If there is a popular conception of what an online series is, it probably involves nonexistent budgets, no-name actors and modest ambitions.
But increasingly, online originals are getting bigger, deeper and more complex in their scope and storytelling. And Hollywood’s A-list is starting to get in on the action. The new “H+ the Digital Series,” from producer Bryan Singer andWarner Bros. Digital Distribution, is a daring example of this new approach.
“H+,” which premiered this week on YouTube, is set in a not-too-distant future when much of humanity has been implanted with a device that keeps brains tethered to the Internet 24/7. A mysterious virus is unleashed, killing one-third of the population. In a structure reminiscent of recent TV series such as"Lost” and"The Event,” the series jumps back and forth from the days, months and even years before and after the apocalyptic event, attempting to unravel what happened, who caused it and why in intersecting storylines that cover four continents.
It’s an ambitious narrative stocked with recognizable faces (such as Alexis Denisof of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and"Angel”) and seems like the kind of fare usually found on TV, not YouTube.
“I got the original treatment four years ago from my agent and he said, ‘Check out this Web series.’ I said, ‘Web series? What’s a Web series?’ ” says series director Stewart Hendler, whose previous experience was largely with feature films, including “Sorority Row.”
A few years ago, online sensations with name talent, like Joss Whedon’s “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” were the exception. Most series featured up-and-comers looking to make their mark in the entertainment industry. The online series world has come to be dominated by places like Machinima and Maker Studios, which generate billions of streams a month without relying on traditional star power.
Now, high-profile online series from more familiar Hollywood names are proliferating. Cult favorite “Arrested Development"is back in production, not for Fox, but for Netflix. Eli Roth and David Fincher are also working on series to stream through Netflix. Hulu is carrying original programming from Morgan Spurlock and Richard Linklater, and Yahoo has recently launched original series from Ben Stiller and Tom Hanks.
Singer, whose science fiction directing credits include two “X-Men” films and “Superman Returns,” heard the pitch for “H+" and decided it seemed right for the experimental world of the Web. He served as a producer for the series before going off to direct his feature, “Jack the Giant Killer.”
“Bryan [Singer] and I knew that if we were going to do a digital series, we were going to do it right,” explains “H+" producer Jason Taylor. “We wanted to do it in a way that meant Web was not to be messed with.”
The first season of the series takes place over 48 episodes lasting between four and eight minutes, for a total running time of 255 minutes. Though Warner Digital Distribution plans to release the series on a weekly basis, like any regular series, the episodes are meant to be viewed differently than anything on TV.
“We set out to write a nonlinear story,” explains series co-writer and co-creator John Cabrera. “The big question for this disjointed story was whether there were ways to view it that felt good. At a certain point we started to realize that might be something we put into the hands of the audience.”
The fragmented nature of the short episodes means viewers are encouraged to mix and match to create episodic playlists that may better illuminate the show’s intricate, ongoing mysteries. Instead of making watching a passive experience, being online encourages interaction.
In an online world where every viewer counts (unlike TV, which relies on a sampling of Nielsen families), it’s the interaction and multiple viewings that’s key to the success of a series like “H+.” The studio is looking to make its money back purely through sponsorship and ad revenue driven by traffic.
“We learned that getting subscribers is key,” says Lance Sloane, head of Digital Original Production forWarner Bros.Digital Distribution, which has previously released the online series “Aim High” and “Mortal Kombat.” “We’re thinking, if you’re a subscriber, you come out of the gate with six episodes. If you’re a non-subscriber, you only get two the first week.”
Despite the size of the series, the actual gamble on “H+" byWarner Bros.is quite low. The first season was shot in Santiago, Chile, for less than $2 million. While expensive by Web series standards, that’s a relative drop in the bucket compared with the more than $230 million shelled out on the studio’s summer film tentpole, “The Dark Knight Rises.”
And with that low price tag comes a certain amount of creative freedom.
“The appeal is [the Hollywood types] don’t have to wait for someone else to make a decision to let them do what they want to do,” says Drew Baldwin, co-founder of the online entertainment news site Tubefilter and executive producer of the Streamys (the Emmys of online entertainment). “The essence of the big promise of online media is that you’re not confined to these gatekeepers or processes that are inefficient or slow. You can just start.”
In an entertainment environment where the only things fast-tracked into production are sequels and remakes, the lower cost of online programming makes the journey from idea to screen a matter of months instead of years.
“I’m fortunate enough to have a feature project in development with the studio,” Sloane said. “While we were developing that script, there was a four-month window where we met the director who did ‘Mortal Kombat’ for us. We got it written, produced and distributed, all within that four-month window. Meanwhile, during that same time, we had four meetings with the screenwriter of the feature.”