Welcome Back, Sam Has 7 Friends! Um, So Where’d You Go?

[show=samhassevenfriends size=large]There are a few ways to tell who’s truly old-school in this industry. Were you a Ze Frank fanboy? Did you watch lonelygirl15 before it was revealed as fiction? But the big one is this — have you seen Sam Has 7 Friends?

The web series created by production company Big Fantastic pioneered the concept of short-form drama in the fall of 2006, releasing a new 90-second episode daily from September to December, when, as teased from the show’s very beginning, struggling actress Samantha was murdered by one of her friends. Heralded as one of the first viral drama successes online, the series created a brand-new career for Big Fantastic founders Doug Cheney, Chris Hampel, Chris McCaleb and Ryan Wise, who have since gone on to create the MySpace-distributed Prom Queen and its followups, Robin Cook’s Foreign Body and TheWB’s Sorority Forever.

But if their new fans wanted to check out the show that started it all, they were sadly SOL. Why? Well, in the spring of 2007, Big Fantastic’s success attracted the attention of Michael Eisner at Vuguru. When Eisner agreed to finance Prom Queen, as part of that deal, Vuguru acquired the rights to Sam Has 7 Friends. And then it took the show offline — indefinitely.

According to Ryan Barlow at Vuguru, the reasoning for taking Sam offline was reflective of a desire to truly control the content, given the fact that Vuguru hadn’t personally produced or distributed its new acquisition. “Without knowing exactly how we would move forward, we wanted to figure out the best way to take advantage of that content from a Vuguru perspective,” he said via phone. Plus, removing the show would mean that if it were to be put back online, there would be an opportunity to sell it fresh to potential sponsors.

Barlow says that there was always a plan to bring Sam back online, but it might have been Big Fantastic who pressed the point. When the team returned this year to revive the Prom Queen franchise, they decided that they wanted to include characters from Sam in the new season — which created a new incentive for Vuguru to rerelease the show before Prom Queen‘s return.

Hence, last week Vuguru began soft-launching Sam on YouTube with sponsorship from Universal’s upcoming horror flick Drag Me To Hell, making this the first time many people in the online video world, including myself, have been able to watch it. (I began covering online video in December 2006, but never got a chance to catch up on the show prior to its takedown.) Now there are 20 episodes available online, with a new block of 10 promised for each subsequent Monday, and having watched those currently online, it’s easy to see how the series became such a phenomenon.

Each short plays almost like an elegant vignette, the minimalist yet punchy dialogue doing a lot to punctuate each ending; it’s all too easy to sink into the world of 20-somethings floating around Los Angeles, tied together by lust, deceit and mystery. There are some tonal problems — the character of Willy (Moneer Yaqubi) adds some too-necessary comic relief, but episodes focusing on him somehow feel slightly out-of-step with the rest — but the production stretches its self-financed $50,000 budget to the max for the appearance of professional production values.

The filmmaking style is so polished, in fact, that the occasional reminder of its indie status (such as the set for the health spa/astrologist’s office in episode 11) are almost a refreshing reminder of the show’s roots.

The original series ends with some major unresolved mysteries, but according to McCaleb, who I spoke with recently on the set of the new Prom Queen season, that’s why they’re bringing select characters from Sam onto Prom Queen — the new series will give Sam fans some resolution. “We’re really grateful that we get to answer some of those questions and finish some of that stuff up,” he said.

It’s an interesting gamble on a number of levels — is a two-year absence long enough for old fans to feel nostalgic? Will new audiences find the drama of Sam compelling in a much more cluttered landscape? And will Sam‘s previous notoriety serve as a boost for Prom Queen‘s return? Hopefully, we won’t have to wait two years for those answers.