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“I do not have many regrets, except one. And that’s: selling the company”.
(From Boss Of Me)

Among the overall output of branded web series, a very important place is occupied by CJP Digital, a branded entertainment studio, operating under the wing of marketing/PR firm CJP Communications and founded by creator/actor/producer Wilson Cleveland. Most of the better (and successful for the brand) series out there have their signature, all of them sharing the precious quality of being a promotional vehicle while keeping their narrative independence and dignity. If I’m not mistaken, they even “invented” branded web series back in 2006, with The Temp Life.
Aside to the series described below, I want to quickly mention the woman dramedy Bestseller, Created and written by Susan Miller and directed by Tina Cesa Ward; and their 2010’s The Webventures of Justin And Alden, branded Cadbury (chewing gum) that features Illeana Douglas and Cleveland as producers and Sandeep Parkih (from The Guild) among the authors; an entirely self-referential comedy about the web series universe, quite funny, but just for initiated: it’s impossible to appreciate it without the ability to recognize the flood of cameos in the episodes).

The Temp Life

The Temp Life (2006) is the first and longest-running branded web series of all times: 5 seasons wrapped up, is created by Cleveland, who also stars as the lead (a funny scoundrel).
It’s sponsored by the U.S. temporary employment company Spherion, and the product integration could not be more evident: the series is about temporary employment.
The first seasons focuses upon sad and unfortunate “temps” facing terrible assignments, in turn provided by the temp agency’s owner, “Trouble” (Cleveland), whose “specialization” is accepting jobs turned down by any other agency. Later seasons widen the scope, introducing more characters and a more defined and structured office comedy setting, together with a more satisfying plot and an heterogeneous cast made of  “regular” web stars (Mark Gantt, Sandeep Parikh, Taryn Southern, Jessica Rose, Rachel Hip-Flores, the delicious Rachel Risen…), Hollywood faces (Craig Bierko, Milo Ventimiglia…) or both (Illeana Douglas); and there’s also a quick crossover with other award-winning office web series, Squatters (this cameos one after another are really an extra layer of fun).
The evolution of the series is worth watching in itself, as it mirrors the one concerning the approach to web video: from the few, less-than-two-minutes long episodes in 2006, focusing on quick gags and sketched characters, openly targeting people taking brakes in offices or libraries (“Now back to work!” urges Cleveland at the end of each episode) to the larger, continuous and well defined arc, the longer episodes and the more articulated conflicts and rounded characters of the last seasons. But always effective in describing the temp universe from the inside, introducing the company as something different from the simple, flat, enslaving “enemy” (an approach ending, Spherion said, into a growth of enrolling).
Effective plot twists ensure a new fresh start every season (and probably the rotation of the writers helps, too).
Part of the catalog of My Damn Channel, the series is extremely popular and now also visible on Blip or Youtube.

Leap Year

Leap Year is the adult child of The Temp Life. Still created and produces by CJP and Cliveland in 2011, it’s written by Yuri and Vlad Baranovsky (of Happy Little Guillotine Films, known for the crime comedy Break a Leg) and directed by the first (also portraying one of the main characters).
Dramedy instead of pure comedy, with higher production values, it’s enriched by the same carousel of familiar faces (including cameos of personalities from the blogosphere and the technology industry), mainly Gantt and Bierko.
The brand here is Hiscox, a British insurance company specializing in niche areas such as art and kidnappings (!), that had expanded recently into the States, with an eye to small business. Consequently, the series is about start-ups, through a narrative ploy that puts into competition a group of young people (fired due to the company’s restructuring), with the promise that the winner will receive financial support to start its own company.
The concept is very clever: it grips on the current crisis but also on that kind of idolatry for entrepreneurship that seems so popular these days. But, fortunately, this is not a mere “Little Entrepreneus” tale but reserves interesting twists, a not uncritical eye towards the competition at all costs, and a good mix of drama and comedy (even with small sprinkling caricatures) and valid characters.
10 episodes. It premiered on Hulu, summer 2011; and it’s also on Blip.
A second season has started, guest starring Eliza Dushku and Emma Caulfield

Suite 7

Anthology of self conclusive stories set in hotel’s bedrooms, Suite 7 is part comedy and part drama. Launched in 2010, is (of course) created by Cleveland (here also playing the hotel manager, a much discrete role) and features episodes mainly consisting in dialogues between a couple of characters (“chamber” pieces, theatrical style – not by chance the best ones are penned by playwright/screenwriter Susan Miller, known in the web space as co-writer of Anyone but Me).
The series is set at night, but for some reason nobody sleeps and we’re provided with a nice overview of situations ranging from dramatic to absurd. The sponsor is The Better Sleep Council, a non-profit organization, supported by the mattress industry, which promotes the importance of sleep for health. Got it? Exactly: quite clever.
Unfortunately, the series (7 episodes of less than 10 minutes each) is pretty unbalanced (like any anthology putting together different authors, anyway); personally, I find the Parikh’s grotesque episode to be totally out of place; and in general, the series (which, if seen all at once, is not very different from an episodic movie) can’t always keep up with the ambition of being an “indie” flavored drama. But sometimes, it does. And that’s enough to sustain the entire package. Look for the second and especially the seventh episode (written, respectively, by Yuri Baranovsky and the already mentioned Miller, and both directed by Mark Gantt – the latest, also, starring Shannen Doherty): they alone are worth the (free) ticket.
As a final note: the anthology structure lends itself more than ever to the inclusions of guest stars: here we can spot, apart form Doherty, Brian Austin Green and the “usual” Bierko, Ventimiglia and Douglas.
Visible on Youtube, on the MyLifetime.com channel, on Blip and Hulu.

Bonus. Self-branding by Sabi Pictures: Boss of Me

I save it for last but, after all, this is my favorite: Boss of Me (2010)
It’s a case of self-branding, where the brand coincides with the production, created by the independent company Sabi Pictures (Los Angeles) as a means of self-promotion. Technically eliminated the danger of the brand interference into the creative process, the series brilliantly avoids self-indulgency, as well.
The show is conceived as a mockumentary, featuring Sabi’s members as themselves; but at the same time, with a high clever move, puts at the center of the attention an accomplished showman (John T. Woods); and his role, thanks to a great use of improvisation and a transmedia frame made of personal blog and social profiles, gets quite close to the limit between fiction and reality, almost shattering it (the confusion is reinforced by the presence, in the series credits, of the character’s name – Bret Donovan, manager converted to creative director – instead of the actor’s one).
Created by Kevin K. Shah and the same John T. Woods and launched in 2010, Boss of Me consists of 8 episodes (the website is raising signatures to support the release of episodes from 9 to 11, actually under seizure – if I understand the game, part of the transmedia apparatus as well).
The starting point is simple but typical: financial difficulties push Sabi’s founders to sell the company; the new owners send a “creative director” to deal with the transition and to redirect the production towards more profitable and commercial outputs; a guy that, of course, comes from a school of economics and doesn’t even knows the basics of filmmaking; and who, above all, is a complete idiot, full of positiveness and marketing manual’s bullshit but still in disarming good faith.
Visible on Vimeo in the Sabi‘s channel, or directly from the official site.

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