Downsized is a 2009 web drama. It was a 2012 Writers Guild nominee for original new media and has been celebrated in such publications as the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Fast Company and Indiewire. This essay is part of Televisual‘s “Indie TV Innovation” series.
Somehow I became a part of the first generation of web series creators.
In 2009, I had spent a few years overworking myself at the non-entertainment survival corporate gig. I worked into the nights, and weekends, and took late night cell phone calls from my supervisor. If I had foresight, I would say this was time spent “undercover,” observing the behavior within a different corporate species. But truth be told, I just appreciated a steady paycheck and a savings account with a + before the balance.
Then the economic crisis hit and people began acting especially nuts. For some the recession led to desperation and depression. For me it led to inspiration because people are pretty funny to watch when they’re doing stupid crap out of paranoia.
So, I wrote a few scenes, venting all my frustrations about how the economic crisis affected the middle and working classes in this country. The scenes ultimately became a web series called Downsized, and it was a bit drama, a bit comedy, a series of interconnected vignettes with multiple characters facing issues that were real and sad and absurd.
One common trait you find amongst early web series—authenticity. We made content that felt authentic not packaged for ROI, which made our series both successful from a critical or audience appreciation standpoint but also challenging to sell when we were ready to do so. Even the user-generated home videos have this trait, which is why people shared them. So many authentic voices have emerged from web series in the past 4 years—Michael Cyril Creighton, Tina Cesa Ward, Susan Miller, Issa Rae, Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson, Julie Ann Emery, Steve Silverman, Erin Gould, Julia Ahumada Grob, Bernie Su, Matt Enlow, Jason Leaver, Al Thompson, Blake Calhoun, Felicia Day, Lena Dunham, who made two micro-budget web series before Girls and Tiny Furniture, and so many more—I wish I could name them all! But the point is these voices are fresh, and that’s why their web series worked…and that’s also why many of those mentioned above have raised hundreds of thousands in crowd-source funding.
We took scrappy to a new level. We used whatever we had and made it look better. A Google search was sometimes the only education we needed. We could make good content and barely spend any money.
To make Downsized, I rented a camera at the cheapest rate possible, the weekend rate, which gave me two and a half days of equipment for basically the price of one. During our first shoot, we packed in scenes in six different locations from six different episodes, starting at 6:30 PM on Friday and ending at 10 PM Sunday. My cameraman, soundman and I were driven from location to location by my parents, as the three of us held lighting kits, a camera, props, and a boom on our laps. In the very last scene of that first shoot, an attorney has an encounter with his emotional office cleaning lady who can’t communicate in English, and he has an awakening of sorts about how he has completely been disregarding her as a human being. As Esra Gaffin and Chris Henry Coffey performed the scene gorgeously, I stood behind the immensely talented Chris Shimojima on camera, watching the monitor, and felt like I was having an out of body experience. How did we just make this?
Being a part of a new industry during its coming of age has been quite interesting. When I released Downsized, I didn’t have any expectations that it would have any resonance outside of my family and whoever was saved in my Gmail. I was just searching for a way to burn creative energy and experiment. When I received my very first review ever for Downsized and it was a lovely one, I cried. It was weird. I barely even got my required annual review at my job, let alone anything in the press. When I was nominated for a Writers Guild Award in 2012, I prayed I wouldn’t win because I was freaked out enough by the idea that anyone would recognize my work. I made a web series because nobody could tell me not to, and then it turned out that being the boss was my natural state. Who knew? The web series industry embraced me early, valued my contributions, listened to what I had to say, believed I could and should do more, recognized and awarded me, and for that, I feel very lucky.
I began my career in web series in 2009. It is 2013, and I’ve now worked on the indiest of indiest web shows and the networkiest of networkiest web shows. I’ve witnessed online agencies be built and then dissipate, distribution portals launch and then be abandoned, million dollar web series be made then considered successful if they broke even, a vigilant pursuit to get dollars from “branded” video. The concept of revenue splits seemed exciting until you never saw one check. It was cool to be unknown until it was better to be a celebrity.
We’ve now reached a time when people are comfortable with the fact that online content can be viewed anywhere, on any device including television, and the web is now being used not only as a platform for fresh ideas but as an alternative distribution channel to television and theaters. Monetization is now happening—through subscription, commercials, overlays, display, sponsorship, and crowd-source funding.
Still, the web can also be used in its purest form to distribute content that is meant to be shared because that content is fresh and authentic, from user uploads to interactive series to shows that speak to a specific community to content that is created specifically to fuel conversation.
As the web becomes more and more of a content marketplace as opposed to a content experimentation lab, just remember—there is an art to the share.
Daryn Strauss is a writer, producer, and director who earned a 2012 Writers Guild Award nomination for Downsized. In 2010, she created the popular blog Digital Chick TV to highlight women’s contributions in online video. She’s written guest episodes of hit series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Game Room, guest starred in Then We Got Help, served as a writer/producer of the 2012 Digitas NewFront and the Programming Director for the groundbreaking multi-platform series MAKERS from AOL and PBS, creating an online media strategy which led #MAKERSchat to be a US trend on Twitter for 6 hours with over 38,000 tweets during the “MAKERS: Women Who Make America” TV premiere in February, the largest social activation in AOL history.