What the F&$k is a Web Series, Anyway?

Co-authored by Susan E. Clarke, writer and creator of the Sci-Fi web series "Chronicles of Syntax" and its audio pre-series, "Primary Faction."

Part 1 - Defining the Art Form

Could the next breakout entertainment hit be a web series?

John Mossman, an award winning film director, teacher at Columbia College in Chicago, and director of an up-coming web series, Devolve, seems to think so.

Narrative web series are providing an unparalleled opportunity for young, aspiring film makers. There has never been a time when it was this easy for talented young film makers to get their work out there.

Try telling someone that you are producing a web series and they'll probably look at you kind of funny. "So you're going to post some videos to YouTube? Like 'Charlie Bit Me'?"

"Sort of ... but not exactly"

Ever since Michael Cera and Clark Duke began pointing a home video camera at themselves with the aspiration of streaming the result on the web, the format has been compelling to both amateurs and professionals alike.

The confusion about the web series format - the "WTF is a web series, anyway?" question - is the very reason that the format is not as successful as it should be. To address this, we're going to try to provide a bit of clarity.

Breaking it Down

Let's start with a definition. According to Wikipedia:

"A web series is a series of scripted videos, generally in episodic form, released on the Internet or also by mobile or cellular phone, and part of the newly emerging medium called web television. A single instance of a web series program is called an episode or webisode."

Broadly speaking, there are three types of independently produced, recurring video content delivered on the web that we believe fit this definition.

  1. Vloggers/Personalities: Online personalities, often by themselves, producing content for entertainment purposes without a narrative structure. Think Pewdiepie, Shane Dawson, and Hannah Hart, to name a few popular shows in this format. The big dogs in this category are the likes of Jerry Seinfeld's web talk show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and Zach Galifianakis's web talk show Between Two Ferns.

  • Commentaries and Tutorials: This is a very popular format where an individual provides commentary or "how-to" instruction on a specific topic. While much of this content is produced by companies on a fee-for-services basis (Lynda is one of the bigger players), there are many other extremely popular tutorials that are independently produced and freely available. Just ask your kids!
  • Narrative Web Series: This category represents the heart and soul of video on the web - narrative video developed to tell stories.
  • In its broadest sense, each of the video types listed above can be thought of as a web series and we could write a tome summarizing, reviewing, and curating each type. You will notice that we haven't even included common internet services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. These services are really more about bringing classic television content (e.g., movies and TV shows) to the web. Even when they're producing great new content like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, they're doing it using the classic "network model." In fact, some are predicting the demise of the classic television sitcom. In many ways, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu can be considered the establishment!

    As writers/directors/producers, the third category - Narrative Web Series - holds the most interest for us.

    Narrative Web Series

    Narrative web series are provocative, independently produced video stories that are predominantly made outside of the classic network model. Isn't that what the web is all about: pushing boundaries? There is no hierarchy or network executive limiting your work. Moreover, web series are not limited to the traditional 30 minute format.

    As James Giordono, co-creator of the hilarious web series, The Startup, notes:

    Web series or short form shows are the way things seem to be going as far as "TV" is concerned. Eleven minute shows, especially comedy, seem to pack a bigger punch. Leave them wanting more!

    Think of these series as web versions of the television dramas and sitcoms that we grew up with, but produced independently by film students, amateurs and auteurs who are pushing the limits, rather than by major TV networks.

    Individual episodes are typically short - less than 10 minutes in length - and seasons tend to be released all at once or over short periods of time, such as weeks or months. Matt Abramson, Executive Producer of the irreverent sketch comedy web series Teachers, said that his team edited and mixed all of the episodes in one shot and then released 3 short episodes per week, thinking that was the best approach to get attention. That certainly seemed to be a formula for success since Teachers was recently picked up by TVLand.

    Often, creators are also willing to take on an old format and put a new spin on it. Sci-fi adventure series Chronicles of Syntax by Susan E. Clarke (co-author of this article) was one of the first shows to successfully launch with six 30-minute episodes. The series has received various awards and embodies the idea that there are no limitations when it comes to web series.

    Despite the absence of a well-defined revenue model, there are lots of people producing high-quality, compelling stories for us to watch on the web. The teams behind web series typically rely on independent funding and crowd funding to get by, and examples of a show being the catalyst for a well-paid career are rare. Regardless, we believe this format will continue to grow and the next great entertainment experience you will be talking about with your friends could be a new viral web series.

    The quality of some of the offerings out there is mind-boggling. Somehow, creative and resourceful independent filmmakers are able to deliver stories with high production values, exquisite performances, and compelling cinematic experiences, while at the same time creating fan bases so dedicated that they rival the best TV shows. We suppose this is no different from the content that the independent film movement has been producing since the 1960s.