Cultural Interview: producer Chris Moore on designing Starz’s The Chair

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Starz’s The Chair—which debuts on September 6 at 11/10c—is both a documentary reality series and a competition, so one might be tempted to refer to it as a reality competition series. However, at its core The Chair—which chronicles two filmmakers, Shane Dawson and Anna Martemucci, as they each make their own movie based on the same script with the winner earning $250,000—is a filmmaking experiment, similar to producer Chris Moore’s earlier—and soon to be revived, without Moore—series Project Greenlight. The difference is that instead of having a competition to select the filmmakers involved, Moore hand-selected his filmmakers to create the most interesting competition for the documentary, and to develop the movies with the best chance of succeeding as low-budget independent features.

I spoke with Moore about how he went about developing the series, the decision to turn this into a formal competition (rather than just a filmmaking experiment), and how his experience with the series has evolved as the experiment continues into distribution and promotion.

Cultural Learnings: From a “casting” perspective, were you ever considering other options, or did you land on Anna and Shane fairly early?

Chris Moore, Executive Producer, The Chair: I did have a list, although I will take a little bit of issue with the term “casting.” The biggest issue with this—and when we did Project Greenlight years ago—was that we need people to want to see the movies. And The Chair was not designed to be a first-time director thing, so some of the other people on the list were experienced directors, or second- or third-time directors. And I couldn’t talk any of them into it because of the competition nature, and because of the super low-budget nature. And the hardest part of it was that I had to raise all the money independently because people were like “I get the documentary, that’s genius, and I think the idea of two directors making the same script is awesome too, I would watch it.” The thing that I couldn’t get is movie companies, because they would say to me “Dude, how are we going to get our money back on two movies? It’s hard enough getting people to go see one movie, how are they going to go see two?”

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Cultural Interview: PBS Digital Studios’ Frankenstein M.D. [Part Two]

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The relationship between Pemberley Digital and PBS Digital Studios—the two producers behind Frankenstein M.D.—makes a lot of sense to those familiar with both parties involved: both have taken their respective “projects” as creators and translated them for an online audience, taking advantage of the affordances of platforms like YouTube to create content that connects with those consuming content outside of “traditional” spaces of distribution. In this way, the idea of combining the former’s literary webseries development with the latter’s investment in creating STEM-related content on digital platforms with an adaptation of Frankenstein makes perfect sense to those following along.

At the same time, however, their inherent philosophical compatibility must nonetheless negotiate the fact those philosophies have been heading toward two different goals: whereas Pemberley Digital has been developing web franchises that can be spun off into ancillary projects like books or merchandise, PBS Digital Studios remains bounded within the logics of public television where its primary goal is serving the public interest.

And so while web content has proved a valuable tool to both producers within the contemporary web video environment, building connections with audiences from both profit and non-profit perspectives, the convergence of these two companies nonetheless requires each to adapt accordingly. Whereas unscripted YouTube content related to science and culture showcases PBS translating its interest in documentary programming into a more web-friendly format, how does one design a scripted webseries to fit into that mission? And if you’re the one designing that webseries, how do your goals for audience engagement change when views might become less important than connecting with audiences in an educational—or at least informative—way?

While the interview I posted yesterday touched on a number of these issues, and the series itself will ultimately stand as the answer to this question, I wanted to create a second part to the interview focused on this intersection of approaches to web video content. Some of these questions and answers also appear in the previous interview with executive producer Bernie Su, star Anna Lore, and PBS Digital Studios senior director Matthew Graham, but they’re presented here to isolate the relationship between the two companies and their relationship with webseries, transmedia, and the various component parts that will make up Frankenstein M.D. as it rolls out over the next few months.

Cultural Learnings: From a PBS Digital Studios perspective, this is the first time you’ve developed a fictional webseries of this kind—what drew you to Pemberley Digital as a partner for this milestone?

PBS Digital Studios senior director Matthew Graham: What was great was that they had this amazing track record, and the qualities of Lizzie Bennet and Emma Approved that we really look for: audience engagement, smart content that’s innovative and totally different from anything else you see out there, etc. It’s unique, and it appeals to the kind of person that is drawn to PBS, and a big push behind Digital Studios is reaching those 13-34 year-olds that are on YouTube and consuming lots of content. And Bernie’s a great guy. [Laughter]

During the PBS executive session [at July’s TCA Press Tour], president and CEO Paula Kerger was talking about how PBS has audiences at a young age, and then it gets them again when they’re older, but sort of loses them in the middle. So you see this specifically serving a similar function from an educational perspective for one of those generations in between?

Graham: Absolutely. I think it’s an incredibly exciting opportunity to reach these younger folks with higher-quality, educational, entertaining content. The mission’s a little different when you’re talking about very young kids: there the PBS kids team does incredible work structuring the content so that it’s age appropriate and they’re actually learning letters. Here it’s a little bit more “Sure, there is science information that the audience is consuming, but it’s a little bit more of a cultural exposure: STEM careers are cool, this is an exciting space, there’s a lot of exciting stuff happening around it.” So it’s more kind of inspiring people to think about these career directions as opposed to trying to teach them science.

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Cultural Interview: PBS Digital Studios’ Frankenstein M.D. [Part One]

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On the one hand, Frankenstein M.D. is very familiar: the third full series from Pemberley Digital following the Emmy-winning The Lizzie Bennett Diaries and followup Emma Approved, the series is a webseries adaptation of a classic novel featuring a female protagonist (in this case reimagining Victor Frankenstein as Victoria). Fans of their previous series will find both a similar sense of humor and a similar sense of purpose when the series debuts its first three episodes tomorrow, with the series settling into a familiar Tuesday-Friday pattern until its finale on Halloween.

On the other hand, though, Frankenstein M.D. is a departure in two keys ways. The first is that, by departing from Austen and arriving at Mary Shelley, Pemberley is heading into new generic territory, balancing its direct address vlog style with the well-known results of Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments. However, the second—and I would argue more substantial—difference is that they’re working with a traditional “network,” partnering with PBS Digital Studios in launching the series. In the first part of this wide-ranging interview with executive producer Bernie Su, star Anna Lore (Victoria Frankenstein), and PBS Digital Studios senior director Matthew Graham, they discuss the development of a series that one might classify as an experiment for all parties. Part Two of the interview explores the industrial side of the series’ debut in greater detail.

Cultural Learnings: From a PBS Digital Studios perspective, this is the first time you’ve developed a fictional webseries of this kind—what drew you to Pemberley Digital as a partner for this milestone?

PBS Digital Studios senior director Matthew Graham: What was great was that they had this amazing track record, and the qualities of Lizzie Bennet and Emma Approved that we really look for: audience engagement, smart content that’s innovative and totally different from anything else you see out there, etc. It’s unique, and it appeals to the kind of person that is drawn to PBS, and a big push behind Digital Studios is reaching those 13-34 year-olds that are on YouTube and consuming lots of content. And Bernie’s a great guy. [Laughter]

From your perspective, Bernie, were your discussions with PBS always centered on Frankenstein? Were there other projects considered for this partnership?

Executive Producer Bernie Su: It was “How about Frankenstein? Let’s do that!” It was literally that. It never got past it. I don’t think we even mentioned a second project. It was like “That’s great. What would be your take on that?” And then it was the idea of the modern medical student and how we can touch upon modern science and how we’re actually close scientifically to doing stuff—bringing people back to life, what is life, all that stuff—that Frankenstein does in the novel. So it made a lot of sense given that our audience has been wanting us to push toward STEM, so this was just a great opportunity that seemed like a really good match right out of the gate and it was really easy.

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Come and Stream Your Songs?: The Jukebox Soundtrack in the YouTube/Spotify Era

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When this week’s final Billboard Hot 200 album chart is released, either the 51st installment of the Now That’s What I Call Music! series or Awesome Mix Vol. 1, the soundtrack to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, will be the best-selling album in the United States. If Awesome Mix Vol. 1 makes it to the summit, it will be the first soundtrack from a summer film to reach No. 1 since Mamma Mia! in 2008, and the first for a non-musical since Bad Boys II in 2003.

This would be a significant accomplishment with or without No. 1, particularly given the fact that the various songs that make up Awesome Mix Vol. 1 are readily available to stream on services like Spotify, or on YouTube. There is no single to drive sales of the album, as the film’s jukebox-style soundtrack relies entirely on songs from the 1970s. And while some Twitter conversation among colleagues made a connection back to K-tel—and we could think about Time Life as well—in regards to the album’s appeal to a nostalgia for music of this period, there’s also a wide audience of younger audiences who may not be familiar with some of the songs used in the film. But those audiences are often imagined as those who stream music on YouTube or Spotify, and who could simply create their own playlists featuring the songs from the film without needing to pay out for the album.

Given this, the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack offers an interesting case study of how these platforms are being activated by labels like Hollywood Records, and how this jukebox soundtrack is being branded—if not “sold”—in spaces that won’t be counted by Billboard’s album chart.

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At the Knick: A Transmedia Invitation to an Uninviting World

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One of the most striking elements of Cinemax’s The Knick—which debuts tonight at 10/9c—is its electronic score from Cliff Martinez. It’s purposefully anachronistic, and crucial to the series’ disorientation. It never wants you to feel entirely comfortable in this early 20th century world, which sits on the cusp of scientific progress without being able to fully embrace it. The score, working alongside Steven Soderbergh’s cinematography, works to disrupt the viewer’s sense of immersion while simultaneously drawing the viewer in on more complicated terms: it’s a great score, and a beautiful show, but The Knick is not something one luxuriates in.

This creates a somewhat complex set of parameters for the marketing around the series, one that has been translated into a campaign by Campfire Media, whose work for Cinemax, HBO, and A&E I’ve written about on the blog in the past. The “At The Knick” campaign mirrors elements of those previous campaigns, particularly the Game of Thrones Westeros Revealed scent box; ahead of The Knick’s premiere, Cinemax has delivered customized medical kits meant to transport the recipient back to a different era of medicine. Meticulously crafted, it’s a beautiful and compelling piece of transmedia worldbuilding, although one that works best as an introduction to rather than representation of the world in the series.

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Cultural Interview: Quick Draw’s John Lehr on Being Renewed at Hulu

quickdraw-season-2-key-art-huluDuring Hulu’s presentations during this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, there was something new for the streaming service: shows going into their second seasons. After their first original scripted series Battleground came and went without even an official cancellation, the Hulu development process was something of a mystery, with most of their multi-season exclusive content coming through international licensing deals. And so 2013 was a big year for the company, as they debuted and renewed their first three series: animated series The Awesomes, Latino-focused teen soap opera East Los High, and improv comedy western Quick Draw, created by John Lehr and Nancy Hower, which debuts its second season on Hulu today.


The rise in streaming services has complicated the traditional way we measure television success, requiring new logics for why a show earns a second season given that we’re dealing with new data sets and lack the traditional data set—Nielsen ratings—that we consider more heavily in such analysis. As a result, I spoke with Lehr regarding the experience of “getting renewed” at Hulu, and the way the experience both does and does not reflect the traditional process with a broadcast network or cable channel, in addition to his experience as the creator of a show that lives in this still-emergent televisual space online.

Cultural Learnings: So when did you know you were getting a second season?

John Lehr: It was crazy. It was unlike any pickup I’ve ever experienced. We literally turned in the final hard drive for the first season, and the next day got the pickup for season two, which was just like—psychologically—“Yay! We’re employed!” Because usually it’s nailbiting, and that’s just horrible when you’re waiting. But on the creative side too, we dove right in that day and started thinking about season two. So I think it really helps in terms of the quality as well, because it gives us more time, and more time is always a good thing—well, not always, but in our case it is.

Given that you aren’t seeing traditional ratings, and Hulu had never renewed a series until after you premiered, did you have any idea going into the process what it would take to get a season two?

[Laughs] You know, that is an intriguing question. We didn’t know. I mean, we knew that no matter what, it’s about viewers—whether you’re on network, cable, or broadband, it’s all the same. It’s just “Do people want to watch this show, and how many of them are watching, and who are they, and what is their age, and what kind of things do they buy?” That doesn’t change. You don’t have the Nielsens, but somewhere there’s a counter going on, or some sort of understanding of how many people are watching this thing. And from the get-go, we were shocked at the response we were getting from Hulu and from people online about how many people liked the show, so almost out of the gate our Facebook blew up, there were tumblr pages. The response from fans was really, really good.

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Self-Gatekeeping: The Shifting Demographics of the 10/90

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Today at The A.V. Club, I have a piece reflecting on the state of what has become known as the 10/90 model, specifically focused on its fate at FX given the failure of George Lopez’s Saint George earlier this year and the unlikelihood of Partners—which debuts on Thursday night—setting the world on fire.

The uncertain fate of TV’s most radical get-rich-quick scheme – The A.V. Club

What’s become clear since 2012 is that the 10/90 is a form of television development fundamentally incompatible with the FX brand, and with the brand of any channel fostering a creativity-driven environment. In a business that has always been a negotiation between economic imperatives and creative potential, the 10/90 model makes no effort to have that negotiation. It’s the television-production equivalent of a get-rich-quick scheme, and it shows in every pained, unfunny minute of Partners’ first two episodes, as well as in the creative struggles of both Anger Management and Saint George.

What struck me in doing research for the piece was how there was an untold story of the TBS 10/90, a marginalized narrative in the broader discourse. FX’s Anger Management was the first 10/90 to draw significant mainstream attention, despite the fact it only barely edged out the record-setting ratings of Tyler Perry’s House of Payne on TBS in 2006. But that show was on a less reputable channel, starring largely unknown actors, and—most tellingly—is primarily aimed at an African-American audience. And yet it also ran for over 250 episodes between 2006 and 2012, and spawned two other African-American led 10/90 sitcoms at the channel: Tyler Perry’s Meet The Browns ran for 140 episodes between 2009 and 2011, and Are We There Yet?—based on the Ice Cube film—produced 100 episodes between 2010 and 2012.

This story became more of a stepping stone for considering the more timely discussion of FX’s relationship with this development model in the final draft of the piece, but in earlier—overlong—drafts I had a line of discussion regarding the demographic implications of the evolution of the 10/90 that I wanted to explore here. Specifically, I want to consider how we can understand the 10/90 as an important space for serving underserved audiences, and how the evolution of the form has drifted away from what seemed like a key appeal of the model early on.

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