Years ago, producers of original web series would compare their projects to short films. The internet made short films irrelevant, they'd say, because you could build an audience yourself, rather than wait for film festivals and distributors to validate your story. Besides, television production was expanding on cable, while movie theaters were clogged with blockbusters.
Fast forward to today and the web series has not upended the short film...yet. Except that with the premiere of Vimeo's first original series "High Maintenance," not since BMW's 2001 hit "The Hire" has a web original so thoroughly challenged the division between film and television, providing a roadmap for independent producers to get audiences and distributors interested in original storytelling. "High Maintenance" may well be the future of indie TV.
Like "The Hire," "High Maintenance" is an anthology show, a series of short films where, instead of Clive Owen's shadowy "Driver," we're following Ben Sinclair's affable "Guy," a weed dealer delivering product to New York's stressed out middle and upper class. Each episode of the show focuses on a different character or set of characters -- we enter each story in medias res, and it unfolds with an ease belying its sophistication. Some episodes are darker and quieter, others brisk and colorful. All co-creators and married couple Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld promise is the performances will ring true and each story will be different.
The first four "cycles" -- three-episode seasons -- are available for free on the series' Tumblr. The fifth cycle premiered last week on a special Vimeo site and the sixth will air in January 2015. For $8 viewers can buy all six episodes or sample one of the first three for $2. The new episodes are a little longer and feature higher production value -- most noticeably, more locations, actors and props -- but retain the originals' elegance and emotional complexity.
At a time when long features about web series are unheard of, critics have been delving behind the scenes for "High Maintenance," hailing Sinclair and Blichfeld as progenitors of a new genre, the first great creatives to benefit from Vimeo's On Demand plans, and cunning anthropologists of "small town" New York (Brooklyn). How did one show accomplish so much?
Unlike "The Hire," which relied on prominent acting and directing talent, "High Maintenance" uses the anthology format to showcase newer, undiscovered talent, from its actors to its musicians, an indie-friendly ethic clearly attractive to Vimeo.
"We were like artists in residence," Sinclair said of their time at Vimeo, which is owned by IAC/InterActiv Corp.
Nearly every episode of "High Maintenance" has been written with a specific actor in mind. Unlike in traditional TV development, where hundreds of actors sleep on couches in Los Angeles waiting to be cast in pilots, this indie series scales production to the talent available. This way of working assures the team of getting the most natural or authentic-seeming performances.
Blichfeld is known as one of "30 Rock's" Emmy Award-winning casting directors, and the team writes to showcase the actors' strengths. Actors participate because the time commitment is relatively low and the pay-off potentially great, since the episode is a showcase of their talent. "High Maintenance" alums have already scored roles on television: "Olivia" stars Max Jenkins and Heléne Yorke are currently on "The Mysteries of Laura" and "Masters of Sex," respectively, and Hannibal Buress co-stars in "Broad City." (And to appeal to their core fans, Blichfeld and Sinclair have brought back characters from the first cycles, in very clever ways.)
Also, the music of the show has been a hit with fans. The creators said they received a lot of emails from fans about the music, and are starting to release Spotify songs and playlists on their Tumblr. The team discovers music mostly through personal networks. Most are independent. “It's very helpful when the artist is self-distributing," Blichfeld said.
For example, Brooklyn-based neo-funk artist Gordon Voidwell lent some music to the new cycle, having been featured briefly in cycle four's "Rachel" (my favorite episode of the series). Voidwell and Sinclair went to college together, and the singer-songwriter knew "High Maintenance" producer Willy Friedman -- but Voidwell came to their attention by simply emailing and saying he liked the show. He's not the only artist for whom that has worked.
"High Maintenance" was built for internet users. Because each episode is a completely different story, each installment is a new entry point for viewers. If you didn't like the first one you saw, try another. If, for instance, you started smoking weed after a cancer diagnosis, try "Brad Pitts." Obsessed with life hacking or worried about a friend who is? Try "Qasim." Have ASMR? You'll love “Geiger."
"With Vimeo we don't have to tell big stories. It's very niche. We don't expect everybody to get every joke or relate to every character,” Sinclair said.
The discreet nature of the stories also means the team has been been able to produce them faster, making them lighter and more culturally relevant. “We're able to gather zeitgeist-y references and put them out close to the time we actually wrote the episode,” he added.
But condensed storytelling raises some concerns about how representative the stories are. In the newest cycle, the creators tackled a variety of subcultures and hobbies: survivalists, teachers, asexuals, cancer survivors. The teacher-focused episode, "Genghis," takes a realistic or cynical view of public education, depending on one's perspective. In fact, it's based partially on Sinclair's brief period exploring work as a teacher; the warnings he heard from teachers with more years in the system dissuaded him from pursuing it.
“The inequity of pay is just monstrous...It's all messed up. We're hoping people will be angry with us and not angry at us for being so blunt,” Sinclair said. "We are trying to show a single perspective.”
"It's first and foremost to tell a story that helps you feel something,” Blichfeld said.
On Demand Indie Distribution
"High Maintenance" was almost a cable television show. The series had been in development at FX, but Sinclair and Blichfeld wanted to retain the creative control that comes with a show that was made for the web. Vimeo came on board as the network they could work with.
"They were hands off," Blichfeld said. "I can't imagine that we would have had as much say elsewhere. We spent two years building our brand, and it would be kind of devastating if a marketing exec re-branded it and took it out of our control."
Vimeo has always been a filmmaker-driven site: the platform is ad-free and makes its money from filmmakers paying monthly for priority access and service. Years ago Vimeo beat YouTube for HD streaming and became a hub for "quality" independent video, and recently Vimeo has been working with film festivals to compete with Netflix and Apple for indies in the digital distribution window.
Essentially a series of short films strung together loosely by a theme and character, "High Maintenance's" user-friendly structure fits perfectly with Vimeo's artist-driven business model. And by supporting creators like Blichfeld and Sinclair, Vimeo is paving the way for a much-needed new model for distribution in the independent online video market. There, advertising rates have been depressed and only accessible to corporate networks like Hulu and YouTube's largest players, from multichannel networks (most now owned by major media conglomerates and investors) and YouTube creators whose content is cheap enough for them to make a lot and profit from volume.
Missing from much corporate web video has been the kind of nuanced storytelling you can only get from longer, scripted narratives where producers have control over the story. Vimeo's structure, since it is user, not brand-funded, is designed to foster the kind of creative freedom we associate with art -- creative freedom that's difficult to create through traditional television development ("Louie" and "Girls" notwithstanding).
So will there be more cycles with Vimeo?
"I don't know. We haven't really talked about it specifically," Blichfeld said. "I think it's mutually understood that we all want this to work. It's just a matter of watch and see. It's an experiment from all sides. The goal is definitely to make it work and continue."