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Summary:

The indie series Asylum is off to a very intriguing start on Blip.tv, but while the first season does a great job of hinting at the mysteries lurking in an isolated mental hospital, it ends with little resolution and a definite need for a season 2.

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While it’s too easy to trash Hollywood for stifling artistic voices, if the web series Asylum were put through your stereotypical studio development, it probably would have emerged as a twist-filled thriller, or a gross-out horror film. However, as an independent production, the series avoids being pigeon-holed in this way, and emerges instead as a strong character-focused drama layered with mysteries — mysteries, alas, that may remain unresolved.

Created by Dan Williams and directed by Scott Brown, Asylum tells the tale of a remote mental hospital managed by Dr. Suli Urban (Sophie King), who’s now struggling for control over her patients thanks to the arrival of administrator Patrick Aubert (Dingani Beza). While episodes are ostensibly framed around specific patient cases, the focus is really on the strange doings at the hospital, especially when it comes to a mysterious symbol that’s found everywhere from file catalogs to a mural on a patient’s wall.

Two episodes were released last Friday on Blip.tv, with four more to come over the following weeks, and production values are great. The cast especially holds together well, with nary a weak link, and while some of the patients introduced over the series have their stories resolved in less-than-satisfying ways, the narrative as a whole proves extremely intriguing.

That’s why Asylum makes me nervous, thanks to a trend in the web video world that I’m growing tired of: Never knowing how a story ends.

It seems these days that too many independently produced web series launch with strong first seasons, introducing intriguing worlds and ending on dramatic cliffhangers that remain unresolved — then, due to the economics of independent web video production (which include a limited marketplace for original content and a still-rebounding economy), the producers of these shows are never able to follow-up on those stories, instead, moving on to other projects.

As one example: Last year’s Compulsions was another well-received dark drama launched just a few weeks before the holidays. But while the show was instrumental in launching creator Bernie Su’s writing career, Su says via email that “Compulsions is very much alive, but will not be coming back ‘soon’ in the web/short form medium.”

You can’t resent creators for this trend, especially when you consider what a huge gamble an independent production, even for the web, can be. (Williams put the budget for Asylum in the “tens of thousands.”) But while with Compulsions, that lack of completion wasn’t a huge issue because the show’s plot was purposefully secondary to its exploration of character and tone, Asylum‘s mysteries are so dense and, at the end of episode six, still pretty much unresolved. There’s little sense of conclusion — just more questions.

Both Williams and Brown were optimistic about the prospect of more episodes when I spoke to them after Compulsions Asylum‘s premiere last Thursday. But, having been burned so many times before, I’m going to hold off on my excitement about this show until Season 2 is announced.

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  1. Matthew Arevalo Monday, December 13, 2010

    Liz, thanks for the insight.

    You can add me to the list of people from the production team who are optimistic of the prospect. I have no intention of this being the end of the Asylum series and have more than a few ideas on how to make it happen.

    We have more stories to tell. With exposure, strategy and community building, we think we are creating a good foundation to make that happen.

  2. I can SO understand this.

    We got caught in the One-Season trap Yes due to the economics of independent web video production (which include a limited marketplace for original content and a still-rebounding economy), the producers of these shows are never able to follow-up on those stories, instead, moving on to other projects.

    We find over and over after finishing an ambitious groudbreaking web series season, we got lots of views, lots of encouragement, people saying when are you going to do more?…do more episodes! Do a season!

    We’d love to have it, we want to see it, we will take it off your hands…”will you pay for it?” it is asked… uh no… can’t you just you know do all this like the 7 months of VFX and get crews, equipment and actors and post it and do everything and not have us have to do anything? Thats easier and makes your show more appealing to us.

    We’re just talking about the honor of your…posting it for us free so we get the traffic. We know you can do a complicated show. we know you can deliver. We just claim we cannot help pay for the party. Ever.

    We’re starved for good content, “oh great, can you invest or help put up what would be needed?”..oh no the startup costs for our company, no profit yet, and this is just a new frontier we dont have any money we just need really good, plentiful, free content that is made at 100% your risk…

    Your show is great, GIVE us some more.

    In web series as in Hollywood it seems everyone wants to get to heaven but no one wants to die…

    Yeah. It was a year of treading water in a river running backwards. Very frustrating, esp when you want to DO more, make something more and better but cant keep asking for favors.

    1. We won’t get caught off guard. My firm, Master Works and myself as producer on the series have had a strong strategy along with the rest of the team since day one. Partnerships, multiple options for development and funding and a clear passion to make it happen.

      I can’t speak to other producers in the space, but I don’t just ‘move on to other projects’ I would not have come on board if I didn’t have a complete 110% goal in mind that is similar to the creators. And that goal is continuing the series.vision. Keep an eye out.

      Good luck.

    2. This is one of the great things about reading NewTeeVee. Insight like these comments here from Matthew and especially Tom. I knew it was the case, but it is good to see others who have and are doing it saying it.

      And I really hear ya, Tom. Due to a comment a posted on another NewTeeVee blog post (the interview with OK Go) just a couple days ago, I was contacted by a YouTube wannabe. Nice guy. He would love me to have my show on his YouTube clone, but guess what he’s not willing to do. Can you guess? Yup, he’s not willing to pay money upfront for it. He is only willing to give me a 50/50 cut of the ad revenue he generates. Not being YouTube, guess how little traffic the site gets or is likely to get. Guess then how much you can make off of that site. Anyone know how to split a penny?

      As mentioned, I’m right now in the process of producing a pilot for a half-hour animated series. My goal is to get it picked up by a broadcast or, more likely, cable TV network. I would LOVE to just produce it as a web-series but unless I can get YouTube (or a YouTube wannabe) to pay for it or get two advertisers for the show’s micro-breaks (single ad commercial breaks), that’s just not going to happen. And even if I can get two advertisers, I might be lucky enough to only get enough money to produce more episodes but not any profit. If the latter is the case, I will count myself VERY lucky and will continue to produce episodes for YouTube, BUT I would be only doing so in the hope of getting picked up by a network.

      The key to the future of webseries is advertisers. Until YouTube or another online video conduit sets up a way for advertisers and content producers to met and profit from each other, the most webseries can EVER hope to be is a way to publicize one’s talents and/or ideas with the goal of being noticed and picked up by the broadcast and cable TV networks. Which raises the very odd question…

      WHY hasn’t someone yet set up an auction website where advertisers can bid against each other to insert their ads in the commercial breaks on webseries? Seriously, why hasn’t there been? Think of all the lame-ass websites out there. Think of all the HORRIBLE dot.com ventures that spurted up before and after the bubble burst. Didn’t anyone think that content producers who want to make TV-like shows for the internet would need a way to bypass the traditional gatekeepers (a.k.a. the networks) to directly interact with advertisers who are interested in inserting their 15-second and 30-second ads into webseries? It just seems almost unbelievable that someone hasn’t done this yet. This is THE key to webseries becoming more than showcases of one’s talent and/or ideas. Seriously, this is it! It does NOT matter what webseries are produced now or in the future as none of them by themselves will make this happen. Nor will moaning about them never having a second season do anything to insure there is a second season. The only thing that will make webseries a profitable venture is the marriage of advertisers and content providers. THAT’S IT! Seriously, that’s it.

      If NewTeeVee is really serious about wanting successful continuing webseries, it needs to doggedly cover the money side of webseries so us content providers can know what others are trying and HOPEFULLY succeeding at. It needs to pound on the door at YouTube, eBay, Amazon.com, and other such sites and pointedly ask why they haven’t provided a way for online content providers to directly interact with advertisers. None of this stupid sharing of revenue. Oh please! The only webseries that can make a profit that way are the guys ranting, playing guitar, telling jokes, and such little stuff before their webcams. In other words, productions that have no production budget so anything they make is a profit. Instead, YouTube, eBay, and/or their clones need to be transaction facilitators who make their money off of a small cut of the transitions made between content providers and advertisers. No mysterious don’t-look-behind-the-curtain don’t-tell-anyone-what-we-pay-you bullshit. That BS is what is holding back webseries.

      Do you hear me, NewTeeVee? Seriously, do you hear me?

      Now I could go into specifics on how I think the auction site should be set up, but this comment is already too long. I’ll stop here. *Scott steps down from his soapbox.*

      1. There was something like this at the Anaheim International Film Festival, which I had the pleasure to be a part of through Celebrate the Web. Their was a wide-array of very high-quality web series (including Asylum), but it was unclear how many on the advertising side were in attendance. Perhaps THAT is the main problem: the advertisers have to be willing to speak directly to the web series creators to begin with. So perhaps some of your frustration should be focused in that direction instead of taking it out on a journalistic site like NewTeeVee.

        And instead of talking down to “The only webseries that can make a profit that way are the guys ranting, playing guitar, telling jokes, and such little stuff before their webcams”, why not really take a look at what they are doing. They found a way to engage an audience using what they know best…their own personalities and taking the feedback of their audiences. OF COURSE advertisers find them much easier to approach then some web series creators: they know exactly who they are going to and the size of the audience they have the opportunity to reach. This takes skill and business sense to do so it is incredibly insulting to dismiss them as just meaningless. It’s statements like that that widen even further the divide between people working in the same space.

  3. Best of luck Matthew!

  4. Jenni,

    There isn’t an easy structured WAY for advertisers to directly talk to online content producers and it isn’t the responsibility of advertisers to make the move or set up the structure. They’re the ones with the money. You play the fiddle for them, not the other way around.

    As for “taking it out on … NewTeeVee”, this time they deserve it. This blog post is a whiner. It doesn’t take in the reality of the business side of entertainment and how hard it is for webseries producers. It is just another “we want more for nothing” whine that producers are sick of hearing. I have heard of this common complaint from many webseries producers.

    As for checking out the no-production-budget webseries, you are in error here as well since as part of the research stage for the animated show I’m producing, I have looked at numerous webseries and directly talked to many who produce them … as well as many that produce for broadcast and cable TV networks. My current plan for my show is directly based on those talks. When talking to the no-production-budget shows, ALL say they wish they could produce better quality material but there’s no money in it. The slightest additional spending would whip out the profit margins for even the top earning shows on YouTube. That only leaves them doing single-talking-head shows. The cheapest form of video entertainment possible. And none that I have talked to have EVER been approached by advertisers. Many of them have reached out to advertisers and almost all have gotten the cold shoulder. The ones that did get something from advertisers had to jump through countless hoops for pennies.

    As for the no-production-budget single-talking-head webseries “working in the same space” as shows with meaningful production budgets and discounting them as meaningless, they are meaningless. Seriously, they are meaningless. Their success doesn’t translate into the other. Has ANY no-production-budget single-talking-head webseries ever tried to make the transition to one with a meaningful budget? That question isn’t an attack. It is a sincere question. Can anyone name one? In all my research, I haven’t ever found or heard of one.

    There is a gulf (the size of the Gulf of Mexico) between the above two types of shows. I know it is hippy to hold hands and sing “We are the People” but that just isn’t the case. The only thing that webseries have going for them that currently does attract people willing to spend a good chunk of money on them is the possibility of being picked up by a broadcast or cable TV network. There are a number of success stories of this happening. From “South Park” to “Troops” to “Children’s Hospital”. And if that is all webseries ever hope to be then that really isn’t all that bad of a fate. Yes, it would be great to receive advertising revenue for being a webseries so you cannot only produce episodes but make as much money as producers of broadcast or at least cable TV network producers make, but if webseries are a viable stepping stone to becoming a broadcast/cable TV producer, actor, writer, special effects man, or whatever you want to do in the entertainment industry, webseries should be heralded and honored for this contribution to society.

    “And the Emmy for Best Broadcast/Cable TV Show To Originate As A Webseries goes to…”

  5. Scott:

    “Has ANY no-production-budget single-talking-head webseries ever tried to make the transition to one with a meaningful budget? That question isn’t an attack. It is a sincere question. Can anyone name one?”

    Yes, in fact. The Philip DeFranco Show (http://www.youtube.com/sxephil), a “no-production-budget single-talking-head webseries” by your definition, and BlackBoxTV (http://www.youtube.com/blackboxtv), a higher-budget, high production value sci-fi horror series, are both out of the same production company: DeFranco Inc.

    It CAN be done.

    (Sorry if this posted twice, I believe it may have not gone through the first time.)

    1. Jenni,

      You misunderstand my question. Has a no-production-budget single-talking-head webseries ever BECOME a decent-production-budget webseries?

      It isn’t surprising that both can come out of the same production company . Penn of the magician duo Penn & Teller has his own no-production-budget single-talking-head show and he (with his business partner Teller) produces “Bullshit” for Showtime (as well as a magic show that is one of the biggest draws in Las Vegas), but even his single-header hasn’t gone beyond being a no-production-budgeter.

      1. You are right Scott, I must have misunderstood your question because it doesn’t make much sense. Why WOULD a “no-production-budget single-talking-head show” become a “decent-production-budget webseries”? They aren’t the same thing and why fix something that ain’t broke? If you are turning a profit on a low-budget production, why would you change that formula? Although, many of top YouTubers HAVE upped their production values through the use of better equipment, lighting, etc., if you consider that “decent-production-budget”.

        I guess I’m not understanding what you are so frustrated about. I did my best but we seem to be talking in circles.

  6. Jenni,

    Only roughly a dozen people barely make a living off of YouTube as webseries producers and ALL of them are no-production-budget single-talking-head shows. Liz recently did a blog post on the Top 10 YouTubers and what they are projected to be making. In the recent NewTeeVee interview with the band OK Go (one of the biggest YouTube sensations), they say what they make off of YouTube couldn’t even pay their rent. To call ANY no-production-budget single-talking-head show a success is stretching the definition of the word “success” to the breaking point. That’s like calling a beggar who makes enough from donations in a day to afford a meal a success. Technically correct if your definition of success is bare self-sufficiency but it is not a career path you should recommend to anyone.

    What the VAST VAST VAST majority of YouTube webseries producers make couldn’t even be considered the income of a part-time job. Those at the TOP of YouTube webseries don’t even make enough to dramatically increase the production values of their shows. If they did, their meager profits would be gone. In all the interviews I’ve done of who you would likely consider successful no-production-budget single-talking-head shows, ALL said this. There was not a single exception.

    You think I am insulting them. I am not. I am merely pointing out reality. That’s it. They ALL agree. They have never thought I was insulting them but simply calling a spade a spade. And most of them called the spade a spade before I ever did in my conservations with them. They wish it was different. They have tried to make it different. But as the system is now, that’s not possible.

    And I believe the reason for this failure of the system to support any webseries that wants to have a decent production budget is the system of payment as it currently is. YouTube and its clones use a weird shared revenue model. YouTube is VERY secretive about what that model is. They even PROHIBIT those who are part of their YouTube Partner Program from publicly saying what it is. What those who are part of it (such as OK Go) have publicly said is that it isn’t much. Yes, some have squeezed a living out of it but that is by producing the cheapest form of video entertainment possible, i.e., no-production-budget single-talking-head webseries. MANY have tried to succeed with decent production budgets. That is why Liz is whining about the common problem of no second seasons in this blog post. They tried but the revenue to sustain them never materialized. HOWEVER, this isn’t to say these webseries were failures.

    Far from it since many of them go onto successful careers in other parts of the entertainment industry, namely broadcast and cable TV … even movies. Their webseries was a great way to gain attention. To showcase their talent. To prove their show concept. To generate buzz.

    BUT if the goal is to have continuing webseries with decent production budgets, the current system can only be called a failure. It needs to be changed. I believe what is needed is not the indirect secretive form of advertising revenue sharing done by YouTube but a direct form of advertising where advertisers can directly buy ad spots during commercial breaks on webseries from the webseries producers themselves. A service like eBay that merely takes a small cut of the action in exchange for providing this meeting place for advertisers and producers AND promotes the Hell out of it to the advertising industry. Sending speakers to advertising conventions to give lectures and workshops on how to use their service. Running full-page nuts-and-bolts and milestone ads in Ad Age, Adweek, and other advertising industry rags. To run full-page awareness and milestone ads in Forbes, Fortune, BusinessWeek, and other general business rags.

    Jenni, I am one that WANTS to be able to be JUST a webseries producer. I would LOVE not to have be at the mercy of a network that can cancel my show at their whim. I would LOVE not to have to accommodate network executives “suggestions” so they feel they are more than just moneybags and accountants. I would LOVE not to have to do Hollywood politics. Hell, I don’t drink, do drugs, smoke, or chase after sex with anything wearing a skirt so even the wild Hollywood parties are something I’d enjoy not having to do for networking reasons.

    BUT right now that isn’t possible. The payment system as it is doesn’t work. And it is payment … mONEY that is needed for webseries producers to become successful. To be able to produce a show with high production values AND make at least as much as cable TV producers. Hell, if we could make as much or more than broadcast TV producers, NewTeeVee’s dream of a full-fledged online entertainment industry would happen. If live professional sports could also profitably make the transition, the world would see the death of broadcast, cable, and satellite TV. But for those happy days to come, there has to be MAJOR innovations on the money side of webseries.

    I am not bitching about NewTeeVee in general. Yes, about this one whine post, but not NewTeeVee overall. I have been a long-time subscriber, reader and comment-maker here. I think NewTeeVee is the place where we will see the first reports of the new age of online entertainment. That’s WHY I subscribe here. All I am saying (and have said here before) is that if NewTeeVee wants to see such a new age it needs to focus and report on the money side of webseries as much as anything else. It needs to ask about the money side in all its interviews. I even think they should directly ask new payment system questions to YouTube, eBay, Amazon, and the like. NewTeeVee doing so will get those to start thinking about what they can do. To see what they and others are doing now isn’t working. To experiment and hopefully come up with a better solution.

    I’m an optimist, Jenni. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be right now in the process of producing an animated TV show pilot which I will be premiering on YouTube. But given the reality of YouTube, my most realistic goal is for it to be noticed by the broadcast and cable TV networks, generate buzz, and HOPEFULLY be picked up as a series by a broadcast or cable TV network.

    1. I am hearing what you’re saying Scott, I really am. I just happen to be one of those web series producers that works full-time for a YouTuber working directly with brands so it’s hard to not negate all that you’re saying when I KNOW FOR A FACT THAT IT IS POSSIBLE. I know my situation is rare and I am grateful for it every day. But I worked at it constantly for 4+ years to be where I am and if I figured out a way to achieve it, I don’t think I have to be the only one.

      You’ve never spoken to me before now, so I can see why you don’t have evidence to the contrary of what you are claiming. I can see the truth of what you’re saying but you cannot argue that it is impossible when I am direct proof that it is.

      1. Jenni,

        I would love to know more about your rare situation and your YouTuber employer. Tell us here about it all.

      2. Scott (et al.): I wish my typing fingers and an unlimited access to time would allow me to go into the details of what I do and how I got here in the comment section of NewTeeVee! Basically, I am a staff producer for DeFranco Inc. Before that, I worked in reality TV before discovering lonelygirl15 and getting very involved in their fan community, eventually working as a production asssistant on that show. I worked my way up from there, eventually learning that writing and producing were my passions. I wrote for Tubefilter for a while and then moved on to independantly producing and am now at my current position full-time.

        I have already gone on longer than I planned! I am always open to talk about my experiences whenever time allows and can be reached at either jenni.powell@gmail.com or jenni@phillyd.tv.

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