LA Webfest 2013 – defining the future of webseries

Short observations from the LA Webfest (March 28-31, 2013):

In 2010, LA based TV writer, producer and director Michael Ajakwe gave birth to a simple idea, creating a place for the new story format webseries, to be seen, find like-minded creators and exchange ideas. Soon, the concept took up international speed and a group of visionaries around French producer Jean-Michel Albert launched the Marseille Webfest in late 2011.

2013 marks the 4th anniversary of the LA Webfest and Ajakwe’s idea has grown into a global movement by now. This year we have 2 more webfests to follow his lead: Melbourne, Australia in July and ours in Hong Kong, June 5-7.

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Not only did the movement grow, more webseries are produced worldwide today than ever. Vast communities fueled by Google Plus connecting internationally and the big players in the industry start to jump in on the game. Canada created various media funds webseries makers can tap into. Hollywood started launching digital departments with each of its studios, that are solely producing targeted webseries content with high production value. France sees a vivid content market where webseries get licensed into TV networks.

For the second time, the LA Webfest took place at the Radisson LAX, providing all events and screenings under one roof. The 4 day event saw a total of 220 series screened (each twice) as well as a large variety of panel discussions with makers and industry experts. Most notable were Henry Jenkins’ transmedia storytelling panel and the “woman taking control” round tables.

Festival director Ajakwe made a strong focus on how to turn a webseries into a TV show by hosting a seminar in which he showcased the adaptation of his webseries “Who…” into the soon to be aired show “Trophy Wife”. This topic was paramount to most round table discussions and private conversations as well.

Turning a webseries into a TV show seems to be the more realistic scenario in Hollywood as opposed to TV licensing content for straight syndication in Europe. Also, questions of how to monetize a webseries kept popping up throughout the 4 festival days but were barely answered comprehensively. While most proposed Kickstarter, product placements or private investors others went for self-financing their shows with day jobs or the 3 “F”s.

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Only few I met were thinking about alternative business models in order to finance their shows. One of them was the team of Dark Pool, Karen Pollard and Rick Gott based out of Sacramento. Due to their educator background they give local film students the chance to participate in professional productions within their newly created studio Indie Episodic. While having a constant fundraiser running on Indiegogo they make finance deals with local businesses and offer web commercials in return. Such commercials are being produced by their students as well, which provides them with the opportunity to get their work seen and even onto TV. Pollard & Gott’s mission is to bring webseries to a mature audience. They want to create stories that are accessible to a demographic that is mostly ignored by commercial creators as it is a less tech savvy but sophisticated one.

The other end of the spectrum was Jill Golick with Ruby Skye P.I., based out of Toronto. Her mission is to serve another neglected demographics in web entertainment, teenagers. With her award-winning young detective show she was able to tap into the Canadian Independent Production Fund as well as secure some tax incentives which gave her show a comparatively generous budget. Prepping for season 3 right now, Ruby Skye holds a vast web universe of interactive clues from the show and a wide range of merchandise articles.

Opinions widely differed when it came to distribution platforms. While YouTube turns increasingly into a legal troublemaker for shows when it comes to music rights or other (often falsely flagged) copyright claims alternative platforms where seen as critical too. For most creators Koldcast seems to provide a good deal once the show is selected. Others criticized the platform for not providing topic separation between the shows, thus kids shows appear next to adult targeted ones.

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General consensus, however, was to follow the model of the music industry. Michael Ajakwe brought up several times the comparison to Rap music in the 90s and how this new underdog style gradually moved into a fixed position between all other accepted popular music styles like Rock, Pop, Classic or the like. Webseries will eventually be seen in the same way, as a standalone medium next to film and TV.

While the medium matures finance models will too. At this time in history creators still think about micro payment models for the “end-user”, similar to the 99cents per music track iTunes offers. Eventually, a model needs to be created that is not inspired or oriented by outdated business practices of the old media like feature film or TV but rather adapts to the situation of mobile technology and audience behavior on both ends, online and offline.

On June 6, 2013, we will will discuss this point in further detail at the HK Webfest. As Asia holds a different stance within the new media entertainment landscape we will tackle the finance issue primarily from a branded content angle as film and TV industry have yet to fully comprehend and implement the concepts of transmedia and subsequent webseries.

For the first time, LA Webfest was selecting shows from Hong Kong to be screened and run in competition. A total of 10 awards went to Mr French Taste, Squattertown and Galaman.

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