The rise of short form series

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

Webseries have evolved from being considered amateur content to an award-winning format with high production value and growing funding avenues. They launched careers and attracted overlooked audiences. Today, many consider the term “webseries” to be outdated and instead use “short form series”. So is this format only a stepping stone towards a career in television? Or are short form series a market of their own?

An evolving definition

“The analogy that I come back to is the idea of Off Broadway”, says Zach Feldberg, Director of Current Production, Comedy and Head of Scripted Gem Originals. “The form is less strict, perhaps, and it's not necessarily tethered to the sort of trappings of TV that have to be cut to the second because there's an ad clock, and there's a certain amount of minutes that need to be served with ads. Of course, Gem is an ad-supported platform, but the series that we put there, and only there, are free to really let the story and the sort of incredible original idea, the exciting, original vision for the idea, lead the way, and really dictate the form in a way that you just can't do on TV, because it's a totally different art form and the expectation is a lot more rigid there.”

This September, WebSeries Canada is celebrating its festival’s tenth anniversary. The nonprofit defines short form series as “a piece of content, whether scripted or unscripted, that is distributed in short episodes on one or more digital platforms”, explains WebSeries Canada President Leah Rifkin. Their definition includes “digital first as well as video content that's created with the intention of being distributed and monetized ideally on digital platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo or third party platform”. The duration of short form series episodes varies, but they are usually between 5 and 20 minutes, with some exceptions. Webseries Canada distinguishes however between webseries and user-generated content.

TOWeb Quick 00002
T.O. Webfest celebrates its tenth anniversary in 2023.

Besides its name change, the format now has more funding opportunities, slightly bigger budgets, and a continuously improving production value. “I think what we currently look at as “web series” is so much more sophisticated and so much closer to TV in a lot of cases”, says Feldberg. 

While a few years ago, the rise of short form was linked to increased mobile viewing, today audiences watch short form series on larger screens. CBC Gem views on connected TVs have grown by 40% year over year. “This is where more and more people are watching CBC, period. So our shows need to feel right in that experience, explains Feldberg. It's not as much about them having to feel right on an iPhone. I mean, they do. But we know that our audience is moving upwards, so it's really about how do you make sure these fit right alongside all the other shows we're promoting and programming for television?”

“You ideally need at least $200,000 to do a really good web series. It's tough when you're working with less than that. I will say we did it, but it's tough”

Leah Rifkin - producer and President of Webseries Canada

Improved production value is a direct consequence of increased funding avenues, according to Rifkin. Webseries are now taken more seriously in the sense that there's more funding available. A decade ago, there were only a handful of funders and it felt less of an industry was built around it”.

Rifkin, also a producer, says she recently made a short form series with a $100,000 budget: “just enough money to do it well”. “You ideally need at least $200,000 to do a really good web series. It's tough when you're working with less than that. I will say we did it, but it's tough”, she adds.

Véronique Légaré, Head of Content at TV5’s Créateurs en série, confirms an increase in budget in their program. Founded 15 years ago and previously known as Fonds TV5, Créateurs en Série funds francophone short form series across Canada. "We're more generous than ever. We've adapted to the cost. We know that while the format of the projects is short, the quality is rendered exceptional. So we've adjusted. And we're now broadcasting all our series, not just online, but on TV." To be eligible, projects need to have at minimum six episodes of six to twelve minutes each, and the total duration of the episodes combined must be equivalent to 24 minutes, which corresponds to TV5’s half-hour format. The funding program intentionally requires a duration equivalent to dividends of 24, in order to seamlessly distribute the series on the network. 

A stepping stone to TV?

Short form can be an accessible point of entry to the TV industry. Letterkenny started as a Youtube channel. Revenge of the Black Best Friend is now being developed into a series. South of the border, Awkward Black Girl launched Issa Rae’s career.

Rae’s success story inspired Aden Abebe, the creator of virgins!. Initially planning a photography project, Abebe quickly realized that scripted content would better depict the nuances and layers of the story she wanted to tell. 

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Created by Aden Abebe, virgins! is available on CBC Gem.

“I worked on writing some scripts which would be a concept trailer. We started releasing these little clips on Valentine's Day, naturally. And there was just a lot of excitement about it, so we threw a launch party. There was again a lot of excitement at that launch party. It was sold out, a very hyper packed space”, Abebe recalls.

Through Black Women Film! Canada, she got to participate in a speed networking opportunity with CBC executives. “Before then, I had no point of entry. I didn't know how I would have gotten in there. So once I got in, I stayed.”

Short form series can also benefit individuals who already have a network and experience in the screen industry. While Winnifred Jong was already working in the TV industry, she struggled to make the move from script supervisor to director. “I found after many attempts, the best way to do it is to direct my own project”, Jong says. She teamed up with a colleague, Trinni Franke, a producer who sought to gain more experience in creative producing. In 2017, through Women in the Director's Chair, they qualified for Telefilm’s Micro-budget program (now Talent To Watch), which at the time funded short forms series as well as feature films.

Their show, Tokens, caricatures the absurd idea that, as long as a show casts a racialized actor, they can be in any token role. Each episode of the first season is told from the perspective of an actor. “Even in these absurd situations, the characters still manage to make it work somehow, often not quite as they expected”, explains Franke.

TOKENS S2 OFFICIAL 6 Photo Credit Samantha Falco
Connie Wang stars in Tokens. Photo credit: Samantha Falco

TV5’s Justine à St John’s is another example of a storyline that challenges existing stereotypes in television. The series was inspired by Netflix’s Emily in Paris. Nathalie Javault, the creator of the series, is a French woman who immigrated to Montreal five years ago. After taking a scenography class, she was put in touch with Xavier Georges, an experienced producer and production designer. Georges offered her a job… in St John’s, NL. 

Years after moving to Newfoundland and Labrador, Javault drew from that culture shock experience to write her first project. "Within two days, I've had six people ask me if I've watched Emily in Paris. I'm from Paris. And every time someone tells me to watch a series set in Paris, as seen by Americans, it makes me cringe. It's americanized, it's not the real Paris, it's all wrong. At least, to me, it sounded fake. So I said to myself, "We need more authenticity". And then I said to myself, "That's it, you need the Parisian girl who comes to Saint John's. That's authenticity. She's the one who, precisely, comes from the fake and rediscovers authenticity." That's how the idea came about."

Nathalie Javault partnered with Xavier Georges, who is also the founder of Sibelle Productions!, the first francophone production company in Newfoundland and Labrador. At the time, the company focused on documentary production. They both saw this as an opportunity to showcase their talent. “Right from the start, we saw it as an opportunity for us to prove ourselves on the fiction side, says Georges. We saw it very much as an investment [in our careers].”

Whether they have experience in the field or not yet, it aspiring showrunners are able to advance their careers through short form production.

Part two explores the opportunities that short form gives to storytellers, including having more creative control and targeting niche audiences. 

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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