August 29, 2007
The West Side: An Interview with the Creators (3 of 4)

Here is the third part of the inteview with The West Side creators Ryan Bilsborrow-Koo and Zachary Lieberman that ran in our internal C3 Weekly Update newsletter last weekend. I am posting the interview sections here on the C3 blog a week after they run in our newsletter. You can see the first part of this interview here and the second part here.

JM: What drew you specifically to the serialized format? And how much in advance have you produced & scripted? Is there room for change in the story and style based on feedback, or do you feel pretty locked in to your vision of where it's going?

ZL: We spent a long time in preproduction. We thought a lot about the themes we wanted to explore and went through several major rewrites. It was pretty painful sometimes, but we always made the decision to go back and rewrite when something didn't feel right, which retrospectively was always the right decision. I say always because it happened more than we'd probably like to admit; we took a lot of time to craft our ideas and to really pare them down to the best they could be.

As for production, we're doing it on the fly. While we would love to take a couple months to shoot and edit continuously, we both work full time. But we've been lucky that the actors we cast at the beginning of all this have been really cool about going along with our nights and weekends approach.

RBK: Viewer feedback will definitely influence the series, whether it be in terms of pacing, certain characters becoming more (or less) prominent, tweaks to the music or visuals, etc. but in terms of the 12-episode storyline, the whole thing is already written. It's impossible to have everything happen for a reason in a script if you don't know how it ends; we weren't interested in a choose-your-own-adventure angle to the show. Ideally we'd have had the whole thing shot by the time we put up the first episode, so we could roll them out more quickly. But if we waited for that day, we'd be premiering in 2047.

JM: Do you have a sense of how momentum is going to work for you or against you? I'm thinking about a number of the debates in serialized TV scheduling that swirled around this past year - Lost's hiatus (allegedly) led to a decline in viewership upon its return, similar concerns emerged around Heroes, etc. The sense is that in a downloadable, purchasable media culture, we're less inclined to want to wait until the content-providers offer a new installment, as we want the next entry on demand (a trend that might be fueling the rise of spoiler culture, which I've researched some). Serialization always entails the gap between episodes being much longer than the episodes themselves - without a clear release schedule, do you worry that viewers might lose interest between installments? Might the buzz for the project peak too early, frustrating viewers waiting for a new episode?

ZL: Intuition would say that our "sparse" episode release schedule is definitely going to affect any kind of viewership momentum we may gain. And yes, we've definitely thought/worried about that. But unfortunately, it's the reality of our production. We felt that an intermittent release schedule would be better than waiting another full year to finish production when someone else would potentially have had that year to do their thing. We would love to get the episodes out there as soon as possible, and we will. But it's just the two of us, and it takes time. We want to be satisfied with what we're putting out there, and we're prepared to deal with any loss in momentum because of it. We'll just have to work that much harder to make each episode good enough to bring people back!

JM: The site features both independent production, which is fairly common today, and independent distribution rather than running through YouTube, GoogleVideo, etc. What was the thinking for serving your own video, and where do you see the strengths and weaknesses of that choice?

RBK: We've had some healthy debates about the distribution issue, with me tending to argue for the "put it everywhere" model and Zack wanting to retain tighter control.

ZL: There are a few reasons I'm so adamant about this issue:

I want to maintain visual control over the "world" we hope to create with the series;

We built the website ourselves and spent a long time making it exactly what we wanted it to be for its intended usage, ie. posting and cataloging our episodes, blogging, commenting on episodes, etc. It's also easier to track your video's progress statistically if the video's only coming from one direction;

We made the decision early on that we wouldn't have any advertising -- maybe a "sponsorship," but no banners or text advertising. And if we're not making any money on it, we don't want anyone else making money on it;

Some of the video distribution networks are doing a really nice job in terms of video quality with flash video, but the heavyweights that you spoke of don't currently deliver the performance we'd like. Bandwidth and storage are getting cheaper, so this is changing as we speak, but we spend so much time crafting our images that it would be a shame to let a bad delivery mechanism ruin our hard work.

That's not saying that we won't use the larger networks once the time is right, but I see their potential utility more as promotional tools that will help drive traffic to our site. Once we have enough content, we're planning to produce a trailer that we'll let the big boys distribute.

RBK: I see this debate as being similar to the one currently going on in Hollywood over day-and-date distribution. Every filmmaker wants to have his or her work seen in a darkened theater on a 50-foot screen; for me personally, seeing a movie in the theater is certainly richer and forms stronger memories than watching it on my laptop. Indeed, if I had a choice between 500 people seeing our film in the theater or 500 people seeing it on their cell phone, I'd choose the theater every time. But the fact is, a 500-person audience in a local theater might translate to 50,000 viewers globally across internet-connected platforms. And the venues aren't mutually exclusive in the day-and-date model; people still have a choice of how they consume the media. For this example, if is the equivalent of the higher-quality venue (the theater), and YouTube is the lower-quality source (the cell phone), the difference here is that the film doesn't stop playing at the theater; is always open. If someone watches an episode on YouTube and enjoys it, they can choose to watch successive episodes in higher quality on our site (or even the same episode over again).

Congratulations Jason, you've prompted our first public debate. When it comes down to it though, I do understand Zack's point, and we've always said that the distribution of The West Side isn't about how many people see it, but rather getting the right people to see it--namely, anyone who's established in the industry and recognizes talent: an enabler. And, of course, intelligent film viewers.

The final part of this interview will be posted here to the C3 blog next week.