In 2008 I edited a book about how to become a DIY web video entrepreneur. The book had its strengths, and the author obviously knew a great deal about video production and the broadcast side of the video business. And, from what I understand, it sold pretty well. Still, the main premise of the book never sat well with me: namely, that you could replicate the runaway success of web video overnight sensations by studying and imitating them. Maybe this is possible, but most of the examples in the book just seemed too random--e.g., those German "eepybird" guys who became YouTube sweethearts with their Mentos & Diet Coke geysers. For one thing, too many of the success stories were too isolated; how were readers supposed to repeat these triumphs if their originators couldn't?
Plus, there seemed to be a basic disconnect, in most places, between popularity and profitability. Were any of these one-hit wonders actually making money off the clips that made them famous?
I found the Blip.tv chapter most interesting because the idea of webisodic internet TV capturing some of the audience that was drifting away from its more old-school, rigidly structured broadcast counterpart is awfully intriguing, and Blip.tv certainly seems set up to make the most of it. But again, I just couldn't see how the way we were documenting the successes of the present would in any way doom our readers to repeat them.
Zacuto's Steve Weiss has clearly been struggling with these same questions about making web video profitable and sustainable, and how to use the web as a filmmaking medium that will serve the evolving 21st-century audience in ways that cinematic film and broadcast TV no longer entirely satisfy. And with his increasingly popular webisodic show, FilmFellas, he's doing much to unravel the mysteries of compelling and commercially viable web TV in the form, content, and marketing of the show.
Debuting January with new webisodes appearing every two weeks, FilmFellas has a deceptively simple premise and structure: Set up and shot much like the kitchen table scene in GoodFellas, FilmFellas brings together 3 filmmakers with Weiss in each installment to discuss filmmaking and the web over dinner, with each discussion playing to the strengths of the current "cast." The conversation is documented in multiple webisodes for each cast. The first cast, featuring DoP extraordinaire and Re:Frame phenom Philip Bloom, along with director and Flashpoint Academy chairman Peter Hawley and DP and RED shooter Steven Dadouche, aired in January and February. Subsequent casts have included web-oriented independent filmmakers discussing directing styles and producers discussing social networking.
In what may, on the surface, seem to be a bit of a departure for the series, the next 2 casts will consist entirely of producers from the wedding video world. For Cast 4 ("The Artistic Wedding"), Weiss invited John Goolsby of Cannon Video, Kristen* of Bliss Productions and Re:Frame, and Joe Simon of Joe Simon Productions. Cast 5 ("The Epic Wedding") brought Patrick Moreau of StillMotion, Kevin Shahinian of Pacific Pictures, and Ron Dawson of Dare Dreamer Media into the mix.
Granted, none of these cast members would call what they produce wedding video, and none shoot weddings exclusively, but that's part of the point. "The cast members in 4 & 5 are filmmakers, period," says Weiss. "The entire film business is a business of snobs. In Hollywood they may snub their nose at wedding filmmaking. But every guy on set in Hollywood would rather be doing commercials because the pay is better. Every agency guy in Chicago would rather be working on features for lower pay because the work is cooler. The grass is always greener. What I learned about wedding filmmaking from my cast members," he continues, "is that they love what they are doing and it's what they want to be doing. A wedding is an exciting one-take environment. It's emotional and passionate. It can move people and bring them to tears in seconds. That's a bit tougher to do on feature and commercials. Especially, considering you are just a team member on those types of projects, where in weddings you run the project and make all of the decisions. So as any industry it's not for everyone, but if you love creating a lot of emotion and dig the excitement of a one-take environment, weddings may be for you."
As for the specific cast members, Weiss says, "Joe's work I have been admiring for a while now, and I've talked about it in many videos I've done." (Significantly, Joe Simon's name comes up repeatedly with FilmFellas Cast 2.) So I started looking around and saw Kristen* work and loved it. At NAB I met and had a little bromance with Kevin and Patrick, and we were talking video at various points during NAB. At that time I only had the one cast and was only going to do the one cast. But after talking to Kevin and Patrick, I realized they had a ton to offer, so I set up cast 5. John was added to Cast 4 to add some counterpoint to the creative with some business acumen. Ron was added to Cast 5 to add some counterpoint to the creative and talk about the industry as a whole."
Discussing wedding filmmaking on the show, Weiss says, has allowed him to highlight the diversity of not just his cast, but the industry as a whole, and point out to the larger filmmaking world that it's more textured than they may think. "I think that there are now many segments of the wedding crowd. You have videographers, wedding filmmakers, same-day edit guys, concept movie guys, etc. This makes the market much more interesting because everyone wants to learn from everyone. FilmFellas, tries to uncover trends, styles, how to make money in your industry, presentation of product and more. We did that with Cast 4 and 5 and I really don't see this much different from any other aspect of the film industry as a whole."
Not drawing lines or creating imaginary and unnecessary barriers between different parts of the filmmaking industry is a big part of what FilmFellas is about, and it's an absolutely essential approach to take for a generation of filmmakers that is working to translate cinematic and broadcast styles to the web, and adapt their methods and their business models to the unstructured and seemingly ungovernable "Wild West" climate of web video (as one FilmFellas cast member described it) and the growing web video audience, with its new set of expectations. And inseparable from all of that for anyone in this business, and anyone who intends to thrive in this business, is making it profitable. "I don't make the distinction between pro and amateur," Weiss says. "I make the distinction between profitable and non-profitable. If you can make a show that is profitable so as it can continue, then you are obviously giving your audience what they want and it's working. If you're not you will eventually falter. I am a businessman and a creative, or a creative businessman. Frankly, I think the two can go hand in hand, but many filmmakers don't look at the business side as creative or they don't see how a super creative business plan is essential to the success of your film venture. Hollywood does. The video can look like crap but if it's drawing people and making money, somehow, then I would admire that venture."
One thing that's been cool so far with FilmFellas is that even though Weiss acknowledges that it's evolved with each cast, the producers established a consistent style at the outset that's given it a definitive and recognizable look. Weiss describes the production style as follows: "For a long time, I thought, wouldn't it be cool to create a really up-close, intimate discussion about filmmaking. I said to Jens Bogehegn, my business partner in Zacuto and DP since 1989, that I kind of imagined a round dolly shot like in GoodFellas where they were at the kitchen table. Jens decided on the top lighting to make it feel like it was a secret meeting and it also worked well to hide the 6 cameras we use while shooting this live discussion.
"The show is shot with 6 Panasonic HVX200s (sometimes we'll have an HPX170 in there as well). One is on a circular dolly. One is on a Jib, and 4 other cameras are each getting someone's closeup. Everyone is individually mic'd for really close sound. The cameramen do not have contact with each other. Jens, our DP, talks to them about the kind of shots we are looking for and they shoot to have a good shot all of the time. But they have the freedom to move to a two shot or tight ECU [extreme closeup] if wanted. The dolly is usually run by Jens and he just goes back and forth constantly the whole shoot. He has a Letus Elite and Zeiss 35mm lens on the dolly cam so he has very shallow DOF. While dollying, he decides what he wants in focus. The dolly is surprising close to the talent, about 3 feet from the backs of their heads. The lighting design is Jens', a 3' softbox with 1' black siders to keep the light from spilling. The tablecloth is white and is really part of the lighting scheme and bounces in fill. The edit is cut for sound first. Then the cameras can be live switched in post in multicam mode."
Because FilmFellas is a show about web filmmaking that is also exploring the form, function, and commercial possibilities of web filmmaking, the content and presentation and marketing of the show often go hand in hand. Appropriately enough for a show that included 5 webisodes under the title "Social Networking," exploiting the social networking possibilities of the web and exploring other techniques to increase the show's viral appeal has been crucial to its pursuit of a wider audience. "We're using Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and others to grow our audience. People join our groups, plus we actively join groups and fan pages and grow the presence. Plus we do email blasts and press releases to also get the word out. These include bloggers and forums. From this point forward we're posting our video content on Zacuto.com first for about 2 weeks, then we're making it available to Vimeo, YouTube, and Exposure room." (Initially, the show was co-presented by Vimeo.) "This will make Zacuto.com the first place to look for Zacuto content, but many start at Vimeo/Exposure room, and this way they will still be able to receive our content."
Two behind-the-scenes clips from Casts 4 and 5 appeared last week on www.filmfellas.tv, and Cast 4 debuts on FilmFellas.tv on August 5, with multiple webisodes to follow over the next several weeks, running concurrently, and switching back and forth between the casts. Don't touch that dial.