Road to Webisodes 

TV travels from Lucille Ball to YouTube

A behind-the-scenes look at Boise webisode Bagel Shop Bebop.

Andrew Ellis

A behind-the-scenes look at Boise webisode Bagel Shop Bebop.

CBS was excited about the sitcom it was cooking up with Lucille Ball in 1951. But there was one problem: sitcoms were broadcast live from the East Coast, and Ball insisted on staying in Hollywood, Calif., for her family and to maintain a film career. Ultimately, Ball and her co-star husband Desi Arnaz agreed to a $1,000-a-week pay cut to cover the costs of shooting the series on film, instead of live. The catch was that they owned the finished films, which were later rebroadcast for millions of dollars.

That decision was the start of a long and slow reshaping of the broadcast industry, first through the creation of shows that could be rebroadcast, then through proliferation of tapes for home viewing, and finally, through the Internet. The industry evolved from a top-down, studio-controlled process to what it is now becoming creator-owned content with personalized global distribution networks accessible to anyone. In modern parlance: webisodes.

For those not up on Web jargon, a webisode is a short video series that bypasses TV and cinemas altogether and goes straight to the Web. And due to revenue-sharing plans from streaming video sites, media companies looking to expand on existing franchises or offer additional premium content and the wide availability of cheap digital video cameras and editing software, the direct-to-Internet serial short format is booming, even here in Boise.

Beyond distribution, a major appeal of the direct-to-Web format is creative freedom.

"I think one of the saddest things is that short format got pigeonholed into the festival circuit," said Joshua Malan, the auteur behind the short-lived local Web series Ducks in a Column. "The Internet has given a life to short format outside of festivals."

The constraints of the festival circuit have long been cited as a thorn that shapes filmmakers' projects. Films must be lengths that fit programming needs, and their content must turn enough heads to earn one of the limited slots. Malan's series--which follows a snooty film critic grappling with the twin devils of the uncultured masses and his imaginary friend--wasn't the sort of socio-political arthouse film that festivals gravitate toward. But Malan feels webisodes like his can target a niche market.

"I wanted to do something that I felt I could get a good amount of viewership and that I didn't want to feel like it had to get festival play," said Malan.

He isn't alone. A sampling of other Idaho webisodes available on YouTube include The Bronco Buffet, a locally shot sports series covering Boise State; an outdoors and nature show called Wild Lens; and Mule Deer Country, an Idaho-based big game hunting show. All are well made and totally unfit for film festivals.

Another element of creative freedom the webisode allows is the ability to tell stories in a serial, rather than a clipped format. That appealed to Boise filmmaker Andrew Ellis after he saw action dramas like The Wire and 24.

"I'm not holding them up as great art," said Ellis. "But what they did in the first season was ... they would tell you a seven-minute story and then cliffhang you. Then they would come back and tell you another seven-minute story and then cliffhang you ... then end with a whopper of a cliffhanger that would bring you back the next week. I grew intrigued with the idea of seeing if we could do that."

So Ellis and his longtime collaborator Will Schmeckpeper decided to give it a shot.

They didn't even come close.

"What I was actually pitching to him was an episodic storyline, the idea being that we would shoot these three- to four-minute storylines that would interlink and create an overarching arc that would propel the viewer from one episode to the next," said Ellis. "And Will didn't exactly write that."

Instead, Schmeckpeper wrote Bagel Shop Bebop, a set of 16 psychedelic slices of life set inside Blue Sky Bagels, on Fourth and Main streets. Plots cover everything from impressionistic portraits of customers--a la Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes--to the events surrounding an employee's noir-ish, psychotic breakdown, hardly the tightly plotted thriller Ellis envisioned. But he was far from dissatisfied with it.

"What I really liked about it is that it was a low-impact way to use a lot of [actors], and that would motivate me to do it again," he said.

And since webisodes are spread primarily by social networking, the number of people involved can be crucial to success. Every extra actor or grip is one more person who can tell their friends to check out the video they worked and push a series toward going viral.

"It does create sort of a game," said Ellis. "We put them up on YouTube. ... It's fun to check in and see which of the episodes have gotten the most hits."

The answer is Episode 14: Blondes III, which has been viewed 332 times.

[ Video is no longer available. ]

But while it's great that Ellis' friends outside the region can now easily see his work, that consumption also represents a major shift. After the completion of Bagel Shop Bebop, Ellis and Schmeckpeper held a theatrical screening of the complete run and found it woefully under-attended, especially considering the vast number of people that had worked on the series. This was disappointing to Ellis.

"There's something priceless about sharing it," he said. "About sitting in a theater with the people who made it and seeing if it works, if people laugh in the right places and are quiet in the right places. And you will never get that with YouTube distribution."

Ellis and Schmeckpeper used to run Small Pond Films, a screening series. Ellis can draw a clear line when attendance started dropping and the birth of YouTube. But the populist in Ellis sees the trade-off as worthwhile.

"Anyone who has the time and energy to go out and get a project done should be allowed to have the world see it," he said.

Malan agreed. "I think a lot of us really would like to be the next James Cameron," he said. "But for someone like me, I just want to make things and have them be seen."

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