Script development and the web series – an Australian perspective
Craig Batty, Marilyn Tofler, Stayci Taylor
Online viewing of Australian-made comedy content has emerged as a strong rival for Australian-made television. Screen Australia, the federal screen agency, has ploughed millions of dollars into the development of online content, mainly comedy, and this has been mirrored by state, and territory, based screen agencies and national broadcasters. Hit shows such as Superwog (2017-2018), The Katering Show (2015-2016), Bondi Hipsters (2011) and Ronny Chieng: International Student (2017) are attracting millions of viewers at home and overseas, and these figures are often many times greater than those of traditional television series. This success and international visibility raises important questions about the nature of script development, namely, why are these series performing much better with viewers? Is there something about their content that is hitting a different mark? Here, we discuss how technology, in the form of both content distribution and audience engagement, is helping Australia punch above its weight in the online comedy and drama space.
Given how much emphasis Australian broadcasters, such as the ABC and SBS, put on the web series to test content and audience reach, we might conceive of the web series as a form of development. In other words, the web series typically bypasses traditional modes of script development and industry gatekeeping by going ‘direct to the source’, and using aspects such as qualitative audience feedback (e.g., YouTube comments) and hits, likes and shares to inform commissioning decisions. This assumes, of course, that web series creators are seeking mainstream opportunities. At the same time, if the web series is considered as an entity in its own right, as in, not serving a greater purpose and taking advantage of its potential for and on the web, we might see it as a work that is always in development, continually responding to audience feedback to inform story, character, world, dialogue, etc. The web series thus plays an interesting role in the process of script development, namely positioning audiences acting as ‘gatekeepers’.
Regarding comedy, in particular, the web series offers an “experimental space filled with sharp observational humour and insightful explorations of the inconsequential moments of everyday life” (Van Schilt 2014), which may very well appeal to niche audience tastes and shifting viewing habits brought on by, and arguably exacerbated by, the potential of digital media for instant sharing and critiquing. While not without its nuances, this actively disrupts traditional practices of script development and the second-guessing of, for example, script executives and producers who have an ideal, as opposed to actual, audience in mind. As Marilyn Tofler has observed, “new and innovative methods of commissioning screen comedy” have led to a type of new “audience authority over what receives the greater share of funding” (2017, pp. 2-3).
Script Development and the Web Series
A practice central to the broader ecology of screenwriting, but which is often hidden and/or unacknowledged (Batty et al. 2017; Conor 2014), script development allows us to understand not only the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of web series creation, but also the ‘how’. As Amar Christian argues of the web series, which he has incorporated within the concept of ‘open’ or ‘networked’ television, unlike traditional film and television script development practices, the internet “is digital, on demand and peer-to-peer, meaning any participant in the web, a producer, a fan, a sponsor, can directly connect to another at any time, eliminating the need for legacy network executives” (2018, p. 13). As a form of ‘development note’, online audience reactions (likes, comments) and actions (shares, re-posts) enable web series creative teams to quickly re-write and future-proof stories, characters and dialogue.
Stayci Taylor argues that a significant way the web series has challenged entrenched practices of script development is the webisode’s resistance to standardised durations (2015, p. 5), where audiences globally can watch what they want, when they want, no longer packaged in 30, or 60, minute instalments (Brown 2011). Perhaps more direct, LA Web Fest founder Michael Ajakwe suggested that “both the newbie and the veteran can create their own shows without permission from, or the approval of, traditional electronic media networks and studios which historically served as gatekeepers” (cited in Liang 2013). To take an example from Australia, writer and director of the web series Bondi Hipsters, Connor Van Vuuren, states that within online content, “You get instant audience feedback so you get a really good sense for your audience and it causes you to make stuff that is really audience focused” (cited in Turnbull 2015).
This immediate audience feedback enables web creators to work out which aspects of their material are hitting the mark, and which aspects might need further development. As Williams argues, “More than any other medium, web series allows content creators to receive feedback from, and interact with, their viewers almost instantaneously” (2012, p. 143). Practices of script development, then, are changing. But does this also open up opportunities for different types of content? Do the affordances of ‘digital development’ enable different story types and formats?
In 2013, the Australian multi-platform comedy series, #7 Days Later, was the world’s first crowd-sourced television show, created by its online audience. Each week, the creators of the series would seek suggestions for the weekly episode’s plot, characters, title and other content, all via social media. This put the development of each episode directly in the hands of the online audience, and, in 2014, the series was recognised internationally with a Digital Emmy Award for fiction.
For comedy, in particular, which often relies on a very subjective response to gags, audience taste is paramount. Through ‘likes’, ‘dislikes’ and viewer comments, characters, storylines and dialogue can be heavily influenced. For example, a social media comment relating to The Katering Show’s ‘Thermomix’ episode states – “My wife has TWO thermomix’s and this is spot on!! she cant [sic] shut up about it to the point of being intolerable!! I shared the video and I hope this becomes an internet sensation” (The Brat Attack).
The series received millions of views, leading to a second series commissioned by Screen Australia, state funding body Film Victoria and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC); initially for ABC’s online platform, iView, Australia’s number one online television platform, and, later, ABC Television broadcast. Positive audience reinforcement, like the one above, gives creators immediate validation to continue what they are doing, and likewise, traditional broadcasters and funders a strong sense of what will attract an audience.
The Web Series as Pilot
As Tofler and Batty (2017) outlined recently in an article for Comedy Studies, the pilot has become important to Australian comedy commissioners, and, in more recent times, the web series has developed into a popular platform for showcasing (‘piloting’) new comedy talent. The web series as a form of this pilot allows ideas that are usually contained to the page to be tested out on screen, with real, not imagined, audiences. For broadcasters, this allows ideas to be tested quickly by putting the pilot in the hands of the creators. This is not without its problems, of course; it does set a dangerous precedent of free labour, where creatives have to prove themselves financially before their voices can be heard. Nevertheless, it is fast becoming a new mode of creating and disseminating a pilot.
As Script Development Executive Debbie Lee reported on the comedy pilot, it ‘makes it easy to tell whether … you think it’s a goer or not … you get a sense of the tone, you get a clearer sense of where it sits comedically’ (see Tofler and Batty 2017). For the web series pilot, then, seeing humour not just reading it helps with style, tone and delivery: ‘it is the hardest thing to get a sense of, the hardest thing to write about’. Rick Kalowski, former Head of Comedy at the ABC, spoke similarly ‘you really need to see it as fully executed as possible to get it’ (see Tofler and Batty 2017, emphasis added). The web series can both present and respond to its style in relation to audience feedback. Unlike the broadcaster-produced pilot, which may take months to air, the web series can be re-made or re-edited overnight and streamed within minutes of being completed: a rapid process of development without the need for traditional script gatekeepers.
Is shifting the onus of development onto creators and their viewers resulting in more ‘developed’ and refined screen content with ready-made audiences? Certainly, this would be very appealing to television commissioners. But for comedy creators, too, they are being empowered to develop new material and build audiences without requiring the ‘approval’ and support of the more traditional – and arguably less democratic – broadcast platforms. As Bondi Hipsters creator and star, Christian Van Vuuren (2012), has argued:
‘YouTube has been the perfect platform for … anybody in their living room to be able to gain an audience of millions of people worldwide and it’s changing traditional production. It’s changing the relationship that creators can have with networks and film companies because you can actually build your own audience online, prove that your idea works and walk into a TV network or film studio with not only scripts and treatments … but also an audience … there’s this massive opportunity … from traditional media providers and film studios and TV networks to better understand what makes good online content. [They’re] actually seeking out people’s work on the internet. It’s effectively the best way to pilot a new idea now’.
The web series is facilitating those “Shifts in the basic practices of making and distributing television” that Amanda Lotz (2014) claims are not “hastening its demise, but are redefining what we can do with television”. If creators take on board audience responses and feedback and weave these into the fabric of the content they produce, the audience as gatekeeper subverts traditional processes and structures of script development. In this way, digital technologies of production and distribution are resulting in a creator-audience relationship that lets creative content arise from the very form itself.
Note: A longer version of this article was published in the following format:
Tofler, M., Batty, C. and Taylor, S. (2019). The Web Series as a Form of Script Development: Audience as Content Gatekeeper for Australian Comedy Creators. The Australian Journal of Popular Culture, 8(1), 71-84.
List of References
Batty, C., Taylor, S., Sawtell, L. and Conor, B. (2017). Script Development: Defining the Field. Journal of Screenwriting, 8(3), 225-247.
Brown, R. (2011). Byte-sized Television: Create Your Own TV Series for the Internet. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions.
Christian, A. J. (2018). Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood and the Rise of Web Television. New York: New York University Press.
Conor, B. (2014). Screenwriting: Creative Labor and Professional Practice. Oxford, Routledge.
Liang, R. (2013). Flat3: Making a Web Series: The Kiwi Way (Interview). New Zealand Indie Film, Video and Web TV. 1 April 2013. Available at: http://viewfinder.co.nz/blog/articles/making-web-series-kiwi-way/ [accessed 7 December 2017].
Lotz, A. (2014). The Television Will Be Revolutionized (2nd edn). New York: New York University Press.
Taylor, S. (2015). It’s the Wild West Out There: Can Web Series Destablilise
Traditional Notions of Script Development? What’s This Space? Screen Practice, Audiences and Education for the Future Decade – the Refereed Proceedings of the 2015 Conference of the Australian Screen Production Education and Research Association. Available at: http://www.aspera.org.au/research/its-the-wild-west-out
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Tofler, M. (2017). Australian Made Comedy Online: Laughs, Shocks, Surprise and Anger. Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, 31(6), 820-832.
Tofler, M. and Batty, C. (2017). Not Just for Laughs: The Role of the Pilot in Commissioning Australian Television Comedy Series. Comedy Studies, 8(1), 81-92.
Tofler, M., Batty, C. and Taylor, S. (2019). The Comedy Web Series: Reshaping Australian Script Development and Commissioning Practices. Australasian Journal of Popular Culture, 8(1), 71-84.
Turnbull, M. (2015). The Van Vuuren Brothers and New Media Models. YouTube Video, 4:54 mins. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xy49P8J2YwM [accessed 1 December 2017].
Van Schilt, S. (2014). How to Talk Australians and the Rise of the Web Series. Kill Your Darlings. Available at: http://www.killyourdarlingsjournal.com/2014/10/how-talk-australians-rise-web-series/ [accessed 16 April 2017].
Van Vuuren, C. (2012). Nick Boshier and Christiaan Van Vuuren from The Bondi Hipsters. Inside Film Online, 4 Oct. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6obZiILIjE [accessed 1 December 2017].
Williams, D. (2012). Web TV Series: How to Make and Market Them. Harpenden: Kamera Books.
Professor Craig Batty is Head of Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. He is the author, co-author and editor of 15 books, including Writing for the Screen: Creative and Critical Approaches (2nd ed.) (2019), Screen Production Research: Creative Practice as a Mode of Enquiry (2018) and Screenwriters and Screenwriting: Putting Practice into Context (2014). He has also published over 60 book chapters and journals articles on the topics of screenwriting practice, screenwriting theory, creative practice research and doctoral supervision. Craig is also a screenwriter and script consultant, with experiences in short film, feature film, television and online drama.
Dr Marilyn Tofler is a screenwriter, lecturer, performer and has worked as a television, film and theatre script assessor in Melbourne and Los Angeles. Marilyn has published journal articles and book chapters on comedy television and web series, film and gender. Her PhD focused on satire screenwriting for female characters. She has performed widely in musical theatre and stand up-comedy and co-wrote and created the critically acclaimed Foxtel television comedy series, Whatever Happened to That Guy? Marilyn is a film and television lecturer at Swinburne University and is currently developing a comedy web series.
Dr Stayci Taylor is a lecturer in RMIT University’s School of Media and Communication. Her publishing and teaching interests are screenwriting, creative writing, gender, comedy and web series, and she brings to these her background as a screenwriter for film and television. She recently co-edited a special issue of the Journal of Screenwriting on script development, and is co-editing an edited collection on the topic, forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan. Her publications include articles in New Writing and Senses of Cinema. Her television credits for broadcast include nine series of an award- winning bilingual serial drama and a prime-time sitcom.
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