After several false starts in recent years, films made specifically for the Web are finally making it to the must-see list. This is thanks to both technical advances (eg, streaming HD via Silverlight), as well as format improvements that are better adapted to interactive Web behaviour. The only missing element is finding a reliable way to get the stuff in front of many eyeballs.
Unfortunately YouTube seems to be stuck in a crappy UGC time-warp that makes it a poor distribution platform for quality HD content.
A great recent showcase for this kind of production is the interactive Web thriller Kirill, launched last year by MSN and Endemol UK. (See coverage in The Guardian here.) Kirill is a slick, dark sci-fi drama chronicles the travails of a CERN scientist and blogger (played by David Schofield) who tries to save the world from his exile in a dystopian future.
The series ran in ten 3-minute episodes over a five-week period, and was supplemented with clues and activity on MSN's instant messaging and social networking sites (I know this seems a bit of a waste, but MSN has the bucks...).
Kirill looks hot in Silverlight HD. It's a great combination of high production values with one of the better technologies developed by Microsoft in recent years. That said, it hasn't yet had the broad viewing it deserves because it was distributed on MSN Video, and in the UK only.
The only valid online distribution mechanism is viral, and Kirill hasn't been allowed (or encouraged) to surf the viral wave as yet. According to MSN (quoted here), Kirill got 1.5m streams and 500k unique users during its UK run. That statement is hard to reconcile with Kirill's traction on the open Web. If you look at its 130 subscribers on YouTube (where episodes aired unofficially) and fewer than 500 fans on Facebook, you'd have to call it a viral flop.
The commercial value of Web flicks remains unproven while quality productions like Kirill and Beyond the Rave don't come cheap. Endemol's budget for The Gap Year, a reality Web show for social network Bebo reportedly had a budget of £1m. In all, it is estimated that some 50 digital shows have been commissioned in the past two years for the Web. The BBC is also in on the act, and expects to launch several long-form shows this year.
The leading big-name producer for this medium is probably Endemol UK, but the majority of new Web shows are being developed by independent producers like Conker Media and Pure Grass Films, who co-produced Kirill.
But in order to succeed Web cinema will have to do more than pay lip service to the interactive potential of the Web. Productions need to integrate virality and interactivity and find ways to exploit the distribution potential of social networks, blogs and bookmarking. For this reason, expect edgy independent firms run by Generation X'ers to lead the genre for some time.
Let's hope that real film investors will follow the marketing bucks spent by MSN to finance quality productions for their own sake. They'll have to be patient while this model finds its feet and becomes commercially interesting. Certainly we will see a significant step-up in the quality of productions at this year's Digital Emmys and Bafta Interactive awards.
Stay tuned for more on viral video, and its direct marketing applications, next week.