The Web Series is Dead, Long Live the Indie Series

The Web Series is Dead, Long Live the Indie Series

If 2003’s The Matrix: Reloaded taught me anything, it’s that time has a funny way of repeating itself. Sometimes we don’t recognize it when it’s happening. Sometimes it happens multiple times in sequence before it gets noticed. Sometimes Keanu has a completely unnecessary conversation with the Merovingian about werewolves and orgasm-inducing chocolate cake before we address this repetition, and we still don’t know why it’s happening.

Regardless, time—the semi-meaningless construct we still maintain for ourselves for some reason in this post-2020 world—is cyclical. And we’re about to see one of those repetitions first hand, like a glitch in the Matrix.

The WGA is on strike.

However, the strike itself is not the part I’m talking about. What I’m more interested in focusing on is the consequences of the last big writers strike—an interesting shift that occurred in the wake of 2007. The Web Series boom.

Let’s flash back to 2008-2009 … just after the writers strike was resolved.

I was a junior in high school. My favorite song was "The Impression That I Get" by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. President Obama was just sworn in for his first term. And I only just began seriously exploring my interest in comedy and filmmaking in a meaningful way. Sure, by that point I had most Mitch Hedberg bits memorized, and I grew up watching old reruns of SNL. I knew I wanted to be a creator, but that vision felt so far away.

It was such an unobtainable goal.

Little did I know that I was about to live through several super important key moments that would change the industry forever.

Number one. Canon released the 5D Mark II—a photography camera that revolutionized filmmaking with the inclusion of high-definition video recording. At a price point of only $2500, it allowed filmmakers to shoot cinematic video through fast photography lenses on the camera’s full frame sensor—which changed everything! Prior to this, filmmakers were shooting on small sensor camcorders, which is why every indie film from that time looked like Clerks.

This camera became the go-to for just about anyone uploading video to the internet. Feature films and documentaries were shot on it. Even an episode of "House, MD" was shot on the 5D. I can’t overstate the importance of this camera, and given how far video technology has evolved since then, it's difficult to imagine.

It’s like when the people in Plato’s Cave finally stepped outside. It’s like when Neo took the Red Pill.

Thanks to this camera (and others like it in the growing camera arms race of the time), indie creators were able to finally tell their stories in a professional-looking way. It was around this time that one such pair of creators, Ilana Glazer and Abby Jacobson, began uploading web series episodes based on their life.

Super Important Moment #2. Before the massive hit that we know today, "Broad City"—importantly—began as a web series. There were many narrative episodic projects being uploaded to the web at this time, but in hindsight, we can all look back to "Broad City" as a piece that paved the way.

Up until now, YouTube was still in its infancy. “The Evolution Of Dance” was really the first big viral video, but the platform struggled to find serious growth.

Until—Super Important Moment #3:


You can hear that line, can’t you?

Someday in the history books, we’re going to refer to eras of comedy as "Before Lazy Sunday" and "After Lazy Sunday." That SNL sketch was the amalgamation of everything that was changing about the industry and the internet. It capitalized on rapidly changing technology, creators’ newfound ability to make something and publish it immediately, as well as tapping into new pop culture comedy trends. More importantly, something happened that separated it from all the other hilarious and incredible work that was happening at that time:

Lorne Michaels put it on air.

I’m not going to bore you with the statistics and the numbers, but needless to say, that sketch is the reason YouTube, College Humor, Funny Or Die, Smosh—all of it—became sustainable, long-term things. After it’s bajillion views on YouTube, it turned the website into a viable platform for creators; ushering in a whole new wave of creators.

Soon after, Jimmy Fallon would take over "Late Night" from Conan O’Brian and regularly create sketches that feel like they were designed for college students watching YouTube all night. Additionally, new narrative web series projects like "High Maintenance," "H+," "The Booth at the End," "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On," "Insecure," would find their own audiences.

It seemed like for a moment there that the “web series” as a medium was here to stay. Especially after "Broad City" and "High Maintenance" got picked up by Comedy Central and HBO. It was all the proof we needed that creating your own episodic projects was a viable model for storytellers to break into the industry.

If you build it, they will come … right?

Hell, I remember I took a college course on this very subject because of how much of a foothold it was taking over the New York indie scene. Like all good things though, nothing lasts forever.

I’m not sure if it was the sea change of global events that did it, nor do I want to bring politics or … HIM … into this. However it seems like after 2014 things began to shift again. The pendulum happened to swing the other way.

Netflix—remember them? That small start-up company that competed with Blockbuster by shipping you DVD rentals directly to your home? Well, they started releasing their own material. "Lilyhammer" came first—shout out to all my fellow New Jerseyans who know just how good Little Steven Van Zandt is at everything he does. This show wrote the playbook for another small little gem you might have heard of: "House Of Cards." After that premiered—changing the model for distribution by releasing the entire season at once and creating the phenomenon of binge watching—everything was over for the Web Series medium. “Web series” were now multi-million dollar tentpole releases directed by Oscar-winning filmmakers, starring A-list actors, and being written by teams of high-level writers.

Sure, on the one hand, "House Of Cards" found its footing at the start of the “golden era of TV” alongside "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" that we are all so fond of. But what it also did was set an expectation of quality and name-talent in everything we saw. If a new show was going to grab our attention, it needed to, like Powerline, “stand out above the crowd.”

So, for the remainder of the 2010’s, we were blessed with show after show of infinite budget with infinite production value to distract us from the insanity of the times. The studios all rushed to compete with Netflix’s blank-check strategy, launching their own platforms and basically we now have the landscape of the industry we see today.

Once again, just like in the pre-5D Mark II days, the independent creator faced the futility of reach. No one was watching scripted content on YouTube anymore because we had all the scripted content we needed on seven other platforms (and the Sunday Night HBO Event time slot dominated by "Game Of Thrones"). Web content became personality based. It became gaming. It became … eventually … TikTok. And for that time, which for me was just as I was completing my MFA in television writing—all starry eyed and full of hopes, dreams, and student debt—it was difficult to envision a way forward.

The bar for entry was so impossibly high because everything was just so saturated. The web series was dead.

Fast forward to today, and here we are once again, in the throes of another writers' strike. This is after we already learned how to navigate the content vacuum of the pandemic.

Top Gun: Maverick might have “brought people back to movie theaters,” per Mr. Spielberg’s suggestion, but we now find ourselves at an equally interesting time on the television front. Netflix is no longer writing blank checks for their shows. Projects are unfortunately getting canned prior to their release because of how expensive residuals are going to be. And there are more streaming platforms than ever with an insatiable need to attract new eyeballs.

Here is where I think we’re about to witness a new dawn for indie creators.

Hear me out. Like back in 2008, once things resolve there’s going to be a call for cheaper, affordable, produce-able series. Platforms are going to realize they don’t need to spend Disney Dollar$ in order to create the smash hit new show—they’re going to try to work with writers who can make smaller, refillable projects that are equally as sharp as shows like "Ted Lasso" and "Abbot Elementary."

Someone, eventually, is going to take a risk on a show they don’t have to invest heavily into. Maybe one that’s already made?

There’s a reason your major festivals like Sundance, South By, and Tribeca all have new Pilot categories—something other festivals like Catalyst and SeriesFest have been onto for a long time now. I think that this is going to be the next wave of content. We’re beginning to see the tides change towards sharper, harder comedy and more interesting low-budget drama. It doesn’t take much to produce a high quality product these days. And some of your smaller streaming platforms already know this.

The web series is dead. Long live the indie series.

*Feature photo by Kyle Loftus (Pexels)

Zack Morrison is a writer/director from New Jersey and previously worked in late-night comedy. He has an MFA from the Columbia University graduate film program and is a proud Rutgers alumnus.
More posts by Zack Morrison.
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