GADZOOK FILMS Producing independent film in Seattle, Los Angeles and beyond.


Why Do (Most) Webseries Suck? part 3

Welcome back to this ongoing pontification about webseries. In Part 1 the topic was focusing on originality to set your show apart. Part 2 discussed the need for a compelling story over all else as your main audience development tool.

Let me be very clear, these are basic concepts familiar to many filmmakers regardless of what the destination format may be. But webseries production introduces new limitations for writers that make it very different from your typical traditional media production.

Most narrative webseries (those with a story arc, as opposed to informational/reality series) are harder to write than your traditional media projects because of several inherent issues:

Time Limit - optimal web videos destined for virality are between 1-3 minutes long. If they can impart their message faster than that they have an even greater chance of being passed around. By contrast most short films bound for festival runs are between 12-20 minutes in length. And TV shows are somewhere in the 22-48 minutes range.

With shorts and TV shows and movies there are very clear broadcasting standards as well as programming considerations. With webseries there isn't such a clear guideline.

You have to take the brevity of the viral video along with the production considerations of the short film plus the episodic nature of a TV show. But there's no magical logarithm to find your ideal time limit.

You have maybe 6-10 minutes to tell your story in each episode. Trust me when I say even just 5 minutes can have the emotional impact of a half-hour TV show if you pace it right. 5 minutes can also feel like a half-hour and have NO impact whatsoever.

I've seen many filmmakers with episodes that are way too long. This is often seen with comedic series where episodes are written around a single lame joke for about 5 minutes... long after the audience got the joke and finished chuckling. Aim for the 2-3 minute mark when editing, but if your story is good people will watch more. Just don't bank on it.

Once you have your audience hooked on your character's story, they'll want more. The webspace is fairly unique in that your audience can easily access past episodes, recaps, character bios, etc. through your website and get caught up. In my opinion you don't need to spend 10-20 seconds recapping your previous episode, or have a minute long credit sequence. There's some dissenting opinion on this regard, of course, but for my money I believe if the audience is interested in your content they'll do the research to catch themselves up - naturally disregard this if you crowdfunded your show and offered a credits listing on the show as a perk.

Accessibility - This may sound contradictory to my previous posts about uniqueness and niche, but I assure you they're very separate.

You do not have the time to develop one character for 15 minutes before you introduce another. Or drop in your first major plot point three episodes down the road. The more shows I watch the more I see the good ones like Solo or GOLD or JourneyQuest introduce the characters, the basic plot and the construct of the world in the first episode. Further episodes expand at a more gentle pace once you've established who everyone is and what they're after.

So you can see when writing a webseries you need to make it both accessible and thrifty with time. Keep that first episode under 10 minutes if you can with the knowledge that you want it to be only as long as it needs to be. All of this should help you develop your story. Hand off your script to friends who maybe aren't familiar with your concept. Ask them if, after the first episode, they know who the main people are and what they're after. If they don't have a clear idea after just one episode... you're in trouble.

What are your thoughts? What obstacles have you seen that set webseries production apart from more traditional media? Stay tuned for the final installment in this series next week! Please share with your friends and comment below!

Posted by Dom

Comments (14) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Great three-parter article! I just recently moved to the Seattle area and have been outlining a web series I’m dying to develop. These articles give me inspiration and remind me the people, the resources and the market is out there if you are prepared to look hard enough! Unless the story sucks.

  2. This is an excellent series, Dom. I’ve been pointing people to it.

    I agree with you on pacing, but I as a viewer often want web-distributed episodes to be longer than they are, if and only if they remain well-crafted. It might be because I’m “programmed” by traditional television to want 22-48 minutes of episodic viewing; it might just be my personal taste.

    When we were discussing length of episodes for Causality, David Samuels of Koldcast told us they were specifically looking for longer (22m-ish) episode lengths. Apparently, this was the feedback they were getting from the majority of viewers: independent web-distributed television, he feels, is not the same as viral video, and some “traditional” (if you call it that in such a young medium) ideas about the attention spans of viewers seems to be bunk. You can make of that what you will. Personally, I gravitate to web-distribution so that I don’t have to do what anyone tells me to and I can simply tell the story in the manner in which it is best told.

    However, if I can’t sit through 3 minutes of a show, I’m not going to sit through more than 20, so your point on pacing and craft stands.

  3. Hey Glynis! Exactly. I think episode length is something fluid. As you said audiences want to watch more of a good thing, not less. In the web world, it’s wise to start off small just to see if people can stick with it for the entire length. So many factors go into audience retention (story, production value, pacing, etc.) that I recommend starting with short episodes and gradually moving up. But I think audiences will definitely watch a “regular” length show if it’s got those elements.

  4. No, I see your point and I agree; it’s exactly the advice I’d give to people who have never made any, or very little, film or TV but who are inspired to tell their story through this fairly democratic and exciting new medium. Start small, see what you are capable of, because you can always change it.

    However, our first episode is looking to be about 15 minutes (out of 8 eps they should run between 15 and 22 minutes each), so not short by your metric, but short by traditional TV metrics. We talked about that length a lot, particularly for the pilot, and worried about it, and argued over it, but in the end we decided that it just didn’t work to cut it in half or shave pages off OR add more to make it conform: it tells a complete story and sets up all elements and the viewpoint character. It’s as long as it needs to be, and no longer. I don’t know how this length will affect us in the long run, and though I’m prepared for it to affect us adversely, I honestly don’t think it will. It’s tightly written and I think with the people we have on board it can maintain that pacing into and through post-production and launch. That being said, I think how we’re approaching it is, in fact, a good example of what you said in your article.

    Of course, all this is predicated on us thinking we can do it better than 90% or more of what’s out on the web, but isn’t that the case with all entrepreneurs?

  5. Absolutely! Faye and I have had the same conversation about episode length. She’s been writing with this in mind but it’s been very difficult to condense everything into the “standard.” Relationships, characters, exposition, etc. should not be compromised but until we’ve earned the trust of our audience we’ll likely keep things limited to an above-average length. I said this better earlier but I accidentally hit refresh and lost that.

    Anyway, yes! We must believe our shows are not just better, but unique, interesting and compelling – otherwise why do them?

  6. Trust from the audience is key! And I think even asking questions like these makes it more likely that our shows will be successful by some measure.

  7. At least we’ll be watching, right? Check out the show Glynis is talking about at friends!!

  8. Thank you! I keep meaning to do a series of blog posts for us that’s just on shows I like and why I like them. Shows that do it right, basically, and that lead by example.

  9. I’d definitely read that! I’ve been wanting to do something similar. In fact, for a while I was talking about doing a webseries review podcast… but the sheer quantity and, yes, sheer number of crummy shows made me question that decision. But there are quite a few good ones… and many more that are SO close to being super entertaining and excellent, if they just worked on their scripts a little. Hmm…

  10. A podcast would be a great idea. There are SO MANY SHOWS, and some of them, yeah, they just need a single element fixed to really be great, like a tighter script or, hey, maybe decent sound production. Or comedies (and dramas, but it’s very noticeable in comedies) that have no sense of timing/pacing, which comes down to editing and direction. Stuff that comes with experience, mainly.

    We might be on to something here!

  11. There are a few good ones out there already – Indie Intertube and Those Video Guys are two that come to mind. and

  12. …you know I was on a panel with the Indie Intertube hosts, right? They moderated our Geek Girl Con Women In Webseries panel. (I keep meaning to get up to Victoria to do an interview, but, you know, life.) It’s part of why I haven’t put a lot of serious effort into this, because there are already people doing it and I have to know that I have something new to add to the conversation. But hopefully somebody reading this thread will pick up on these folks and listen to them, make some good choices about what to watch on this here internets.

  13. I do! I know YOU know, but maybe not everyone (all 6) who reads this blog know about them. 🙂 Good stuff!

  14. We’ll have your blog read by twice that by the time you’ve launched!

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