Paying with Bagels: The Labor of Web Video Production

Curator's Note

A “blockbuster web series” is, as yet, an oxymoron. Yet in a field replete with failures, Felicia Day’s The Guild has been one of the few bright spots, a long-running gamer series with a fan base rivalling many shows on television.

How did Day finance her monster hit? “With bagels,” she once told the Wall Street Journal.

Independent filmmakers will recognize the sentiment. With no budget – most new web series have little inherent value without a celebrity, network or brand behind it – food is often the most directors can offer. Crew members and actors offer their skills out of passion for the project and hope the series will catch on. Most, unlike The Guild, do not.

All this is changing, of course, but slowly. Web series are now regularly picked up for television (Web Therapy, Children’s Hospital, Sanctuary, among others), and series creators occasionally close deals with networks and studios. Advertisers, studios and TV networks have been underwriting web series for years, and online networks are pouring cash into the form: see YouTube’s rumored acquisition of Next New Networks and numerous indies like Mingle Media, My Damn Channel, Rowdy Orbit, to name a few. 

But exceptions only prove the rule. Countless hours of labor are poured into web video production, perhaps as much as is spent making independent films for the festival circuit. A web series set might be similar to any other film set, except, as seen in Break a Leg's humorous video above, an occasional air of chaos and lack of efficacy can pervade the mood: "This is exciting! But maybe it’s not worth it!"

If so many series never reach Guild-like heights, where does the labor go? We have numerous theories for valuing cultural products with no market value (moral, cultural, social value), and those kinds of value are definitely seen here.

But web series creators are also contributing to an intellectual project to remake media production and distribution, innovating narrative storytelling and industrial relationships. Individually, one project has little value. Cumulatively, there might be a whole lot of value being created. All of these hours are time invested in new media creation and deserve credit. How much and what kind of credit, that’s for history – and each crew member's stomach – to decide.


I think you were right about the compatability between our posts. Many of these web series producers talk about their work as a labor of love or a last ditch effort to get in the industry. Felicia Day's story about trying to get the Guild made is part of that tradition. From these examples it seems that web series production is defined by weekend auteurs and aspiring but rejected creatives. These two groups are cajoling their friends into a lot of free labor.

There is some speculation that the outlet for all this work will be web TV. If that is the case than the key to being seen will be discovery tools on web TV interfaces. Search, tagging, forwarding, etc. however web series will be organized on web TV's will determine what gets seen and how this labor is compensated.

The web TV aspect of this is the most fascinating. In some ways it's already easier to get original web content than traditional TV content through a web TV device, and many in the web series market believe their early entry might be an advantage. I've spoken to web distributors who are furiously working to get their platforms compatible with all the devices: Roku, Apple TV, Google TV, Boxee, what have you; a process that's apparently doable but complicated.

I'm not completely sure getting on the TV set without the major networks will be indie web production's savior, but it's certainly a necessary component if there's a savior to be had. For me the market for indie content will always be smaller, but, as we've seen in film, there are markets that can accomodate many different kinds of players.

And, yes, I think Seth's right that there's definitely an air of cool in having little money or few resources. I think perhaps the jabs at sexuality and use of kids definitely parallels the various levels of "immaturity" in web production (the market or industry; production capabilities; youth of the participants, etc).

Yes, this post and Ethan's go together quite well, giving us two very different perspectives on the production of web video. A couple of notes on this one:

Without making light of the very real sacrifices such people make to produce their web series,  and the hard work they do to make them on a shoe-string, it seems clear from this video that at least some of them find ways to positively value the suffering that their exclusion from big-budget production systems occasions. There's something not just hilarious but also hip and attractive about the dangerously home-made, sleep-deprived production space they create. In part, I think its gives them a way of valorizing their very exclusion from the big corporate film and TV giants they wish would give them the time of day, and of excusing anything that seems amateurish about what they're doing. Their difference from corporate TV is therefore both the welcome cause and the welcome cure for their present positions.

In this particular video, what I find most interesting of all are the representations of sex, reproduction, and child-rearing--from the distracting infant in the opening shot to the awkward make-out at the end. I wonder if the implication is that these amateurs are sexually and reproductively confused in ways that the professionals are not, or are they trying to further undercut the glamour of professional TV and film production, by suggesting that there's little difference between their own awkward and unhappy sexual and reproductive lives and those of the big stars and name-brand directors? Joss Whedon may not have to eat dumpster bagels, but surely when it comes to sexuality and raising children, he must be as complicated and awkward as the rest of us, right?

 Man, these posts have turned my world upside down.  Suddenly, Google is, like, a good guy.  As the owner of Youtube, Google and its GoogleTV are now becoming the means through which content like this may get a wider audience. Therefore, news that networks are blocking Google TV is, though obnoxious, also sort of good news for web series that can provide the content lacking due to network stubborness.  

The most intriguing question for me is how web series find their own means of making money outside the established, corporate channels.  

Whedon's name recurring frequently here references a sort of dream/nightmare scenario.  His web series succeeded in part due to his relationships with industry insiders.  Joss' name has a cache already.  Of course, his interactions with major networks (ahem, Fox), have not always gone well, so he really is a strange sort of hero for the outsider indie type--who seemingly aspires to be like Joss... an outsider indie type who can't get his shows to be a success on major network television.  

Aymar Jean: it's great to see something about the Guild that is clear-eyed about the economics of this type of media production.  It does seem so so very neoliberal, to wield that overused word right away--all of the risk is borne by the maker, but success still has to do with creating partnerships with media companies like Microsoft, which currently distributes the Guild on the Xbox.  I had a friend in the nineties who was a production assistant on Quentin Tarantino's first film and was also paid in bagels.  He was fresh out of college and this was the drill, and very expected.  But it was "the movies!"  Webisodes are not yet that. 

Exactly, and I think the big question is whether web content will ever be "the movies" (movies are still at the top of our cultural hierarchy, though TV's catching up and the web still way behind). In every cultural product there's a small number of projects that make cash and get acclaim (Tarantino, The Guild) and whole bunch that fails. In the movies, the top of the pyramid's a bit bigger; there's more money to support an industry. The web's pyramid is much more unequal: precious few projects have cash to pay people, let alone turn a profit -- and most of the time you do need a Sprint, Microsoft or IAC to step in.

A whole lot more industrial restructuring needs to go on to change that equation, and it's still an open question if that's going to happen. 

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