Since the DSLR revolution independent filmmakers have been given more opportunities than ever before (although most refuse to admit it). Prior to 2008 - the release of the legendary Canon EOS 5D Mark II - it was virtually impossible to establish a self-sufficient repertory film company from the ground up. Nowadays, you could make something that looks and sounds half-decent for just a couple thousand pounds.
We are currently in the midst of the golden age of television, where the latest Game of Thrones plot theories (and deaths!) dominate our everyday conversation. In fact, it's unusual to come across somebody who doesn't know and love at least one HBO or AMC drama. This newfound popularity, alongside the DSLR movement and video streaming services, has created a brand new platform: the web series.
The beauty of the web series is its versatility. It can be produced by a casual YouTuber or an A-list star, shot on a cheap smart phone or top-of-the-line ARRI Alexa. There are no genre barriers, worries about distribution, or a studio calling all the shots, deciding what the audience will or will not like. Granted, this does lead to fluff; however, it's this sheer lack of regulation and control that can make it such a powerful medium.
It's All About Storytelling
Getting into the film business is daunting. But if you're not aiming for a prime-time audience who crave the next spandex-wearing superhero, then you've really got nothing to worry about. Hollywood seems to be taking a very specific route nowadays, and it's a wonder why any credible artist would want to be a part of it. How can rehashing the same old stories, with the same old formula, be creatively satisfying?
Most writers and filmmakers learn at some stage that sacrificing creative control (to a certain extent) is "normal" in order to make ideas fit within certain industry perimeters. Of course, clarification is invaluable. But, sometimes (oftentimes in fact), us creatives know what's best for our story, and for the sake of dignity and gratification, simply need to win.
The Dogme 95 movement emphasized the importance storytelling and acting - picture and sound quality took a backseat. When Thomas Vinterberg's Festen (The Celebration) - which was entirely shot on a handheld camera - was released in 1998 to critical acclaim, it was a true testament to what could be achieved without being confined to industry standards. And despite film and television budgets getting larger and larger, the rules haven't changed.
Fundamentally, nothing can conceal a bad story. So if you do make a web series, providing you have a solid script and good actors, it will have potential. That's not to say you have to make a web series with major technical limitations. However, you should never compromise on story for the sake of a money shot.
We Are All Self Distributors
When you produce a web series you can literally export your video files, upload them to the Internet, and get the word out for nothing. You're not going to command millions and get bombarded with offers to join the ranks of Hollywood's elite, but you can certainly build up a bit of influence, and that's worth a great deal in this business. Check out this BBC Writers Room interview with directors Chris Munns (Chronicles of Syntax) and Leon Maynes (Brothers with no Game), both of whom started their careers online.
And releasing a series on the Internet doesn't mean it will always have a limited platform. The Norwegian sensation, Skam (Shame), was released via the web in 2015. It quickly built up a cult following, and has since been broadcast on major Nordic television networks, including Sweden's SVT. It has even been picked up by producer Simon Fuller for an American remake (typical isn't it?).
If you have aspirations to eventually move beyond YouTube there are also plenty of ways to get your series onto major streaming platforms. For example, there are now digital distribution companies that can not only aggregate content across a variety of tube sites, but can also submit your creations to Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. And with most broadband and cable companies now offering a selection of streaming services alongside their standard packages, the reach is only going to get greater.
Web Series Is Starting to Shake The Stigma
The phrase "web series" is still fraught with negative connotations. As filmmakers we all want our shorts to be screened at Sundance, and features shown on the big screen. When you have such high aspirations it's all-too-easy to shun the Internet as one giant slush pile. But times are changing. With major television shows such as The Walking Dead (webisodes), and Academy Award-winning directors like Ron Howard, taking up the format, it's only gain more legitimacy.
It won't be long until the web series turns from a gimmick into a real art form. So before you dismiss it as a pointless medium it might be worth asking yourself what type of filmmaker you want to be: one who joins the movement after it succeeds or one who pioneers it?