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Science Fiction and the Web Series

on Mon, 07/23/2012 - 00:00

In April 2009, Marc Bernardin of Entertainment Weekly briefly touched upon a growing gap between the success of big-screen science fiction creations and those found on television. “Two weeks ago, FOX aired what was probably the final episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a pretty solid sci-fi show which nevertheless suffered from guttery ratings,” he wrote at the time. “Two weeks from now, Terminator Salvation will premiere in theaters—where it will likely make somewhere in the vicinity of $90 million in its first weekend, regardless of how ‘good’ it is. Two separate extensions of the same franchise: one will be labeled a failure, the other a ginormous hit.” Bernardin then followed with the main thesis of his article—“Why don’t we want science fiction on television anymore?”

Although he did not have an answer to the question, Marc Bernardin did have a plethora of evidence to support his claim. The list of biggest box office money makers is primarily dominated by science fiction films, while very few television series garner significant ratings. Those that do usually hide their sci-fi roots in the early stages of production—like Lost and Fringe—and then see their initial ratings drop when the full scope of the narrative is revealed. While network television considers sci-fi as a risky proposition because of the low returns, however, the web series medium has seen a number of sci-fi creations attempt to fill the small screen void. In early July 2012, SciFiPulse ranked the ten best science fiction web series of 2011. While “best of” lists are a dime a dozen on the Internet, the SciFiPulse rankings stood out because of the high quality, originality and sheer enjoyment level of the web series on it. These were not the works of wannabe filmmakers with iMovies on their laptops, but professionally polished endeavors from serious creators.

More significantly, sci-fi dramas have also begun to dominate the small number of awards that are given to web series productions. The inaugural IAWTV Awards, for instance, featured four out of its five nominees for best drama to be genre-related, including the eventual winner, the extraterrestrial mystery RCVR. Christopher Preksta, meanwhile, took home the trophy for Best Director for his homage to old school movie serials, The Mercury Men. The LA Web Festival, Indie Soap Awards, New York Television Festival and Indie Intertube Awards have also honored such sci-fi creations as The Booth at the End, Cell and Pioneer One since their inceptions. Conventional wisdom used to be that one couldn’t “do drama” on the Web, and that only comedies were a reliable commodity. The old “YouTube rule” that original video needed to be less than ten minutes—coupled with the belief that audiences had short attention span in regards to Internet video—likewise made the medium more conducive for comedy. Just as with any “conventional wisdom,” however, those of the web series have slowly faded in recent years, enabling the rise of science fiction as a legitimate genre within the industry.

“People are getting used to consuming longer content online,” explains Cell creator Mark Gardner. “Five years ago you wouldn’t even want to try and watch anything more than two minutes because of the quality and buffering. As broadband becomes more widespread, more people have access to reasonable quality streams. They watch shows on Hulu or Netflix while sitting at an airport or riding a train. That change in normal behavior makes people more comfortable watching longer content, which seems to be a trademark of dramatic and genre shows, with good reason.”

While some “rules” of web series production have fallen by the wayside, however, others remain relevant, including the philosophy that one should create projects centered on subject matters in which they are well versed. “The motivation behind Pioneer One was merely to make content that we ourselves would want to see, and we figured if we’d want to see it, then other people probably would too,” Josh Bernard of the NYTVF award-winning web series explains. Ben Bays, executive producer of Aidan 5, has a similar viewpoint. “I think you’re seeing content creation simply cultivate the web space and address genre-specific audiences as it has done with previous delivery platforms,” he states. “Sci-fi has a very large audience, so it’s a natural go-to for content creators. Eventually, as web entertainment becomes more prevalent, I think you’ll see traditional genres available in roughly the same proportions as they currently appear in film and television, only with more sub-genres able to serve niche audiences which film and television have been financially unable to justify.”

Despite the boosts that dramatic web series in general and sci-fi projects in particular have experienced, genre-specific creations still face the same obstacles of awareness and revenue generation that comedy web series have confronted since the infant stages of the industry. “It costs a lot more money to make a high-quality genre show than it does a simple comedy,” Mark Gardner explains. “Indie producers of comedy can use advertising revenue to support their shows initially. Drama won’t see that money back based on current CPMs. Without a studio or other group with money backing projects, indie drama will struggle. Comedy can keep cranking things out at low costs and people are okay with the low production value. It adds to the charm. But try to put a monster on screen that doesn’t look stunning and you’ll get ripped apart.”

“I think you’ll see more and more dramatic series alongside comedy, but I think comedy will still be dominant,” adds Josh Bernard. “Comedy is easier to do on the Web. There’s only one thing that matters with comedy—if it’s funny, people are going to go along with it. In a drama, people are much less forgiving of anything that falls short of full-on Hollywood polish.”

Then there’s the issue of audience awareness. “People aren’t used to consuming independent drama online,” Mark Gardner maintains. “They don’t know it exists or where to find it. Yes, people watch Hulu and Netflix, but how easy is it to get your dramatic web series on those networks? People don’t know about blip or Koldcast or JTS.TV, who focus on indie series. People don’t even know they can watch independent drama. They think drama only lives on TV. But everyone knows you can watch funny shows on YouTube.”

Joe Wilson, creator of the supernatural/comedy hybrid Vampire Mob, agrees. “I always try to keep this in mind about web series—the majority of the population will respond to the question, ‘What’s your favorite web series?’ with the answer, ‘What’s a web series?’ With the content tsunami out there for entertainment options and other distractions like Twitter and Facebook and video games, the larger entities with the bigger marketing bucks will have to spend even more to get anyone’s attention. For indie storytellers like myself, the battle won’t be to just make a great story in a genre that can potentially attract an audience, it will be a battle for that audience’s attention when there are so many other options for them to do something other than watch the story I’ve made.”

The stories that the likes of Ben Bays, Josh Bernard, Mark Gardner and Joe Wilson have already made are worthy of attention regardless of the ongoing static that surrounds the World Wide Web. From the futuristic world populated by human clones in Aidan 5, to the solitary Brian and Sarah imprisoned by a mysterious stranger in Cell, to the story of a Soviet cosmonaut returning from Mars in Pioneer One, to the dramedy explorations of vampire mobsters in Vampire Mob, these web series creators have shown that not only can one “do drama” on the Web but that the still infant web series medium offers a new source of quality entertainment for fans of science fiction.

Comedy may still dominate, and the industry has numerous issues surrounding revenue generation and mainstream awareness to resolve, but the web series medium is fertile ground for genre storytelling nonetheless. “Clearly, the American public loves their science fiction,” Marc Bernardin of Entertainment Weekly wrote in April 2009. “Why don’t they want it on a regular basis, piped into their living rooms, for free?” Maybe the answer is that television itself is not the answer, and that the future of the web series holds the key.

Suffice it to say that as long as Ben Bays, Josh Bernard, Mark Gardner and Joe Wilson keep creating original and entertaining narratives, the potential for such a future will continue to exist.

Anthony Letizia (July 23, 2012)

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