand awareness, launch an API… Non-profit organizations like Startup Weekend also organize hackathon-type events to educate entrepreneurs and help them launch their startups. Applied to media franchises, hackathons can serve 2 main purposes. A technology-oriented hackathon can generate prototypes for software or hardware inspired by a story, created by fans for fans.

Example: HBO could organize a Game of Thrones themed hackathon where participants have to build GoT mobile apps.

A content-focused hackathon can generate fan content to feed and expand an existing storyworld. Both scenarios use open innovation as a means to generate ideas, explore creative ways to develop a story universe, experiment with co-creation, engage with fans in a very direct way, raise brand awareness through an intense, immersive experience. All that, at a fairly low cost.

Example: Marvel could organize a hackathon where participants have to create the backstory of a minor or mysterious Marvel character.

In terms of format, there are as many formats as there are hackathons. The purpose and objectives is what determines the number of attendees, rules, length of the event etc.


Fans ! Franchise owners already have consequent fan bases – among which talented storytellers, designers, producers, social media mavens, developers, etc. Fans are already creating great content online. Many would be thrilled to dedicate their skills to participate in a hackathon, have the opportunity to pitch their work in front of Marvel’s lead designer, Game of Thrones’ producers, Showtime’s VP of Digital Business, etc.

How? First steps to start brainstorming…

Disclosure: all the examples below are  scenarios invented by the author of the article to illustrate her vision. None of these examples are real.


  • Identify what fans already create around your media franchise. Each film,  super hero or TV show inspires different types of derivative work, which can inform the design of the hackathon, the expectations set for participants, the licensing model, etc.
  • Identify fan community leaders. Fans can be consulted throughout the planning process to advise organizers on what fans enjoy. They can be evangelists before the event. During the hackathon, they can be participants, coaches, speakers, volunteers… If the hackathon celebrates fan art, existing fan art can be displayed at the event, etc.

Example: is a community of makers who create R2-D2 droids. They would make great coaches in the case of a Star Wars hackathon dedicated to creating DIY droids. Disney could also feature their tutorials to help participants design their robots.

  • Identify internal R&D needs. They can be content or technology focused.

Example: AMC wants to expand its presence on smartphones and monetize more eyeballs through second screen experiences. It organizes a mobile app hackathon to select 5 projects that will be incubated by AMC and launched on app stores 8 months later.

Example: Marvel has a collection of unpublished sketches for a Marvel character. A hackathon could be a good way to monetize this unpublished content. It challenges its creative community to create their own Marvel comic based on the existing sketches.

  • Determine internal resources – which teams can dedicate time to coach or judge the projects created during the hackathon? What is the marketing budget? What content can be provided to participants?
  • Create an API : elements of a story universe shared with participants in a digestible format to allow the community to use official assets to create their projects. An API can feature documentation from the franchise owner or documentation created by fans.

Example: Could Dexter’s Bible or some scripts be published as an API ? This material could be released to hackathon participants exlusively, to help teams come up with story ideas that are consistent and coherent with Dexter’s storyworld.

Example: Game of Thrones has an exhaustive Wiki edited by a very dedicated fan community. The Wiki’s content could be considered as great API for hackathon participants to easily check facts and characters.

Copyrights and IP issues

Franchise owners have several ways to approach intellectual property, depending on the purpose of their hackathon. In any case, they must indicate very clear rules and set the expectations with participants from the start.

What Amazon did with Kindle Worlds is a good example of what can be done. Hackathons are open by nature, and require serendipity. But many elements can be used to help to franchise owner filter or orient what is being created using its franchise. Those elements include:

  • The selection process of participants and projects pre- and post event.
  • Licensing terms set by the franchise owner.
  • Rules and judging criteria.
  • How projects are featured after the hackathon.

Opportunities for traditional advertisers

Hackathons also represent advertising opportunities for brands. From classic display booths to more experiential marketing techniques, hackathons gather a specific population to which brands can advertise over a whole weekend, in an intimate context.

Additional reading on The Daily Bud: Amazon Kindle Worlds turns existing stories into open platforms.


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