There’s more drama than ever – but small-screen storytelling is not just being confined to television. DQ speaks to some of those involved in changing the way drama is made and watched.
This might be the golden age of television drama, but it’s not just the black mirror in the corner of your living room that’s getting in on the act. And while services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have changed the game in terms of the quality and quantity of drama series being produced, they’re no longer at the forefront of the digital age when it comes to storytelling.
Apps and social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are now also bringing stories to viewers in ways that open up new avenues for creative talent to thrive while further eroding memories of communal viewing and watercooler moments.
Social media giant Facebook went global last summer with its video service Watch, a year after it launched the platform in the US. It has steadily been building up its slate of programmes, produced in-house and from third parties, with half-hour drama Sorry for Your Loss arguably the biggest success so far among its 2.2 billion worldwide users. It has been renewed for a second season.
But its drama slate was originally led by Skam Austin, an English-language remake of the hit Norwegian teen series that featured characters posting short videos on Facebook as if in real time. Other dramas include Chicago-set teen series Five Points, book adaptation Sacred Lies and high school-set Turnt.
“Our approach is built on a goal to drive meaningful conversations and community, which plays to our strengths,” says Facebook head of global creative strategy Ricky Van Veen. “When it comes to any of our programming, it isn’t about strictly the talent or storyline; the driving principle is ‘what will engage our audience, create a community and inspire conversation?’”
To that end, Facebook’s goal is to create immersive experiences unique to the platform. “We have developed shows that aim to bring people together within the show pages, groups and other interactive elements,” Van Veen adds. “Advancing a show’s storyline through social posts, texts and teaser drops like with Skam Austin is not standard practice, and the fans absolutely love it.”
The original Skam’s approach of adding video clips throughout the day made it a natural fit for Mark Zuckerberg’s company, with the story also integrating with characters’ profile pages on Facebook-owned Instagram.
“Our criteria is simply ‘is this better because it is on Facebook?’” Van Veen says of the types of stories he is seeking. “The content must pass this litmus test of being exponentially better and different because of us. We strive to have shows with community potential as we aim to create new viewer experiences built on our technology and social fabric.
“With specific formats as well as tools only available on our platform, we’re seeing engagement evolve and changing the current state of content consumption. Fans have the ability to interact with the show, commenting on the episodes and telling their story, so it’s a different way of engaging.”
With a second season of Skam Austin confirmed last summer, producer XIX Entertainment’s founder Simon Fuller says he knew the series would be “perfect” for Facebook, admitting Watch was “my first call and my only call.” Since then, every part of the series has been tailor-made for Facebook.
“The main creative challenge was trying to resist changing the pace and atmosphere of a dramatic moment, even though you only have a few minutes to capture the attention of a viewer,” he explains. “We wanted to challenge the viewer to go deeper than most programme makers on other social media platforms. It was important to push the boundaries with Skam Austin. I am delighted with the results. Julie Andem, the creator, is a real genius and has an inate understanding of her audience.
“New platforms like Facebook offer many alternative ways of making shows and telling stories. It has been fascinating experimenting with shortform content and it forces you to rethink how a viewer might best engage with content in this ever-changing world.”
Photo-sharing platform Instagram launched its own video service, IGTV, in June this year. But producers are also using the app to create dramas around character profiles, uploading videos and images and utilising its ‘Stories’ feature. The most recent example was Buzzfeed’s Romeo Likes Juliet (see below). Another example is Karma (pictured top), from Finnish public broadcaster YLE.
YLE has a history with new forms of storytelling, experimenting with transmedia formats on its own streaming platform, Areena. In Karma, it created a story about three young women living together and sharing their lives and their secrets via Instagram. Using only mobile phones, shooting was completed in just three days. This resulted in a trio of episodes ranging from five to 15 minutes long, all broadcast via Stories, which allow users to upload multiple video clips and images that then disappear after 24 hours.
“The content was 100% mobile, both done by mobile and used by mobile. The nature of the media itself was interactive and the content was easy to share. It was an event,” says executive producer Hyppe Salmi. “On the other hand, we had to deal with the vertical picture and quite a small screen, while the content was available only for 24 hours, so we had to reach the audience very fast. Maybe the most important thing is there was no kind of post production.”
Salmi is now working on new Instagram dramas Goals, about eight young people connected by a swimming team, and Nofilter, about the secret lives of several social media influencers.
“New forms of drama and platforms will not override but enrich the traditional drama,” she adds. “You have more freedom with online content that is not restricted by channels, slots or even the length of the story. The production is faster, more flexible and less expensive. The audience is hard to find but the audience is out there in the online world. You just have to combine the right pieces: the storytelling, the platform and the target audience.”
Meanwhile, in October, multimedia messaging app Snapchat announced Snap Originals and the debut of serialised dramas on the service. They include crime drama Class of Lies, supernatural soap The Dead Girls Detective Agency and horror anthology V/H/S.
Before then, mobile-first content studio Vertical Networks produced murder-mystery drama Solve. Each episode is based on a true crime case, with viewers adopting the role of the detective tasked with reviewing the evidence and solving the murder.
“We believe in a movement towards context-aware programming, where stories are shaped in relation to the platforms on which they sit and the content, behaviours and windows of time they sit alongside,” says Vertical Networks CEO Tom Wright. “Catching somebody’s attention has never been easier, but turning this casual curiosity into deep and committed engagement has never been harder.
He says if producers want to engage with Gen Z or millennial audiences, Snapchat “is currently the only relevant platform for serving short- and mid-form premium content to audiences who care.”
But the rise of app dramas doesn’t mean the end of another often-overlooked medium – shortform web series. With former DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg’s latest venture, NewTV, attracting more than US$1bn in its initial funding round earlier this year, it’s an original drama space that looks set to grow and grow.
Adaptive Studios has produced several series for streaming service Blackpills, including crime drama Pineapple, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and Simi Valley, about a high-school student who starts a drug courier business.
“It’s a very exciting and invigorating time creatively because there are no rules to follow and you’re really going with great story, great vision and the creative experimentation of trying to do something that’s never been done before,” says Adaptive co-founder and CEO Perrin Chiles.
Fellow co-founder TJ Barrack likens the business to what Miramax (Reservoir Dogs, Clerks) was doing in the film industry in the 1990s when it experimented with a group of young directors. “It’s very difficult for a young director or writer to piece together a couple of million dollars to go try to do something,” he says. “In shortform, you can do it for a lot less and we’ve found that creators are really energised.”
With Netflix releasing an interactive episode of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror at the end of last year, this type of choose-your-own-adventure storytelling is also an area of evolution that also excites Adaptive, having previously produced projects for augmented-reality platform Eko. “It’s still early days in terms of people’s comfort level from an executive side of things, but we love the idea of multiple narratives,” Perrin says. “Anything that’s world-building, we absolutely love. We’re certainly developing a few of our own series with that multiple-narrative opportunity in mind.”
Elsewhere, launching in April last year, shortform drama Homecoming Queens was the first commission for Australia’s SBS On Demand. Produced by Generator Pictures, the seven-episode series stars Michelle Law as a fictionalised version of herself who returns to her home town after being diagnosed with alopecia. Her best friend, played by Liv Hewson, is recovering from breast cancer and is determined to make up for lost time. Law co-created and co-wrote the series alongside Chloë Reeson, with Corrie Chen as director.
“I feel like we were all really reaching for something better than everyone thinks a web series can be,” says Generator producer Katia Nizic. “We thought the advantage of shortform would be less control from a broadcaster, but that didn’t turn out to be the case at all – they were very interested in making this the best it could be. That focuses you into the constraints of what you can do in the time you have and really makes sure everything you put in is essential to the story.”
Having enjoyed the creative opportunities afforded to Homecoming Queens, Nizic says this is the type of television she wants to make in the future. “It’s got very little to do with length; it’s got to do with the creative risks. Whether that’s a 30-second, 10-part series or not, it just depends on what you’re trying to say with it,” she says. “I really think that’s where TV is going – not something that’s scheduled at all. When’s the last time you sat down to watch something at the time it was premiering?”
Melbourne-based Princess Pictures is behind another Australian shortform series, Wrong Kind of Black, a period drama retelling the real-life story of Boori Monty Pryor and his brother Paul and the struggle facing Aboriginal culture in the 1960s and 1970s. The four-part series is available on ABC iview.
“We gravitate to projects that do or see things differently and that seek to connect with both the hearts and minds of the audience,” says producer Andrea Denholm. “We aspire to be entertaining, thought-provoking and to make people feel something. We are constantly looking for stories that reflect social diversity and support social inclusion, and we champion diversity on and off screen.”
Production of the period drama involved marrying a low budget with high ambitions, as well as filming in two locations and depicting two time periods. “Fortunately, the project attracted an incredibly talented and enthusiastic cast and crew who went way beyond the call of duty because they cared deeply about the project and knew this was an important story,” says Princess commercial director Emma Fitzsimons. “Working out the best way to do justice to Boori’s story and to capture his unique perspective took a great deal hard work, collaboration and goodwill from everyone involved. It highlighted the importance of development funding and the benefits of supportive partners and creative flexibility.”
Denholm says that in an era when time is at a premium and content is accessible anywhere, shortform drama is “creating its own special place in the fabric of society. Platforms that highlight shortform, such as ABC iview, are increasing in relevance.” However, she adds: “It remains to be seen whether shortform drama will break into the mainstream, but it naturally lends itself to being watched on mobile devices in short bursts. So if the content is engaging, there should be opportunities to grow the audience.”
It all means that while writers and directors are moving beyond television to bring their stories to the screen, the death of traditional TV schedules and overnight ratings just moved one step closer.