I Want My Gay TV!
Asked what they’re watching these days, some gay folks respond with the names of shows that can’t be found anywhere on cable or satellite channel guides or DVRs. Titles like The Outs, Where the Bears Are, It Gets Betterish, The Variants and Acting Out may be uttered in the same sentence as, say, Girls, Nurse Jackie and Modern Family.
Welcome to the brave new frontier of gay web series, a.k.a. webisodes, produced expressly for the Internet and beholden to no focus groups, network executives, FCC regulations or required ratings figures. With total creative freedom, and production values ranging from scrappy low-fi to on par with cable TV programs, the makers can push envelopes and depictions of LGBT characters, from the exploits of bears (Bulk) to wannabe Broadway queens (City of Dreams) much further than the likes of Ryan Murphy’s mainstream The New Normal.
Mind you, even mainstream Hollywood talents are delving into the waters, like Bryan Singer, producer of the sci-fi “digital series” H+, which debuted this past summer, and Joss Whedon’s musical Dr. Horrible, starring Neil Patrick Harris (created in homegrown style during the 2007 writer’s strike). Thanks to televisions that now stream directly from the Internet, and the prevalence of on-demand services like Netflix—which is hoping to attain HBO-esque status and subscriptions through its creation of original series and content—the trend is moving away from traditional broadcast TV. “At some point these mediums are going to merge,” Singer opined in an interview, “and there’s going to be some kind of sea change in the way we observe content.”
Not just observe. Create as well.
Vinny Lopez works at VH1 as a promo producer and directs commercial spots. Frustrated by a lack of creative freedom—“when you work in commercials you get some creativity but the carrot gets yanked from you,” he says—and eager to take advantage of the fact that even low-end cameras produce spectacular, expensive-looking results today, he came up with the idea for Two Jasperjohns, an absurdist sitcom about two gay redhead hipster-bear siblings, starring himself and fellow ginger Jim Noonan (who also co-starred in the bear romance webseries Bulk). In the first episode, a pair of white pants seems to have magical properties.
“I wanted to make a gay show but not [have it] be about hot guys,” the Bay Area native says. “I’d rather make dumb jokes about dancing with a bear or dating Björk. I didn’t feel like I had to make it a commentary on every single aspect of gay culture. Like sometimes Queer as Folk was like, ‘Let’s go through every issue. This is the episode with someone on meth. This is the episode with shutting down a gay bar.’ I’m such a comedy nerd I want to make jokes about people who talk like my friends, although a bit more surreal. Also make jokes about things I obsess over. The second season is all about dog sitting. The third season is about a cult. I’m working on it right now. I think Tim Harrington [of Pitchfork.tv’s Beardo] will play the new Jasperjohns brother.” (Like a riff on Battlestar Galactica, in Jasperjohns there are nine siblings in total, the rest of which will be revealed over coming seasons).
While Lopez admits that web hits—ratings in web series speak—aren’t his goal, he does pay attention to them. He also admits to being an awful self-promoter. But thanks to plugs on blogs like Vulture and OMG, Two Jasperjohns has received a boost in viewership.
Another scrappy DIY effort is the Long Island-set websoap Empire. Brian Hewson and Greg Turner—the former a Hell’s Kitchen-based production coordinator for HBO, the latter a box office manager living in Williamsburg—are both diehard soap opera fans. However, they realized that many networks were canceling their daytime shows, which put the kibosh on gainful employment within the industry. So they decided to max out their credit cards and create their own show online. “Most of the first season was shot in my apartment,” says Turner. “It took over a year to get this season done. It’s something we’re constantly working on. We are in the market for brilliant fundraising people.”
Since then, the soap industry has taken note and embraced Empire. Cast and crew from shows including As The World Turns and Guiding Light have come aboard. Soap opera press has helped spread word, and the show has even been nominated and won honors from the Indie Soap Awards. They have four seasons wrapped—and available on iTunes—and are starting to conceive the fifth, which, as with past seasons, will prominently figure gay characters. “We have several gay characters, and Cane, played by Ryan Klardy, is like our gay protagonist,” says Turner. “He’s the black sheep who didn’t go into the family business but became a private investigator. He resonates with the gay fans.”
Out Broadway actor Sebastian La Cause certainly has resonated with gay fans during his career, including a role as a sexy Spaniard in the 2010 romantic comedy BearCity. Eager to flex his creative muscles as an actor and behind-the-scenes writer/director, and excited by the shows he saw proliferating online (and their growing audience), La Cause conceived of Hustling. He cast himself as Ryan, a sex worker pushing 40 who decides to explore new career and life avenues. “I was in LA before I started writing it and met some hustlers/porn stars and their stories were very interesting to me,” he admits. “One thing these people had in common was they wanted out of the business but didn’t know how to do it. I [had] just turned 40 and translated it to someone who just turned 40 and wanted to change their life and it grew from there.”
La Cause self-financed Hustling’s first eight-episode season, and called in appearances from fellow actors Daphne Rubin-Vega, Brent Barrett and BearCity co-stars Stephen Guarino and Gerald McCullouch. He launched a teaser of the series last summer, and Broadway and gay-related online media caught on quick as La Cause reached out to his press connections and marketed the show via social media. The series proved a success—and not just with web hits.
“I was approached by a distribution company that wanted to put it on DVD,” says La Cause. “But I didn’t go that route because I wanted to develop the show more, and plus they would want me to take it down from the web because why would you pay for something you get for free? The value of your show is based on your subscribers and viewers. So I opted to stay on my own and further develop it. Maybe after the second season.”
While he self-funded Hustling’s first season, La Cause turned to crowdsourcing via Kickstarter for the second, and raised over $18,000—well above his $12,000 campaign goal. Hustling’s 10-episode second season debuted November 15, and features even more familiar faces including Wilson Cruz and real-life porn stars Jake Steele and Brian Slater. La Cause is also at work on a second web series, the comedic He’s with Me, developed with Jason Cicci.
But Hustling isn’t the only web series that crowdsourcing has funded. One of the most popular, Adam Goldman’s six-episode The Outs, proved a Kickstarter juggernaut, raising over $22,000 in its second campaign (the goal was just $8,000).
The Boston-raised, Brooklyn-based Goldman slaved away in several entertainment and media-related fields (he did background casting for Black Swan) before conceiving The Outs as both a calling card for his talents as writer/director/actor and creative outlet to depict the type of gay people and reality he wasn’t seeing elsewhere. In fact, he admits that the protagonist he portrays, Mitchell, is a 65% accurate reflection of himself. “I think I have a little more game than Mitchell,” he clarifies, “and I’m a bigger nerd.” The calling card certainly proved successful: he attained management thanks to The Outs.
Blogs were instrumental in getting the word out, he says, and the show currently boasts about 5,300 Facebook fans. Goldman admits there was some talk about bringing The Outs to a bigger platform but they ultimately passed on the offer. In fact, a second season is still in question, although a seventh “Chanukah Special” episode is currently in the works. “I would rather people say, ‘Remember that great show?’ than be like, they made 20 more and why did they do that?” Goldman shares. “We only want to continue if it’s an organic thing.”
Regardless of The Outs’ future, Goldman attests that the show helps prove that you can produce something as good looking—and entertaining—as HBO’s Girls, for a fraction of the budget. He also understands that original streaming content is truly one of the next big things. “Hulu and Netflix and Amazon and YouTube are pouring a lot of money into producing original content,” he says. “They all want to have the first show that’s really fucking good that you can only see if you pay for it, that will only be available online.”
Jon Marcus, endeavors to do exactly that with the gay web series Hunting Season. “Web series reminded me of indie films at the start of my career,” he says. “People could take risks and find an audience to support it. I think people are increasingly getting their entertainment from a box connected to the Internet and the screen size you view it on is less and less relevant. They watch it on their iPhone, and on their TV. We had fans tweet us pictures watching Hunting Season on big screen TVs. This medium puts the choice in the viewer’s hands.”
Marcus began his career in the New York indie film scene, and during the late ’90s joined lesbian über-producer Christine Vachon’s Killer Films, where he garnered production credits on films including Boys Don’t Cry, Party Monster and Far From Heaven. He then moved to Los Angeles and toiled in television, selling pilots that were never made. In 2007, he optioned queer blog The Great Cock Hunt, which chronicled a gay writer’s slutty antics, with the intention of pitching it as a series to fledgling gay networks Q, Here! and Logo. “I had been in TV and had all these credits on queer cinema titles and felt I was an obvious person they would want to buy something from,” he recalls, “and they could brand themselves with it. The way FX branded themselves with Nip/Tuck.”
They all passed, no reason given.
Flash-forward to 2010. Marcus co-wrote a Hunting Season pilot episode with fellow queer film stalwart Adam Baran (co-curator of IFC Center’s Queer/Art/Film series). He returned to New York, crashed at Rose Troche’s Brooklyn digs and self-funded the production of Hunting Season’s entire first season of eight episodes as a web series. While making a push for advance press, Marcus sent along a copy to Logo, hoping they would want to cover the series’ summer 2012 launch through its news and media arms. However, Marcus soon found the network asking if they could actually pick it up. While Logo’s website streams a censored version of the debut season—the full-frontal nudity is blurred—uncut episodes are available on the show’s official website, HuntingSeason.tv, for $2.99 each.
For Marcus, this monetized-per-episode approach represents a maiden business model for web series that makes them financially viable in much the same way that independent films were during their heyday—without the issue of finding a distributor. “I’m trying to innovate,” he insists. “Nobody has done [full-frontal] nudity in a web series before. I’m the first. Nobody has gotten people to pay for downloads and I’ve done that. I am trying to push this form to viable independence. That’s as exciting as the stories to tell."