Thanks to the internet, television is no longer just the province of networks — digital series now come from everyone from Netflix, with its originals that are indistinguishable in production value and quality from cable, to individual creators putting together lo-fi sagas on YouTube.
BitTorrent is the latest player to try to get into the game. The company, responsible for the peer-to-peer protocol synonymous for many with piracy, has been working to make its platform something artists and other companies will actually choose to get involved with via BitTorrent Bundles, which offer free content with additional goodies that can be unlocked in exchange for an email address, a payment or other threshold set by the creator. Participants include the DJ/record producer Kaskade and Stacy Peralta, who with Topspin Media partnered with BitTorrent for a promotion during the release his doc “Bones Brigade.”
Production company Converge Studios wants to see if the BitTorrent Bundle can be used to promote a independent TV show that’s in the works, and this week released one for “Fly or Die,” a proposed scripted series about the music industry inspired by Rock Mafia, the songwriting couple known for writing hits for the likes of Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus.
The free part of the Bundle contains a three-minute trailer for “Fly or Die,” which stars Michael Medico and Caitlin Keats as fictional hit-writing team Beat Mob, who are torn between lucrative work with the latest pop princess and working with a group they’ve discovered and showcasing a sound more their own.
“Fly or Die” features cameos (if such a thing is possible in a trailer) from Vanessa Hudgens and Jesse McCartney, with the promise of more appearances from musical stars. Entering an email address and agreeing to be on the mailing list gets you the premium content, which includes more footage from behind-the-scenes and introducing the characters of the potential series, which is directed by Joel Bergvall (“Possession”).
Converge is already committed to making eight 22-minute episodes of the comedy, which is being independently financed. They aren’t set on releasing the series itself via a pay model on BitTorrent unless it seems financially viable — though, as the company’s CEO and the show’s executive producer Tim Staples said, “That’s the dream — if we could launch a creative product direct to an audience via BitTorrent and have them invested enough in that content that they ultimately support it and it become profitable and repeatable, that means we’ve bypassed the traditional Hollywood development system.” They’re also looking at potentially selling the series to a network or new media company.
So the BitTorrent release of the pilot pitch is primarily meant to serve as a way to gather a dedicate fanbase whose investment in the series is fed by the ability to keep tabs and weigh in on the production as it happens — the promotional language pushes the importance of fan feedback in shaping the series, with the group being used as a kind of focus group, or, as Staples prefers, a “sounding board.” It’s a new-media model that’s been enabled and embraced by everyone from Kickstarter, whose crowdfunding tool is also a de facto way of gathering the contacts of people invested enough in something to give money toward its creation, to “This American Life,” who used their listener base to shape “Sleepwalk With Me” from production through marketing.
BitTorrent’s blog post announcing “Fly or Die” rather breathlessly asks, “Is series development something that should be open-sourced? What if you opened up the pilot process to the people of the Internet? What if a TV series started acting like a startup?” But while going to directly to the potential audience to ask what they want does seem (to use another tech buzzword) disruptive, when does letting would-be viewers drive a series become just another force competing with creative vision? Is it trading network notes for something different but equally burdensome?
“It can be too much of a good thing,” Staples allowed, but he sees figuring that out as part of this process. “What we find, typically,” he said, “is you’re going to get a lot of divergent opinions, but there are going to be some common threads that hold the truth. As filmmakers and show creators, I think we get so close to the end product that we lose sight of how it’s perceived with fresh eyes.”
Staples says he’d like to make the whole process as transparent as possible, chuckling that “everybody wants to put the best spin on their project, but the good and the bad in what we’re doing is that we’re not really going to be able to hide behind a press release.” That means numbers, which many other new platforms have been reluctant to make public. That alone should be worth a look, because BitTorrent, while responsible for a considerable portion of internet traffic, offers a layer to work through that streaming a video on YouTube does not — you have to download something, to wait for it to finish and to spare it disk space, and how willing people will be to take that step on an unknown commodity will prove interesting as the world of digital series strives to catch up with that of the traditional ones.