A little over two years since NewTeeVee came online, we’re catching up with some veterans who’ve been working with the medium since before Google paid off YouTube’s VCs, Hulu was just a glint in News Corp. and NBC Universal’s eye and Apple hadn’t taken up their set-top box hobby. This is the second in a series by one of the original NewTeeVee writers, Jackson West. See also part 1: Chuck Olsen.
Hipsters in bread lines — that’s what it’s come to in “Depression,” the very special Christmas episode of The Burg, the long-running web series produced by Dinosaur Diorama’s Kathleen Grace and Thom Woodley devoted to lovingly mocking the foibles of the young and hip in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The All-For-Nots (the faux Billyburg band featured in another eponymous production from Grace and Woodley) even pop in to spread some holiday cheer and drop some final product placement mentions. But it’s not all faux: When Paul (woodley) mentions Vuguru founder Micahel Eisner, Courtney (Kelli Giddish) asks, “Wait, you guys actually make money doing this?” And as unbelievable as it sounds, the answer is yes.
However, it’ll be a while before Grace and Woodley — or anyone on the show’s cast or crew — are in danger of becoming trustafarians. Street cred may have paid off, but it’s still no way to fund a 401k.
Woodley and Grace started The Burg as a way to “build our reel, have some fun and hopefully, get noticed” they wrote in a response to my emailed questions. That they did, signing a deal with Eisner’s Vuguru to produce The All-For-Nots and signing on sponsors like Dodge, Expedia and Bebo. It’s since been one of the few independently produced shows to make it onto Hulu. While it gained a wider audience than The Burg (which wrangled its own deal with Motorla for product placement through VideoEgg), that doesn’t mean it was a ticket to fame and fortune, necessarily.
“Unfortunately, the emphasis on ‘millions of views no matter who the audience is’ will always put celebrity content and lowest common denominator over independent producers making smart content,” they explained. While optimistic that the Web provides a new way to tell stories and reach niche audiences, until sponsors and distributors come around, they admit it will be a struggle for independent productions looking to serve small but loyal audiences.
For instance, they felt The Burg was a bigger hit than The All-For-Nots, despite having fewer total views, because “our fans are very devoted and excited by the show.” Noting that they felt less in tune with the The All-For-Nots fans, they wished the series itself had received more critical attention, as opposed to the business model behind it. “It’s not so much about credit or awards, but a dialogue and feedback from the audience and the community.”
While they’d love to “make it big,” Woodley and Grace were clear that exploring a medium they see as distinct from mass media is still creatively rewarding for its own sake. They say that while seeing talent jump from the embedded player to the television (or even the big screen) serves to legitimize people working online, web entertainment is ultimately a different animal. “It’s social, interactive storytelling, instantaneous and customizable in a way that mass media can never be,” they wrote.
As for advice to other creators gleaned from their experience: “Make it faster, cheaper, and more interactive. Have more fun.” But while they feel they’ll be able to make a living as independent, online producers “soon” and promise something new this spring, that doesn’t mean they’ve quit their day jobs. That would probably be a recipe for nights of stone soup with stewed shoe leather.