The info session for Storyland 4 is fast approaching, so Paul Webster surveys the web-series landscape.
With the announcement of Lucky Run as the winners of RTÉ’s StoryLand competition earlier this month, it seemed like a good time to take a look at the web-series as a medium. Is it the future of filmmaking, or does it even have a future? From my own experience and by talking to other filmmakers I tried to weigh up the pros and cons of the web-series.
Recently we released the final instalment of our A Dog’s Life web-series. It’s a four-part series in which we play ourselves and it chronicles amongst other things our adventures as filmmakers. When we first started making films under the banner of Fake Dog Films about four years ago, Youtube was increasingly being used as a way of getting movies out there. One day we went out and shot a music video for one of our favourite French bands, My Diet Pill. We shot it in one evening, edited it in another and then sent them a link. The band loved it and started promoting it amongst their fans. In no time we had nearly a thousand views. Although in the grand scheme of Youtube that might not seem that much, it was just great to see that people were watching it. Also they could share their feedback on our work. The advantages were obvious.
At this time we were also looking at other filmmakers who were doing the same thing. One group in particular was Blame Society. They were making very funny series for the web on a very low budget. Their most famous being Chad Vader, a comedy about Darth Vader’s lesser-known brother who was the manager of a grocery store. Another group was the guys behind Smosh, a Youtube channel which turned into an internet phenomenon. They were two guys making videos and web-series in their bedroom and became one of the most subscribed to channels on Youtube. Before they went to college they had a legion of fans, a website and a merchandise shop.
It is easy to get bogged down in the competitive nature of Youtube and chasing views. So many of the most popular videos on Youtube are just clips of people’s cats or dogs doing silly but adorable things. You do have to keep in mind where the films will be shown, but it is more important to make films that you can look at in a few years and still be proud of. However, now there are good alternatives to Youtube, the main one being Vimeo. It consists of mostly user-generated content and is geared towards people looking for more artistic, perhaps more professional, material.
It is important to remember where people are going to be watching these episodes, most likely crouched over a laptop in work or at home. It’s a different animal to TV where people are sitting back comfortably. For this reason, you have to think a lot about the timing. It can be difficult to fit all the material you want into 6 or 7 minutes. This makes you more selective and is especially good for comedy as you are only using your best work.
So far, this has generally been a comedic format. Many of the successful applicants to StoryLand – RTÉ’s web-series strand have been comedies. However, Lucky Run – this year’s winner goes against this grain. It is a gritty, suspenseful thriller with just the right amount of comic relief.
Does this indicate that internet audiences are maturing? Can you get the sort of edginess associated with independent film, working with this sort of format? I asked Eilish Kent – the creator of StoryLand, about the more dramatic web-series. Eilish commented, ‘We look for the best quality and don’t differentiate between genres in our selection of series to commission for StoryLand. We have tended to receive an overwhelming majority of comedies, which is reflected in the final commissions so it was good to see a drama series win out this year. There is definitely more room for short form dramas and thrillers online. If a series is good, audiences will pick it up.’
StoryLand is quite unique. There are some similar examples of this sort of format online, one being Channel 101. It is a website where filmmakers submit pilot episodes and the viewers decide which series they would like to see more of. However, this is completely independent. StoryLand is different as it was established by a national broadcaster. Will other networks follow RTÉ’s lead? Eilish says, ‘We haven’t come across something similar anywhere else to-date. Earlier this year StoryLand was presented at INPUT an international conference for broadcasters and the related response was very positive. I believe that a number of broadcasters are exploring a model based on StoryLand. We see StoryLand as a wonderful way to get more stories and more diversity of views to our audience as well as developing talent.’
So what is the future for StoryLand and indeed the web-series in general? ‘We want StoryLand to work on two levels, the first is to engage audiences with good stories, characters and entertaining shows, and the second to help develop creative producers, writers, directors, cast and crew who think episodically and who will cross over onto longer form content. In the very near future I don’t think viewers will differentiate between platforms. At the end of the day audiences look for quality content and aren’t that concerned whether it was made for the web or TV, they just want to watch good stories that are well told.’
The web-series will continue to be used as training ground for new talent. More and more young Irish filmmakers are using the format to hone their skills and develop a full body of work they can present. Some filmmakers who were unsuccessful in their applications to StoryLand, decided to go it alone and make their series anyway. One such group was the talented gentlemen behind Life Coach. Life Coach is a web-series about John, a well-meaning but socially inept young man who enlists the help of a life coach. After amassing almost a hundred minutes of viewing in 7 episodes, the filmmakers then had to take on the task of promoting the series. They developed an interesting and thorough strategy. As well as using all the usual social networking sites and media outlets, they tried to use other techniques to get people interested. Giles Brody, writer and star, talked of one these ideas, ‘I tried to write a life coach tip for every day from the launch of the first episode to the finale which was fun.’
I talked to the director, Barry Richardson about using the internet to get people to watch your work. ‘The thing about the internet is that, even though it’s great that you can put your own stuff up really easily, it’s incredibly competitive. People can go online and watch anything, you can get the latest HBO show as soon as it’s aired in America, so you’re up against basically everything. That’s why, as much as you do to advertise your stuff, you have to push your friends and family to spread it around and hope that word-of-mouth gets more people interested. I think the success of Hardy Bucks and The Rubberbandits has made people a bit more interested in checking out what people are making on the cheap around the country though.’
So it’s hard work, but the future is bright for the web-series and indeed internet oriented filmmaking. The slogan of Channel 101 is ‘The unavoidable future of entertainment.’ This may be a slightly overly- optimistic thought at this time, but there’s no doubt this type of filmmaking will not go away anytime soon. Emerging filmmakers will continue to use it as a tool to get their work seen. As of yet, there have not been many stars crossing over from web-series to the big time, but it seems inevitable that this will change in the very near future. It is clear that how we watch and engage with entertainment is changing rapidly and irrevocably. Filmmakers are adapting to this change, but hopefully the best parts of quality film and television production will not be lost in the progression to the internet.
RTÉ will be launching StoryLand4 at an information session in RTÉ at 7pm on Wednesday, 6th July with a submission deadline in September.
Paul Webster is a writer and co-founder of fakedogfilms.com