UPDATE (11/29): MTV screened Valemont today at 6PM and the series is in talks for a possible second season produced for television.
ORIGINAL: I’ve been very busy with researching, freelancing, curating, etc. and really I haven’t had much time to sit down and enjoy any of the media I study. With that, instead of going to bed at a decent hour tonight, I opted to get caught up on MTV and Electric Farm Entertainment’s Valemont, which I’d written about for BusinessWeek last month. Turns out there’s a simple method to Electric Farm’s success: they know how to tell a good story. (The company has a record most web series producers would envy: Afterworld, Gemini Division, and Woke Up Dead were all pretty largescale productions by web show standards and each a hit in its own right.)
Valemont is a fascinating beast of a web series, because it’s got so much going on! During October, webisodes aired next to The Hills and The City, and those episodes were also posted online. Now it’s completing its run online at MTV.com. The faux university has a website, with an interactive, online Verizon phone. There’s Facebook, where fans are posting playful photos and rushing the university’s fraternity/sorority-type houses (I’m Serpentes, natch). There are the forums, necessary for any show today, where fans have already started to write out complex theories I still don’t understand and “rush” the fraternities within the show. There are Twitter accounts, voiced by Nina Bargiel, at least seven representing major characters, but there are others. If you have a Verizon phone, of course, there’s more content (I have Sprint). There are also regular chats between fans (follow the Tweeps to find out more). A handful of fans have posted fan fiction vlogs. And you can rate Valemont professors.
Whew! None of this is unprecedented, of course. There are so many fan cultures out there — from Potter fans, to Twilight fans, and still active Star Trek fans, and on and on — that many of these communities are so developed they exist on nearly every kind of site and platform possible. Yet for all this to spring up within one month? Maybe I’m just a novice. It makes for a dizzying and exciting experience, especially if you have what I used to know as “time,” but now know as me running around Philadelphia from meeting to class to deadline to meeting.
This is what marketers call “sticky” content, a way to get viewers passionate and hooked on media in an age where companies are finding it hard to grab anyone’s attention for long, especially someone under the age of 30. “Sticky” as a strategy is still being debated, with some arguing for different ideals, notably “spreadability.”
Nonetheless all the sites in Valemont‘s content universe, meant to get your blood flowing, are there by design. “I want as a viewer to be totally engaged, to be pulled down the rabbit hole…I want webisodes to be the tendrils that pull me in…That’s what interesting to me. If I’m going to keep doing it, that’s what I’m going to need to do,” Electric Farm’s Brent Friedman told me about his vision of weaving complex narratives for viewers.
Yes, the narrative, the good stuff.
Valemont takes place at an elite university of the same name, where girl-next-door Sophie Gracen tries to uncover the truth behind her brother’s mysterious death, Eric, a student at the university. In a nod to the series’ benefactor, Gracen uses her brother’s Verizon phone to uncover parts of his life and navigate the suspicious school to find his murderer.
Valemont spins a sturdy yarn, but the series starts at a disadvantage because of all the vampire stories coming out now, at a pace that even bewilders me. Still, amidst the glut, Valemont distinguishes itself by tweaking some of the conventions we see in True Blood, Twilight and the Vampire Diaries. The university concept is novel, as is the constant flipping of who’s good, bad and suspect (most of the vampire media I’ve seen makes it very clear early on who you’re supposed to identify with).
Within Friedman’s three minute episodes, Friedman writer Christian Taylor packs in as much action and scenes as is comprehensible. There are few dull moments. Many web series producers fail to realize this: not all 5-minute intervals feel the same. Just because an episode is 5 minutes, or 3 minutes, doesn’t mean it goes by quickly. All the rules of good filmmaking and storytelling still apply, and may even be more important.
This week, we enter the final stages of the narrative. (Spoiler alert!) Sophie is now, we know, a vampire; her assumed dead brother is alive and one too; our once helpful (and increasingly attractive) aide Gabriel is not so nice anymore, and maybe out of commission. Where is the story headed now? All the major questions posed at the beginning have been answered.
What’s left? Quite a bit of new questions. What about Sophie and Eric’s father; what happened to him? What happened to Desmodus (linked to their unmentioned mother?)? Will Poppy pull out a surprise and shock us all or is she really just comic relief? Professor Blunt is in on the game, but does he have anything at stake we don’t know about yet? Will Valemont University survive — it seems like, as viewers, we want it to now — or will Sophie flip out like a newly minted vampiress and shut the whole place down? Is Sebastian the Edward Cullen to Sophie’s Bella Swan, or the Eric Northman to her Sookie Stackiehouse, or neither (likely that)? Is Queen Beatrice due the vengeful rampage of a woman scorned? Who in this matrix of shifting personalities and identities do we trust?
I’m curious. For someone watching a vampire story circa October 2009, that’s a remarkable thing.
It doesn’t take long to watch all the episodes (here), so you might as well! And as for the transmedia extravaganza, you can wade in as deep or stay as shallow as you like.