DOING AWAY WITH TRADITION: The Savior of Black Entertainment!
Calling something “traditional”, or oneself a “traditionalist”, or referring to “traditions” is often an implication of Right and Wrong. However, a tradition, in actuality, is a ritual, belief or object passed down within a society, still maintained in the present, with origins in the past.
I am an African traditionalist. For me, that means I practice a spirituality that predates Judeo-Christian religion on the African continent and has been passed down, for eons within Yoruba society. Although I do consider my spirituality to be right and exact (or else, why practice it?), I do not consider someone else’s to be wrong. However, for many, the term traditional is used to say “Hey, what I do is the right way and your way is bullshit.
Filmmaking is full of “traditions”. These traditions are “the way things are done”, they are “industry standard”, they are “what is expected and accepted”, implying that there is a correct way to do things and deviations from that way are incorrect and unacceptable.
One such long-standing and entrenched tradition is the significance of the Short Film.
The Short Film is generally accepted to be significant to the emerging and aspiring filmmaker primarily, as learning experience and secondly, as a calling card. The short film allows you to gain experience without the overhead. Similarly, as a calling card, the short film serves as a demonstration of your abilities as a filmmaker in order to convince potential investors to trust you with the responsibility – and budget – to make a longer project.
The theory is that a good short film allows you to proclaim “If this is what I can do in 10 minutes of screen time, on a shoestring budget, just imagine what I could do with 90 minutes and millions of dollars!”
Learning experience; calling card. If this is what short films are for they have epically failed on both accounts.
The short film fails as a learning experience because making a short film only really teaches you about making short films. The structures, patterns and conventions of short film have little to no relationship to feature films.
A short film is not just a feature film shoved into a tiny house. A short film, simply by its duration, cannot fully expand your understanding of the elements of story, character, theme, myth and metaphor.
Furthermore, a short film will not prompt you to ask who your audience is; what they expect; what they want; what excites and challenges them; or how they will respond.
Ironically, film schools all over the globe make short films the fundamental learning experience, but spend nearly 100% of their class time discussing and analyzing feature films. That is like going to a karate school, studying day after day, month after month, year after how to snatch a man’s torso off and then, for your black belt exam, having to run like hell from some 126 pound orange belt. While running is sometimes the best strategy and a hasty retreat can be an art in itself, it really proves nothing about competence in the snatch-off-a-torso technique.
Now, if you are happy making short films as a mode of artistic expression, more power to you. However, I would wager that most of you aspiring filmmakers want to make feature films and will do so as soon as the budget allows.
No matter how dope / raw / funky / cold / hot your short film is, if your intention is to make bigger, longer dramatic works, it will largely fail to serve your intent. Short films do not demonstrate the crucial things that fill financiers with confidence. A short film, regardless of how “good” it is, can’t effectively demonstrate you can sustain character arcs and it doesn’t show you understand narrative structure.
A short film does not prove you know how to develop a story over time, or construct consistent dramatic tension and release. A short film doesn’t demonstrate you understand genre and know how to attract an audience.
Without these things there is no real evidence you can effectively make a viable feature film.
Well, if not short films, then what? Is there something better?
Lacking time and resources to make a feature film or a TV pilot, the answer is the web series, or webisode.
What is a Webisode?
A webisode – also known as web originals, web shows, web series, and online series – is a show in episodic form released online, or in some cases, across various mobile platforms. The series is created to live on the web and individual shows within a web series tend to run between 3 minutes and 6 minutes, with an entire season, from beginning to end, averaging an hour to an hour and a half.
When making a web show, the question is what kind of web show will you make? While web series take many forms, typical categories include sci-fi/fantasy (The Silent City; Osiris: the Series), comedies (Awkward Black Girl; 12 Steps to Recovery) and dramas (Touye Pwen: Kill Point; Celeste Bright).
Advantages of the Web Series
While most producers and financiers may currently ask to see your short film and inquire what festivals it has been in, many are now asking where your web series website is and how much traffic you webseries gets.
The advantages of the web series, as both learning experience and calling card, are myriad and obvious.
The web series is resource-viable. It takes no more money, technology or logistics to make an episodic online series than it does to make a short film.
The web series can easily find a far larger international audience than a short film on the festival circuit ever could. In doing so the web series proves the ability of the filmmaker to create for, gather, keep and motivate viewers.
While webisodes are generally short, the nature of their spacing and structure connects very well to feature film narrative turning points, and television episodes and seasons.
The web series may be small scale but the core structure is tangibly applicable and demonstrable, unlike most short films which – like running away, in relation to snatching off a man’s torso – offer little direct overlap.
In regard to the web series, transmedia – the development of stories across multiple forms of media in order to deliver unique pieces of content over multiple channels – is part and parcel of what a web series is. Where short and feature film projects the world over are being asked to add these elements (websites, trailers, games, etc), the web series is integrated tightly to this model from the start.
A good short film can be a great work of art but emerging and aspiring filmmakers need much more than a short work of art to build a career. The short-format, online, episodic webseries is the most dynamic, audience-driven, self-publicizing, learning vehicle independent filmmakers have ever had access to.
Find Your Audience
No matter how good your story is…if you can’t find someone to watch it, then you’re not likely to get much traction from your work.
If you can’t sit down and easily identify what kind of person will like your show and name five places that person might go to on the internet to hype your series, you will have a hard time getting the word out about your masterpiece.
As much as you may dread the idea, you’ll have to put in major work in order to alert the masses to your series. You have to market and promote. Even if your series is the best ever, you may have to work just as hard to convince people to watch as you did to make it.
However, within the last year more money has been devoted to original web content than at any time in the past. Youtube recently committed $100 million to nurturing new web-based talent. And Hulu has earmarked a half billion dollars for original content. Yep, $500 million.
Much of this interest comes from web series demonstrating their ability to reach larger groups of people and generate revenue. Most successful web shows appeal to very specific niche audiences and then grow from there.
That growth, or course, is a function of perseverance. If you can produce a series, find an audience and keep it, then the industry might just catch up to you with sponsors.
Five Keys to Success
- Have Something to Say – With the cost of filmmaking dropping all the time, creating your own series can be enticing, but you have to have something to say. Have a story to tell. No matter what your topic, the story needs to be compelling.
- Manage Your Imagination – Scale down your vision into something that’s shootable; something that you can make without waiting for approval or money. The greatest advantage of a producing a web series is that you do not need anyone’s okay to make it, and you don’t need anyone’s funding. You can shoot something compelling and engaging without lots money as long as you remain realistic about your ability to shoot it within the confines of your resources.
- Use The Resources at Hand – There are many people around you that can help you produce your project. There are actors, editors, sound people, hair and make-up people, wardrobe experts and camera operators who will work with you for little to no money because, like you, they seek to build experience and their portfolio. Also recruit talented friends and family members. Hiring your cool uncle Rollo to be your cinematographer might not be a great idea unless he has some training in film and experience as a director of photography and camera operator.
- Be a Leader – If it is your web series, then you are the leader. Everyone is looking to you as the captain of the ship. And trust me, you will be held responsible for everything – from your assistant director showing up drunk to an actor’s costume being a size too small because they chose to binge on Big Macs the night before a shoot. Have a plan. If not, then you are in for a world of grief and your project will probably go nowhere.
- If You Build It, Money Will Come – This might sound unrealistic, but it has been proven time and again that if you do good work consistently, the money will come – whether someone wants to buy your web series, or buy your talent and have you put the same effort into a television show or a feature film. Do not limit yourself to being a writer or a web-series producer – you are a creator. Create!
The Webseries: Savior of Black Entertainment?
New series that target the Black community are popping up every month.
Savior or not, this emergence of original Web programming is, indeed, good news for black art and expression.
In regard to our project, Rite of Passage, co-producer, Milton Davis and I are deciding whether to produce and pitch the show as a television series for independent television networks that celebrate the Black experience, such as Bounce TV (http://www.bouncetv.com/) and ASPiRE TV (http://www.aspire.tv/) or produce it as a web series.
Which do you think we should do?