Once upon a time, "film" literally referred to pieces of celluloid through which light projected moving pictures onto a big screen. Originally, a television was just a device – a box grabbing electronic signals out of the air, unscrambling them and delivering images to our living rooms. Today, though, most movies are no longer technically "film," and "television" refers to just about any form of serialized storytelling. As entertainment continues evolving for both creators and consumers, a broader multi-platform storytelling community is taking shape, and just last month two major organizations that have both primarily supported independent film and filmmakers for over three decades revealed separate plans to support and encourage this growing digital revolution.
Just one week apart, the Sundance Institute and the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP) each announced new programs debuting this fall focused on serialized storytelling for both television and online platforms. Sundance will model its new Episodic Story Lab after their long-running Screenwriters Lab. Meanwhile, RBC's Emerging Storytellers project forum will inaugurate a Web Series Sidebar during this year's Independent Film Week, running from Sept. 14-18. Both programs have been in the works over the past two years, and the announcements came on the heels of SXSW's inaugural "Episodic" section the week before.
IFP dipped its toe into this pool last year, inviting Patrick Epino and Stephen Dypiangco's web series "Awesome Asian Bad Guys" to participate in the Emerging Storytellers narrative project forum, and this year will accept five web series – in any stage of development, production or post-production – into the sidebar.
Although Sundance also run labs for film music composers and playwrights, and IFP recently broadened its mandate with the opening of the Made in NY Media Center, both organizations are most well-known for supporting feature-length filmmakers. In an environment regularly producing new think-pieces about the death of cinema and the future of distribution, one might question if these new programs are simply a first step both organizations evolving from features towards the hot format of the moment.
But that's not the case, said Keri Putnam, Executive Director of the Sundance Institute. In fact, she considers the new lab "additive."
"[Evolution] suggests that new forms are going to transmogrify or replace old forms," she said in an interview. "That's not actually what I think is happening here. There is a broad and very exciting diversity now of how you can tell and distribute a story."
IFP's Executive Director Joana Vicente concurred, noting that the organization's main focus remains the support of feature filmmakers, but also acknowledged that branching into web series is a natural next step for IFP. According to Vicente, Disney's acquisitions of YouTube network Maker Studios for half a million dollars is one indication that the web series universe is expanding rapidly. "There is a growing market and opportunity [in the web space],” Vicente said. "There will be new companies coming into that space, and they will need talented filmmakers to create all different kinds of content."
Both organizations emphasize that their goals are to support the storytellers while developing and responding to their creative communities. The launch of both programs seems to stem from doing just that. Although the two organizations have a relationship with each other, have worked together on other programs and have supported many of the same filmmakers and projects, the timing of the announcements was coincidental.
IFP's inclusion of "Awesome Asian Bad Guys" last year played a big role in the organization broadening into the web series format. Dan Schoenbrun, Communications and Programming Coordinator for IFP, mentions that several 2013 Emerging Storyteller participants asked him, "What are you guys doing with web series?"
Web creators, Schoenbrun said, “don't really have a safe space to have these conversations and to be supported in a way that IFP has very traditionally supported the feature film world.”