Why Web Series Matter

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by Dan Schoenbrun, IFP.org

Last week at IFP we launched the call for entries for our 35th annual Independent Film Week. This year, there’s one important change — for the first time, we’ll be accepting applications for narrative web series at all stages of development, production, and post-production

It’s a long time coming, and something that we’re all incredibly excited about.

Personally, I’ve long felt a strange divide between the independent film community and the web video world. When I moderated a panel last year featuring some of the Internet’s most lauded web series creators, one audience member raised his hand to ask –

“What does it feel like to be creating such dreck?”

“Dreck?” responded one panelist.

“You know – disposable content. Trash”

If you’ll allow me to climb on top of my soapbox for a bit, I’ll explain why I feel this condemnation is premature, and why I feel that it’s an incredibly exciting time for the web series format.

But first, watch all four-minutes-and-thirty seconds of this Funny Or Die video from October 2012 (seriously, watch it all):

Did you watch it all? Good.

Because dated as those Gangnam references might be, that brilliant piece of self-depricating satire is still entirely relevant to the web video world today.

I have many friends pursuing careers in this world, and they’ll often refer to themselves as ‘filmmaking’s middle class.’ There’s such a pressure – both internally and externally – for videos to go viral, to rack up as many views as possible through buzzy subject matter, topical material, and short-attention-span-friendly content, that the format can often feel artistically stifling.

Call me an optimist, but I believe that this is going to change. We’re still actively trying to figure out what type of content works online, both as consumers and creators. What are we willing to donate our time to, given the absolute glut of options out there? Right now, we know that short, topical content works. But as technology and artistry develops in the online space, so will viewing habits.

Think back to the earliest days of filmmaking, when pioneering artists were still trying to work out the vast possibilities of that new medium. Don’t those early films – from the Great Train Robbery and The Trip to the Moon feel archaic without the hindsight of the foundations they were laying?

Or, to put it another way, can’t you imagine a Russian novel enthusiast raising his hand during a Méliès Q&A (they had those back then, right?) to ask –

“What does it felt like to be making such dreck?”

Let’s be clear – there’s plenty of creative innovation already happening on the web. Critical darlings like F to 7th and High Maintenance deserve every bit of praise that they’re getting. The folks over at JASH and AboveAverage are putting out some consistently daring comedic work. Fans of the anthology format that’s been making a comeback lately on cable need to check out the Late Night Work Club’s Ghost Stories to have their minds blown. And if you haven’t plowed through the entire first season of  Yahoo’s Ghost Ghirls yet, I don’t want to know you.

But the web video format holds myriad narrative opportunities that artists have only just begun to explore.

Web series are entirely freed from the constraints of the more rigid medium of television, meaning they can be as long or as short as they like, not to mention as micro-budget, as niche, as experimental, or as auteur-driven.  Because as great and boundary-pushing as many of cable TV’s offerings have been these past few years, there’s no denying that there is simply a limited number of slots on any network’s schedule. The web removes the gatekeeper, allowing any talented and entrepreneuring filmmaker – no matter their age, race, gender, or perspective – a chance to connect with an audience.

Web series creators have the freedom to choose exactly how to make this connection. Creators aren’t beholden to any preexisting network schedule, so they’re entirely free to follow any release structure they envision, no matter how unorthodox (Netflix’s ‘all-in-one-dose’ model being only the tip of the iceberg).  Audience engagement is completely transformed, with the interactivity of the platform creating innumerable opportunities to get viewers involved as everything from potential funders to active creative participants.

And say what you will about the changing landscape for film distribution, but comparatively, the web is an absolute Wild West. Do you want to partner with a digital distributor? Release independently on a major platform like YouTube or Vimeo?  Offer your content via a subscription-based service? Give it away for free on Bittorrent and try to make your money back through merchandizing? Different strategies will work for different series, so it’s up to creators to zero in on the best individual plan for their projects.

All this to say, the door is wide open for creativity and innovation. And it’s going to be pioneering filmmakers who lead the charge.

Because real cultural progress never comes from bloggers talking about ‘paradigm shifts.’ It comes from punk rockers in a basement realizing that the affordability of cassette production means that their music can actually reach an audience. Or from the most daring independent filmmakers of the last three decades trailblazing a viable path towards getting their personal, uncompromising works out into the world.

IFP has been an advocate and crucial resource for those very filmmakers throughout its 35-year history. And now we’re hoping to play a similar role in the web space.

If you’re as excited about the possibilities of the web series format as I am, drop me a line at dschoenbrun@ifp.org. And if you’re working on a project that you think might have a home on the web, I hope you’ll consider applying to Independent Film Week.

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