How to be a screenwriter


A brief overview of the art of the webisode.

What are they?

Broadband Internet has brought us productions of drama and comedy series designed just for Internet viewing. They are characterized by short episodes, interactivity and the manner in which they are watched. They look like TV, but novelty drives the web viewer to such a degree that for a web series not to lose its audience after the first episode, the show has to use all the tools of the web, such as social networking groups, to create an intimate relationship with its fan base.

Is it a new industry?

Although the desire for novelty is a great creative impulse, it is consistency and repetition that create an industry, which is why people are skeptical whether it is ever going to be a viable industry in its own right. However, as the web and TV merge, stepping from one to the other will become easier. Already major studios are dabbling in “minisodes” and other short forms, either as off shoots of broadcast TV or tests of concept, for web distribution. They are also developing technologies to integrate broadcast TV with Broadband. This will push up the quality of on-line material and change Broadcast TV as it begins to be increasingly interactive.  Web skills and Broadcasting skills will become increasingly interchangeable and webisodes will find a place within the overall content production industry.

Who watches?

Knowing exactly what you are promoting and to whom you are promoting it, is the key to maximizing a market. With these small scale shows nobody as yet has many answers about how they are being watched or who is doing the watching, so finding an audience, especially an audience that advertisers can use for their promotions, is not an easy task. It is still not proven that the brand awareness of the major studios is enough to create a significant audience for web-content, and many of the early successes have come from independents who have merely utilized what they know of social networking groups to design material for their niche audience, in particularly the on-line gaming community.

However, whether it is merely a training ground, or an adjunct to established media, or capable of being an industry in itself, it seems an irresistible and relatively low cost challenge to produce material that might grab the big audience and with this sort of celebrity, all manner of opportunities can open up for those who take the risk.

Brevity and Quantity

The only rule to the production of web-series that is immediately apparent is that the episodes should be short! Ten minutes is seen as long for a web video, and most episodes tend not to exceed five minutes.  Also, the number of episodes should be many, as people like to click and see stories move forward and characters reveal themselves.

Characterization and Story

Characterization and story are not lacking in a web series, though each episode may have little room for much development. In shows that take their lead from the games industry and its non-linear interactive story telling, seemingly confused plots and enigmatic characters become explained through blog spots, extra textual elements on the web site, and a constant massaging of the relationship with the fans through forums and social networking sites.  

Other shows make sure that their writing and production is sharp, clear, concise and use as many tricks as they can to move things along at speed, even if it means resorting to jump cuts without the use of traditional cutaways to smooth over the process. Such cuts can work very nicely within a comic context, though maybe less happily for dramas, though what passes for drama on the web has a preference for sci fi and fantasy where anything can happen, or hybrid forms with fictional Web Cam diaries and video conferencing, where rough cutting and low production values add to the authenticity. Whether more traditional contemporary or historical dramas will ever be delivered this way might be more to do with the current on-line audience profile than a fundamental bias of the form. Where there is a will, there is usually a way, so as the audience matures it is difficult not to expect content to move into the areas that all fiction and drama has been exploring since Shakespeare.

Clarity of Concept

Just as in TV series, a clear and interesting premise is needed to hang all the episodes on.  The higher the concept, i.e. the briefer the description needed to sum up what the series is about, the more popular the piece - assuming it is an interesting brief description!

Presently one sees less influence of standard drama, and more the influence of comic book and video games, as evidenced by the use of often quite messy magical mythologies and quests, which perhaps are not so easily summed up. Though generic story lines of search, rescue, and confrontations between good and evil ride rough shod over the complexities of supernatural back-stories and keep things simple.

On the comedy side, it is the recognition factor above all else that provides a key to the concept. The hotty and the notty, the girl getter and their wingman, as crop up successful on-line comedies like “Casanovas”, are social phenomena often explored under one guise or another in comedies aimed at young sexually active, or wannabe sexually active, people. Very much the contemporary life style of the video game playing, facebook generation, is referenced and anything that can identify and label the sort of relationship that grow up in this environment can capture audience attention.

Cast the Demographic

Traditionally, whomever one is trying to interest, defines what is an interesting premise. People like to see a reflection of themselves. If your show is about young people in Singapore then young people in Singapore will be your main audience, and advertisers wishing to catch their attention will be the main source of funding. But you have to have an issue at the heart of the culture of such people to be able to capture their attention.

The Internet is also far from being the exclusive preserve of the young, but it seems that it is the young that use it in preference to TV, and so most webisodes are aimed at them and draw upon their interests and culture for inspiration. But, as mentioned before, with the increasing amalgamation of broadband and broadcast one might see “the silver surfer” turning up as suitably subject.

One of the most basic assumptions one can make about all Internet users is that they like technology and integrate it into their lives to such a degree that stories about this relationship and the way the internet shapes social interaction have advantage over stories that make no reference to it.

One can also begin slicing up the audience in terms of language and location.  The main English speaking markets are America, the UK and Australia. But there is also an English speaking diaspora and a large English as a second language market. India for instance, uses English widely and the English speakers can also be identified as those with money and thus of interest to advertisers and sponsors. Similarly elsewhere in Asia, English speakers can be seen as having disposable income and to be interested in high-end goods such as, obviously, computers! It is common for web series to seek sponsors on the grounds of product placement opportunities and targeted banner advertisements on the delivering web pages.
These secondary English language areas are fractured and often multi-cultural and so create challenges for people wishing to write for that market.  But in Asia the English speakers are increasingly being targeted, as the web unifies the means of distribution over the wide and politically divided region. Multi-cultural story lines may well be the answer to this, especially if they are handled with authenticity rather than a stereotypical fashion, though as yet one has not seen much break out material from Asia aimed at such a market.

Key Episodes and Catch Ups

Given the need for brevity and the experience of the present generation of web series, it would also seem that series that build stories slowly from one episode to the next over a long period of time are not ideal. People use the Internet in a random and impatient fashion clicking from one link to the next. So the first episodes get all the hits and rarely carry forward major fan bases to the end of the series.
Shows that have been successful in maintaining good viewing records tend to have popular episodes that get picked out and viewed in isolation. In broadcast TV for a while, the episodic series with constant characters and less serial content was thought to be more popular, leaving the “serial” to the “mini-series” format rarely visited nowadays with a strong reliance upon medium level stars to attract audiences.  As ever, technology moves on and the advent of the affordable DVD Box-Set and binge viewing, has brought about some highly complicated serialized content with the initial TV broadcast being in some ways merely the way of advertising the DVD. So it may well be with web series and complicated story lines demanding a lot of attention, if presented with enough style, might not have people clicking on the episodes but rather sampling a few and then buying the DVD, especially if it is an advertisement free delivery!

One suspects that shows that are cheap enough to enable many episodes to be created are at an advantage over expensive productions that can only manage five or six episodes.  Quantity and panache presently might triumph over quality and one must recognize that the business model of a web-series is about driving people into a site and then out through various advertising links. It can matter little whether they actually view the whole or any of the show, so long as they hit the page and see the advertisement.

A distracted and low attention audience might be why many series use frequent catch up episodes, often composed of sections of earlier episodes edited into a rapid quick fire storyline up-date or an episode entirely given over to one character explaining the plot so far using the “blog” form as the excuse.  Whatever the means or the reasons for the catch up, its prevalence indicates that it is thought by many that it helps build an audience. 
What one can expect as the structure and story cycles of these web forms develop and find preferred ways of operating, is an increasingly sophisticated awareness of how to drive the audience towards various products and services without the manipulation being too obvious. Though the naivety of a young audience might mean the sophistication is in the knowledge of how much one can get away with blatant and intrusive advertising.

Key genres

Where the main successes are in Web Series is hard to tell. There are no independently verified viewing figures, but if Youtube is anything to go by, the biggest hit rates have been for reality web-blogs presenting personable talking heads introducing elements of popular culture. And where fiction is concerned, it has been those, such as “LonelyGirl15”, pretending to be reality web-blogs but in effect are soap-opera or melodrama, exploiting the great rule of television: cast the demographic!

Beyond that, sci-fi and fantasy, soap opera and comedy have emerged as the most popularly made, if not also viewed, formats.  And one can see why this would be the case. Sci-fi and fantasy love gimmicks and graphics, and cheesy quirkiness, all of which cheap video production and computer software can take advantage of. Soaps are cheap and traditionally multi-storied aimed at creating cliff-hanging moments to make you click on the next episode. And comedy plots tend to be about a situation with a set up and a funny pay off, that lends itself nicely to brevity and to viral distribution, i.e. the habit of fans sending e-mail copies of the funniest moments.  

But, as I write I am certain the ground is being pulled from under my feet. Not only technology drives innovations in story telling, but also the changing audience from the early adopters and their quirky tastes to the mainstream bringing with them more traditional expectations along with less technical facility.

In short

So to sum up the rules, the web series takes advantage of brevity, quantity, brash style, cliff-hanging or key stand-alone moments, interactivity, and intimacy with the audience.  It is not enough for your show to have attitude but you have to work it through a constant interaction with your on-line audience. The series concept, the episodic scripts, and the on-line relationship with the fan base, have to work as a team for the show to have impact, and for the shows to be more than merely training grounds or proof of concept, integration with the requirements of advertisers and sponsors is necessary.  Also one should expect that those shows that make it easy to maneuver through the material and discover what it is and where it is, will find the key to the mainstream and the large audiences.

That said, because they are cheap to produce and because anyone can give it a try, it is likely that here we will see innovation in form and subject matter on a scale that we have not seen before in TV and Film production. For the most part the mass market does tend to give us hamburgers rather than haute cuisine, but here is at least an arena in which both can be produced and consumed for much the same price. It will be interesting to see which will make a profit.

One of the first web series to come to any notice. For a while people could not decide whether it was a real blog or fiction. When they discovered, it lost a lot of its fan base but it pressed on with more installments and more plot and helped develops some of the interactive elements that others have taken on board.  

Kate Modern
A reworking of the Lonelygirl format with more plot, more fantasy elements, and a lot of interactivity.
Very stylish Hong Kong based web-series with a good soundtrack and some clever visual ideas.

Prom Queen
Successful series that also has a Japanese version. Hits the demographic very well. Soapy mystery.

Leave To Enter
Irish situation comedy. Traditional sit-com with risqué story lines.
Who Shot Mamba
A very offbeat story line shot nicely with spectacular locations and brilliant overacting.
Apocalyptic Playground
Nice Sci Fi series. Totally bewildering but very good on atmosphere.
Very sharp comedy about two guys on the search for lurv! The performer, producer, writer, directors of this have got TV deals out of the success of this.
The Guild
Funny soap opera about a group of on-line gamers trying to relate to reality and not succeeding.