Over the first weekend in July I went to Melbourne Web Fest. It’s a festival dedicated to all things online video that’s been running now for four years. There were screenings of episodes from 55 web series, professional development workshops for content creators (and aspiring ones like yours truly), a pitching competition, panels on funding and a fantastic keynote speech from John Cabrera (formerly of the cast of Gilmore Girls and creator of the web series H+). Oh yeah, and awards. Can’t have a film festival without awards right?
That was the festival on paper. And it was fantastic from start to finish. But there was an even better festival than what was written in the official program. At that festival I met a heap of fantastic people, had some great conversations about film, web series, VR and just a lot of other random stuff besides. There were some very late nights and yet people were still there in the morning for the start of the next screening block.
Everyone was great. I’ve been to similar events and I have found that once the person you’re talking to finds out that I’m either not involved in things or only aspiring to making stuff their eyes start to glaze. In other words, once they’ve determined that you’re not a connection that they can use to further their own profile or projects they’re done with you.
Not so here. Everyone was amazingly unaffected and welcoming and eager to engage. Who you were didn’t matter. One of the first questions I was asked was always “Do you have a series in the festival?” But there was no one looking for the door when the answer was no.
Perhaps it’s because of the medium. I mean web series are amazing, but they’re not the most glamourous end of the entertainment business. But I think it’s more than that. It’s the notion of community.
John Cabrera summed it up in his keynote speech. He talked about the relative value of content. In and of itself content is worth very little. What matters is the community you build. I think on this the people organising and attending Melbourne Web Fest are well ahead. I am glad to be but a small part of that community, and the festival reaffirmed my desire to contribute to it concretely. As Dog is my witness, I will have a series to submit for consideration for next year’s festival. I have my doubts as to whether what I create will make the official selection, but that’s beside the point.
Speaking of the official selection, the quality was amazingly high. I attended the first festival in 2013, and there were plenty of series in that year’s selection with below average production values and sound. Not so this time around. The humble web series has come a long way. Some of my personal favourites/highlights:
AFK – A NZ series about players of an MMORPG who find themselves inside the world of the game trying to survive (and in some cases cope with being gender swapped). High quality and done on an absolute shoestring, I will definitely be checking out all 12 episodes available thus far (once we get some decent internet at our place, though that’s another matter).
Dafuq? – Aussie comedy presented as a mock newscast by three young hipsters. Commissioned by the ABC and available on iView.
Der Lack ist Ab (The Glory is Gone) – German comedy about a married couple whose marriage and family life have lost their shine. Crisp dialogue, perfectly executed by a great cast that got some of the biggest laughs of anything at any of the screenings. Won Best International Comedy. Unfortunately the link I put up is to the YouTube channel. You can get to the website where the episodes are from there, but there don’t appear to be any subtitles on episodes that are publicly available.
Greenfield – Aussie drama set in country WA. Artistically shot and directed, it pulls no punches. Only the second episode was screened, and in case you are planning on checking it out I should mention that that episode at least should come with a trigger warning for rape. It won Best Australian Drama.
Il Sonnambulo – A dark US series about a photographer famous for his shots of the victims of a serial killer. The killer calls him after each kill to tell him where to find them. Not an easy series to watch I’m sure, but one I am intrigued to know more about.
Ren: The Girl with the Mark – This UK series won the Grand Jury Prize for the whole festival. Fantasy series with incredibly high production values on a meagre budget. From what I’ve seen so far there also seems to have been some impressive world building that’s gone into this.
The Justice Lease: Dorm of Justice – Aussie series that sees Superman, Batman, Aquaman and The Hulk (yeah, I know he’s Marvel, but trust me it works) sharing a house together. Lots of comedy, particularly as each of the heroes complain about how they’re being depicted by Hollywood in the movies. This won Crowd Favourite and Best Director.
The Shapes – Aussie animation. Film clips from a band made up of shapes. As funny as it sounds. Funnier than it sounds if you are confused by my description.
The Wizards of Aus – Jack the wizard decides to migrate from his fantasy realm to Melbourne. This does not appear to go well, and the results are pretty funny. This one won a couple of technical awards (and indeed, the VFX quality is incredible) as well as Best Supporting Actor for Mark Bonanno who is hilariously over the top as Jack’s wizardly nemesis.
Zozo “The Fugitive of The Space” – French animation about a little alien on the run in space, battling his way through. Think somewhere between Futurama and Happy Tree Friends and you’re probably in the ballpark.
This is not to say that there were no other series worthy of attention. There are close to 20 more on my list that I will check out further and there were none that seemed lucky to be there. But the 10 mentioned above for various reasons stood out to me.
Other highlights of the festival included a pitching competition where finalists got two minutes to convince a panel of judges and the crowd that theirs was the best idea for a web series going around. I did submit three entries but alas failed to secure a berth. There was a real mix of interesting ideas that ranged from the sounds-good-but-I’ve-seen-something-similar-on-TV to That-is-batshit-insane-but-awesome and all points in between. Apart from being thoroughly entertaining, the most satisfying part was the fact that the eventual winner wasn’t a film school grad with a network of friends who could probably find a way to start making their series tomorrow. It was a mum of three who was new to the game and armed with a good idea and a target audience.
And that’s fantastic considering the prize: Cash to go towards a trip to Marseille to attend their web series festival and participate in a week long writing residency in order to hone the pitch and bring it back to Australia to pitch to ABC iView.
Which brings me to another thing that came up at the festival, the fact that funding bodies and the like are beginning to take the medium of web series more seriously. ABC are looking to commission web series for iView in an attempt to create content for the 18-35s. Screen Australia now has a couple of initiatives relating to web content. Yes, it is still hard to turn a profit from this type of thing, but at least there is more and more opportunity to make these things on something other than friends, favours and free food. I may never reach this level, but the fact that there are people out there looking to fund this kind of content gives me hope.
There are plenty of other things I could talk about from those amazing three days. I haven’t touched on the workshops from the professional development day or the amount of discussions I got into about how VR could/couldn’t would/wouldn’t be a thing, but I think that’s the best place to leave it, on the idea that the humble web series is growing up, and that there is hope for filmmakers to do something amazing with it as it does.