As told by one rogue web series pioneer and producer of "The Hunted" - one of the longest running series online (www.thehunted.tv).
THE EARLY YEARS
Ah... 56k dialup modems which took almost an hour to download an 8 minute fuzzy postage stamp with the resolution of 160x120. It was the summer of 2000, and these were the early, brutally slow beginnings of internet episodic entertainment; the days before DSL when everyone was excitedly banging rocks together trying to get aboard this huge band wagon called the internet with no money or technological idea how to deliver content.
I had a BS degree in computer science but I was a latecomer to the internet - seeing all my friends getting time-sucked into this little box. It just didn't seem healthy. During the 90's I was interested in the film business. I had moved to LA, become an actor and stuntman, written and starred in a swordfighting film called "Ring of Steel" and was working as a visual effects artist.
I had seen the blurry trickle of digital entertainment in the form of email attachments such as the first-ever episode of "South Park" in the early 90's - arguably one of the internet's first "viral videos". In 1998, Ifilm and Atom Films came along with the capability to deliver online content thanks to dedicated servers and gajillions of dollars to keep them running.
So it was the summer of 2000, the short film "405" (created by Bruce Banit and Jeremy Hunt) was a huge hit on ifilm, and folks like me were getting fired up seeing the potential of digital entertainment. At the time, I was thinking of creating a no-budget TV series called "The Hunted" for a local cable access channel. I was teaching a stage combat class in LA and I thought it might make for an excellent venue for my students to showcase their skills. But I realized early on that cable access was nothing compared to the internet, which had the potential for a worldwide audience with instant international distribution. And I knew this was gonna be big.
I had seen the research that people were already spending more time on the internet than they were spending on TV, and it was only a matter of time before ad dollars and DSL came online. When that happened, advertisers and online channels were going to be looking for all the content they could get, just like the early days of cable TV.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
Unfortunately, I was lacking at least a gajillion dollars to stream video online, and I didn't want to put my episodes on ifilm or any of the other channels since there was some uncertainty whether I would lose rights to the show. So I decided I was going to do this myself with what little money I didn't have.
Like most everyone else, I had no idea what I was doing. But unlike the others, I chose not to spend money I didn't have. I saw web shows trying to copy what they saw on TV, which was ridiculous. Even with a budget, it's virtually impossible to compete with something like Star Trek that had a million dollar budget per episode with professional writers, actors, directors, and visual effects. If you fell short in just one aspect, the result was laughable (and it still is).
Note to self, don't take yourself too seriously.
These overly ambitious web shows would produce a handful of episodes, advertise the hell out of them at every comic convention they could find, and would slowly fade out of existence as they ran out of money. It was buzz without content. And it wasn't just indie web shows, huge networks like DEN (Digital Entertainment Network) raised millions in the hopes of becoming a major content distributor. Even Spielberg's own company POP.com didn't get off the ground. It was the days of the dotcom bust when everyone big and small was suckered into this massive band wagon which turned out to be a sinking ship. And it's still happening today.
But our little show survived the bloody apocalypse for a few good reasons. First off, we didn't make any money (even though we tried banner ads), but we didn't spend any either. I taught myself HTML and created our own website which I hosted alongside my personal website on Mindspring (which had just merged with Earthlink). The URL "TheHunted.com" was taken (which it still is, curse you!) so I was one of the first to acquire a ".tv" extension (thanks Tuvalu!). I did some fancy footwork to redirect the URL to my existing website and "TheHunted.tv" was born.
I installed Adobe Premiere on my system (no easy task at the time) and taught myself how to edit. I had to do some research since there were three media players at the time that all claimed to have the best compression - Quicktime, Windows Media, and Realplayer. Compression was extremely important since I didn't have a lot of bandwidth on the site and I didn't want viewers to wait forever to download an 8 minute video on dialup. After some extensive testing, Realplayer was the clear winner and had the advantage of being able to play on Mac, PC, or Unix based systems like the SGI machines I used at work. Unfortunately, Realplayer eventually became extremely annoying due to their overwhelming advertising and tendency to hijack your computer's registry. Bad Realplayer.
One of the biggest mistakes I made at the time, however, was that I had chosen to shoot an action webseries - one of the most difficult types of video to compress. Most early web shows were "talking heads" for a good reason. Little movement made for easier compression, better image, less bandwidth, smaller file size, and faster downloads. It was bad enough that I was compressing video down to this fuzzy postage stamp with a resolution of 160x120, but fast action sequences made it almost impossible to follow. This is also why I had to make huge title cards and fill the frame with the face of anyone who was talking.
But I figured at the time that content was content, and it would only be a matter of time until the rest of the world upgraded to DSL. At that point I would simply upload the full resolution NTSC episodes. Little did I know that a video hosting site like Youtube would come along that would not only replace all this media player silliness, but would surpass video resolution with a completely new format, HD.
I believe the main reason we survived the onslaught of the dotbomb years is because we had a concept that worked within the limitations of a non-existent budget. "The Hunted" was designed as a scripted reality show shot in the style of "Cops" about a modern day group of slayers trying to prove the existence of vampires to the rest of the world. Vampires were hot thanks to shows like "Buffy", swordplay was big thanks to "Highlander", and reality TV allowed us to justify the fact that we were shooting on crappy hi-8 camcorders with existing light and sound.
So no fancy sets, equipment, locations, props or costumes. And even though I was a visual effects artist, I knew better than to weigh a show down with time-consuming effects. Our production value would have to come from the resources we had available to us. I knew swordplay, so I managed to work that into practically every episode. I also had a fairly extensive pool of actors, writers and stuntmen in LA who would otherwise be unavailable for a non-paying gig, but these episodes could be shot in a single weekend, and it was a chance to just have fun.
And I mentioned this before, but it's really important in a no-budget web series (and in life) not to take yourself too seriously. Comedy can save your ass. There's no way you're going to compete with high drama, big budget TV shows. But if you can make folks laugh, they tend to forgive and forget the details.
But our resources weren't limited to just actors, writers and stuntmen. Thanks to the fact that we were shooting on a small videocam with no crew, we had all of Hollywood as our backdrop and managed to shoot all over the city without a permit. We just made sure we shot the fights somewhere we wouldn't get stopped by police. So we took every opportunity we could to shoot a Hunted episode - locations and events that we couldn't otherwise afford even if we had a budget. At one point, we shot a swordfight we were doing at the Hollywood Bowl, but it was so tightly woven into the plot that folks were convinced that we somehow were able to afford the entire LA Philharmonic and 18,0000 extras.
My original plan for the show was to shoot a few episodes to get our feet wet before we shot the pilot episode - much like most TV shows. Once the six-part pilot episode was shot and edited, we would spread the word and release an episode a week which would give us a fairly good buffer to continue shooting episodes. Unfortunately, cool opportunities kept presenting themselves, so we kept shooting episodes. Sixteen episodes later, I still hadn't shot the pilot. What's more, I realized that producing a new episode each week is fairly impossible unless you don't have to work, pay bills, or take out the trash. It all takes time - writing, rehearsing, shooting, editing, website design. Years passed as I continued to produce the show in my limited spare time. And even though I had a fanbase with several hundred thousand views, I still hadn't done any advertising or officially released the show.
Youtube came along in 2005 and almost overnight became one of the most watched channels in the world. It was a great opportunity to be part of a larger community with millions of viewers and finally ditch the media players. But I was extremely tentative about hosting "The Hunted" with the site since various legal paragraphs suggested that all content would become property of Youtube. It wasn't until the summer of 2007 when Felicia Day released "The Guild" on Youtube that I finally decided to go for it.
I pulled all of our episodes offline and began releasing an episode a week on Youtube. I also asked Felicia for her advice on how to best market the show. She told me it was all about social networking - something I had been avoiding for years. Overnight I became a social networking whore - Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, FunnyOrDie, etc, trying to touch base with every site on the internet. Unfortunately, it's one more job, and I was already overwhelmed with production. What's more, web shows were popping up everywhere and it became increasingly more difficult to stand out in the crowd.
In 2008, the writer's strike prompted many professionals to take a stab at the internet. Among the most successful was Joss Whedon's "Dr Horrible" (also inspired by The Guild) which was an overnight success, literally crashing Hulu's servers in the first day of its release. Afterwards, the show saw significant revenue hosted on iTunes, quite possibly the first ever for a web-based show. To me, this marked a turning point for web content. Professionals are getting involved, you can make money doing this, and Hollywood is finally taking this seriously. Now it was gonna get crazy.
At that point, I began thinking of how to work smarter instead of harder. My biggest problem was that it took so long to produce new episodes that it was difficult to maintain a regular fanbase. Early on, I conceived an idea where episodes of the show could be shot by virtually anyone anywhere. TV shows like "Cops" and "CSI" had affiliates all over the country, why not "The Hunted"? We already had a few episodes shot outside of LA - one of which from Canada. If I could get users to create more episodes, I could maintain a steady stream of content.
It was an idea ahead of its time - user generated content (UGC), and it's how Youtube became an overnight success. Youtube produces nothing and yet it's the most watched channel in the world. So why not make it work for an internet series? What's more, it's easier than ever to create content. Everyone has a camera, and virtually everyone has a computer that can run editing software. The question is, does everyone have the talent? I knew there was a huge talent pool of actors out there who were trained in stage combat who would love to be a part of something like this. And rather than fight against everyone trying to create their own web show, I encouraged them to be part of ours.
To promote the idea, I created a Youtube contest with $1000 cash prize for best Hunted episode. I know this completely kills the idea of a no-budget show, but the rewards were totally worth it. I also enlisted professional judges to screen the episodes - directors, writers, producers, stunt coordinators, casting directors, agents, etc. The winner of our first contest, Kendall Wells, not only landed a role in the TV series "Leverage", he also signed with a top Hollywood agent. The winning episodes were also screened at various film festivals across the country. We've had three annual contests which have produced over 60 episodes, and the creators of the best episodes have also been invited to become affiliates - given a custom URL and featured hosting on The Hunted website.
By creating a show that encourages user content, suddenly everything was easier. Fans contribute not only to content, but to social marketing - telling their friends to come check out their episode along with the rest of the show. They create Facebook profiles for their characters, interact with each other, etc. What's more, folks are taking the show in directions I never thought about and are producing episodes way cooler than anything I've ever done.
Some folks think this is giving the audience too much control, and that professionals are professionals for a reason. I think this is a bit arrogant and there's room for everyone if you structure your show correctly. The show is based on some very simple rules, and we currently have a multi-tiered structure which features everything from our original episodes to affiliates, contest winners, and fans.
The only downside to hosting the show on Youtube is that our channel doesn't get any credit for views from fan episodes. I decided early on that fans should keep all rights to their episodes, and it was simply easier for them to upload content to their own Youtube channel which we link to via a "playlist". This unfortunately keeps us from becoming a Youtube partner with profit sharing potential, even though we have a substantial number of channel views based on associated content.
The challenge now is to find a way around this issue so we can be featured more predominantly on Youtube. I'd also like to redesign the website or adopt a service like ning.com to allow for all kinds of user content including pictures, blogs, and profiles. The new design would allow for all content to be searched by name, popularity, date, views etc.
The next step in the evolution of most web shows is to find a sponsor or get "picked up" by a cable or TV network. That has never really been my definition of success for the show. Regardless of whether or not someone gives us money, we can still produce the show and have fun doing it - although it would be awesome to be able to pay our affiliates to shoot episodes. If a web show is somehow fortunate enough to become a network show, the next step might be to become a full length feature film. We're skipping step two.
For any show to inspire fan content, you need something for fans to aspire to. So why not finally shoot our pilot episode as a feature film? Pull out all the stops, call in a bunch of favors, and do what you have to do. I don't know much about sponsors or networks, but I do know about independent feature film production after producing and starring in "Ring of Steel" almost 20 years ago.
With the backing of friends at New Deal Studios in LA, and thanks to our fanbase, social networking, and Kickstarter, we successfully raised financing for The Hunted feature film. Plans are to start production immediately upon completion of the final draft of the script, which will tie directly into the internet series. We also plan to feature user content within the film and spinoff characters from the film into their own episodes.
Transmedia is one of the latest buzz words floating around Hollywood and it's all about expanding an idea to all forms of media - from web shows to cable shows, to feature films, to iphone apps, to comic books, to advertising, to user content, to crowdsourcing, to alternate reality gaming (ARGs). The list goes on and on. It's clear now that if you want to survive the ever expanding flood of media, you need to keep up. In addition to user content and the feature film, I'm trying my hand at everything from ARGs to a location-based iphone game app.
At the latest San Diego Comic Con, I heard from some amazing directors including Robert Rodriguez, Guillermo Del Toro, John Favreau, and Kevin Smith. All of them were talking about social networking and user content in one way or another. It's fairly obvious to everyone that this is where the industry is headed, but no one quite knows how it's going to work. The best any of us can do is to hang on for the ride.