UK-based author Russell Evans has a book on web filmmaking coming out in April of next year from Focal Press. I answered via email as best I could his questions about The West Side, and while doing so realized this neglected blog is long overdue for some updates. Why not kill two birds with one keyboard? These excerpts will have to suffice until I step away from the screenplay I’m toiling on (priorities, priorities) to write a proper, hopefully meaningful, update.
(on The West Side)
With The West Side we set out to try to create something that held up to the standards by which motion pictures are traditionally judged — effective suspension of disbelief, continuity of narrative, quality of performances and craft — and while I don’t claim we succeeded on all of these levels, the interesting thing we’ve found in the process is that very few people in the industry judge internet video based on any of these established metrics. Instead, they’re concerned with number of pageviews, partnership deals signed, press exposure, ancillary opportunities, time spent on the site… it’s a very Silicon Valley way of looking at things, as if everyone’s trying to be the next Facebook. But we weren’t trying to go viral with The West Side; we just wanted to create something of quality that would attract a quality audience, and we approached the project as filmmakers, not entrepreneurs. If we’ve learned anything in the year since, it’s that we’re going to need to fill both roles effectively if we want to get anything made going forward.
Zack and I were both enraptured with The Wire, and I’m excited about the possibilities offered by an increasing acceptance of, and a desire for, serialized entertainment. This allows filmed content to act more in the spirit of novels (of which The Wire was a fine example), and a broader range of TV shows are increasingly based on one long storyline instead of the sitcom model — 24 and Lost being recent high-profile examples. Additionally, we’re living in an age where it’s not only TV that is increasingly subject to serialization, but feature films as well; movies are no longer merely “sequels,” they are “franchises” or indeed “intellectual properties.” It’s reasonable to think that the Batman, Terminator, and Star Trek franchises will continue decades into the future, acting as something more akin to the James Bond series (of which the two most recent films were serialized, with Quantum of Solace picking up the moment Casino Royale left off).
The problem with all this mainstream franchising is that it becomes increasingly more difficult for content creators to obtain funding for anything new; when everything is a sequel, adaptation, or remake, why would a studio bet money on a proposition as risky as an original idea? This is where the alternative low-cost distribution model of the internet comes in: studios looking to produce web series today are looking for something they can eventually turn into an old media franchise. If they make a dozen low-cost internet serials and one of them is made into a profitable TV or film franchise, then they’ll have covered the cost of the other inexpensive web shows (and then some). At the entrenched majors, the conventional wisdom is that internet video gets eyeballs, not dollars; in their eyes, the best business model for new media is to find a way to convert it into old media.
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