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.