For this week’s Five Questions With…, guys, we’ve got one of web video’s early pioneers, Big Fantastic‘s Chris McCaleb. Big Fantastic’s first web series, the 2006 Sam Has 7 Friends, got them Michael Eisner’s attention and gigs including the much-watched 2007 series Prom Queen. Since then, their client base has included TheWB.com, Wonderland Sound and Vision, Generate and Seth Green, for whom they directed the interactive experience Control TV. Below, Chris talks about what goes into building an audience, his issues with premiere parties and how things will be changing for Big Fantastic in 2011.
1. What’s the one big issue/law/attitude/restriction that you think is holding back the industry?
There are quite a few issues (such as the definition of a “view”) which threaten to undermine our industry if not dealt with carefully — but perhaps the most important issue is net neutrality. I’m aware that people are tired of hearing me talk about it, but deals are being made right now that will have a serious impact on an independent web creators’ ability to distribute their own work online. Everyone working or aspiring to work in this industry needs to contact their Senators and Representatives immediately, and express how important real, true net neutrality is. SaveTheInternet.com is a great resource for facts and information about this issue.
2. What industry buzzword do you never want to hear again?
“Red Carpet Premiere.” I like a party as much as the next person, but sometimes it feels like more care is given to the planning of the premiere party than to the story and execution of the actual series. A red carpet doesn’t magically make something great. Awards and parties are a lot of fun, but we all need to be careful not to lose sight of the real goal — making innovative, quality entertainment. When that happens, we will truly have something to celebrate.
3. If someone gave you $50 million to invest in a company in this space, which one would it be? (Mentioning your own doesn’t count.)
My kneejerk reaction would be an upstart company designing and programming next-generation apps for mobile devices. It’s exciting to see how people are using new platforms to tell stories. However, if I really had $50 million to invest, I would like to give MacArthur-style grants of $500,000 to 100 different projects to create sustainable series online. They could be anything — scripted, drama, comedy, news, experimental formats, ARG, etc. — the only stipulation would be that they’d have to run consistently for at least a full year (hat tip to Steve Woolf for that parameter). A year’s worth of material, limitless possibilities…I would be very interested to see what kind of audience you could build over the course of that year.
It’s disconcerting to me that online series are seemingly written off if they don’t have an instantly large audience. It’s not TV, it’s not the movies — this is a new art form with a different kind of audience, different distribution strategies and a much longer tail. Shane Dawson and Phil DeFranco didn’t gain millions of subscribers overnight. They worked hard, over a long period of time, and they earned those regular viewers. Just because the barrier of entry is lower online doesn’t mean it’s easy.
4. What was the last video (that you weren’t personally involved with) that you liked enough to spread to others?
I think one of the greatest videos to ever hit the Internet is the Phil Davison for Stark County Treasurer speech. It’s like the guy had a plan, he was going to be different than the other candidates, and his plan went horribly, horribly wrong. I even shared this video with my mom. I simply don’t understand why “Auto-Tune The News” hasn’t done anything with this one!
But in terms of ongoing scripted series, I think Black Box TV is the best thing out there. At Big Fantastic, we’ve literally been talking about doing a Twilight Zone-style anthology series online since 2007, but have been too busy doing other shows to make it happen. What Tony [Valenzuela] is doing is really worth paying attention to — he’s creating a bridge between the independent YouTube personalities and the world of scripted drama.
5. WILD-CARD: Over the past few years, the Big Fantastic team has worked with folks like Vuguru and Seth Green on a pretty diverse array of content. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from those experiences, and how have they affected your plans for the future?
In the nearly five years we’ve been doing this, we have been extremely fortunate to work with so many amazing people, and we’ve had the opportunity to tell our stories on a relatively large scale. One important lesson is to believe in what you’re doing (as cheesy as that sounds), because if you don’t love what you’re doing, it simply won’t be worth it. Everyone knows that there is currently less money in New Media than in traditional media — but the reward of seeing your ideas come to life can be far greater than a paycheck from a job you don’t love.
Another lesson is: never take your audience for granted. We’ve watched as shows like The Guild and Epic Fu have held onto the rights to their series, and have had the chance to satisfy their fans by continuing to make new seasons year after year. One of the best things you can do is engage your audience, activate your base as often as possible, and keep giving them reasons to come back for more.
So in the coming year, we look forward to continuing to work with great partners on series new and old, but we will also have a renewed focus on our own, independent series. We’ve been calling this the “wild west” since 2006, and incredibly it actually still is — almost anything is possible online, and it’s still just as exciting as it was back then. If you’re willing to dream big, and work your ass off in pursuit of those dreams, the Internet is a very rewarding place to be.
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