In dealing with a contract renewal negotiation, CM Punk brought the world of transmedia storytelling to professional wrestling.
Before I dive into this, I need to explain some wrestling terminology. A “work” is something that’s scripted — Wrestler A hates Wrestler B in the ring, but backstage they’re friends and they travel together, for example. When a story is is worked, it’s all fictional.
A “shoot” is the opposite — it’s very real, bringing backstage politics to the ring. Wrestler A shoots on Wrestler B in the ring, and that’s because they’re real tension (or “heat”) between them outside of the ring.
Over time, promoters realized that audiences really liked shoots, in much the same way that they like performers in love comedy shows to crack up (called “breaking”) during rehearsed skits. So, something evolved called a “worked shoot,” in which real tensions are amplified or enhanced in order to tell a better story in the ring. Often times, a worked shoot becomes a pure work, as tensions are resolved outside the ring but the story continues inside of it.
Earlier this year, CM Punk mentioned that his contract was expiring on July 17th, and he wasn’t considering renewing. As far as could be determined, this was all shoot, and seemed consistent with previous interviews and Twitter messages from him. He threatened to beat John Cena (then the WWE Champion) and take the belt with him off of television at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view. That seemed to be a work, and it was likely that something would happen that allow the belt to remain in the WWE’s hands. There was some great shoot and worked shoot mic work leading up to the PPV which I recommend watching if you like wresting, but from a pure storytelling perspective it wasn’t anything new — just quality work by two professionals at the top of their game. Punk has a number of interviews, including one with GQ magazine, in which he’s pretty clear about leaving the company. The Money in the Back match comes, and John Cena and CM Punk wrestle.
And Punk wins. And leaves with the belt. And then things get interesting.
First, he posts pictures of his celebration on Twitter, making it very clear that there isn’t going to be a sudden reversal or tidy wrap-up, at least not right away. Traditionally on WWE, the next night’s live Raw broadcast deals with the fallout from the previous night. Everyone expected Punk to show up and be involved somehow. And yet, at the time of Raw’s airing, Punk was still in Chicago at a Cubs game, and posted pictures of the belt from the game. On television, the focus was on making a new belt and the repercussions on the character of Vince McMahon, who is fired as CEO and replaced with his son-in-law, Triple H. (Side note: One CNBC reporter speculated that the SEC may have to investigate the firing, and for a few days it appears the WWE was actually playing along with the investigation. They ultimately admitted that Vince was only fired as Chairman, a title that the SEC doesn’t have any authority over.) Punk still has the title.
Then, Comic-Con. CM Punk crashes the WWE/Mattel panel that has Triple H, and continues the storyline. The video is all amateur — there were no WWE cameras there, and it appears to all be unscripted. Again, except for a few mentions on Raw and on WWE.com, none of this is happening on any official WWE outlet. On July 25th, Punk returns to Raw at the very end of the show, and the story takes on its normal proportions — it’s largely on television and WWE.com again. So, from a transmedia perspective, we’re really looking at the time period from the evening of July 17th to the evening of July 25th.
From a television perspective, the story is simple — CM Punk leaves, a short tournament is held, a new belt awarded to John Cena, and then CM Punk returns to challenge that. You can follow along without any of the external media and get it. But by following Punk on Twitter and the incident at Comic-Con, you get a lot more texture and nuance for the story — there’s a second story unconnected to official WWE media that accentuates and enhances the core story. The fact that WWE is notoriously protective of keeping their story on their own media adds to this — they went outside of their comfort zone and let Punk tell his story as well.
And, from everything I’ve been able to tell (although I have nothing definitive), Punk wasn’t even a contractor with WWE during this time. It appears his contract legitimately expired on the 17th, and that he was resigned close to his appearance on Raw.1
To me, this shows that we’re in a world where you don’t have to keep a stranglehold on your narrative. Side narratives can exist in alternative channels that layer into the core narrative in intriguing ways. Further, “creative control” seems to be more resilient and more fluid than previously believed. On the one hand, there’s nothing really that groundbreaking about what happened during that week in July, but the fact that a venerable entertainment company like the WWE tried it and, more specifically, let a contractor run with it says volumes.
So, thank you, CM Punk. You have made me seriously reconsider the boundries of storytelling.
- I have since learned that in a recent interview, Punk admits to resigning his contract the day of the 17th, so he was a paid contractor that entire time. However, a lot of my core point stands. ↩