Tag Archives: New Form Digital

Out in the Cold

Writer/director Emily Diana Ruth tells DQ about her digital drama Cold, which is being screened as part of the Drama Series Days at the European Film Market.

A 16-year-old girl is at the centre of a tragic family mystery in Cold, a digital drama being screened at this year’s European Film Market in Berlin.

Emily Diana Ruth

The 10×12’ thriller stars Annalise Basso (pictured top) as Isla Wallis, who discovers her real father is in prison for killing the mother she never knew. Furious at this revelation, she runs away to the mining town where she was born, only to learn of a series of horrific murders that may be linked to her mother’s death.

With the help of her friend Isla, she begins to uncover the truth behind these brutal crimes. But when she is left for dead in the sub-zero wilderness, she faces a battle to survive long enough to expose a dark secret that will shatter an entire town.

The cast also includes Todd Lowe, Jim True-Frost and Marcus Johns.

Produced by New Form Digital and distributed globally by Keshet International, the series made its debut in the US on Verizon’s Go90 platform in October 2016. Keshet is screening it this week as part of the European Film Market’s Drama Series Days 2017.

Here, creator Emily Diana Ruth tells DQ about the origins of the series, how Go90 picked it up and why the its setting was key to the story’s success.

How would you describe Cold and what’s the main story?
Cold is the story of Isla, an adopted teenager who seeks out a face-to-face meeting with her birth father when she discovers that he is still alive – and in prison serving a life sentence for the murder of her mother. When she makes it to the small northern town where she was meant to grow up, she begins to question the validity of that verdict and starts unravelling a mystery that remained buried for the last decade.

What were the origins of the project?
I was given the opportunity a couple of years ago to pitch a project for New Form Digital’s second Incubator series. It was supposed to be an idea that could exist as a standalone short film but the storyline could be extrapolated for a series as well. I’ve always loved mysteries and wanted to get a chance to try that but also to create something that worked as a coming-of-age story. We made the short on a modest budget in my hometown with a bunch of my friends and family. It was a great chance to explore character and a tone before making the series.

Cold centres on a 16-year-old girl who discovers the shocking truth about her parents

When did Verizon’s go90 become involved and how did the demands of the platform change the show’s development?
I found out Verizon had given the show a series order a couple of months after it was made live on YouTube. I was thrilled but naturally a bit terrified of what was to come, knowing that all projects like this have many obstacles and not knowing what exactly they would be, having not worked on a project of this size and budget before. Making this into a series that would be rolling out week by week was the biggest challenge about this platform – it was necessary to make every episode end on somewhat of a cliffhanger to keep people coming back the next week.

How did you juggle writing, producing and directing duties?
Luckily the only job I had to do entirely on my own was the directing – I had several writers I worked with, and although I have a producer credit, I also worked with three producers who had their own team so I never had to wear too many hats.

The Wire’s Jim True-Fost is among Cold’s supporting cast

Where was the show filmed and how did you use locations to tell the story?
We filmed the show in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. I knew the location would be key in providing context for what kind of place these characters lived in and how it formed their identity. I wanted to be as true to rural Ontario life as possible, so it was important for me to shoot there. We also shot all of our reserve scenes on an actual reserve in the greater Sudbury area. This was a location that I was hell-bent on showing as authentically as possible, so we were pleased they allowed us to use their land. We also used a lot of shots of the wide sprawling woods and frozen lakes in the area to give a sense of how middle-of-nowhere this town was.

Who are the key members of the cast and how did you collaborate with them to bring their characters to life?
I got to work with an exceptional cast and I am so thankful for that. Our lead, Annalise Basso, was talented and professional beyond her years and really came through to help bring her character to life, despite very fast-moving days. Getting to work with seasoned actors like Jim True-Frost and Todd Lowe was also so exciting and I learned so much from them. I admit I was intimidated to be directing them but they were both lovely and treated me so respectfully.
Marcus Johns and Kawannahere Devery Jacobs rounded out the rest of the key cast. Marcus was somewhat new to acting on this scale but was really fun to work with and nailed his performance. I was thrilled that I was able to work with Devery, since she was always who I pictured as her character, Tina. She’s such a badass character and getting to see Tina and Isla’s friendship blossom on screen was my favourite.
Because we were filming so remotely and could only bring actors up for a limited time, our rehearsals were very brief and mostly consisted of talking though the material and the characters, and seeing what things in our personal lives we could draw upon for certain scenes. I always like to be very collaborative with my cast and invite them to bring their own versions of the character into the mix.

The show debuted on Verizon’s Go90 platform late last year

What were the biggest challenges during production and how did you overcome them?
Easily the biggest challenge was lack of time, which is often the case on these kinds of projects. We had a set number of shoot days despite an ever-more complex script. This meant our days were very packed and we had to constantly move very fast. We overcame this, or tried to, by simplifying our setups, being as economical as possible with our shot list and keeping everyone in good spirits. My assistant director Jeremy Doiron helped immeasurably with this – despite having the hardest job, he was always in a positive mood and helped me and my director of photography to lead our teams to get things done well and in time.

What are you working on next? Could Cold have a sequel or perhaps transition into a longer-running series elsewhere?
I would love to get a chance for a sequel or to make Cold into a TV show or even a film. I think most directors are never totally satisfied with their work and will usually jump at a chance to give it another swing. I love the Cold world and know I could do so much more with it. Right now I’m working on lining up my next digital project as well as writing the screenplay of what I hope will be my first feature.

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Is web the way forward?

Plenty of people are tuning into web series, but can digital ever replace television? As part of DQ’s Digital Drama Season, three industry insiders give their thoughts on the future of online drama.

Once derided for their poor production values, web series are now finding fans – and legitimacy – in the wider television landscape. Whether they are a source of new talent or offer creators a way to experiment with new characters or stories, the quality of many online series now rivals shows seen on broadcast and cable networks around the world.

But what are the challenges facing creators and producers online, and how can they turn a seven-minute clip into must-see viewing?

Earlier this year at industry meet-up MipTV, Kathleen Grace, chief creative officer at New Form Digital; Anne Santa Maria, a producer from France’s Taronja Prod; and Sam Toles, head of global content and distribution at Vimeo, discussed the potential of web series and whether they can ever overtake their terrestrial siblings.

Kathleen Grace
Kathleen Grace

Do you believe web series will be or can be the nouvelle vague in fiction?
KG: Definitely. In terms of production right now, people are shooting with smaller and faster cameras and there is definitely guerrilla shooting in many ways. But I also think about how audiences are discovering it and seeing it – it’s very different from traditional TV and film. A lot is based on your social media feed and the influence that algorithm programming has on your content. That changes how you produce and how you get your content marketed and discovered.

ST: The lines between web content and traditional content are blurring and we’re at the very beginning of something that’s a completely different paradigm in the content business. Traditionally, content is produced by a creator and then given over to a distribution network, whether that’s a channel, a distributor or some third party that then transmits it to the audience. What’s most interesting about digital is actually those three worlds have combined – the creator, the audience and the platform. If you don’t have punch points between the audience and the creator, where they feel an actual relationship or kinship with the person producing the content, the content will not be authentic and it will not be successful. That doesn’t matter if it’s in an ad context or a premium context. People wish to feel in this new social media world that they are connected personally with people who are delivering them content – and since they have infinite choice, the closer that personal connection, the more successful that content will be.

High Maintenance
High Maintenance airs on Vimeo

Do you think web series are only for young audiences, or can they compete for a larger audience or older demographics?
KG: Every morning, I spend the first 30 minutes of my day in bed consuming online video, through my Facebook feed, my Twitter feed and my email. And I don’t think I’m alone in my demographic in that; a lot of people do it, and a lot of people consume a ton of video on their phones. Do older demographics have a connection with YouTube talent or some other talent that the younger demographics do? No, but my sister-in-law is 42 and she’s obsessed with Horace and Pete[Louis CK’s web series, pictured top] – so it’s just about finding the passionate fans.

ST: YouTube’s white-hot core is the 13- to 14-year-old female demographic. Our platform [Vimeo] actually skews a little bit older. The average age is around 33 and is more heavily male. If you look at the kind of web series we’re producing, High Maintenance, for example, is the story of a marijuana dealer who deals with quirky New Yorkers and their eccentricities, and it’s somewhat X-rated. That was our first original programme and it’s now gone onto HBO.

Anne Santa-Maria
Anne Santa Maria

ASM: There’s a greater and greater appetite for fiction and I think the big audience for broadcast traditional content are older than 50 years old, at least in France. It started with YouTube for younger audiences but our job is to make them curious about new narratives and their taste for fiction in general.

Do web series provide a world where anything is possible?
ST: It depends. If you’re making content for advertisers, there is no freedom. If you’re selling soap, toothpaste or Coca-Cola, you’ve got to conform to the norms of those brands and the brands [in the web space] are less progressive in many ways than they are in the linear world. For us as an ad-free platform, we are 100% about total creative freedom. You have to know where the funding is coming from and what that universe looks like – and when you’re dealing with advertisers and ad-supported platforms, that freedom can be limited.

KG: If High Maintenance had been put out on YouTube, it would have been flagged incessantly by the community and taken down. So there’s lots of creative freedom. You don’t have people giving notes but you always are going to get an active voice from your audience online and they are going to tell you when they think you suck – very loudly, with lots of feeling, over and over again.

Are web series only an extension of the television landscape, or can they have an impact on TV itself?
ASM: Public broadcasters in France had the curiosity to explore what’s on the web and decided they had to be a part of it. So television is curious about how you make web series, how you get viewers and increase viewing numbers. They’re also aware that the market is more competitive than ever and new platforms are coming up, so they realise they have to be part of the new agenda and this is how they have to be. It’s a great challenge for them.

ST: It’s actually the opposite – is television relevant in an era of web series and web content? I watch broadcasters jump into ‘online’ and what they do is offer extra footage from a reality show – ‘tune in for the stuff that wasn’t good enough to put on television’ – that’s the mentality. It doesn’t feel natural.

The Outs
The Outs focuses on gay life in New York

What could go wrong? Do web series have a highway to success, or are there obstacles on the road?
ST: The biggest challenge is monetisation. Ad monetisation and the nature of pre-roll [advertising] is rapidly coming to an end. The reason shows are 22 minutes long [in television] is because linear channels had to programme slots and advertising. That has been torn away. We’re still trying to serve pre-roll advertising in a digital context and it becomes less and less effective, in the same way advertising itself in television is becoming less effective. Producers have got to figure out how to generate income to continue making their businesses work and to grow and ultimately yield return to the people investing in them. That is not an easy thing. I applaud anyone who has jumped into this world and is creating content for the digital medium because margins are tight and the content has to be produced on ridiculously low budgets – yet I still look at a show like Oscars or High Maintenance or The Outs and the quality is equal to or better than what you find on television. More importantly, it’s more interesting, it’s more dynamic and it will be the future. We just have to figure out how we make more money with it.

KG: The biggest challenge is we don’t know how to find a hit yet. What’s a hit when the world’s biggest YouTube personality has 47 million subscribers and nobody knows who he is and every 13-year-old boy is obsessed with him? It’s really hard to define a hit when audiences are so fragmented. Once we define a hit, monetisation will be much easier. You can be incredibly popular on Vimeo, you can be incredibly popular on these platforms and still feel like no-one knows who you are, even though you’re creatively successful and in some cases financially successful, you don’t feel like you have a hit. And it’s going to get tougher and tougher. There are lots of great shows on Netflix that people don’t watch.

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