With a host of promising new productions, independent online filmmakers are leaving fan films behind for long-form projects based on original or licensed content. Hoping to duplicate some of the success of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, these new web series will experiment with a variety of business models on a variety of web-based video platforms in the coming months. 2010 just might turn out to be the year of the independent web series.
For years online fan films, most notably those based on Star Trek, have been tolerated by rights holders but prohibited from making money. Whether by amateurs or professionals within the filmmaking and television, these efforts have resulted in content of variable quality. Star Trek: Hidden Frontier was a fan series set after the canon events of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: Voyager, making extensive use of green screens to place amateur and professional actors within computer-generated scenery. Two sequel series were produced and crossovers between these and other Star Trek fan series occurred. The even more ambitious Star Trek: New Voyages – later renamed Phase 2 after Gene Roddenberry’s proposed 1970’s continuation of the original Star Trek series – brought amateurs together with professionals who had actually worked behind the scenes on some of the official Star Trek series. Sets were built and used, scripts were written by writers known for their canon work, and even some of the original series actors including Walter Koenig and George Takei guest-starred.
No matter how successful these fan series have become, they can only ever be labors-of-love; their production values are limited to the time, labor, and capital donated to them. They proceed as dictated by the schedule of participants who otherwise work day jobs. As a result, episodes are infrequent, merchandising is non-existent, and marketing depends on word-of-mouth and limited press coverage.
Web series based on original content do not face the same limitations, but until recently there have been few of them. Notable web series like Red vs. Blue offered high quality subscription downloads and DVDs for sale, while Xombie followed up its online debut with DVD releases, comics, and even a potential movie deal. Other web series like Ninjai: The Little Ninja and KarmaKula boasted outstanding production values but to date have been unable to transition to a business model that would ensure their continuation. This is not to say that every independent online filmmaker is seeking monetary returns from their efforts. Web series provide an opportunity to practice filmmaking, get exposure, and express creativity. Such web series tend to come and go quickly, often leaving behind only a tantalizing glimpse of what they could have been.
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog may have changed all of this. Written by Joss Whedon, Zack Whedon, Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen during the Writers Guild of America strike of 2007 and 2008, this independent production found unprecedented success on the web. The series was released online for free for a limited time followed by paid digital downloads on iTunes and advertising-supported streaming on Hulu.com. While the people involved were all more or less Hollywood insiders, the incredible success of “Dr. Horrible” irrevocably turned mainstream attention to the web as a media distribution platform.
Another success has been Sanctuary. This show began as a pay-per-download web series only to be picked up by Syfy as a regular cable television series. Meanwhile, The Guild web series, featuring Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog alumnus Felicia Day, is now in its third season. The series enjoyed increased attention after a music video featuring its characters went viral:
The song single and video topped the charts on iTunes and Amazon. The series is also available for purchase on DVD.
A number of factors indicate that we are entering a golden age of independent content increasingly based on original or fully licensed material and distributed online:
- the advent of the affordable Red One camera and the falling cost of filmmaking
- YouTube and video distribution web services supporting 1080p high definition video
- maturing web distribution options for video
- diversifying business models
- the number of recent web series successes
Will this content compete with mainstream television and movies? This will become more clear during 2010 as the latest web series arrive and seek out new audiences. Below are some of the projects that have been announced or entered production. The success of any one of them could lead to even more activity using the web as a central distribution and marketing tool.
In January the makers of Star Trek: Hidden Frontier plan to release the pilot episode of their first series based on original material: Frontier Guard. The series follows a human abducted in 1957 and discovered “frozen on a space Ark hundreds of years later” as he comes to grips with life in the 25th century. It is unclear if or how the filmmakers plan to monetize the series. Vignettes about the characters are available on the Frontier Guard YouTube channel. Below is a preview of the series:
Venus Rises makes use of sets, on-location filming, and computer graphics to tell the story of class struggles between humans living on Venus and Mars after the Earth becomes inhospitable. A promising prequel episode was followed by the pilot episode in October 2009. More streaming episodes supported by ads are expected in 2010.
Riese began airing on YouTube on November 1, 2009. The web series follows the adventures of a warrior and her wolf in a steampunk fantasy realm. Riese is available in high definition and is notable for its exceptional production value and being filmed using the Red One camera system. Four episodes were released in 2009 and more are planned for 2010. The teaser trailer is below:
James Cawley is the principal behind the Star Trek: Phase 2 fan series. His production companies Cawley Entertainment Company and Retro Film Studios, LLC announced on January 12, 2009 that they had secured the rights to the Buck Rogers franchise. The web series will be based on the original Buck Rogers comic strip and will be unlike any of the series or movies previously based on the character. Bobby Quinn Rice will star as Buck Rogers and Gil Gerard and Erin Gray from the 1979-1981 Buck Rogers in the 25th Century television series will play Buck’s parents. A teaser trailer was released on November 30, 2009 on YouTube:
Principal photography began in September 2009. Production is expected to take about a year, with the series expected to launch in September 2010. With secured rights, the production companies behind the new Buck Rogers web series can consider a variety of business models, such as paid video downloads, ad-supported video streaming, and DVD releases.