City 17

I apologize in advance about the rant-y nature of this post.

I’ll go ahead and say it: I’m tired of viral videos. I really am. Not viral videos in general, though. I’m tired of the weekly recycled “awesome fan made x trailer/short film” (x being some property like Doom, Batman, AntMan or what have you). This is a conclusion I’ve reached recently, and it’s caused me to look at online video in an entirely new light, like getting a bucket of cold Fortress of Solitude ice water thrown on my face: for the most part, viral videos have turned into a derivative pile of predictable drivel.

For years now, the Web has been heralded as some kind of wide open landscape ripe with potential for creative types to find a home for their exciting and original content. At times, we’ve seen just that: people that become a unique force in a way they might not have outside the tubes, whether they are comic artists, Web show creators or video game reviewers. But is the Web actually living up to this promise, or are we making backwards progress?

Allow me to back up a few steps. A couple of months ago, I first bemoaned this idea that content creators need to make their own crap. The short version of that diatribe is this: spend more of your creative energy working on something that belongs to you, and use something derivative to supplement it with an audience — not the other way around. The primary problem with that idea, however, is that the content that goes viral is almost never original. Because the masses are so keen to devour any fan-made derivative work, content creators feel behooved to produce it in order to get as many eyes on their work as possible. This is a naturally understandable dilemma, but there is naught but fruit of fruitlessness on that tree. Trust me, I’ve climbed those woeful branches.

You can make all the clever little viral videos you want, but ultimately, if you want to make a living doing the thing you love, you have to be able to sell it. Sure, some of these content creators are just making this stuff for fun, and I’m totally fine with that side of the coin. But as I said, if you want to earn a living, you’ve got to make something you can sell. And I’m sorry, but no matter how well produced it is, you can’t sell your home drawn Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon to anybody, because frankly, it isn’t yours. There are always exceptions, and some that have moved on and found work because of that viral success, but that’s typically not the case.

Modern Warfare 2In recent weeks, I’ve seen this trend become more and more pronounced. First there was the Modern Warfare 2 fan film. Well produced and entertaining, but could have just as easily been an original action sequence with the removal of one ski mask. Then there was the fan made Batman film that cost close to $30,000 big ones. Once again, I admire the effort and liked what I saw, but honestly, it didn’t add anything new to a franchise that is alive and kicking. With $30,000 dollars, you could have made your own movie, with your own story — and it would belong completely to you and not Warner Brothers or DC. That’s not even getting into the Beyond Black Mesa fan-made trailer, which clearly had skill behind it and some CG modeling, but a few tweaks and their own models could have produced an awesome original sci-fi short.

I am not begrudging any of these creators, who are clearly smart and excel at their crafts. But why do we as viewers not demand more from our content? The closest online equivalent to these productions is fan fiction. Yes, well written fan fiction, but fan fiction nonetheless, and I don’t see people scrambling to pass that around to each other. As good as each of these videos happens to be, we are still gobbling up second hand interpretations of properties that we love when we could just as easily be watching an entirely new concept that each of these individuals birthed all by their lonesome. I’m actually surprised that people are still amazed each week by fan made thing x. It’s all old hat by now. To me, even last week’s Old Spice ads, which are commercials, are far more interesting than any other viral content we’ve seen in months, partly because they weren’t the same tired fan fiction, but also because the dude was in a towel. It’s probably mostly the towel.

Aside from the towel, I’m now back to the original issue: why isn’t there more original content going viral? There are only two possible explanations, or one complicated one that encapsulates both:

  • People aren’t making original content
  • People aren’t watching original content

We know that the first one is untrue, if only partially so. There are plenty of Web shorts and series out there that are original to their creators, and that are done well. The problem is, hardly any of these things have the sizable audiences that viral videos gather (of course there are exceptions). I constantly see people saying that they think the Web can ultimately replace TV, especially when you have networks like Revision3 and others putting out consistent (and good) content week after week. But when it comes to scripted and well produced material that is ongoing and weekly, it’s almost impossible to do without a budget, which requires sponsorship. And sponsorship is hard to gather without views. And views are hard to get unless your series piggybacks on something established. See what I’m getting at?

I’ll state it more simply: until viewers put their collective weight behind original blood, sweat and tears productions, online video will stagnate. Currently, online video mostly exists in two forms: video podcasts, or fan-made short films based on their favorite properties. There’s very little in-between there. And the series that do exist in that middle region are usually fairly simple to produce comedies or dramas, with little to no special effects and storylines that aren’t exactly shooting for the moon. That’s not to say that they are bad by any means, many are good — but even the best ideas and talent can be hamstrung by budget and limited resources.

Panic AttackYou know what I’d like to see? I’d like to see awesome sci-fi or fantasy adventures released weekly on the Web. I want to see the kinds of shows that would never find a home on a major network produced solely for the Internet with no restraints, worries about ratings and with some sizable resources to pull off new worlds and fantastic sweeping storylines. I want to see talented artists finding the support and the sponsorship that will allow them to make this heralded Wild West of content into a reality. I know a few shows like this already exist, but not in the plenitude that is possible; that only happens when we start demanding it and start watching it.

The really exciting thing is that this is a reachable goal. Filmmakers have more access to high-end production tools and equipment than ever before. I think part of the fascination with well made fan content is that people underestimate just how easy it is to achieve high production values these days. Even just a few years ago, home grown filmmaking was an entirely different animal, but now creators can produce something that looks like it belongs on the big screen without spending as much as they would on a Honda Civic. Thus, when something came out on the Web just a few years ago and had some of your favorite comic book or video game characters in it, and actually looked like it was worth a damn production-wise, it was easy to make a splash. But these days, those tools are so readily available to people that decent production values should no longer be a free pass.

So here’s what needs to happen. Online video consumers should find and support original content. Go out and search for the kind of things that you would like to see more of, and watch it. Give money to it, do whatever you have to do to help see these kinds of things come to life.

And for other content producers, I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone how to spend their time, or begrudge them for how they choose to currently spend it. I know that there is a lot of pressure to succumb to the current lure of making derivative content. It will ultimately pull in more views and it seems like the easy way to gather an audience. But I also know from experience that these people are coming to you because they like the property you’re basing it off of, not for the things you want to make in the future. This is the difference between a fan and a viewer, and it’s subtle but terribly important. Sure, some of them will stay around for the long haul, but the vast majority will go to whoever else is making the expensive fan fiction next. Some people have found success the other way, but those are typically exceptions.

I think between the two of those things, the cycle can be broken. I know it sounds cheesy, but I truly believe that if people put their viewing muscle behind original content creators, those creators can then get the resources they need to produce the new and exciting stuff we’ve only dreamed of seeing on the Web before. Maybe if we start doing that, the next thing that goes viral will be the pilot of a brand new sci-fi or epic Web show, rather than re-done material we’ve seen time and time again.

One can only dream, right?

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