Melbourne WebFest kicked off in 2013 as a one day festival dedicated to web series. This year it will be a 4 day event with 1500 or more attendees.

So what is a web series?

The answer lurks somewhere between YouTube channels full of cat videos and Netflix original series like House of Cards or Stranger Things. We caught up with Melbourne WebFest Director Steinar Ellingsen to find out more.

Pictured above L-R: Steinar Ellingsen, Melbourne Webfest Festival Director and Luke Eve, Creator and Director of ‘High Life’- Web Series World Cup Winner 2017

Let’s start with how you got involved in web series

Melbourne Webfest for web series - Steinar Ellingsen, Festival Director
Steinar Ellingsen, Festival Director, Melbourne Webfest

I was doing my PhD. I knew very little about web series back then, but I made one. When I looked at entering film festivals, I discovered two or three focusing exclusively on web series.

So I entered two web festivals, both in LA. I was accepted, I went over and it was like falling down the rabbit hole.

The web series world was much larger than I thought. Plus, I met a whole bunch of Australian people over in LA. Anecdotally, Australian content was number three in terms of the number of series represented at LA WebFest.

It was obvious to me that we needed something in Australia to foster this corner of the screen production industry in our own backyard.

That’s the short version of how Melbourne Webfest came to be I suppose.

Tell us about those early days.

We announced in 2012 and had the first festival in 2013, just as funding was starting to flow.

Before 2012 web series were almost all independent and on YouTube. Audiences didn’t know the difference between a web series and a cat video.

The Guild - web series
The Guild

Some small online platforms were trying to curate web series, but they struggled to attract audiences. Only people who made web series knew they even existed.

There were certain niches which got big audiences. The Guild was the first web series for the gaming community. Creator Felicia Day was a member of that community – a niche which was already online and was hungry for content. She tapped into it very successfully.

The Horizon, Australian web series
The Horizon, Australian web series

There were a few gay series, notably an Australian one called The Horizon which started in 2009 and is still going. It’s the biggest web series ever made in Australia in terms of audience and longevity.

But outside those niches and the odd standout, web series really lacked a support structure. It was every man and woman for themselves and really hard to get ahead.

 

So what changed?

Government funding was vital. Screen Australia established the Multi-Platform Fund, (now the Online Production Fund) in 2012. That was a watershed. Within three years, funded productions grew more than 30 times. The highest budget we had in the first festival was around $75,000. Three or four series had $50,000 plus in funding. Everybody wanted to know where they got the money.

The highest budget we had in the first festival was around $75,000… Compare that to last year, when four submissions had budgets over a million bucks.

Compare that to last year, when four submissions had budgets over a million bucks. 40% were made for more than $50,000, the biggest chunk being $100-$250,000. A common model now is that people shoot one or two episodes as proof of concept, then seek funding to complete shooting and for post production.

Remember though, a web series usually has a total runtime of 90 to 120 minutes. If you think in more traditional funding terms, even a million dollars makes it like a really, really low budget movie.

What about web series quality?

Funding doesn’t just help volume, it really makes a difference to quality. Quality has grown exponentially. It would be really hard for any of the series that got selected in 2013 to be considered in 2018. People have got better at telling stories.

In the first few years people were playing around with short form narratives. A lot of the content that ended up as web series was TV rejects. “We’d like to make a TV series but no-one will fund it so let’s chop it up and put it on the web.” There’s more expertise in the industry now, more sophistication.

There’s more expertise in the industry now, more sophistication.

There are even hybrid series, scripted and shortcut for multiple screens. Something is made so that it can exist in short form; it can exist as a miniseries for TV and also as a feature film.

It’s a level of sophistication that we haven’t really seen before.

What about the creators? Do they stay in web series or do they migrate to TV and film? Is there a career path?

Some see it as a stepping stone into more traditional fields. But with more funding, more international co-productions for web series… we’re getting to a point where web series can exist in their own right, not just as a calling card.

Filmmakers want to be storytellers. They don’t necessarily want to work in only one medium. Film directors make TV and vice versa. The web series is just another medium.

What impact do you see from Netflix, Stan and online streaming TV?

If anything the streaming revolution and the new players have opened up the playing field and created more opportunities. But as a rule those platforms still focus on traditional formats. Drama is 45 minutes to an hour per episode, comedy’s 20 to 30 minutes per episode and so on.

The Katering Show - web series
The Katering Show

TV networks in Australia tend to look on their digital platforms as catch-up services for broadcast TV. SBS has dipped their toes into web series, and Channel Nine as well. But they’re still scratching their heads about how to best incorporate it in their strategy.

iView is a little different. They’ve established themselves more as a go-to destination for new content, content from up and coming people. Two years ago ABC commissioned over 100 hours of original content for iView – mainly web series. The Katering Show, for example.

Stan’s starting position was, “We won’t take anything that could exist on YouTube.” They weren’t interested in short form. In fact some of the short form series they took ended up being re-packaged as one-offs. A telemovie or a digital movie.

What’s your definition of short form?

At Melbourne WebFest we’ve capped it at 20 minutes per episode. Joel Bassaget, the man behind Web Series Mag, did some research which shows most web series have episodes shorter than 10 minutes. His data’s getting older, but it’s still the case with the new players in the field like Black Pills. They’re a French platform investing a lot of money in high-budget, high-production value short form content. Not readily available in Australia yet, but they have work in development with Australian creators, so they will come.

Is Australian web series quality still up there?

Absolutely. Bassaget also runs the Web Series World Cup. For the last 3 years he’s been tracking how web series perform at selected festivals. The 2017 winner was an Australian series – High Life by Luke Eve. Bruce, an Australian series directed by Tony Rogers of Wilfred fame, came third.

High Life web series
High Life

There’s a lot of talent. Melbourne and Sydney are the two biggest Australian cities for producing web series, but we’re getting more and more in other capital cities. Perth and Adelaide in particular. In Adelaide, the South Australian Film Corporation and the Media Resource Centre have run digital initiatives for quite some time. We’ve received work from Brisbane too, and some good stuff out of Tasmania.

What does the future hold?

Speaking generally, when we started we were just the fourth web series festival in the world. Now I’ve lost count. There’s at least 80. But so far we’re the only one in Australia. There’s talk of others, but nothing has materialised yet. For Melbourne WebFest, the future’s looking bright. We’ve grown from a one-day festival with a hundred submissions to a 4 day event with 230 submissions last year.

For Melbourne WebFest, the future’s looking bright.
We’ve grown from a one day festival with a hundred submissions to a 4 day event with 230 submissions last year.

We were a bunch of indie creators hanging out on bean bags, drinking hot chocolate and beer, watching stuff and high-fiving each other. In five years we’ve grown to an audience of 1500, Most of them regular people who come to watch stuff and meet the filmmakers. We have partners around the world and at home, including screen agencies, the ABC and the City of Melbourne.

Melbourne WebFest 2018 runs from 28 June to 1 July.

Submissions close 27 March – so if you’ve got a webseries waiting to be discovered, get your entry in now https://filmfreeway.com/MelbourneWebFest!

Preferred Media is a proud sponsor of Melbourne WebFest, continuing its ongoing commitment to service and support established and emerging media.