Television matured by coaxing workers away from the Hollywood film system and onto the small screen. Today even smaller screens are enticing writers and producers looking for new opportunities, more innovation and less bureaucracy.
That’s certainly true of the creative team behind MTV’s mobile and web series, Valemont, whose co-creator Brent Friedman and writer/director Christian Taylor have roughly three decades of film and television experience between them. Last week Valemont pulled in six nominations at the second annual Streamy Awards, which honors original Web video. Valemont’s nods included best writing and best drama series, joining such series as The Bannen Way and The Guild.
For Taylor, whose past credits include Lost, Six Feet Under and an Oscar nomination for his short film The Lady in Waiting, writing for new media was far from easy.
“It ended up being quite a mammoth undertaking,” Taylor said. “It’s much harder than people think.”
Valemont, which was sponsored by Verizon, came with a unique set of challenges. The teen-oriented vampire series first aired during commercial breaks on MTV, then moved online, all while incorporating content for cell phones and Twitter, which was written by an alternate reality game designer/writer, Nina Bargiel. For Taylor, this meant the first part of the series needed to deliver constant cliffhangers, at a brisk pace with easily identifiable characters. It had to be simple and bracing for the Web, but sophisticated and steady enough to work as a film or television show if MTV wanted to re-cut it for DVDs or a TV pilot.
“It had to be very condensed storytelling,” Taylor said. “But I didn’t want to do any sort of cheesy product. The standard had to be high.”
Throughout his career, Taylor has worked on numerous shows and films with “twists,” like Lost, but for Valemont, he didn’t want to write plot shifts “just for the sake of it.” To do this, he allowed the narrative to shift based on perceptions of various characters, whose identities would transform from good to bad and back again based on new information.
“It’s an easy way of making it a little bit exciting without these huge action sequences,” he said. “It’s a spy/French resistance, wartime-type storyline.”
Ultimately, Valemont remixes several genres familiar to most media-savvy viewers. It tweaks the vampire mythology by placing it on a college campus, with fraternity houses representing various high school archetypes – jocks, cool kids, etc. With a target audience of teen girls, Taylor needed to present “clichés in non-cliché ways, because you don’t have a lot of time.” This included an attractive but tough, “take charge” protagonist in Sophie Gracen, who was an edgy but relatable heroine.
Valemont also tried to excite users through auxiliary content on its website, various Twitter accounts for characters and a Facebook page, which allowed fans to “pledge” Valemont University’s various fraternities, each one based on simple, young adult stereotypes: artsy, athletic, hip and nerdy. Fans could then interact directly with the characters and college houses through Twitter.
“I was really hoping that it would draw them into the story and not only make them fans, but participants,” said Bargiel, who tweeted as all the characters. “Watching a show is pretty passive, and for those first six weeks, we were essentially airing 4-5 minutes of content a week. That’s not a ton of content, so I needed to keep them active and engaged.”
The producers of Valemont are still in talks with MTV for a second season. The 2010 Streamy Awards will be broadcast on April 11.