10 Creatives of the Year
The low costs of short-form indie series allow creators more control over their products. As often as I see strong series from writers I notice performers, producers and personalities who bring a unique style or voice to whatever they put out.
This year no writer-producer deserves more praise than Bernie Su, who with Hank Green (of the Vlogbrothers) and Pemberley Digital, have successfully co-created a new media genre: the vlog adaptation. Pemberley has released five adaptations of works in the public domain – "The Lizzie Bennett Diaries" (based on "Pride and Prejudice"), "Welcome to Sanditon" (based on "Sanditon"), "Emma Approved" (based on "Emma"), "Frankenstein MD" (based on "Frankenstein") and "The March Family Letters" (based on "Little Women"). The series use the simplicity of the vlog storytelling method to build robust transmedia operations, where fans can participate in the series and follow the story across social media platforms and companion web series. The format has proven so successful it's already been replicated with "The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy" (adapted from JM Barrie's "Peter and Wendy") and "The Goreys." Almost a decade from the premeire of "lonelygirl15," Pemberley has proven vlogging is still ripe for innovation, and PBS Digital Studios has now co-signed on the idea.
Certainly much of Pemberley's success results from Green's built-in audience, fan bases for Jane Austen, and solid casting for the leads. But Su's writing for "The Lizzie Bennett Diaries," their first hit, is no doubt foundational to proving the viability of this mode of production. Su is a veteran web series creator and writer and something akin to a guru in writing for the web. Su's series are comfortably paced, giving actors room to get into character while keeping the plot moving forward for audiences.
But Su is never limits himself to writing scripts, having co-written (with Kate Rorick) a book companion for "The Lizzie Bennett Diaries," and worked with brands to integrate products into existing series and possibly create more brand initiatives. The latter strategy is critical, as web series have yet to lure significant brand interest away from linear television, despite declining ratings and persistent skepticism about the value of the traditional 30-second spot.
Fawzia Mirza: A prolific working actor and comedian, Mirza spends as much of her time as a headlining theater actor in Chicago as she does releasing original web series. This year she and creative partner Ryan Logan released the second season of their comedy "Kam Kardashian," which imagines a world with a long-lost lesbian Kardashian sister. The series is a bright satire of society's expectations for gays to be "normal," and showcases a number of rising talents, from Logan to Mirza's co-stars Mary Hollis Inboden and Joel Kim Booster. Later this year Mirza released a shorter series, "Brown Girl Problems," further exploring South Asian identity. Mirza carries everything she's in. She's a magnetic, one-of-a-kind talent.
Willam Belli: Willam lost his season of "RuPaul's Drag Race" but he's continued to build a fan base online, becoming one of the most web savvy drag queens from the competition. Fans love his "LA blonde" personae, which he put to use in two web series this year, video clip show "The Beatdown" ("Tosh.0" in fabulous drag) and makeup show "Paint Me Bitch." His music videos are fun and catchy – his hit "Boy Is A Bottom" was recently remixed in Spanish). Willam's wit and irreverence is perfect for YouTube, where he's amassed a respectable 350,000 followers, which has helped him land bigger deals with brands.
Kate Berlant and John Early: Known online as "Bejohnce," comedy duo Berlant and Early have a unique voice as knowing as it is unpredictable. Their chemistry shines through in every video – you can tell they've been working together for years – and every new video they release is completely different from the last. Spend a few moments on their channel and find yourself lost in their crazy, but welcoming, world.
Drew Droege: Droege is a scene-stealing talent. I've ever seen him underperform in any series. Best known for his "Chloe" series – a brilliant spoof on Chloe Sevigny and New York trendsetters – Droege has proven he's smart enough to execute highbrow comedy. But he's not above lending his talents to the growing market for gay male web series, and he shines in all of them – "Where The Bears Are," "Go-Go Boy Interrupted" and "Not Looking," along with telenovela spoof "Stallions De Amor. "He carried one of 2014's best web series about the entertainment industry (there are a lot), "Hollywood Acting Studio." With frequent collaborator Jim Hansen (The Orphans) he was integral to one of the most interesting new shows this year, "Paragon School for Girls," a surreal send-up of boarding school starring men in drag.
Casey Jane Ellison: Casey has refined her character as an almost-knowing "art bitch," as she says in the web series she hosted for Ovation this year, "Touching the Art." Ellison brought irony and humor to "Touching the Art," which featured interviews from art world power-players and scholars. She is best known for her hilarious series for VFiles, "Status Update," which found a cult following. Last year she scored another win with VFiles in "What the F*shion?" This year she also furthered her career as a video artist, curating a series of short animation films for MoMA PS1 featuring Jacolby Satterwhite, Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin (with Rhett LaRue).
Cecile Emeke: Emeke's eye for color and composition put her on the radar of black film and arts aficionados this year -- her docu-series "Strolling" features on-street interviews with young black Brits and has all the ease, style and openness you want from such a show. She's shown her versatility by also producing shorts showcasing poetry and spoken word, including the lovely series "Running" and short film "fake deep," where poets deconstruct feminism for conscious men. Emeke is currently raising funds for a web series "Ackee and Saltfish," which takes a narrative approach to showcasing the minds of two young British women of the African diaspora.
Eliot Glazer: Eliot, brother of Ilana, has been consistently producing ingenuous but accessible comedy for years. In the past he delivered a series for Above Average, "Eliot's Sketchpad," and his own comedy about normal gays co-created with Brent Sullivan, "It Gets Betterish." This year he got traction online with "haunting renditions," where he sings eerie adaptations of pop songs; he's now touring with "Haunting Renditions."
Aphrodite Kocięda (Aph Ko): Each year I long for indie series that explicitly address cultural politics, and newcomer Aph Ko delivered two shows this year to answer my prayers. First she released "Tales from Kraka Tower," a satire of diversity in higher education, then "Black Feminist Blogger," which chronicles invisible labor. With very few resources, Ko is leading a campaign to make indie TV political and unafraid, and I hope her work woos more collaborators to join her mission.
Amanda Seales: Amanda is probably best known for her commentary on a viral catcalling video on CNN, where her takedown (of an admittedly easy target) itself got some traction in social media. But more people should know her for her show, "Things I Learned This Week," where she serves real talk on news and pop culture while also performing as different characters in sketches. The series was picked up by a new indie network, Kollide TV, started by a former BET programming executive, Lateef Sarnor, who brought BET.com their first web series in Tatyana Ali's "Buppies" by signing P&G as a sponsor ("Buppies" star Robin Thede is now head writer on Larry Wilmore's "Nightly Show"). Here's hoping for a bigger 2015 for the sharp comedienne.