From Fringe to Funny: Caution Zero

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“The goal is survival. Fringe theaters are like cockroaches — they live on so little, you can’t kill them.” So explained Stephen McCandless, the producer behind the Caution Zero network, over noodles at a Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle’s Capitol Hill late last July.

Although he was talking about fringe theater, McCandless’ comment also — for me, anyway — summed up the core appeal of the fly-by-night production values and low barrier to entry enabled by online video. And it made clear that McCandless, a veteran of the Annex Theater, has a surprising, and valuable, background on which to draw in producing the company’s latest offering, What the Funny.

Caution Zero’s first show, Cherub, the Vampire with Bunny Slippers (an homage to Buffy the Vampire Slayer that was produced by McCandless and writer-director Scott O. Moore) ran for two seasons for a total of twenty-five episodes. And even without any marketing or PR, and a neglected Web site, it was garnering 30,000 to 60,000 views a month, according to McCandless. The latest, Funny, builds on Cherub. It also features both quality production value on the cheap and sly, dry performances from a great ensemble. The show, he joked, “…represents my best shot across the bow of Hollywood.”

McCandless had done everything from working at Microsoft (MSFT) to crewing for the Flying Karamazov Brothers to riding ambulances as an emergency medical technician before starting at Annex rigging lights and eventually rising to managing director of the theater. After staging a production that didn’t draw much of an audience and failed to recoup $6,000 of the $15,000 budget, he found himself standing in the empty theater contemplating the set, lighting, costumes and actors assembled for the show and wondering how he could salvage such projects. “Right around that time, Steve Jobs waved around the first generation, video-enabled iPod and I thought, ‘He’s going to legitimize Net video the same way they did the MP3 player.'”

McCandless explained that he has always been happy to take on the jobs that the creative types don’t want or can’t manage. If he’d been in Detroit, he said, he would have come up with a way to take advantage of all the polished steel workers, machinists and welders. Instead, he found himself with a pool of talented filmmakers, techies and actors drawn from Seattle’s wealth of well-educated kooks and vibrant performance scene (which in my youth was dominated by acts like the Karamazovs, The Jim Rose Circus, and plays at the well-regarded ACT). “It’s an important job that no one wants,” he said of managing the production team. “I wanted to set up a production company; they wanted to make a movie.”

A visiting colleague, Julie Daman of Nontourage, had blown McCandless away when she told him about the petty cash budget of a network television show she’d worked on in Los Angeles. For the same amount of money, he can produce two hours of content — eleven ten-minute episodes — which takes a lot of pressure off the need to have a built-in business model. Still, he noted, “That’s a significant opportunity for profit.” The network’s shows are made available on the network site, cautionzero.net, as well as via a high-quality video podcast download from the iTunes store and across video-sharing sites such as YouTube.

Filmmakers like Ridley Scott, who accused the Internet of “killing cinema” at a re-release screening in Venice of his seminal Blade Runner, should take note. The legitimate (and not so legitimate) theater survived motion pictures, just as movie theaters survived television. While McCandless still prefers the charge he gets from live performance, online video distribution is making it possible to extend his audience beyond the boundaries of the black box while keeping the free-wheeling sensibility of artists with nothing to lose intact.

Funny is due to kick off with its first episode on Sept. 17th. McCandless will be speaking later in the month at the Podcast and New Media Expo on a panel with Daman and a number of other accomplished online serial producers.

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