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Writing With A Purpose (2)

In the long-form drama world of episodic and serialized television it is not the writer-director moniker that holds sway as top dog.

It is the Showrunner – a curious title that embodies a diverse array of responsibilities.

LA Times columnist Scott Collins writes about Showrunners as;

“Hyphenates,” a curious hybrid of starry-eyed artists and tough-as-nails operational managers. They’re not just writers; they’re not just producers. They hire and fire writers and crew members, develop story lines, write scripts, cast actors, mind budgets and run interference with studio and network bosses.

It’s one of the most unusual and demanding, right-brain/left-brain job descriptions in the entertainment world….[S]how runners make — and often create — the shows, and now more than ever, shows are the only things that matter. In the “long tail” entertainment economy, viewers don’t watch networks. They don’t even care about networks. They watch shows. And they don’t care how they get them.”

What we may see in the Showrunner is a hybrid writer-director-producer; a role with a clear creative reign over a long-form and episodic project.

We appear to be in the midst of a golden age of television wherein the writing, production value and audience enthusiasm for serialized drama as jumped enormously in just the past decade. And this shift away from a very feature-film focused culture prompts us to reconsider the viability of a short-film to act as calling-card or learning tool.

Of course, this begs the question… Is there something better than the short film to achieve these ends?

Lacking time and resources to write and make a feature film or TV series? What’s an emerging and aspiring filmmaker to do? One answer may be staring us in the face as we sit in front of our computers reading this blog – Webisodes and the online Web-series. I would suggest that the emerging filmmaker’s learning experience and calling card of the future (if not the now) is the Webisodic Drama.

The potential advantages of the Web series as both Learning Tool and Calling Card for emerging writer-directors are myriad. Firstly, the Web-series is resource viable. It arguably takes no more money, technology or logistics to make an episodic online series than it does to make a short film.

Second, the Web-series online can potentially find a larger scale – and international – audience than a short film, seen by more eyes than a short playing the festival circuit. In doing so the Web-series both teaches and proves audience engagement and the ability of the filmmaker to create for, gather, keep and motivate viewers.

Most importantly the Web-series has the potential to more viably demonstrate a filmmaker understands Character Arc and Story Structure. The episodic nature of a web-series; its construction, spacing and structure connects very well to both feature film narrative turning points and long-form drama act-breaks, episodes and seasons.

This question of what short-film alternatives there may be for emerging writer-directors to both learn from, and announce themselves with, is one the Australian Film Tv and Radio School has been pondering. And in response has developed a new graduate certificate course that aims to provide a hothouse environment for ‘showrunners’ around the construction of online Web-series.

Called the Graduate Certificate in Websiodes this part-time course, run over two semesters, is geared for participants who possess basic production skills in shooting and editing and who have a clear idea for a story they want to tell in an episodic way. With a comprehensive focus on narrative structures and patterns in episodic forms, classes will look at theme, premise and myth and marry these understandings through continual practical exercises with the cinematics of visual construction. The course then empowers these creative conceptualizations with modules on business basics related to online distribution and the relationships to social-media networks and 360 media development.

Just as an art school will hand a student paper and brush with the expectation they will paint and sketch over and over to develop an idea into a final form; the Grad Cert in Websidoes program arms each student with laptop and camera for the duration of the course and encourages an ongoing and persistent process of writing and shooting. Participants become part of a hothouse environment to develop a project deeply over time.

In this vein the intention is that filmmakers may utilize the course in different ways; some may use it to deliver a complete and polished episodic online show – 6-8 episodes produced over the course of the year – a complete project unto itself and one that stands as a calling card to their story-telling vision. Others may use the program as a proof-of-concept development process; a visual draft of a bigger project they may want to subsequently pitch as a TV series or feature film. In this way using the web-series as way to prove the viability of a bigger project. However showrunners use the course, the online episodic platform allows for direct engagement with audience, genre, and delivery in a way that the traditional short-film festival circuit may not. The short film has served emerging filmmakers very well for many years but the online, episodic, Web-series potentially offers a platform and vehicle that extends far beyond the limited currency of the short film in the twenty-first century.

-Mike Jones

(read the first part here)

Mike Jones has a diverse background in screen media crossing writing, technical production and academic research.
He is an award winning teacher, author and currently lecturer in Screen Studies at the Australian Film TV and Radio School. www.mikejones.tv
Creative Commons License photo credit: Cameron Cassan
About the Author

Mike Jones

Comments 3

  1. I agree with the close writing style of filmmakers to web series writers. Web series are very different than TV series, even though they are episodic. In a web series, you can’t create the 3 act structure in each episode. You don’t have enough time.

    Instead, web series writing is similar to soap opera or films where you can stitch the whole series to make one long, complete story. A model being used more today is write a web series knowing you’ll piece it all together to make a film. Don’t, however, write a film and then chop it up to release online in a webisodic form.

    1. Thanks for your comments Patrick. It’s a salient point that writing a feature and then chopping it up for online is a poor way to build effective episodic structure. However I would suggest that the structure of TV series is much more varied and complex than you suggest.

      There are virtually no TV series dramas that conform to a 3-Act Structure. 4 and 5 acts are much more common (around ad breaks and with very different turning points) and the whole model changes again with cable, no advert, shows. The comparison to Soap Opera is also more relevant than you might think. The traditional (albeit modern) episodic drama structure where each episode has a closure whilst contributing to a series-long macro arch (ie shows like the West Wing) is not as all prevailing as it may seem.

      A Show like Deadwood or The Wire very rarely has closure at the end of an episode – Any given episode, at any time in its duration may answer some dramatic questions just as it asks and opens up others. Its structure is much more akin to Soap Opera where each episode contributes to the whole incrementally – the true definition of a serial (as opposed to a series). We wouldn’t call Deadwood or The Wire Soap Opera but their ongoing ‘serial’ as opposed ‘series’ structure is much closer to Bold and the Beautiful than it is to West Wing.

      Then there are other variations – the tiered structure exemplified in a show like Battlestar Galactica where there 3 levels – multi-episode (serial) archs lacking closure in each ep. Stand-alone eps where the story is complete and closed out within the hour. (these usually occur in the middle of a series) And the macro-arch which runs the length of the season and isnt’ closed out until the final ep of the season with a new one beginning in the next.

      There are numerous other structures (and I’ll hopefully be publishing a new work on TV drama structures soon) But this leads me back to he start – the Web series. I believe the Webseries is very much commensurate with TV writing as a Webseries can have any of these variations – from self-contained eps, to ongoing serial (soap opera structures), to tiered micro/macro archs – all possible in Webseries (and there are numerous examples of each onlien right now)

      The other aspect is that I think it’s folly to put artificial restrictions on what a Webseries show can be or to assume it is inherently short and distinct from TV. We need only look at the increasing prevalence of internet receivers in TV sets (Sony Bravias for example) with dedicated ingest of BlipTV and other Webshow channels as a ‘tunable station’. This is the normalisation of streaming TV as indiscernable from a broadcast. When that happens from a users perspective, where the distinction between stream and broadcast is null and void, then to suggest that Web shows have inherently shorter or different episodic structures seems illogical.

      I’ll be writing much more about this topic soon.

      Cheers

      Mike

  2. Very interesting, thanks for the post. It’s always good to get an idea of where this industry is going, especially with online growing so quickly.

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