Trenches‘s 3-Year Quest Toward Crackle Distribution

In July of 2007, while working for online video news site The Daily Reel, I interviewed director Shane Felux at the San Diego Comic-Con about Trenches, an exciting-sounding web series he’d just finished shooting for the ABC-owned Stage 9 Media (s DIS). Trenches was an ambitious sci-fi tale that drew heavy inspiration from both Starship Troopers and Star Wars (not terribly surprising, given that Felux initially acquired his reputation as a creator of low-budget science fiction by making the Star Wars fan film Star Wars: Revelations). Below is an edited version of that 2007 interview, wherein Felux waxes enthusiastic about the series’ upcoming launch and the joys of online distribution.

When we first spoke, Trenches was set to come out the fall of 2007. Since then, both The Daily Reel and Stage 9 have ceased to exist, but I like it lots here at NewTeeVee — oh, and Trenches, nearly three years after the beginning of principle photography, will finally begin streaming on Feb. 16, 2010.

The delays that occurred between the spring of 2007, when Trenches was first brought to life, and next week’s release come down to an extended post-production period, a failing economy, and a change in the business model for web video — a journey on which I got Felux’s point-of-view via phone.

Budgeted at $250,000 (Felux originally asked for a cool million), Trenches was at the time one of the more expensive web series productions ever financed — though for a sci-fi series where every prop, costume and set needs to be created from the ground up, it was a stretch. During production, the majority of the 160-member cast and crew did receive stipends, with actors receiving $100-200 a day (though they were not provided with travel and living expenses). But it wasn’t an easy experience, as the 14-day shoot schedule featured several “split” days, where the production would shoot all day, take a four hour break, and then shoot all night.

After production came post — which ended up lasting until January 2008. The first delay came when the first editor Felux hired “wasted two months of [his] time”; Felux had to fire him and take on the editing himself, with the help of a co-editor. Then came a back-and-forth with Stage 9 over each cut of the episode: Felux, who up until this point had always worked independently, found himself dealing with notes sessions from studio execs for the first time, and nearly quit during the process — though eventually came to terms with the studio.

Post-production wasn’t completed until January 2008, at which point the WGA strike had weakened big media, and the market was changing due to an already-crumbling economy. Not only could Stage 9 not find a sponsor to support the show, but its plan for Trenches had always been to distribute it via — which was ruled out when ABC announced that they would no longer be doing original content.

And when Stage 9 began closing down in January 2009, Felux found out about it not from executives there, but by reading the news. Because a great deal of Stage 9 staff was absorbed into ABC, Trenches still had a chance, though it meant re-approaching the show and aiming for outside distribution. Over 2009, ABC Senior Council and Business Affairs lead Philip Pailey championed the series and kept searching for it to find some distribution — which eventually resulted in the Crackle (s SNE) deal. (The Crackle deal is strictly for web distribution, and doesn’t include any potential plans for DVD as far as Felux knows.)

From Crackle: Trailer

When asked what he thought contributed to Stage 9’s shuttering, Felux responded that one factor might be “a lack of planning when a project is done — meaning that there didn’t seem to be a business model for how revenue would be generated or made once a project was completed. You have to have prove that you can do the numbers to advertisers, show that you can reach millions within a demographic. And not just using one avenue, but many avenues of distribution.”

If he were to repeat the process, Felux would have pushed for more resources — at $250,000, Trenches had the same budget as Stage 9’s only other major release: the comedy series Squeegees, which was comparatively a much simpler endeavor. In order to complete Trenches‘s 400 visual effects shots, Felux had to call in multiple favors as well as execute 100 of them himself. He also doesn’t own the rights to Trenches, which remain with ABC.

But new deals in other formats might be coming up for Trenches, and as for Felux, who since completing Trenches has been focusing on commercial work: “The studio is still very supportive of me — they’ve kind of taken me under their wing a bit, and we’ve talked about doing other shows.”

The important thing, in the end, is that Trenches will finally see the light of day. Just a little bit later than we all expected.

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