Short is more

This is the second part of a two-part feature on the place of short form series in the screen industry. The first part is available here.

Less money, more creative control?

Winnifred Jong and Trinni Franke, the creators of Tokens opted for short form because “getting financing for season one was challenging, explains Franke. So having it as a web series helped a lot because you're allowed to take more risks with short form that mainstream broadcasters aren't going to take, and we realized pretty quickly we had to have that proof of concept to sell the series to people. And it wasn't until we had it made that broadcasters and funders came on board. So for the second season financing, which is where the CMF kicked in, by then we had a track record.”

TOKENS S2 OFFICIAL 4 Photo Credit Samantha Falco
Still from season 2 of Tokens. Credit: Samantha Falco

The show’s success on Facebook as well as its many awards also contributed to securing a second season, distributed by levelFILM and available on the Roku Channel. “We were the very first short form content series that was nominated for an ACTRA award. So we were in competition with big shows like Kim's convenience and Workin’ Moms”, Jong adds.

“We were the very first short form content series that was nominated for an ACTRA award. So we were in competition with big shows like Kim's convenience and Workin’ Moms.”

Winnifred Jong - Creator of Tokens

Aden Abebe initially conceived virgins! as a 30-minute series. “Going down this process, I learned that webseries actually enable creators to have a lot more control and a lot more flexibility and creativity on how they want to create or produce their projects. Whereas in television and film, with more dollars and more investment comes greater risk for the financiers, and so they want to reconcile their risk by employing a showrunner employing a director that has a lot more experience which all makes a lot of sense. But for me it was important to be the steward of my own story and of my own vision, and if that meant, you know, scaling it down, I was willing to do that because I know my potential, even though they might not know my potential. I know my potential and I just needed an opportunity to show it.”

“It’s about playing the long game”, concludes Abebe. “If I did a longer format, I probably could have made more money in some areas in some respects, but I would have had less power and run the risk of my story and my vision disappearing under the leadership of other people. And I might not get this opportunity again as a writer, to get to write and sell a project and I just wanted to make sure that if I was gonna bet on myself, I was betting on myself entirely.”

On the broadcaster side, Zach Feldberg, Director of Current Production, Comedy and Head of Scripted Gem Originals, says: “We take all of our development work very seriously, no matter the budget. It's hard not to say that if a budget is much higher, and it's something that is being geared towards a TV broadcast, there are going to be more eyes on it. And there probably will be more scrutiny from that perspective, but it doesn't really change the spirit of it, which is, we really want to be as helpful and collaborative as possible.”

"I learned that webseries enable creators to have more control and more flexibility and creativity on how they want to create or produce their projects.

Aden Abebe - Creator of virgins!

Short form is also a perfect format for unique stories that wouldn’t fit in traditional TV. “The form is a little bit different, so it could take a different shape that you wouldn't necessarily see on the TV side”, says Feldberg.

“Not every genre lends itself to long formats, confirms Véronique Légaré. There are some gems that have been released in short format on our platform and elsewhere too, and I don't see how these projects could have been made in an hour. It would really have been less original”.

Targeting overlooked and niche audiences

Aden Abene’s virgins! centers around four 20-something year-old women who are “too modest for the big city, and too provocative for the East-African homes they come from”. “The community that is front and center in the show has never seen themselves ever before and has always been thirsty for it in such a strong way, explains Abebe. When I was a child, I remember going to my elementary school library and finding a book that was set in Ethiopia and had an Ethiopian boy. I was gobsmacked. I couldn't believe that this was real. I brought it home. I showed my mom, I showed my aunt. I showed my cousins. I was like, look, we're in a book. This is so exciting. That is how thirsty we are to have content that we can relate to”.

But the show also resonated with audiences outside of the East African communities. “When I made the show, I always believed that our communities, that the communities already in this show would really back it for that reason with that same energy. I wasn't certain if other communities would be equally as excited, but I had hoped. And I've been pleasantly surprised that that is the case as well, so I'm very grateful that the themes of the show resonate with so many people.”

But whose responsibility is it to find and develop audiences? Abebe’s production company has “enthusiastically taken on the responsibility of promoting the show to the maximum capacity.” Abebe and her team launched many initiatives, including in-person events and merchandise, to crowdfund and later promote the show. “My professional background is in the nonprofit sector and it has a very communal we're all in this together type of energy. And that is definitely what I've brought into the way that I've run my production.”

At CBC Gem, “the hope is that if these teams were successful in raising some financing, to help mount their own marketing campaigns, as part of the production and do that on launch, and really have that autonomy, that they would put together these campaigns in partnership with the CBC in-house marketing teams, but be free to speak to their desired audience with the authentic voice of the show”, explains Zach Feldberg.

A sustainable business model?

So is short a stepping stone towards a career in television, or is it a market of its own?

“That's the million dollar question”, says Feldberg. “I think it can be both. And the answer to the question evolves. Three years ago, there were many buyers for short term programming in the US and decent license fees. There was a bit more of a business around it. And not to say that it ended with Quibi, but that was certainly a big impact on that part of the industry because it was such a public situation and obviously didn't work out.”

Leah Rifkin, President of Webseries Canada, also agrees that it can be both a stepping stone and an industry. However she points out that “it's very rare that web series will make a profit. You'll maybe get paid for the work when you do it, If you get funded, but it’s tough like to make a profit.” Aden Abebe adds “it's really hard to build a sustainable business off of web series alone. It just feels like an immense amount of investment and you get so little back. And I need that investment to get me to a higher place.”

With over ten years of experience as a Producer prior to joining TV5, Veronique Légaré considers that it is “plausible, but not simple to achieve”. “I can imagine that it's doable, but you have to do your math. It would be constrained in terms of budget.” The difference would lie in the business structure. According to Légaré, a sole proprietorship hiring freelancers on a project-based basis could potentially work in this market. However, if it’s a company with many employees, it wouldn’t be possible to survive off of short form series only. 

Nathalie Javault doesn’t consider short form as a stepping stone. “It's not the first step, it's a step, it's something in the films and TV family. It's just as much fun to write something that's only 12 pages long, as it is to write something that's 60 pages long. I've enjoyed writing in short format, and I'd be happy to do it again.”

Justine à St. John's is Nathalie Javault's first series. Credit: Sibelle Productions

For Aden Abebe, webseries are to TV what shorts are to film. “I definitely saw this as a stepping stone [...] I needed to show that I could do it.” As the lines between formats blur, Xavier Georges hopes that creators would be able to apply episodic experience to the submission of a feature film project, and vice versa.

While there is enthusiasm for short form across the globe, the expectations of this format are unclear. There are a lot of questions and very little consensus on the place of short form in the screen industry. This month, Webseries Canada is holding an international summit to answer some of these questions, including a common definition for the format, the business model, and international distribution. The organisation invited about 30 stakeholders from Canada, Australia, Brazil, Germany, the United States and Hong Kong. Among them are festival directors, funders, policy makers, broadcasters, streamers, distributors, marketers, producers, and training organisations. A report, with recommendations to the industry, will be published following the summit.

Rime El Jadidi
Rime El Jadidi is the Associate Editor of Now & Next. She previously collaborated with Inspirit Foundation, BIPOC TV and Film, and the Black Screen Office. Rime started her career in journalism and speaks five languages.
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