On a previous article, I talked about the feelings I got from comparing the parallel sections/selections of short movies and web series screened/streamed at the Unofficial Google+ Film Festival.
I noted that web series looked worse, and hinted to some kind of standards issue. Not the only reason behind the difference, of course, but still one (I feel) worth pointing out.
So, I’m gonna dig a little deeper in those thoughts.
(I’m leaving behind the UGFF. What I’m going to say is applied to a general view and not to the works presented there).
The reference issue
One last time, let’s keep in mind that the great distance between a self-conclusive short story and one that’s serialized in episodes (even if short themselves) inevitably conditions the writing, the narrative density and the story’s scope, the production’s schedule or budget, and so on; that shorts can afford to be artistically more ambitious (compared to movies and TV series as well); that technical excellence is a plus for a short movie, while the lack of it is not a big deal for a web series, as long as the story is catchy and the characters work. And that, somehow, web series are more relying on the “made-on-cheap” justification than shorts.
All of this explains, in part, the difference.
But There’s more.
It’s a matter of reference and models. While both formats are essentially involving filmmaking, short movies have an entire movie’s (and of course short’s) history providing quality levels and aesthetic or artistic standards as reference points; on the other hand, it seems that web series are allowed to skip them and, instead, to adopt a self-referential view, that compares them mostly to previous web series and web video in general. It’s a case of double standards at work.
But why do they need a separate set of standards? Aren’t they still relying on the same skills and techniques employed in general filmmaking?
The bubble of web series and the false freedom to overlooking
Considering them a sort of “new” format, relying on a new medium for distribution, we often look at web series like if they’re something apart, disconnected, isolated from any other entertainment form. Protected inside of a bubble. Thus the aforementioned liberty to ignore and to avoid external references. Of course, we compare them to movies and TV as far as story and originality is concerned, but still we somewhat “forgive” and overlook production limits more easily. Each time someone raises the bar, he/she’s a god (instead of being what he/she really is: a good filmmaker); we cheer and say “no-one had reached this quality in web video before” and we take those cases as examples of “what can be done in the space” or “what web series really are”. Only, they’re not. We painfully know it: on average, web series are mediocre at best. And as long as we’d like to pretend not to see all the shit out there, it’s still there. And it’s defining a format’s perception and conception every day.
What’s the problem? you may ask. After all, web series have always been considered, “from the outside”, a second class entertainment form. But, if you like, “there were reasons” for that; reasons way less acceptable today.
Years ago, budgetary and technological limitations were just too big to even dream about comparing web series and web video standards with higher models (which are not the hyper budgeted Hollywood ones, of course, but reasonably belong to the indie territory – for indie series at least); or even in the most professional attempts, targeting choices forced to reduce the length of episodes, sometimes dramatically, thus creating a product uncomparable to mainstream or “old” entertainment.
But, again, today is different.
The interactive experimental era is gone (interactivity and transmedia becoming a kind of separate, independent sector or, at most, “tools” to help promote the show – when the show is not a promo itself), and the broad approach to web series is more close to classical (maybe guerrilla) filmmaking than ever. It’s a change being observed since 2010: the web is less a medium and more a distribution tool.
On the technical side, “decent” HD equipment is affordable, bandwidth is less and less a problem, social media allow new forms of collaborations and connections and audience building opportunities. Everything is extremely more mature than it was in 2006 or before.
And audience viewing habits are changing fast; the paradigm of the “typical” web viewer taking a break, on an uncomfortable position, at the office or at the library, is just a thing of the past. And people watched entire movies downloaded on their computer even before Netflix (legally or illegally, I don’t care. As a matter of fact, they did). The fact that it comes from the internet doesn’t really qualify that kind of entertainment as something different (unless, again we’re talking about interactivity, hypertextual dynamics, transmedia, etc.)
So, there’s no contingent reason why scripted web series’ standards should be considered apart from “old” and mature forms like movies and shorts, today.
Yet, that still happens.
And a new sub-standard comes to town
To be clear. I’ve said in this blog that some of the best web series out there are “festival material”. And I still believe it. Even if more critical, I am and remain fan of my favorite shows. And of course we have higher budgeted and even boombastic web series, especially when some game producer or Hollywood studio puts money in the jar (but those are works I have mixed feelings about, if not negative).
The problem is that such excellence (technical or narrative) is painfully rare and I don’t see it becoming a reference point even for creators themselves.
Instead, I’m seeing a kind of “average standard” coming up, that qualifies a web series as “ok” and that includes (singularly or together) cheap cinematography, sly and quick color correction, superficial dialogue sold as “natural and casual” (when not improvised), impersonal direction, trivial camera work, editing trickery, insipid acting, etc. But not so badly (otherwise, it would be easy to spot); just in small drops, like in an unifying nuance or a justificatory attitude that asks to make up for every other lack or weakness.
In a word: less professional, less expert, less “mature”. Or, to make a slogan: “Slightly meh is the new ok”. So, even excluding the amateurish rubbish (more on that in a minute), web series appear to really settle on an average, second class of entertainment; but today it’s not a matter of being penniless and growing artists or not technologically equipped anymore; not a temporary condition that time would change. It seems like you can be artistically sloppy, on web series, and run away with it. Because that’s how web series are; because that’s the standard of this kind of sub-sector of filmmaking.
I’m not talking about no-budget, first-time works from film students or aspiring filmmakers only; you can spot the “standard” (meaning the presence of at least one of the aforementioned elements) where there’s money as well, especially in some YouTube premium channels or in webseries realized by youtubers (showcasing once again the difference between the latter and pro filmmakers), not to speak about some dumbed-down Hollywood ones; while in recent days I’ve spotted a bunch of new projects on Vimeo that seem to look above par (we know the site is a little high brow, after all). Only on more “industrial” sites, like Yahoo, things seem to be generally kept on higher standards, visually and technically likable; but again, how much works like that can be considered representative of web series as a whole and can contribute to the formation of a common (perceived) standard, is doubtful (though some would say that those are web series and anything else doesn’t matter).
And the deceiving background noise
A second issue in the process of defining a standard for web series comes from the amount of DIY and (semi)amateurish stuff constantly thrown in the web. Made “because you can”, without enough experience, skills or knowledge, YouTube style (aka “just do it”) and/or used as a modern form of film school, as Tina Cesa Ward (a real pro filmmaker) eloquently pointed out months ago.
This “learning ground” approach is not new, of course; but in the past it involved short movies, meaning a niche format, subject to a process of exclusion that confined the crap among a circle of family and friends, allowing the (hopefully) best ones to circulate in festivals only. It was imperfect, but it still was a selection. On the web, with free access portals like YouTube, everything is put on circulation, self-distributed. There’s no selection and very little (if any) curation, mostly with doubtful results.
Some say that web series are the best practice form to choose, replacing shorts, and that’s good. I might second that, as far as practice is concerned (but only when practice is not incompetent improvisation); but when it comes to online release, and they’re tagged, SEOed, whatevered “web series”, they are just adding to background noise.
A kind of noise that is becoming unbearable and ends up creating a false perspective, reinforcing sub-standards of reference, so that, in the end, what was unacceptable for a (good) festival short movie years ago becomes acceptable for a web series today: because there’s a lot worse.
Whose fault is it?
This process is not happening on its own. It’s kinda being supported.
Specialized online press and operators (feeling part of the digital r-evolution themselves) frequently “pushed” works, praising them for their (relative) merits but somehow exaggerating or overlooking their artistic value (applying that self-referential filter I talked about – this is even more evident today, if you stumble upon a review of some years ago). So did bloggers and reviewers. Even worse, series are sometimes praised because of their numerical success, or as “case studies” for budget managing, audience building, etc., regardless their objective artistic quality. Budget it’s a very risky topic in itself, because praising the economics of series based on voluntary work can reinforce the feeling that web series can be made on a cheap, and thus “everybody can make them”, especially inexperienced and unskilled amateurs with a frikkin iPhone in their hands (if it doesn’t lower brand’s expectations when hiring professionals, too).
On a broader level, audiences contributed to the process by rewarding series that talked to their niche, despite their flaws. We’ve said it before: the greatest power of web series is to be able to get you with good/original/different plots, characters, ideas, despite technical imperfections. That’s why we love them and, again, that’s a good thing. But it turns into their own weakness if this habit of overlooking flaws becomes so systematic to set new, lowered reference standards for creators; and if the niche logic becomes stiff enough to bring in a kind of “they will like it, anyway” perspective. Besides, the democracy of the web can be extremely debatable when it comes to aesthetics, especially when it deals with a generation of potential audience grown up with youtubing and cheap videos as a model for entertainment, getting accustomed to a specific quality (sub)standard and maybe ignoring the entire film and TV history (today’s Hollywood is not exactly teaching anything about good storytelling).
Plus, a great portion of “web series fans” seems to be made by creators themselves. Them, and their praised “community”. And we know that, being “on the inside”, you can lose perspective; this happens in every creative field; especially if you have to defend an entire category from a derogatory attitude expressed by the established entertainment industry and the general audience. It’s easy, in that condition, to keep a too condescending eye towards fellow companions of tribulations and hardships, focusing on positive aspects only. Probably, it’s even felt as necessary.
(At least, I’m reading less and less of the new-languages-of-the-web blabbings that were used in the past to “defend” the medium and the format – but maybe it’s just me not caring about those talks anymore).
The web series nerd’s dilemma
I’m aware that what I’m describing is my personal experience and my observations are not exactly scientifically or academically backed up. Though I’m a little obsessed with web series and I try and sample as much as I can, there’s still a huge amount of stuff left unnoticed. But I’m confident that if there’s something r_e_a_l_l_y good out there, sooner or later someone will talk about it or it will be selected for some award. There’s the chance that my observations are not so far from the statistic truth.
Anyway, UGFF made me take a step back, and forced me, for once, to consider web series not for their excellences, but for their average. This is what we do when we look at TV or movies, after all. We say we love them thinking about our favorites, we say they’re shit thinking about the average production. Is there a reason not to apply the same treatment to web series? Maybe; maybe not.
And here comes the web series nerd’s dilemma: how to relate to them, in the end? On one side, I believe it’s time to stop looking at the Internet like if it’s a different world from movie theaters or TV screens, and considering scripted web series as filmmaking whatsoever (apart for already mentioned exceptions), and being deeply and unmercifully critic and selective; but on the other side, I still believe there are many works out there deserving praise for their peculiar sparkle, no matter what.
I’m still applying the niche filter, searching for series that I like because of this and that; originality still matters more than formal perfection; but, at the same time, I’m raising the quality bar of what I consider sufficient and discarding a lot of stuff. It’s easy when it comes to select them for the retrospectives I post here; but what about all those series that for some reason start a thought, stimulate an idea, maybe even partially hit the right spot? I’d love to talk about them (and I’ll probably do), but by doing so I’m helping in perpetrating the overlooking attitude?
Lately, I’m feeling like I’m coming out of a tunnel. I’m totally unimpressed by most of the trailers that Indie Intertube (the one and only show to follow if you really want to “get” web series) presents every Sunday with nerdy enthusiasm; I don’t share the anticipation and thrill I see in the chat room (mostly creators). Not anymore. I’m more “let’s wait and see”, cynically critical and suspicious. I dropped my own hoorays. And I wonder how many people out there share this feel.
I’m still a supporter of web series’ potential. But I also believe that accepting a sub-standard as a reference, openly or just indirectly, focusing only on the positive (or on the “growth of the space”) and through appreciations like “this is interesting”, and this attitude becomes a system, encapsulated into a bubble, it’s dangerous. That if this form of persisting, self-feeding sub-standards become a confirmation of the “web series suck” old popular belief, the latter will become (or remain) a kind sub-sector discussed by a bubble of nerds, talking in circles about things that no-one else in the world does care about.
As for how to avoid this, I don’t have many strategies, at the moment. But at least, I have an approach, or, if you like, a state of mind: as said, cynical and unmerciful selection. That “the space” as a whole desperately needs, today.
But I’ve really written too much already, and that will be probably discussed some other time.
- Web series vs. short movies. Clash of generations (of formats)
- IAWTV Awards: some random thoughts
- Think of ‘em as TV series made for the web. Than throw away the “TV” part