Web + Series = Storytelling 2.0

During the submission period of our first festival, sometime in February this year, I identified a fair amount of submissions I couldn’t really classify: Serialized short form content in different styles and genres, shot with tiny budgets. Nice stuff. Really nice stuff, actually. Following a bit of research, I found that this format is called web series and the filmmakers call themselves creators.

After asking around about this (personal) novelty, I got introduced to the IWCC, the Independent Webseries Creators of Canada, a non-profit organization describing itself as “Dedicated to supporting the Canadian creators of independent, creator-driven, audience-focused web series and promoting their work in Canada and around the world.”

During a call with two of the board members, Carrie and Regan, they told me about the TO WebFest, a two and a half day festival in Toronto, dedicated to web series only, planned to go down in May. Having introduced them to our festival, we discovered that we’re actually on the same path, so I decided to head to Canada for a visit and bring on Viewster as a sponsor for the event.

After a few days of planning, I finally found myself on a plane ready to cross the Atlantic. The eight-hour flight followed by a two-hour ride with public transportation, left me baffled that this city with over 2,6 million citizens only boasts two metro lines. Admittedly, I’ve got a bit of a weird fascination of public transportation systems. Istanbul is one of the nicest but that’s a different story. ANYWAYS:

TO WebFest took place at the Harbourfront Centre, a nice location with a gorgeous view over Lake Ontario. I sadly didn’t make it to the first screening block but instead spent a bit of time around the main hall along with Carrie, who introduced me to a slice of the diverse crowd of actors, creators, producers and other attendants from the industry. As soon as the screening finished, the Brigantine Room started filling up pretty quickly with more people. And more people… and more people. I was deeply impressed by how many people actually showed up for an inaugural edition of a web series festival, in a city that hosts 74 film festivals a year. Well done!

TO WebFest
The Brigantine Room on opening night. Yes, it had a disco ball.

Next day was dedicated to Industry Day, offering a wide variety of panels for the creators in attendance, on subjects ranging from »Financing Web Series« over »Building Empires« to »Success on Platforms«. I joined the latter as a speaker and together with representatives from YouTube, Dailymotion and CBC, we discussed how creators can achieve maximum exposure of their content and monetize it properly along the way.

In the evening I met up with Bernie Su, executive producer of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, resulting in an inspiring chat about how the web and social media could influence the ways of storytelling in the future.

Bernie Su and myself on quick pose.
Bernie Su and myself on quick pose.

It seems most of the web series creators are actually not aware of the opportunities and tools available to them in the slightly more dark corners of the internet, and so they tend to produce traditional series, only to face some serious obstacles when trying to monetize their work online. It’s incredibly vital to success to pull all the strings you can to involve the audience in the making of your project. One way of going about this could be by creating social media identities for your characters to make them interact with the audience, and let these interactions influence the script of upcoming episodes. Parallel stories, where the audience can choose their own point-of-view within the story is another approach to building an engaged and strong audience. Transmedia offers a lot of ways to let the audience contribute to the projects and if a series is produced well, the main story can still easily hold up for being showcased in traditional media. It’s important to understand that this new approach is not a question of either/or.

It seems that financiers and investors alike are also still surprisingly reserved when it comes to funding creators making use all of these new, interactive possibilities for storytelling and involving the audience. Which is understandable. There’s still no solid proof as to what works and what doesn’t. But the creators that have the courage to follow this yet undefined path often work on incredibly tight budgets, which results in an amazing story experience but sadly only a moderate production quality. It’s now clear to me how much the traditional filmmaker universe is still way too isolated from the one of the web affine creators, and I’m really, really, really looking forward to seeing them merging together. Why not combine the web based, multi-string storytelling with the experience and knowledge of a traditional filmmaker? I’m still patiently awaiting a transmedia web series, produced with a seven digit budget. Or is it already out there? If so, please let me know.

Our hairy, horny octopus made it to print. Yay!
Our hairy, horny octopus made it to print. Yay!

The final day was Creators Day where select mentors (including myself) conducted one-on-one meetings with attending creators looking for advice on their projects and/or career. Fairly comparable to speed dating, since the creators had to switch tables every five minutes or so, the event was a load of fun and I actually managed to get done in time to catch the festival’s comedy screenings. To round things off properly, everyone went to dinner at The Amsterdam and it was amazing to get a final chance to see everyone before heading home.

TO WebFest was a superb experience and I’m still in awe of how great a job Carrie and Regan did in bringing this festival to life. What remains is a serious amount of new contacts to follow up with, outstanding acquisitions for our second festival and a more than reasonable understanding of the web series universe. Thanks to everyone I met in Toronto. See you for the next edition!

/Simon

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