I was pleasantly surprised to see a section dedicated to web series in the general program of the Unofficial Google+ Film Festival (30/11 – 2/12 2012).
Set aside differences in personal taste (so important in the niche oriented web series market), that was undoubtedly an important and clever move by an indie (and on line) festival, acknowledging the relationship between web series and filmmaking (and helping fighting a certain broader view that sometimes blends them with youtubing and general “bad stuff online”). Like in filmmaking, in web series there is the mediocre and the excellence, and as trivial and understood this concept can be for “initiated” audiences, my feel is that it constantly needs to be stressed. UGFF did it.
But at the same time (though some series ended up into the shorts program for no apparent reason), putting them into separate sections worked in underlining the differences between web and “traditional” filmmaking that still exist. The UGFF presented us with a rather uncommon opportunity, because both selections were compiled and judged by the same people, putting them on a common, neutral ground.
What came up was a confirmation of the actual status of web series and, in my opinion but probably just not mine, of the huge need for improvement (and for quality standards) that the format/market/community needs, on a broad scale.
Web series vs. short movies at UGFF
Going back to the relationship between short movies and web series at the UGFF.
The main differences that emerged are the following:
- Genre. Shorts were mostly dramatic or “artsy”, web series were all about comedy, safe exceptions.
- Technical and artistic quality. On average, web series looked cheaper and of lower cinematographic/artistic quality, when shorts looked more professional and “well done”, generally more “mature”. Even when they were made by a sixteen years old gal.
- A different concept of originality. Being original, for shorts, translated into a non mainstream choice topic choice or into a peculiar stylistic or narrative approach; for web series it was a matter of targeting a more or less specific niche and playing with hybridation, cross-genre and comedy.
- Derivative/cinephile works were more abundant among shorts (in the first block especially, we have stories reminiscent of David Cronenberg, Makoto Shinkai and even Pixar).
- Mainly, shorts “stayed in genre”, while, as noted above, web series were more inclined to play with stereotypes and bend them, or to mix genres and/or demographics, with things like: kids and a gay mystery comedies, a gay and dark retelling of Romeo and Juliet, the everyday life of scary monsters and ghosts, a comic-style superheroin comedy, a bunch of hipster comedies/parodies, etc.
When two formats collide
While my “dream” web series is the one that applies the stylistic outcomes of the best shorts to a narrative structure (I’m an old grumpy hipster, I know), there are too many differences between the two formats for that to happen as a rule.
And you notice them, when you skip from one program of the festival to another, from the old-timer short movie and the new-guy web series.
It’s a clash of generations of formats. Of ways of conceiving a format, anyway; because the format web series is not by any means, in itself, implying any given form of content or quality. Unless we convince ourselves it is.
So. Here’s what this quick comparison shows us:
- First difference is in purpose.
The short is, yes, a story but at the same time is one’s talents and skills showcase, a resumée entry, an investment; it’s not devised for a commercial market and can afford (or aim) to be a piece of art. It can be successfully viral, but for that to happen something special needs to be present. And it almost never happens.
Web series are mainly “stories to be told”, where storytelling is drastically more important than technical achievements; they rely on audience building to be successful (more than shorts, because they’re episodic) and generally made on a cheap, with not really much room for art, especially of visual nature, unless it supports the story and/or there’s the budget for it.
- The genre gap seems, alone, to be mirroring a totally opposite conception of audience. It’s like short movies are for selected, indie-compliant, high brow film festivals’ audiences, with good knowledge of movies; and web series are for a casual (and younger) audience, with a lighter taste, probably short attention span, less inclined to indulge in “art” or deep stories and willing for easy entertainment or a quick laugh; or, in the best cases, for a specific niche. We know this distinction is a stereotype in itself (as the UGFF is showing, by proposing both formats to the same viewers), but the impression is that it still exist as a paradigm. Plus, there is this annoying sensation that, for web creators, mature audiences (in terms of filmic taste) still don’t exist or are not important.
- A different feel emerges from the two formats: shorts smell old, classy and indie (maybe indie-cliche), web series smell fresh, light and accessible. Even with the more uncommon stories, in shorts you have this feeling of “old school” filmmaking, while web series have a more distinct new-in-town taste. This also emerges from the higher use of hybridation and is partially a reflection of said difference in audiences and destination.
- Where web series are definitely “losing” it’s in production and artistic value. From cinematography to light direction, from acting to camera movements and framing, to the writing. While most of the selected web series were not bad shows at all, on average, shorts were, well, just better. They looked better and you felt they were better. More solid, dense, crafted, envisioned and controlled. There’s no other way to put it.
You have this strong feeling that people making shorts are more professional, expert and skilled in their respective field than people behind web series.
Is it just perception?
I guess the last two points are the most interesting, here.
They show an endemic contraindication in web series: being at the same time innovative (as far as creative freedom from standards and creative control marry with the audience building opportunities of the web) and regressive (as far as artistic and productive quality is concerned).
And OK that the formats are different. OK that comparing drama to comedy can be misleading. OK that web series are made on a cheap.
But I still think that there’s something else. That there is a kind of common average standard being consolidated by use, and not only by penniless creators, that kinda looks at the YouTube aesthetics and that is becoming the trademark or blueprint for the format. That excellencies showing real filmmaking at work are still painfully rare in web series and, while championing the genre, seem to be ignored as standards by most of the creators throwing themselves into the arena.
But that leads to a brand new chain of thoughts, that requires more space than the one I’ve left and that will be the subject of a next article.
The show-reel formula
I want instead spend a couple of words about the experience of sampling series back-to-back, instead.
This was the first time I saw web series presented in a “reel”, marathon form (one episode each) and I couldn’t but notice how great the formula works in terms of discovery. You are immersed in the flow, not discouraged by the necessity of clicking your way into new, unselected stuff, and you maybe get to consider works otherwise skipped for good or bad reasons.
Could selected programs like these (I repeat: selected; and the strictest, the better) become a practice to promote new (and old) web series, that are plagued, as we know, by discovery difficulties and overwhelming, low quality background noise?
I can’t tell how many people would willingly spend two hours of their time, periodically, just to watch a playlist of web series pilots. I guess the key is, as I said, a very (v_e_r_y) strict an unmerciful selection and curation, keeping the audience in mind primarily (maybe even specific niches), more than “the sake of the space” in general.