(Part one here)
No matter how trivial and abused it may be, I will steal my opening line from Felicia Day: the Internet is sort of a Sundance of our times. That summarizes quite efficiently why I’m into web series and why I feel dragged to them and compelled to explore more and more. I didn’t come to them by chance: it was the natural harbour of a path that drove me away from the dumb-proof and repetitive nature of mainstream blockbuster movies and made me discover the richness and freshness that independent cinema (can) embody.
Here’s the fact: web series are, mostly, independent productions; and not so rarely, they have more affinities with movies than with TV shows.
Independent content, but without a filter
Keep focus on the keywords, here: Sundance and sort of.
Without institutions like the Sundance Festival, the Independent Spirit Awards, or the BAFTA and other awards focused (even not exclusively) upon indie content, we know how hard it would be, for this works, to find visibility; and despite this effort, it’s still likely that a deal of movies featured each year at Sundance will never find a proper distribution. But the Web comes into the picture by providing a worldwide platform for that; and faster connections allow more and more people to stream decent quality if not HQ video.
And here’s when we come to the “sort of” part. If the web and dedicated video platforms like YouTube, Blip, Koldcast and Vimeo, provide the distribution support, they don’t pair it with the “trustworthy selection” process of festivals and awards. This brings to the consequence that, if you’re into indie cinema, a movie selected for Sundance is “quite likely” to end up interesting to you (and sometimes, really great), that’s just not so sure for an original production on the web. (Also considering that web video it’s been mainly teenage territory – and still is today – and if you’re not a teen anymore it’s quite unlikely that their standards of awesomeness and yours match. But this is, fortunately, more a problems with youtubers than with web series).
Another problem concerns the productive quality. Being totally independent (mostly), web series are shot on a very low budget and meant to monetize through sponsors, donations, merchandize, ads partnerships and other solutions that certainly don’t allow to spend a lot of money in production. Mostly, you have to do it cheap; and if you’re not really [really] good, it’s clearly visible in the end product.
Plus: digital made everything easier. Said otherwise, it opened doors to amateurs. Back in the days, if you wanted to learn how to make a movie you had to go to schools, because they had the expensive equipment you couldn’t afford; that assured a minimum of preparation and training before shooting a “real” movie, if anything else. Today, you can start from scratch, without even taking lessons or reading a manual (and with writing is even worse). On the other hand, if you do have technical knowledge but not the money, “cheap” digital still saves the day.
So, statistically speaking, web series wave between the independent and the amateur category: the highest peaks being expression of the originality, personality, vision, “feeling” that only Independent productions can deliver; the lowest being just rubbish background noise that interferes with what’s really worth watching out there. And a great number floating in the middle.
What’s a web series, anyway?
The category itself, “web series” or “original series”, it’s quite elusive. Even professionals debate on how to call them and what to include in it (i.e.: are geoblocked ones really “web” – meaning world wide web, thus universally accessible – series?). So, in order to clarify what I’m talking about in these posts, I’ll be forced to give you mine.
Which is: think about them as TV series, but written for the web distribution. And than delete the “TV” part. And put “movie” instead, when not “something else, kind of weird.”
They are serialized entertainment productions that carry on a consistent plotline, for a consistent numbers of episodes. Continuity is required, may it be of plot or of setting. And they encompass more or less the same narrative genres we see in movies or TV series (fiction or documentary), with of course every possible combination or blending. I exclude news, tech shows, and, most importantly, youtubers (meaning people that make of themselves the main focus or centre of their production, may they be vloggers or short episodes producers. Technically, that can be described as serialized content, but I prefer to consider them “channels” or “shows” than proper “series”).
But for many reasons, they are not to be matched to TV shows. Actually, if they’re not web-specific products (interactive, transmedia, quick and quirk “viral” sketches…) quite frequently they resemble indie movies.
Just even more indie (and cheaper).
We’re talking about niches, so everything is subjective
To understand this definition of web series, you can easily go to webserieschannel.com and browse at random. Though it’s not the best method for picking your series to see. Because the “sort of” part it’s not fully covered, yet. The “niche” topic needs to be underlined (again).
In a wider use, and for classifying purposes, “niche” means “the trans-demographic group of people that likes that peculiar stuff”. It indicates a kind of audience, not implying, necessarily, that this group is small in number (though often it is).
Now, web entertainment has stratified itself in niches (not talking about series only, here. It applies to anything: blogs/vlogs, web portals, thematic websites, etc…), targeting specific groups of audiences (not necessarily demographic). This is mostly (but not only) because online you can reach a broader and more differentiated audience, that chooses what content to watch freely, among a wide choice, not just picking from the few options offered by palimpsest made by someone else. In short: it’s on demand and free (mostly).
For independent creators, this translates into creative freedom and the possibility of telling “their” story no matter what, without producers or TV executives to decide for them, hoping to find “their” audience through social or web marketing. This brings to the development of projects more original, peculiar and focused on personal approaches. It brings up that kind of originality and maybe selfish vision (and a little rough) that was before confined almost exclusively to the realm on short movies or (very) independent cinema.
All of this multiplies for all the possible demographics (teens, young adults, women, black people, hispanic people, etc.), genres and targets, and countries of origin: and the resulting possible niches are virtually infinite.
It turns out, this “niche targeting” is in itself the main strength and the main weakness of a web series. Because the pool so wide, and so crowded, that if you fish randomly it’s quite likely you will end with something you don’t like so much (or at all), simply because you’re not part of that niche; but otherwise, if you pick something that resonates with you, you end up enjoying it deeply and thoroughly, with a personal connection to the show that can be more deep than with TV or movies (you feel it “more yours”; and this, please note, even independently by than production qualities, because “a good idea matters”). Think about how the same movie can be differently perceived by different people: with web series, this is even more true.
This is probably at the origin of many people discomfort or prejudice towards web series: until you don’t pick the “right” one, you probably find out something disappointing or not worth of your time. And unfortunately, there are no valid tools, so far, for a qualitative search on YT or other aggregators or portals.
So, more than web series, I like the idea of them
Now, all this being said: why still loving web series, if most of them are either crap or not matching your interests?
I have to be frank about this. More than web series per se, I love the potential of them. I love the fact that if you search deep enough, you can find little treasures. I love the indie feel of them; the original ideas; the personal aesthetic touch (even if slightly rough) that contrasts with the hyper produced and patinated standards of mainstream. I love just seeing that kind of stories, that kind of characters, that kind of approach that you wouldn’t certainly find out in a product made for appealing broader and generalist masses; I love discovering myself following some kind of stories I would normally not, because there’s that something that keeps you curious and attached, even if it’s not “your genre”.
I love ’em like I love independent cinema: knowing that there’s always the risk to be disappointed but, if taken, the chance to be surprised or, at least, entertained differently. That the “idea” cam be interesting enough to make amends of some imperfection in writing, directing, editing, etc.
I love the fact that these series are mostly realized by creators that follow an idea and their desire to tell a story, instead than brainless generalist moviegoers with easy taste. And the fact that this idea, this vision, is pursued with the opposite approach than a generalist blockbuster: that for sure not everybody will like it, and maybe non even a huge ton of people, but the right ones.
I like to see characters whose look is more “real people” and less like hyper-trained, super-fit Hollywood hotties; I like to see young ladies showcasing a natural, not heavy make-upped, not flaw-free beauty.
And I like the total absence of defined standards, the everchanging nature, the status of “future being built today” that web series earned on the field.
All of this is what my favorite web series are embodying; and if some or even many others don’t… well, frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
[Netx time: a little more about web series formats]