Last Sunday, the Anaheim International Film Festival did something that is somewhat remarkable. On the final day of the film fest’s inaugural outing, they featured a New Media Expo and Market. Now, you can’t take a theoretical walk through your laptop without tripping over discussion and debate about New Media. And frankly, the countryside is also rife with this panel or that convention or some kind of side bar devoted to the subject and/or the budding community at large. So, neither of those aspects are really all that news worthy. And while the fact that Anaheim’s Expo and Market was designed to target and feature the creative side of the community as opposed to the technical or business sides (though they certainly weren’t excluded), and that in itself is somewhat rare, the true stop-the-presses key to the entire endeavor was the fact that the Anaheim Film Fest’s New Media Expo and Market treated web series as a legitimate artistic medium.
What’s the big deal about that, you ask? Well, as someone relatively new to the entire thing, I would normally be shrugging too. However, after having a minor dust up following a New Media panel at this summer’s Feel Good Film Festival, I was introduced to a world of talented people swimming in a community pool and trying desperately to inch their way to the deep end after just recently learning how to swim in the first place. And it opened my eyes a bit.
The Reader’s Digest version is this: The panel we put together for The Feel Good Film Festival was entitled “Why Web Series Suck”. The title was designed to be attention getting and anyone who read the panel’s description – in fact, anyone that made the connection with the fact that the panel was hosted by a film festival that had “feel good” in the title of the damn thing could easily do the math and get the fact that it was meant to be ironic and tongue in cheek.
What we discovered was the fact that a few people in the web series community apparently failed math. Or failed having a sense of humor. Or both. More specifically, since the people that complained loudest were purported journalists – and still didn’t get it, actually attended it, interviewed anyone associated with it, or literally read the description of the panel before raising holy internet hell – they failed simple journalism.
One site, in particular, raised my ire: Web Series Network. More or less a one-man show designed to report on and promote the web series community, the site’s founder and self-imposed leader took us to task for using the word “suck” in the title of the panel – claiming it was unprofessional and would do real damage to the web series community. It would tear down the whole enterprise, dash the hopes of impressionable young writers and directors and filmmakers and cause the rest to develop eczema – or something like that. I responded, more or less telling the guy he needed to lose the theoretical ascot, do his homework, relax, and stop being silly. We engaged in a civil (if not frustrating) back and forth, resulting in me agreeing to do an on-camera interview for his site “defending” my position.
I was alternately entertained by the exchange and the interview, but it was overwhelmingly clear that this guy just didn’t get it. And, as inconsequential as his site was (he posts videos of the site’s members getting together for organized meeting/mixers which seemingly always turn out to be 30 or so people – and I may be helping him on those numbers – in a Borders or a Barnes and Noble bookstore sitting around a coffee table, hanging out and talking about IP addresses and stuff, I guess. But, you know… they’re making an effort).
But that’s my first point with all of this. Just making that effort isn’t nearly enough anymore. This isn’t community theatre. Hell, it’s not even Los Angeles-style actor showcase crap that you have to attend because your roommate is in it and they need someone to laugh at all of their parts to impress that commercial agent they’re trying to get. The web series community has gone far beyond that. Shows and creators and actors and filmmakers have “graduated” to TV and film thanks to their work on the web. And even if that wasn’t the case, there is plenty of work, and more than a few shows that stand solidly on their own now.
Simply put – it’s time for the web series world to grow up already.
So – the Web Series Network (and others of its ilk), with it’s helpful hints on subjects like how web series filmmakers and actors and artists should behave and promote themselves on a red carpet when the guy writing the article has clearly never been part of or adjacent to a truly professional red carpet, nor did he have the gumption to actually do the research or interview someone that had – needs to get serious and get serious fast. Because filmmakers like Sean Becker (director of “The Guild”), Hayden Black (creator of “Goodnight Burbank”) and Joy Gohring (creator of “Date A Human”) aren’t f*****g around.
Oh my God, I totally used the F-word! That Web Series Network dude is going to freak!
Seriously, the Anaheim Film Festival’s New Media Expo and Market proved once again the hunger that is out there for the web series community to take its place next to the film community and the television community in three-part harmony. More than 20 series participated in the event, not at some half-a*s mixer party thing where people hang out with the same people they came with and just might exchange a business card or number with someone else in line at the bar. No, they did it for reals, with each show having its own booth and proclaiming what each show was just like they do at the big boy conventions with their grown up filmmaker pants on and everything.
Now, so as not to oversell what I saw, we are talking about hundreds as opposed to thousands, in one room as opposed to a whole convention center. But the size and growth inevitably come once someone puts down a solid stake in the earth and states to everyone that they aren’t messing around. And the creators of the event, Canyon Prince, the New Media Expo and Market Producer, and Matt Bolish, the AIFF Director of Programming, definitely are not messing around. The participation of the web series artists, the securing of the key sponsors, the creation of panels addressing very topical issues and the weaving in of films that were either birthed from the web series or touched on the internet – all of it was done with an eye toward doing what was interesting, needed, “new” and relevant. And all of it was created with an architecture that would support immediate growth in the following and subsequent years assuming the web series community that took part in it this year would come back in droves next year and they’d be bringing “friends”. And many of those web series creators and stars ID walk down a legit red carpet during the film festival’s Opening Night Gala the previous Wednesday. And once they get a taste of the flash bulbs and press with their cameras and microphones aimed right at them…? Oh, they’ll be back. Big time.
And not to beat a dead horse, but just in case there is one last whinny to be gained – our friend at the Web Series Network didn’t attend, even after being directly alerted to the event. I’m going to guess because he had a coupon at Borders that going to expire after Sunday or something.
However, Tubefilter – arguably the go-to spot for all-encompassing coverage of the web world was there. In fact, the site was a major sponsor and participant in the event. And it was a panel moderated by Marc Hustvedt, Editor-in-Chief of Tubefilter that gave me the final push for this column. The panel was titled “Forged in the Fire: The Fundamental Need for a Town Crier” and it was intended to address something that has been on Matt Bolish’s mind for some time now. In fact, he and I had discussed this during the Dallas International Film Festival this past spring. And that something was the lack of critics for web series. Now, Tubefilter and others do reviews of web series, but almost no one does negative reviews. And Marc made the point during the panel that one of the reasons for that for his site was that there are genuinely so many web series that rather than trash a bad one, they more often than not will simply not write about it at all and devote that space (as well as the time and energy) to write about a web series they do like. (I must add that I am paraphrasing and fleshing out his response, so the truth is – it’s entirely possible that he wouldn’t sign off completely on how I have represented him or his explanation there – but basically that’s what I got from it.)
And I understand that explanation. But my feeling is that a legitimate yardstick is necessary. If I don’t have an idea of what you don’t like, then how am I to really fully grasp the magnitude of how much you REALLY do like something. And there is a second very pertinent obstacle facing a web series critical eye: Many of those most in the know want to or are already making web series themselves. It’s hard to be brutally critical of those you might want to work with in the future. That’s a very real dilemma. And a very understandable one.
But guess what? That’s not something I personally have a problem with – and for two simple reasons. One, I have no plans whatsoever to make a web series. None. Zilch. Zippo. And two, my method of reviewing films has always steered clear of outright declarations of “bad.” Instead, I have always preferred to “set the table” for my readers, to prepare them for what they might see and steer them toward or away from a particular film based on that. But I will give an honest assessment, even if I don’t particularly like something. Because you have to if you want people to consistently look to you and your opinion for any real critical measure. Otherwise, you short circuit the depth to which you can truly engage in the conversation and assessment of the art form. That isn’t to say that you would totally invalidate your weighing in with a never-ending stream of ”Accentuate the Positive,” but it is to say that your critical margarita would definitely need to be rimmed with plenty of salt in my opinion.
So – after a conversation with Mr. Film Threat, Mark Bell, I have volunteered my services as well as that of my wife, Justina Walford, a favorably reviewed playwright and screenwriter, to begin reviewing web series for this site. Each week, we will choose two to three web series to review and put under the critical microscope. The idea being that we consider web series to be as legitimate creatively and artistically just as much as films or television are. Writing, direction, performances, production values – will get the same scrutiny and consideration from us just as any studio or indie film would. The consideration of whether or not we would recommend someone watch or seek out a web series will take the same tenor as if we were parsing out suggestions for the time investment to watch a new television series or movie or play. Justina and I will do the reviews as partners to add a greater depth to the yin and yang of the reviewing process since we agree on some, disagree on others, but are always passionate about our entertainment. She describes me as a “cranky man of ethics,” but don’t kid yourself – that doesn’t mean she’ll always be the “nice one.”
Our first web series reviews will hit in a few days. Now, we just have to come up with a name for the feature…