Spinning a New Yarn on the Web
It’s become one of the most common things said by actor, writer, and director friends of mine over the last few years:
Q: Hey what are you up to?
A: I’m working on a new web series.
Now we all know that “working on” has many, many meanings in creative circles, and yes – I DO think that laying in bed and thinking about how you want to shoot something may be a necessary part of “working” on it. But in the content-creating (see my rant below about that term) world we are surrounded with original work and some of it has been pulling a profit for some time now. There are some web series that build an audience and find revenue like “The Guild” or “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” did, as well as dozens (hundreds? thousands) of original series one can find on YouTube. Things like “Annoying Orange,” Freddie Wong‘s “Video Game High School” (or anything Freddie Wong makes, for that matter), or Machinima‘s entire catalogue. Now there are companies, like Maker Studios and even hulu coming to the fore with 100% emphasis on web video. And they’re making some real money.
And I’m not being cynical or rhetorical when I ask this question: Is this sustainable?
Or maybe more to the point: Where is all this going?
Malcontent with “Content”
Probably around the time “image capture” replaced “filming,” I noticed the word “content creator” beginning to replace “filmmaker.” And now people talk about their “content” (or even worse, its hipster buzzword cousin – “IP”) instead of talking about their movies, films, scripts and stories. And I’ve been known to refer to “content” as well (and to my shame, “IP”), but I don’t set out make content. Content is nougat. Content is the sand in the sandbag. Content can be a song, a photo you took on your iPhone, or the color red. “Content” is a meaningless word that, in my opinion, belies that on the web we’re all serving the web designers – who can tell a story as well as the next guy – rather than filmmakers.
As for how I like to think about what I do: on a good day, I work on story. Filmmakers wake up wondering how they’re going to get all the pieces of their “story,” together, not how they’re going to “create content.”
I suppose filmmakers of ancient times (like 10 years ago) weren’t “content creators” because there were basically two containers accessible to most people – movie theaters and televisions. Now we have smartphones, tablets, all kinds of computers, etc. And for “content creators,” there are also armies of web designers, etc. who fuss over the experience, write the code, study the stats, etc. And the old-timey filmmaker in me doesn’t want to worry about all that stuff – but the “content creator” in me… Well he’s just abuzz with how to maximize all of that because he knows that every filmmakers’ future moving forward depends on it. And that might just be the future of the business, but just like tracking Nielsen ratings or reading audience focus-group feedback it can be the death of art if we let it be. But how does this relate to indie cinema?
A Reductive Three-Paragraph History of Indie Cinema:
Indie cinema has been a subset of cinema as long as people have been using cameras to tell stories. If you’ve ever been to a film festival (or worked at one, as I did for a few years) you begin to wonder who isn’t making an indie movie in their backyard. well-known and academically-approved film movements like Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave (and, as I’ve often argued, 70’s horror) could easily be call indie movements in their own way. They shaped culture, influenced subsequent generations of filmmakers, and sometimes even found relevance beyond their own times.
But something happened in the 1990’s, something which branded a new movement called “indie filmmaking.” Shortly after Stephen Soderbergh‘s “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” made a splash at the relatively-new Sundance Film Festival and then went on to make a modest amount of money, festivals and markets like the IFFM (now the IFP Market) were awash with new “indie” films. Some, like Kevin Smith‘s “Clerks,” had a fresh homespun feel. Some, like Richard Linklater‘s “Slacker” were an intersection of avante-garde and punk ruck. As time went on, movies like Darren Aronofsky‘s π or Doug Limon‘s “Swingers” threw a rope to their audiences in how they played with pre-existing genres in a new way and so it goes. Every year, Sundance was criticized for selling out even as the movies discovered there went on to bigger and bigger box-office receipts.
I have argued before that the American Indie Cinema movement had an unfortunate downfall all along, and that was a love affair with its own naval. I actually blogged about it here. The short version of my criticism of a certain, very visible and commercial wing of indie film became obsessed with small, low-stakes stories that took few risks and showed audiences little that they hadn’t seen before. Then in 2008, combined with an economic crash, these movies seemed to lose relevance completely and the business of indie filmmaking became more of a bloodsport (or a hobby), with few survivors who could get ingenious indie fare like “Another Earth” or “Monsters” – films with a unique voice AND something interesting and new to say – put together.
…But I Want My Indie Fix!
Now I don’t think indie film is dead, but it’s certainly being forced to change with the times in some great and/or painful ways. But one of the issues that indie films always had to deal with were often TWO sets of gatekeepers – those who programmed the few festivals at which one might find distribution and then a totally different gatekeeper in the distributers themselves. So for an indie film to find a home, it has to pass through two filters, we’ll call them the “art” filter followed by the “commerce” filter. And both, as we all know, are thoroughly subjective. Today, that model still exists, but the web world has given us another option curated for better or for worse by everyone with a computer.
The Rise(?) of the Web Series?
The first person I ever heard of making a web series was my friend Dan Myrick. In 2003, he made a limited series called “The Strand,” which was a multi-thread Robert Altman-esque character study about people living in Venice, CA. Each episode was about 45 minutes long, and at the time there was no business model for making one’s money back on a web series. That was in 2005 and since then we’ve all learned a lot about the anatomy of a successful web series, as well as the power filmmakers have to publish their own work without dealing with gatekeepers.
I will conclude this by saying that I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I’m about to try making at least one web series. We shoot in a few weeks, so stay tuned for updates.