I write a lot about research and trends and some technical aspects of online video. I hardly ever, really, get to talk about the content of the video that I watch and why I watch it. So I've compiled a list of things I think make online video content pop, meaning, things that make me stick with an original web series, things that make online video look well done and that will engage the viewer.
Since I got rid of my cable I've been ramping up my online video viewing, more than when I had it. I found that, there's a lot of stuff that's not that great, and there's some stuff that's really great. So I started compiling a list of things that will pull me in and keep me there long enough to get through a web series.
I was speaking with Wilson Cleveland, creator of the original web series Leap Year, about his show and I said that I didn't really get engaged until the situation for the main characters, went into the crapper (Season 2 coming to Hulu soon!). Conflict, it seems, in intriguing to me.
Probably why The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film in my book, it's all about conflict. It shows that being a good guy, isn't all it's cracked up to be. The end situation is one of my favorites of all time; Luke lost his hand, found out Vader is his father, Han is trapped in carbonite and sent off to Jabba and the friends (the fellowship if you will) has been torn asunder and spread across the galaxy. From that alone you know they're going to have a massive fight on their hands to get back to the positive side. Boom! I'm hooked!
But that's all personal preference on my part. So I took a more objective look at the video content I watch and started taking actual notes as an industry type. Really, I just wanted to explain to everyone why I love Empire so much (I'm joking, everyone knows it's the best one).
Make it Easy to Discover
You can't expect people to watch your online video, if they can't find your video online. There are so many shows starting to pop up, not to mention the past few years of shows, that there's a lot of wade through. Hulu has a terrible system for finding new stuff as far as I'm concerned, but their recommendation engine is getting better. Luckily, they have an actual web genre. But that's just one venue and unless you cut an exclusive deal with them, there's no reason for your content to be just on Hulu. Especially when the world's second largest search engine is YouTube. Now Hulu will definitely get your content out to Bing, just go do a search for video there and you'll see tons of Hulu results.
This is that whole video SEO angle that Mark founded ReelSEO on and has a whole channel dedicated to – put as much data pertaining to your video, around your video so that it can be found. There's more to it but I'm not talking about the technical aspects of hosting, or web design. I literally mean, make the video easy to find. I dug through the whole list of videos in the Hulu web genre and only really found a handful I took a chance on. Some of them won't make it through the whole run in my queue. Why?
Production Value is Vital
Yes, I know (oh I know) budgets are sometimes just a shoestring and bubble gum for some online series, but that doesn't mean you can't pack your video full of awesomeness. The first thing you should do, is research. Watch shows like Film Riot because Ryan Connolly is a genius and will show you how to do a gazillion things quick and easy. Well, quicker and easier than some other shows do but there are tons of shows showing how to do things.
You can even take a retro turn, like The Mercury Men did, and still have a high production look even in just black-and-white. There were a lot of effects in that show but even if there hadn't been it would have been interesting. The fact that they limited the entire show to basically an office building and parking lot showed that you don't need tons of exotic locations for it work. The same goes for Leap Year where they don't have a ton of locations but they're all visually interesting backgrounds for the story.
Oh, and if you're going to go for a semi-artsy sort of look to the video? It had better be good or else it will be annoying. That shaky-camera documentary style of shooting? I hate it now, because so many shows have done it and done it well, but even more have done it poorly. Nothing will turn me away from a show than too much shaky camera because when watching on an 8-foot projection, it makes one's eyes go wonky. Battlestar Galactica got away with it, because of great content. Other shows, I just delete from my watch queue because it is all poorly executed (and some filmmakers should be executed…poorly, because it will hurt more).
The Words Need Meaning
There's nothing that irritates me more about network TV than the standard formulaic content (intro-problem-failed solutions-actual solution-outro), except, having episodes just for the sake of having an episode. UGH! There are so many TV series that have a 15-20 episode season, and half the episodes have no real value to the story.
The words need meaning and when I say that I mean, everything in every script, in every episode, needs to push the story along, or we'll get bored and wander off. Ctrl did a good job of this (almost to the point of being too minimalist) as did Leap Year and The Mercury Men. There's no space for fluff and I think that's actually a benefit of a smaller budget, you can't afford to make episodes just for the sake of making them.
Everything that you do has to work out into a sort of economy of motion. That makes these original web series more compelling, the storylines are more compact and more engaging. There are few online series that could withstand an episode or two that did not move the story forward. On the other hand, most TV shows are just that. I was watching Person of Interest (FOX), but suddenly there were several episodes that had no character development, had no real story line and just fell into the old TV formula. So I lost interest. They did, later, get into the story and characters, but I had already nixed it from my must-watch list and put it into the watch-after-everything-else list. So what keeps me engaged along with all that?
If Wilson Cleveland hadn't mentioned his show to me on Twitter, I would never have watched it. Why did I watch it? I wasn't particularly interested in the story, in the beginning, but I felt a connection because Wilson and I had some interaction on Twitter. It would have worked on any social network actually. I felt a connection because I felt important, like he wanted me, specifically me, to watch Leap Year. So I did. Sure, it took me almost two months to get to it, but when I did, I watched the whole first series in just a couple nights. That's how I generally consume, in big blocks.
For example, I watched all of Battleground earlier this week on Hulu, in one night. Why did I voraciously chew threw that show in a single night? I felt a connection, it was shot in Madison, Wisconsin. It also paralleled some serious political issues that are currently ongoing here. It was also extremely well done, with limited locations, and all the episodes really pushed the story forward. That's another show that will have its second season on Hulu as well. It also had a great cliffhanger ending which looks to be bittersweet, we won't know until season 2 starts.
I think we all consume content for just a couple reasons, either we feel included somehow, like many of the above examples or we want to escape from reality, like in the case of Ctrl, or a feeling of nostalgia, like that which the Mercury Men induced in its retro sci-fi serial format. But many of these wouldn't have made it through my viewing queue without one of the most basic things.
Have You Thought About a Career in the Service Industry?
I'm trying to remain positive for this whole article, so I won't name any names but I picked up, and quickly put down, several original web series lately because of the simple fact that the acting was atrocious. I'm talking like sub-par, below B-movie. On top of that, some of the production values weren't there as well but honestly, it was the acting that turned me off. I can stand some bad acting, hell, I've seen most of Uwe Boll's films for one reason or another (mostly for work) and even enjoyed…one. None of them had stellar acting. Actually, most have horrible acting, to go along with their horrible scripts.
As a show creator/writer/director one of the most vital things you need to do, is cast appropriately, something Mr. Boll is not known for doing and hence why most of his films are utter flops. Well, at least one major reason for it. I'm in the early phases of my own original web series and this is something that will drive me over the edge. The actors need to be believable as the characters. They have to be able to project their character and make them believable. They don't have to be stereotypical representations, but they do have to really become the role. There are numerous cliche characters in the shows I have mentioned and am currently watching, but they work. They work because the actors sell it and they're believable in some way.
That's a Wrap
Long-form video consumption online is on the rise across the board. Everyone is getting involved and now the online video advertising scene is moving toward a more TV-like one. Almost every major online video service is looking for original content from Amazon all the way through the alphabet to YouTube. They all see value in the original web video model, but that means two things are going to need to happen for it all to succeed:
- Money will need to come into the industry (check!) and
- The content will have to maintain a certain level of quality.
That second part is the one that concerns me and prompted me to write this as both an industry watcher and an online video content consumer. Plus, it was almost like research for myself and I hopefully turned you all on to some really good examples of original web series done right. Now get out there and make some!
What tips do you have for creating original video content that pops?