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DouglasHorn.com

This Golden Age of Independent Series

by on May.17, 2012, under Distribution, Internet Television

The Golden Age of Internet programming has begun.

We have entered the Golden Age of Independent Series over the Internet

All media and formats have their Golden Age where artists flock to the new and—unbound by rules, standards, or precedent—create a great variety of amazing and original artworks.  The trouble with a Golden Age is that they are awfully hard to recognize when you’re in the middle of them—and even harder at the beginning.  But I’m here to tell you that the Golden Age of Independent Series over the Internet is beginning.

My bold prediction:

Within two years an independent series airing on the Internet will be generally recognized as being as good as any of the better content on broadcast television—and better than much of the network dreck.

Depending on where you see the state of independent series, this statement is either ludicrous or obvious—I doubt there’s much middle ground.  To me, it’s so plain to see that I worry that I’m pussy-footing around the issue—I should probably shorten the time period to one year and expect a half dozen independent series to be recognized in this way…on the cover of Newsweek.  However, many people are understandably stuck in a Fred/machinima/montages-of-cat-photos mindset when they hear the words “web series” or anything similar, so it’s hard for them to see past the current glut of user-generated content.

Why the Golden Age is inevitable

I want to be clear: I do not believe that Can’t Get Arrested is going to hire Aaron Sorkin to take it up a notch.  Instead, I have seen that there is a spate of talented filmmakers looking to make their names in this format for the exact same reasons that Dan Southworth and I founded Popular Uprising.  These are not amateurs but experienced professionals armed with great production equipment, tight scripts, tons of drive, and often even some actual money.  The shows that Internet audiences are going to be treated to will be astounding—and refreshing.

We are at the cusp of a Golden Age for independent series delivered over the Internet.  I believe that content creators—I’ll use the word “filmmakers” for lack of a better one, even though I realize that no film is involved anymore—will quickly discover the economic and creative advantages of the format, as I mentioned in my recent blog post on the topic.

Redefining “cinema”

Aside from just offering great viewing experiences, I fully expect this Golden Age of independent series to usher in an artistic and creative movement that cinema hasn’t seen since the French New Wave.  I just think a lot of people are going to miss it at first because their definition of “cinema” doesn’t yet include Internet videos.

One important thing to bear in mind about video content delivered over the Internet is this: ridiculously soon virtually all the content most people watch in their homes will be delivered over the Internet in one form or another. No one is even debating this point.  The content will come into homes over the Internet and be handled by a variety of computers, set-top boxes, smart phones, or whatever, but the destination will be all those giant flat screen TVs with the sweet Dolby stereo systems and their bone-jarring subwoofers.  (Oh yeah!)  To these systems, the video content for Internet original independent series is not going to be functionally any different than the network shows or the HBO series or the summer tent-pole movies on Pay-Per-View.  Dim the lights, grab the popcorn, and watch DIVERGENCE, or one of the dozens hundreds of other great series that will be available.

When all the content arrives in homes via the Internet and is organized by a smart media center that’s agnostic regarding where the content originated, then viewers are going to quickly expand their definitions of cinema.  But what’s more, people will have more options to watch the Internet original independent series because they’ll be able to access them immediately via their computers or mobile devices without having to wait weeks or months like with a network show.  The independent series are able to be more responsive and attuned to their audiences. And don’t think that the audiences won’t notice!  People around the world want their shows when they want them, not when and where it fits—what seems to them—to be the networks’ whim.

The independent series Golden Age – a field guide

These independent series of the Golden Age will have a lot of variety—in many ways that’s the whole point.  But I think certain trends will emerge among the more successful contenders.  Here’s what I think we can expect from this Golden Age of independent series.

  • Great writing
    Long-form serial stories are a writer’s medium.  The chance to tell continually evolving stories is writer-crack and will draw and develop strong writers.  At the same time, great writing is going to be the element that ultimately that wins over cautious audiences.  Weak scripts will wash out fast.
  • Good acting
    This format doesn’t require—or probably even want—great acting.  But the performances had damn well better be good.  Look for the hoard of very talented unknown actors to have a heyday in this format and grow into stars in their own right.  Independent series will, without a doubt, become the training grounds for tomorrow’s new talent.  Some series will try known actors, but I don’t expect that to survive as an effective strategy.  Filmmakers will come to realize that putting a Tony Danza in their web series probably doesn’t draw enough of an additional audience to be worth the cost or hassle.  And viewers are likely to be more wary of “once-famous” casts than complete unknowns.  Bad acting, however, will not make the cut.
  • Boundary-pushing visuals
    In the postage-stamp-sized poster-frame world of social media and internet delivery, one way that series can stand out is with bold color styling and cool shots.  And the DSLR cameras that most series will be shot on can deliver great images and often go where no big TV studio camera can go.  Expect to see filmmakers employing a lot of unusual imagery compared to standard TV shows, and bold color stylings courtesy of readily available software like Magic Bullet Looks.
  • Feature-length initial seasons
    Series that put the work in to build a solid 1½–2-hour season for initial release will have an easier time attracting an audience and scoring prime distribution opportunities, so I expect that these will be the series most likely to take off.
  • 2-5 season story arcs
    For a variety of reasons, I think that many successful independent series will choose to complete their story arcs within a few seasons.  This will likely be driven by cast and creator availability and interest more than fan choice.  However it won’t be driven by callous network cancelations killing shows like Pushing Daisies, Jericho, or Carnivàle in the middle of their arcs.
  • Strong genre elements
    There will likely be a wide variety of genres represented among these Golden Age independent series—much more than you currently see on network television.  But most series will have some identifiable genre elements to attract “their” audience.  And unique genre mash-ups are sure to be part of the fun.   The more successful series will be those who push boundaries and offer viewers something fundamentally different than what they can get on traditional television.
  • Passionate vertical audiences
    At Popular Uprising, we say we develop series for multiple passionate vertical audiences—that’s a big part of our business model and our internal greenlight process for a series.  A “vertical audience” is a viewership that can be grouped into a tight cluster, such as “sci-fi fans“ or “jazz lovers.”  The Internet is built for vertical audiences.  “Passionate” means that these folks really care about their thing.  They spend time talking about it in chat rooms, go to conventions, buy merch.  And “multiple” means, we’d like to have each series appeal to more than one clearly identifiable “vertical.”  That’s our plan, but I think a lot of other filmmakers are hip to the power of a passionate vertical audience being your viewership, ad agency, street team, and often funding source—all rolled into one.
  • Stay indie-band close to the audiences
    Given the power of the PVA, it’s clear that smart content creators are going to stick like glue to their audiences using social media, special viewing events, chat-rooms, conventions, and any of the tricks that indie bands have come to know so well as strategies to let them survive and thrive.
  • Financed through mixed sources
    Great ongoing content requires real funding eventually, if it is to stay alive.  As there is yet no single revenue model that covers all needs, content creators will most likely have to cobble together their funding through mixed sources like crowd-sourcing, ad revenues, merch, grants, and sponsors.  This is familiar territory to independent filmmakers and the smart series-maker will thread this needle.  And it will become easier as audiences grow and new methods emerge.

The Golden Age of independent series is upon us.  The series we’ll be watching in a year are likely already on someone’s word processor or video editing program.  Personally, I would love for that first great series to be DIVERGENCE, but deep down, I know it doesn’t matter much.  The time has come and there is a lot of room for a lot filmmakers to find audiences that networks have long seen as too small to worry about.  These too-small-for-broadcast audiences will be plenty big enough to keep independent series-makers happily employed for years to come.

Douglas Horn is a feature film writer-director and a creator of independent series.  Douglas and Dan Southworth founded the web media company Popular Uprising.  The company’s action/sci-fi series DIVERGENCE will release its first season in 2012.  More information at: DouglasHorn.com and WhatIsDivergence.com

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6 Comments for this entry

  • Dom Zook

    Great post! I agree with 98% of it! I think the economics of producing webseries is still up in the air and no one has figured out a reliable method. The more ambitious the project, the more expensive it is. Paying cast/crew a livable wage is still a far off goal for most – even Hollywood productions fronted by stars are paying most people minimums.

    So while I feel the stories and audience engagement potential of webseries is, as you say, on the cusp of a Golden Age, I want to see more being done solidifying the economics. There’s a dichotomy brewing between the Youtube 100 (those channels created and funded in the big creator initiative) and independent producers like you or I.

    There’s also audience curation which has been almost non-existant. Hollywood loves to back-pat itself but they do little to promote to audiences themselves. Once webseries can break into mainstream space – be it through Facebook ads, news articles, etc. – they’ll be able to get more share of that audience that’s clamoring for good content.

    I could go on… :) Good conversation!

  • admin

    Great point, Dom.

    Another way to look at the dichotomy between those high profile/well funded YouTube100-type series is that they are helping to build the audience for this format. The sea-change for independent series will come when average viewers see Internet series as forms of entertainment that they actively follow in the way that they currently follow broadcast and cable series. When this happens the audience will explode in size and the economics will suddenly make sense for more and more independents.

  • Dom Zook

    Yep, I think with audience curation we can get more shows in front of people. Look at what XBOX Live did for the Guild. Or Netflix is doing with Lilyhammer, etc. But I’m hoping there’s something out there that can interface with TV’s and other media devices that can help audiences find and view shows the way they want to watch them – be it on a TV, a laptop, or, say, an iPhone. The tech is there, just need a service that’ll help promote and provide. One shouldn’t need a degree in computer science to watch webseries on their TV. :)

  • Susan Matisi

    I’m a complete novice concerning all of this, but I can tell you that anything that’s better than the current schedule of muck on broadcast TV will be welcome! I just don’t understand how people can continue to watch films/shows where you can feel your IQ going down as you sit there. I do hope that intelligent, well-written stories will become more prevalent–whether it be on TV or on the Web. Best of luck with everything from Popular Uprising!

  • admin

    I hear you Susan. I think that strong writing is going to be what will win over the audiences. Series that don’t worry about offending some audience element or try to appeal to all possible audiences will be able to be more interesting and distinctive. These are things some audiences prefer about independent films as well.

  • Erika Moore

    Like Susan, I to am a complete novice with all of this. But I agree with everything she said. Anything that’s better than what is currently being broadcasted will be welcomed with open arms. Best of luck to everyone at Popular Uprising. I look forward to many great things from you.

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