Friday, August 1, 2008

NewTeeVee Pier Screening of Online "Pilots"

One popular vote winner, one advertising-friendly series, one critical fave, and a bunch of constructive criticism about what makes an effective online pilot

I've become a regular visitor of NewTeeVee because they report on the topics I find myself writing about--online video content and platforms. So when I heard they were conducting a free screening of potential web "pilots" at Pier 38 in San Francisco Thursday night, I was there. I thought it would be like Channel 101, the short film festival in L.A. at which Saturday Night Live star Andy Samberg was discovered. While I don't think we've discovered the next SNL cast member or LonelyGirl, the screening overall captured what creators are doing right and wrong with online series.

Six clips aired, each less than five minutes long, and the audience voted for their favorites at the end of the night. The judges were Martin Sargent, a web program host at Revision3, George Strompolos, content partnership manager YouTube, and Marie Drennan, an assistant professor of interactive media and script writing at San Francisco State University. Each was asked if watching this "pilot" would make them want to watch the next episode.

I think rather than sitting in stunned silence after watching the first clip, the judges were immediately forced into Paula Abdul cheerleading mode, especially since the creators were sitting right in front of them. They all said they would watch the next one, which I thought was overly kind, as did the audience, since they placed it last. The clip, from a series entitled Blank White Cards, was 41 seconds and featured two guys talking about the potential for Axe Mouth Spray. I had no idea why I should watch the next one or what the series was about (perhaps that's why the judges wanted to see the next one --to find out). The next day, Liz Gannes of NewTeeVee summarized it nicely as "maybe too short and context-free."

The next clip, which ended up placing second, was Engaged: Episode 1 and featured Keith and Chrissy, a couple with an uneven enthusiasm for planning their impending nuptials. I don't have to give you a hint as to which half was more excited, but the guy was shot with a bottle of Lubriderm behind him. Because the situation was relatable and you knew this was not going to go smoothly, it did offer some incentive to keep watching. I have, and the next two eps dealing with the sensitive issues of size-- ring size, that is. It also turns out that Keith and Chrissy are played by real-life couple Matt Enlow and Christine Weatherup.

The third clip was decent--Vice 101 goes behind the scenes of some marginal (and occasionally illegal) activities people do for money, ala Dirty Jobs on Discovery Channel. They showed an episode entitled "The Ponies"--the host was game for anything from shoveling poop to being led by a bit and was able to engage his interviewees at the racing track in a funny way (Turns out the host was G.J. Echternkamp, the filmmaker behind the tragic-comic documentary Frank and Cindy, which was featured on Showtime's This American Life).

The most astute comment from a judge was that this series was "advertising-friendly," which cut to the heart of the matter--you're dead as a series if you can't get sponsors. Although this particular audience didn't necessarily agree that they wanted to see more of it (it came in fourth), NewTeeVee said Vice 101 might get picked up. After looking at their list of episodes, I think I understand why--horse racing probably one of few tame vices in the series they could screen for us. This could do well online in a SpikeTV-like portal. It's exactly the type of show that I could kill an entire Saturday watching on TV, which is why I gave up TV to begin with (of course, now I'm watching it online-- for your benefit only, of course).

By the time they got to the fourth clip, the audience was really looking for some laugh-out-loud funny and fortunately Park Bench brought it-- it placed first with 35 percent of the vote at the end of the night. The episode "Tested" featured two young guys sitting in Central Park explaining to a public health volunteer why they couldn't possibly have, well, any "social" diseases. The actor's personalities shone through, you could get a sense of who these characters were. Judge Marie Drennan described the dialog as "hard-working." While I don't know that I would actively seek it out (okay, fine, I did, and episode 3 was even funnier than the pilot), I definitely thought it was the most appealing scripted series pilot of the night.

That being said, what I saw up to this point was in the category of "I might watch another episode" if I happened on it. On the other hand, the absolute best thing I saw that night that I might even pay for was the fifth clip, entitled Visit. It was the favorite of two of the three judges and came in third for the night. Before I say more about it, watch it now. Seriously. Go watch it.

The first thing that drew me in was the acting --the intimacy between the couple is so palpable and casual you feel like they've been together for years. For a while, you think "the visit" might be from their parents, who don't know that they are pregnant and recently married. Then it takes a sharp turn into X-Files/Twin Peaks territory. I wish the link had a full-size clip because even at that size, it's hard to tell what's going on, but the disorientation seems intentional. The effects and atmosphere were visually arresting and the twist had me glued to my seat.

Based on this clip, I not only want to see more, I'm actively hunting for information. From what I've gathered, it's excerpted from a longer film called 2K3. I have no idea if the entire film is as good as this clip, but I'd like to find out--more posts if I manage to find a screening of the full film. However, I can't tell if they were serious about turning this movie into a series or if they just wanted to get their film noticed--director Gray Miller also entered this clip into the SouthBySouthWest Click festival, which was judged best old-school narrative short yesterday and will therefore appear at the SXSW festival next March. So though it was my favorite, it may be fitting that it did not come in first if it was not meant to be episodic.

The final clip of the evening, Font Conference, was arguably the funniest of the night, and was Marie Drennan's favorite. However, it was a bit of a ringer, since it was done by College Humor, which is well established. I had just seen this clip two days ago: the fonts have gathered to decide whether to let Zapf Dingbats into their group. It went over well with the designery, artistic, SF crowd, who caught all the in jokes about Arial and Courier. However, it elicited the only thumbs down of the night from judge Martin Sargent, if only because it seemed too self-contained to be the start of a series about a "legion of fonts."

The night highlighted three themes for successful online web series.
  • One: whether it is scripted or reality-based, you need engaging characters with distinct, personalities to draw viewers in.
  • Two: you can't just put a three-minute chunk of video and call it an episode--it needs to be plotted to establish the characters quickly and introduce a situation that makes you wonder what is going to happen next.
  • Three: the creators need to have a clear sense of who the primary audience is for their show for syndicators to show an interest.

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