Producing video content direct for the web is allowing creators to sidestep TV execs and let loose their originality
I’ve found a weird part of the internet. So far, it has featured Harvey Keitel hunting down a plague of killer moustaches, Jane Austen heroine Emma Woodhouse reinvented as neurotic matchmaker, and the life and times of some ‘bronies’ – bros who are fond of My Little Pony. Welcome to the strange and mysterious world of web series.
Web television goes all the way back to dark times of 1995, when Bullseye Art released a series of web cartoons that you can still watch. It continued as a niche interest until the 2007 writers’ strike, when Grand Imperial Nerd Wizard Joss Whedon directed and produced Doctor Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog, with the intention of producing a small, inexpensive but professional project in a way that would circumvent the issues that were being protested during the strike. The series drew praise for its big names (including Neil Patrick Harris) and high production values. The original upload drew more than 50 million views and was named #15 on Time magazine’s list of 50 great inventions of 2008. It has and was followed by a raft of others, including Web Therapy, starring and produced by Lisa Kudrow, and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which won an Emmy. Now, TV and feature films written for release on video-sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo are having a moment. There are more than 800 commercial web series in production. They even have their own award shows, in the form of the Raindance Web Festival and the Vancouver Web Festival, dedicated to recognizing the high quality of the shows being produced.
That quality is drawing more people into production. More importantly, it’s accessible and low-cost high quality, Elisar Cabrera, director of the Raindance Film Festival, tells me: “Actors, writers, producers, directors are creating web series ultimately because it’s true independence. Unlike working for commissioned TV shows, creators have 100% creative control of their web series. It’s as important for established stars as it is for up-and-comers.” It’s a useful function of the internet that you can produce exactly what you want, and if it has traction with audiences, the rewards are high. Several web series have been picked up for broadcast or re-formatting for TV. Dane Boedigheimer’s The Annoying Orange regularly amassed millions of views per episode online and became a success on Cartoon Network, and Svengali, starring Martin Freeman, began life as a web series.
Success on mainstream TV though, is often not the point. “The ideology and definition of television as a global telecommunication device is much more suited to the internet,” argued Brad Bell, creator of the web series Husbands in an interview with Hypable. “The world wide web is the world’s biggest television platform. The ‘inevitable merging’ of the two mediums has already happened technologically. What hasn’t happened is the audience’s realization of that shift. That can only be fostered with quality content.” Online companies seem to think the same. Hulu, Yahoo and Google are sinking huge amounts of money into digital programming – Yahoo will invest $500 million in original content next year, and Google have shovelled $100 million into YouTube as they seek to reposition the video player as a platform for quality content and legitimate music streaming service, rather than clickbait for the scatterbrained.
Riyad Barmania, a creative producer for digital production company ChannelFlip, thinks the investment and creativity is a crucial part of the appeal. “It’s the wild, wild west. Nobody knows where its going to go or how its going to work, which in some ways is great. People try new things and the sweep of content, aimed at literally billions of people, is amazing. The scale is immense.” Barmania also directed web feature Ashens and The Quest for GameChild, starring YouTube personality Stuart Ashens alongside stars like Warwick Davies and Robert Llewellyn. “Look, no film studio would ever have made that,” says Barmania. “It was a bit nuts to put it online too – a film about a guy looking for a game console… Accepted logic is that people want short, digestible clips. We made a feature film that was 88 minutes long. We have 550,000 views, we’re even selling DVDs. That’s what I love about online. What you think you know to be true rarely is.”
YouTube’s platform of comment and interaction changes how films are made too, not least because so many are crowdfunded. Will Wheaton and Felicia Day’s new web-series Tabletop set a new record for crowdfunding a webseries, raising a total of £843,932. Talking to The Wrap, Day explained: “TableTop wouldn’t be what it is without the community of new and veteran gamers who have embraced us.” Producer Dan Porter, speaking the same interview, adds: “You can’t throw up a project with some rewards and expect money to flow. It’s very analogous to social media in that you have to continually talk to people and communities.” That community also tend to have strong opinions, which Riyad Barmania thinks is no bad thing: “One of the benefits of being online is that audiences get to engage and be part of a production. Our fans watched the film, gave money, gave positive, constructive feedback. People feel connected, they feel engaged.”
That connection is important, particularly to companies that have harnessed web series as a next-generation marketing tool. As lovely as it would be to make web series purely for the joy and glory of art, not every show can be crowdfunded or produced by a TV network or web company. Sponsorship and product placement also have a role to play. Hank Azaria is exploring modern paternity in comedy series Fatherhood, sponsored by Disney Parks. Ikea’s webshow Easy To Assemble averages over 10 million views per episode. Anthony Zwicker created the hugely successful CSI franchise for network television and has just launched a web series called Cybergeddon. In an interview with Screenrant, he explains: “We’re trying to show the industry how to work with brands in a very thoughtful way – to keep the brand happy and to keep us happy – to tell a big global story buying into our philosophy of doing online movies on a global scale.”
Brand sponsorship is easily one of the most lucrative sources of funding for web series. In an editorial for The New England Film Review, web series producer Amy Quick Parish writes: “YouTube and other outlets, because so few people actually click on the ads, it is not as profitable as content creators wish it could be… Some series creators have tried selling merchandise like t-shirts, coffee mugs, hats, stickers, or comic book tie-ins to generate revenue, but they often don’t sell a lot.” Outside of crowdfunding record smashers, rarely can more than a quarter of production costs be covered by the community. YouTube offer financial rewards to video uploads that generate a lot of views, often splitting the ad revenue generated by sidebar and pre-roll ads with the uploader, but lately, YouTube have been sharing more conservatively- some producers even report being bullied to accept lower percentages of ad revenues or risk losing their hosting altogether.
“It’s getting harder and harder to work with YouTube” says Riyad Barmania. “It’s evolving and changing. Any time you’re working with a big dominant player, there are challenges. You take the rough with the smooth – they do fund those channels, making amazing, interesting content, but also effectively set the price for art.” The future of the web series, he argues, will depend on what media consumers want. As major film and television studios start producing material exclusively for web – as Fox, Universal, and NBC already do – the battle for exposure will intensify and web platforms may become less democratic. Equally possible is the vast proliferation of the kind of high quality content normally reserved for Cable TV. The direction the industry should take is very much up in the air, but it hasn’t extinguished enthusiasm yet. “It’s a dynamic new industry,” says Barmania. “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be any fun.”