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Original and Online

The number of original online productions launching every day is astonishing, switch off the Internet for a few days and you¹ll lose track; the world of original web series is becoming one of the fastest growing parts of the international content industry reports Peter White.

Until recently, it was left to young, predominantly American, film graduates to develop and create cheap serial content for the Internet. The Screen Actors¹ Guild (SAG) estimates that over 600 web series have been produced in the US under the industry body¹s new online agreement with more than twice this number having been produced without contracts.

However, the explosion is also happening worldwide with international broadcasters and producers stepping up and developing their own series.

The addition of a few A-list stars, thanks in large part due to the Writers¹ Strike, and the early signs of corporate consolidation, have helped speed along developments.

Social networking site Bebo is leading the charge from the UK where it has launched a number of successful online series including KateModern and a local adaptation of Portuguese hit Sofia¹s Diary.

Ziv Navoth, senior VP, business development, says that at the beginning of last year, it noticed that around 1 billion videos were being screened by its users and it decided to hunt for some original content. ³There was hardly any serial content, there weren¹t a lot of storytellers that wanted to tell their stories via this medium and those that did, didn¹t have a business model. When we asked the creators of Lonelygirl15 what their business model was, they pulled out a credit card,² he says.

This year the site also launched music drama The Secret World of Sam King (see screenwatch) and is set to air another drama, Chelsey OMG from producer Channel X, later this year. ³We never intended to be a commissioning company but unless we put some skin in the game, this market might not take off,² adds Navoth.

Formatted web series are now also starting to spring up. Italian TV producer MAD Entertainment is developing a local version of Lonelygirl15 to air in January after inking a deal with Miles Beckett¹s Eqal. Gaia Ferraguti, head of format programme acquisition, MAD Entertainment, says that it had been looking to produce a web series for a while when it struck the coproduction deal. ³It¹s difficult to tell what impact the original Lonelygirl15 had. A lot of people have heard about it from the Internet buzz so we hope there is potential in Italy,² she says.

One of the most successful web hits is Sofia¹s Diary, a Portuguese format created by Nuno Bernado¹s indie BeActive. Sony Pictures Television International acquired the rights to the series last year and has subsequently sold it to British digital terrestrial channel Fiver. Anthony Root, head of European production at Sony, says it is now in talks to launch local versions in France, Germany and Spain. ³It¹s a rolling stone gathering moss,² he says. Sony is also looking to develop a number of new series including a Bernado-penned comedy and a number of projects originally developed for TV. ³Because Sofia had quite a lot of success, a lot of people have talked to us about ideas and we¹ve looked at our development slates for TV to see if some of that will work online as well,² adds Root.

Despite this international boom, Los Angeles is still the web series hotspot. Goodnight Burbank is an Office-esque comedy created by Hayden Black and featuring Rich Fuller, one of the stars of cult UK comedy series The Mighty Boosh. Black, who runs production company Evil Global Corporation, says: ³I took an idea I had for a TV pitch and boiled it down into five minutes. It¹s a very punk attitude. It¹s all about do-it-yourself, you don¹t have to wait.² He is currently in talks to spin the show off to TV and has also produced a pilot ­ Goodnight Salford ­ to shop to UK broadcasters and independent producers.

Black, who also produces teen diary spoof Abigail¹s Teen Diary and has two new shows in the pipeline including comedy All About I and sci-fi musical The Cabonauts, says that many online video sites are starting to commission original series because user generated content does not attract advertising dollars. ³You¹ve got all these web 2.0 people and they don¹t know how to develop entertainment and the people in Hollywood who do know how to develop entertainment don¹t know about the interactive side of the shows,² he adds.

A-list stars are also getting involved. Will Ferrell launched The Landlord on funnyordie.com. Saturday Night Live stars and friends-of-Judd-Apatow Bill Hader and Seth Myers have launched buddy comedy The Line. Seth MacFarlane has created the Calvacade of Cartoon Comedy with Google and Buffy The Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon found huge success with 3x15mins musical comedy Dr. Horrible.

The entrance of superstars into the web space has changed the game, according to Black. ³Obviously, people will jump at a Joss Whedon who can fund these projects. They will make money and get plays but that¹s also good for everyone else. The downside is that people will take celebrity names first, they¹re the shiny objects of web production,² he says. However, not all celebrity projects succeed; Damon Wayans, for instance, launched a number of series including Abortion Man on his WayOutTV site earlier this year but the venture subsequently folded.

As A-list talent is attracted to the flexibility of the web and content creators learn what works, it¹s no surprise that the big players of the entertainment world want in. All of the Hollywood studios have launched digital studio subsidiaries with varying degrees of success. Fox, Warner Bros. and Disney, whose Stage 9 arm is due to launch Trenches, a sci fi series produced by Star Wars: Revelations creator Shane Felux in the next couple of months, are all thought to have hired and acquired some of the hottest talent in the digital production community over the last 12 months, albeit relatively quietly. ³These acquisitions are rounding errors for the big US studios,² says one exec.

British commercial broadcaster ITV has recently invested in digital production company Electric Farm Entertainment, producer of Rosario Dawson-fronted sci fi series Gemini Division and comedy Woke Up Dead, which stars Napoleon Dynamite¹s Jon Heder. ITV¹s US arm Granada America paid $2 million for 10% of the company with an option to acquire a majority stake at the end of the year.

ITV Global Content boss Lee Bartlett says it appreciated the fact that Electric Farm had managed to produce quality content at a reasonable price for the web and had a working business model. He expects five or six projects to be commissioned by both domestic and international operators by the end of the year. ³The US market is too small for something like this. Creatively, it¹s such that I can sell it simultaneously to more than one market. This is where a US broadcaster and an international distributor are taking [on a project] day and date,² he says.

Bartlett says that the goal is not necessarily TV. ³You could create something out of Electric Farm that creates a toy, a game or a theatrical [movie]. There are a multitude of different distribution platforms. As long as it makes money at the end of the day,² he adds.

Similarly, Canada¹s Shaftesbury bought local digital production company Smokebomb Entertainment earlier this year. Shane Kinear, senior VP, marketing and digital media, says that following the six-figure deal they are working on three web projects; action series Chase, which is being written by Take Me Back creator Seth Mendelson, car park comedy Car Jockeys and post-modern Internet series URL. ³We¹ve given them an area in the office where they can play hockey and computer games, they¹re our renegade producers,² says Kinear.

First-look deals, comparable to television arrangements, are also likely to become more commonplace. FremantleMedia, which has a number of first-look TV deals with producers such as Ashton Kutcher¹s Katalyst Films, is looking to replicate this model rather than acquire equity stakes in companies. Gary Carter, president of creative networks at FremantleMedia and chief creative officer, FMX, says: ³We want to invest in content relationships. We have first-look deals with significant players in TV and I don¹t see why I couldn¹t form the same relationships in the digital area.²

The world of web series is fast changing and with the involvement of the major media outlets as well as the hottest new creative talent, it will certainly continue to take on traditional television. Bebo¹s Navoth adds: ³Remember, this is not web 2.0, this is TV 2.0.²