Screenwriting For The Internet


Several years ago, the WGA membership voted to strike demanding agreements be struck for writers working on internet-based and new media shows to account for the seismic shift in the way we consume television.

Online content was previously filled with trailers of shows on television, deleted or additional/ alternative scenes, cast and crew interviews and a chance to view missed episodes of recent shows. It also cross advertised other shows.

Yet today, despite the proliferation of web series, the internet remains a source of shows largely produced on low or no budgets. YouTube clips are sporadically being monetized by sponsorship advertising.  This slew of shows is largely of poor quality, often shot on cell phone or ipod video cameras. Without any benchmark of quality, literally anyone can call themselves a film maker.

The beauty of online content is that the number of views can easily be established to easily allow advertisers and audience to view choice material. You have accurate ratings after the show, not the estimates the broadcast networks rely on. There is even a Web Series Network.

The key issue to writing good web series is episode length. Audience attention span generally lasts one to three minutes; five to eight minutes if your material is riveting. Remember that it’s easier to click to another page than reach for your remote.

Despite it’s fractured nature, web series are gradually developing kudos. Shows like “Woke Up Dead“, ”Old Friends”  and “Dr Horrible” produced by Joss Whedon (of Buffy fame) are making the cyber rounds. The supernatural thriller “Circle of Eight” was produced by Paramount Digital Entertainment and secured sponsorship from “Mountain Dew” as well as a prominent billboard in Hollywood.

Studios producing exclusively online cross platform material have sprung up. These include Electric Farm Entertainment and ABC-Disney TV’s Stage 9 Digital. Other studios  have also indicated a tacit commitment to online projects, but are unsure of the best business model with which to proceed. To date none have proved profitable.

There are also awards analogous to the Emmys, dedicated to online content appropriately called “The Streamys” (or could that be “downloadys”)? Despite their infancy, web-based series can act as feeder shows to the cable and network broadcasters as development execs need to satisfy their unabated appetite for new material and secure new revenue streams.

In spite of the vast difference in quality of web-based shows (mainly skewed towards the unbearable), they act as calling cards for wannabe film makers. If you thought television audiences were temperamental, online ones are even more so.

Web-based shows heavily rely on social networking sites for targeted advertising. Most online shows have facebook and twitter links to engage, inform and update their audiences. They can be viewed online, on your ipod, blackberry or smart phone.

Despite this new commando, ultra-low budget film making creativity is unleashed since overheads can be negligible. It is similar to the advent of mass produced domestic video cameras. Time will inevitably demonstrate the maturity of the format into a fully fledged format.

The WGA has currently signed 33 digital production companies which will cover writers on web series under new media agreements. Other companies include Vuguru, Big Fantastic and Warner Digital.

Even though the majority of writers on web series are currently working with non-signatory companies, this will probably change. I envisage writers’ rooms, show runners and egos on web series in the future.

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. There are as may writers as one wants to be. But at the same time one should be keeping in mind about the deadlines and the things they must be including in it to make the screen perfect and attractive.Neat, polite, excited to find fulfillment in creative expression.

  2. Jeff Koenig says:

    Greetings. I came upon this blog through a standing Google Alert that brings me all things web series related, and thought I’d check it out to see what advice you had to offer writers looking to explore the medium.

    I have not read any other articles on this blog, so I can’t speak to the consistency of general screenwriting advice offered on this site.

    I can, however, say that this article is terrible. It is poorly researched, overflowing with uneducated speculation and not at all representative of the current online entertainment industry.

    As with any endeavor, writers should thoroughly research the current market to best understand how they can position themselves to succeed in that format. Web series in particular is a diverse and fast-moving marketplace that presents a unique set of challenges and rewards. However, a real opportunity exists to stake a claim in an industry that, one way or another, represents the future of entertainment.

    Best,

    Jeff Koenig

    1. JG Sarantinos says:

      Hey Jeff

      Thanks for your strongly-worded, vitriolic response. I am unsure which points you are specifically disagreeing with. I can only write what I hear from those who work on web series. At this time, most of the online world is still speculative and unmonetized, a position I’ve heard many times. You mention the article is not at all representative of the current state of online entertainment. In what way? If there is sustainable business model out there, please let us know! Furthermore, if you are willing to write an article on this topic as a guest blogger based on your experiences, I would be delighted to include it in a future blog.

      Best
      Gideon

  3. Jeff Koenig says:

    Gideon,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond to my comment. I’m sorry if it came off strongly, and ultimately I do thank you for bringing web series content to the attention of your screenwriting audience.

    To be specific on a few points I took issue with in your piece, it really comes down to defining which portion of the industry you’re referring to. Since this post is geared towards professional writers, it’s only fair to concentrate on professionally produced web series. While yes, anyone can put a video on YouTube and yes, if you count all the billions of those videos it’s fair to say that, for example, most of them are filmed on cell phones and “iPod cameras”.

    However, to paint that as the scenario a professional writer looking to work in online entertainment will be facing is misleading. Barring instances where a “cell phone look” is intentionally desired (and even then it’s usually achieved in post), the most common cameras in web series are Panasonic HVX and HPXs, Canon HD DSLRs, Sony EX-Cams, and RED. All of these cameras capture images of a quality approved for broadcast on Discovery HD and other High Definition broadcast television networks.

    The WGA strike you mentioned in the opening of your piece not only fought for online residuals (which, admittedly, are nowhere near broadcast TV levels), it also led to a major push in professional quality online productions as striking writers and production crew looked to the web to stay busy during the strike. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog was created during the strike. It was, however, NOT an animated series as your post describes, but a live action musical starring Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother, Glee), Nathan Fillion (Castle, Firefly), and Felicia Day (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Guild). Further, it was not only produced by Joss Whedon, but written and directed by him as well.

    The WGA strike was responsible for launching an entire network of shows written and created by WGA members (strike.tv).

    Other clarifications:
    1. Web Series Network is a fan run community, and industry professionals don’t give it much credit. A better choice to demonstrate the growth of the industry would be the International Academy of Web Television (iawtv.org); better sources of information for writers looking to learn more about existing content would be Tubefilter (tubefilter.tv) and NewTeeVee (newteevee.com).

    For more general introduction, I suggest these articles from the Washington Post:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/14/AR2009051404500.html

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/15/AR2010041506083.html

    2. The key issue to writing good content for the web is the same as it is anywhere else; tell a good story with strong characters. Episode length is a structural adaptation no different from learning how to write for film, television, or the stage.

    3. The show is “Woke Up Dead”, not “Wake Up Dead”, and stars Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite).

    4. Notable shows not mentioned as examples include The Guild (MSN), The Bannen Way (Sony’s Crackle), Valemont (MTV), and The Legend of Neil (Comedy Central). There are dozens more worth mentioning, and the number of professionally produced shows is in the hundreds.

    5. While many web series have not been profitable, to say that none have made money is erroneous. Several web series operate in the black. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along blog was, by cost-to-earnings percentage, one of the most profitable productions of 2008 in any medium.

    6. While not a factual correction, I take exception to your comment that web entertainment is “(mainly skewed towards the unbearable)”. Obviously, personal taste is subjective, but I would argue that you have to have watched the content to judge it, and your article demonstrates that you’re not overly familiar with the better end of what’s being made online.

    7. The majority of PROFESSIONAL web series are working under SAG, WGA, and DGA New Media contracts, or with with production companies who are guild signatories. The budgets (and the paychecks) are smaller, but in many of the cases a professional writer would be contracted, guild protections are enforced.

    Other notable information left out of your article:
    Celebrities that have launched their own web series include Teri Hatcher, Kevin Pollak, Illeana Douglas, Bill Shatner, Zach Galafianakis, Paula Dean, Rosario Dawson, Justine Bateman, Tom Green, Isabella Rossellini, David Lynch, Lisa Kudrow, Rob Corrdry, and David Wain (among others).

    Network shows that have released companion web series include The Office, Heroes, Battlestar: Galactica, CSI, Lost, True Blood, and the film 30 Days of Night, among several others.

    Major brands that have financed web series include Trident, Ikea, Captain Morgan, Audi, 7-11, Johnson & Johnson, Google, Altoids, Lexus, Proctor & Gamble, Bertolli, Armorall, Topps, Skype, Cisco, and MicroSoft. New branded series are announced all the time.

    For a writer looking to work for the web, my recommendations would be to do your homework on the space and target one of three avenues:
    1) Take advantage of the freedom and produce your own property.
    2) Shoot for ancillary web content of exiting network properties (Caprica show-runner and former Buffy writer Jane Espinson was the head writer of the Battlestar: Galactica web series, for which she won a Streamy).
    3) Identify companies actively producing branded entertainment for the web. Without a major studio system or cable licensing fees to fund production, branded entertainment is a major source of production money on the web.

    I suggest you and your audience use the links I provided in this comment, as well as the lists of nominees and winners from the 2009 and 2010 Streamy Awards, to familiarize yourself with shows more representative of the true quality of work being produced by entertainment professionals for the web. Don’t let a slew of teenagers with cell phone cameras fool you, audiences are moving online (one study predicts online viewing will eclipse network and cable TV as early as 2020: http://tdgresearch.com/blogs/press-releases/archive/2010/05/19/internet-video-viewing-to-trump-broadcast-tv-by-2020.aspx and the latest report shows 83.5% of US internet users watched video in April, to the tune of 30.3 BILLION video streams in that month alone: http://www.marketingcharts.com/direct/americans-watch-303b-online-videos-in-april-10-13071/ ).

    As I closed my first comment, online video is an industry that, one way or another, represents the future of entertainment.

    Please feel free to email me if you have any questions.

    Sincerely,

    -Jeff Koenig

    1. JG Sarantinos says:

      Jeff

      I’m glad you’ve completed your tantrum and calmed down to clarify your position. You have provided excellent, pertinent, factual information with a more positive focus than mine. Although I still stand by comments in my original blog about most web material still being in the wild frontier rather than professional content, it is most refreshing that you perceive the web industry to be maturing so rapidly.

      I’m aware that the studio online content division are still floundering in LA at the moment, due to a lack of viable business models. Fox is still having difficulty with it’s online division despite Rupert Murdoch famously declaring that the internet is the future of film and TV. It is still not here, yet… but arriving, so I share your sentiments, in principle. This is likely a symptom of the moribund media market, but also due to the fact that consumers are still largely unwilling to pay for online content. This includes internet and hand held device based material. Having said that, a few years ago, nobody would have believed that people would pay to download music from itunes, or before that, that people would pay for cable TV. Cable TV is increasingly making broadcasters nervous because the ratings of some shows are hitting ratings targets enjoyed by the networks. A similar niche of online content would be a welcome addition to the current stable of shows.

      Logically speaking, the current business models of movie theatrical releases are being redrawn. Studio heads have rolled. The Memorial Day weekend box office was the worst since 2001. What sort of industry do we live in where a film spends 30-50% of it’s production budget on P&A and a film needs to take 2-3 times it’s production budget at the global box office to record a profit? Previously, DVD (and more recently Blue Ray sales) are required to make up the difference, but not so much anymore. Even with the short-lived (arguably) 3D craze artificially inflating box office figures, the exhibition industry needs to change. Even cashed up studio heads from mega block busters Avatar and Alice in Wonderland still don’t know how to spend their money. What a conundrum!?

      I will eventually write another article on web TV over the summer, hopefully declaring that online guerilla film making hacks swarming YouTube with inferior product, is now a coveted, sophisticated avenue of premium content akin to Sundance, HBO or AMC. Writers are even beginning to make studio deals (albeit Simon Kinberg, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzmann as far as I know) and raising their kudos from hired guns to film making professionals.

      You clearly are an online aficionado, so keep me updated on developments in terms of a sustainable online industry. If you want to write an article, I extend the invitation to you once again. A TV show described the internet as the greatest advance in information flow for humanity, but also the greatest advance in anarchy. The purpose of this blog is two fold; to provide screenwriting craft articles to reduce the amount of garbage that passes for a script, but also to educate writers on the industry to help them engineer their careers in terms of opportunities. We know the studios are dramatically reducing their film output this year, and some tv writers room are being culled by around 30% Hopefully online content will pick up the slack.

      Best

      Gideon

  4. Jeff Koenig says:

    I appreciate the offer, Gideon, and will definitely consider it. In the meantime, Script Magazine has an excellent interview with Bernie Su, Streamy winning writer for the web series Compulsions. It can be found here: http://www.scriptmag.com/interviews/streamy-award-winning-writer-bernie-su-compulsions.html

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