A hastily assembled panel this morning of television and film producers now working on digital series turned into one of the most interesting presentations at the TCA press tour so far, one that affirmed that web TV is the closest thing the medium has to an indie scene. Jane Espenson and Jeff Greenstein, the producers of “Husbands,” Stuart Cornfeld and Mike Rosenstein, the executive producers of “Burning Love” and Ryan Lewis, the executive producer of “Chosen” were also present to talk about their ongoing online projects. While all of these web series fall under the aegis of a large brand — “Husband,” having been initially funded by Espenson, is now at CW Seed, while “Burning Love” is at Yahoo! and “Chosen” at Crackle — a theme that came up again and again was the freedom that the medium offered as opposed to network television or studio films.
“The problem is the development process — it’s impossible,” said Greenstein, a producer on “Desperate Housewives,” “Friends” and “Will & Grace” of network TV. “There are so many people who want to put their grubby fingerprints on your imagination. I have no patience for that anymore.” “It’s soul-crushing to work on something you don’t like — that’s really what powers the whole thing,” agreed Cornfeld, a producer and business partner at Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Productions.
“There were no network notes,” said Espenson, a producer on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Gilmore Girls,” of working on “Husbands,” something Greenstein described as “exhilarating” after 20 years of accommodating to them, noting that he came up during the era when Soderberg and the like were kicking off the indie film heyday of the ’90s: “We were only answerable to ourselves… It’s fun to be nimble and to fall back on that creativity. It feels indie — and I like that it feels like it’s outside the system.”
In terms of resources, Greenstein described the “Husbands” team’s desire to make things “as polished as possible,” including moving away from the shaky handheld look of many single camera digital series by using Kickstarter funds to shoot on Steadicam. The resources are obviously scaled down, with Rosenstein noting that on “Burning Love” “we shot 23-30 pages a day.” Lewis, a co-producer on “Fat Kid Rules the World,” said that “Chosen” was “entirely a team effort,” with “part of the fun” being “the run and gun style.” Star Milo Ventimiglia was in almost every shot of the six episode series, and “on the first day we shot a nine-page action sequence — Milo accidentally got punched in the face.”
Of course, part of what’s led to these series’ prominence is that they come from connected industry folks with high profile friends — and “Burning Love,” especially, has displayed a notable ability to pull in all kinds of name talent, including Jennifer Aniston as part of a great punchline. It was “extreme flexibility” that allowed that to work, said Rosenstein, including the ability to shift around schedules in order to get actors in when they were free. “We didn’t have a casting director — we called in everyone we knew.”
And as for runtimes, all of these series are creeping away from short form, either running for longer, TV lengths or coming out in segments that can be assembled into a traditional episode. “We’ve spent so many decades watching half hour shows, when something is shorter there’s a disconnect,” mused Espenson, noting that tolerance for and the expectation of longer videos has changed with the time. When they started, she said, “at the time you couldn’t get anyone to click on anything over three minutes,” and now it’s difficult to get anyone to watch something that’s not at least eight minutes.
Each series has taken on a different approach to releasing, with Cornfeld pointing out that there’s more talk about binge viewing than though: “binge viewing is followed by purge discussion.” “Chosen” was released all at once, “Husbands,” which plays off sitcom concepts, rolls out weekly, while with “Burning Love” “we actually accelerated the release,”said Rosenstein, from weekly two semiweekly to daily based on fan feedback. He allows that while digital series have made huge steps forward, he does feel that no one’s figured out a “Breaking Bad” equivalent of appointment television yet — though who knows what’s to come.