Some Objective First Thoughts on THE BAY & Indie Soaps
Posted by Roger Newcomb
I'm an associate producer on the latest indie soap, THE BAY, and I may be accused of being totally biased but I thought the first webisode was pretty good. Let me say a few things before I discuss it though. Since I'm involved with the show in some capacity I will be very careful when discussing it to make my point of view clear with the caveat that I have that association. I also was credited with "Web Services" on GOTHAM and have consulted on numerous other indie soaps. Since WE LOVE SOAPS TV coined that "indie soap" term in early Summer 2009, we have received a number of requests from people identifying themselves in that category asking for feedback on pilot episodes, formats, episode length, characters, casting, and much more. We happily provided it. Whatever opinions I give on our website or web series will be totally unbiased, and probably (and unfairly) harsher on a show like THE BAY. In addition, whatever shows are ultimately nominated for our Indie Soap Awards for 2010 (nomination process is still being discussed) will be chosen in the most fair and ethical way possible. Indie Intertube and others will be participating again this year. I plan on producing my own indie soaps as well, and working on doing that now, so I will continue to balance critique/support and production work as I love doing both things and supporting the soap genre.
THE BAY creator and director Gregori J. Martin is a dear friend and directed my film, Manhattanites. He knows better than anyone I won't hold back with my feedback on his projects. Just ask him how I redlined the first draft of THE BAY script many months ago when I read it. But that honesty is the basis of a great friendship and I am rooting for him as a friend and lifelong soap fan to have much success. I'm really rooting for all the indie soap producers who have a real vision and are trying to re-imagine the genre on the web and other places.
I sometimes get questioned about my lack of criticism of most indie soaps, and may here too, but I try to be fair. As an indie producer myself, it is hard not to identify strongly with these folks who are producing at times top notch shows on a shoestring budget. And when I say shoestring, I'm not talking about GUIDING LIGHT or AS THE WORLD TURNS or ONE LIFE TO LIVE. Their budgets would be a fortune for most indie soaps, a large fortune. I can only imagine what some of these talented indie creators/writers/directors could produce with that much money. So yes, I may not pick apart the lighting or sound or casting as much as I might for daytime, but it's like a big corporate machine versus the little man. I can't help it! And I enjoy fostering an environment of support for creative people who may not get a break elsewhere or have a chance to break into daytime soaps. Ultimately, I understand a show of any budget needs to entertain so that's my main criteria for judging anything. Was I entertained in some way?
With all that said, here are my thoughts (and some of yours) on the first webisode of THE BAY.
I have mostly seen positive feedback from fans who have contacted me and from what I've read around the web. That is a good sign for the show. The show was not perfect by any means but excelled in several areas, and some (aesthetics look like a film) better than I have seen from any other indie soap before. The cast is wonderful and diverse and interesting. I think they will only get better and gel as we see more episodes and they've worked together more. Mary Beth Evans is going to be terrific as the complex Sara Garrett. Other excellent first impressions were made my several cast members including Sandra Dee Robinson (Real Housewife of New Jersey-esque, Tristan Rogers (the police commissioner), Derrell Whitt (says a lot with expressions beyond the script) and Martha Madison (intriguing relationship teased between her Marly and her mother, Sara).
The show looks stunning. The aesthetics look better to me than anything on daytime. I would say best in class on par with the very top web series. The editing was good, and Gregori J. Martin's direction was top notch. I have followed his career for many years, and he has grown with each and every project he's worked on or developed. He's a man who learns from his mistakes and grows and changes, is very adaptable, and THE BAY will only thrive because of it.
It was nice to see an embedded commercial inserted by the show itself. Shows that air on Blip TV tend to have commercials selected by Blip based on the category of content, sometimes airing before and after episodes with ads placed on top of the show itself (producers can choose to turn these off or on). The shows split earnings with Blip which is considered fair because Blip is providing the hosting of the video files, distribution to many video outlets including iTunes, and other promotions and features. But THE BAY actually had their own sponsor and inserted a commercial they created after the opening theme. If you do this, you earn all the money for that spot. This, and perhaps product placement and a return to branded entertainment, is probably what will need to continue and be expanded for indie soaps to be successful long-term on the web.
There are a few areas for improvement for THE BAY that I have seen fans mention and I tend to agree with much of the feedback I will mention here (forgive me, Greg!). Here are my comments on the improvements mentioned the most around the web:
1. The sound could have been better. I sort of take partial responsibility for this one as fans are right. It wasn't perfect. My advice to the show was to set a premiere date and stick to it. They set Sept. 15 based on all the information they had at the time, announced it, and thought that was a safe date to get things put together and rolled out. After that, I advised them to set a release schedule (once a week, every two weeks, three times a week, whatever) and stick to it so fans would know mentally when they needed to tune it.
Several of these indie shows have hyped things up only to miss their deadlines and look really unreliable in the eyes of potential viewers. That turns some off, and not all of them will come back if you leave a bad taste in their mouth or let them down up front. I feel strongly soap fans like habit and routine (like every day at 3 p.m. a fan might watch GENERAL HOSPITAL as much out of habit as story line satisfaction), and want to know when to tune in. With some web series you never know when a new episode will air, and it could be months apart in some cases. WE LOVE SOAPS TV is working on a solution for some of that.
From my understanding the sound will greatly improve for THE BAY. In fact, I guarantee it. But the first webisode was released per the timeline set. I know from personal experience how difficult sound design can be, and how it can take longer than expected. GOTHAM and VENICE are two indie soap examples that had sound issues early but worked out the kinks. THE BAY could have missed their premiere deadline and spent time perfecting the sound. I believe eventually the first webisode will get re-edited and re-uploaded when there's time with better sound and, yes, Matt Ashford's name spelled right in the credits (for those who noticed that). [EDITOR'S NOTE: That type of mistake is very common even in daytime credits. I'm scared to think about all the typos Damon L. Jacobs and I publish around here, and that's after proofreading each other's work.]
I'm curious to know from the WE LOVE SOAPS TV viewers and readers, am I right about the consistency thing, and sticking to dates you set, especially with web shows? Are you much more likely to watch a web soap if it gets uploaded every Monday at 7 versus having to keep track of when it will be on? Or if it's a show you like or want to check out, might you not care about a familiar timeslot with a random schedule being fine for you? Are you willing to go the extra mile to find it? I'd love to validate my assumption. Also, would you have preferred THE BAY wait a week or two (not sure how long exactly but let's randomly guess a week or two to work on sound issues in the first webisode) and perfected the sound, and just announced on Sept. 15 there would be a delay. Or are you happy the show just premiered on the date they set with a few warts, but mostly top notch quality, especially the aesthetics? Weigh in in the comment section.
2. The show could have picked a better theme song. Due to the death of my mother (thank you for all the kind words by the way) I had to miss THE BAY screening so I watched on Wednesday on my laptop the same way as most everyone else. My very first impression after one listen was that it sounded like not-as-good rip-off of the PASSIONS theme or maybe something VENICE would play (not that it's a bad thing just different tones on different shows). I didn't love it or think it fit the show that we billed as a being in the vein of DYNASTY. I don't think I have any influence in this area but gave my feedback. I do think it will grow on me in time if I listen several more times. I'm not sure if this was meant to be the permanent theme or not. If I was a fan, I would make that assumption. Apologies if anyone from the show reads this and feels I'm dissing the song. That's not my intent at all. I just wasn't convinced it matched the show as I envisioned it. Maybe it will match the final product and we see it unfold on our computer screens. I actually loved the dramatic music played to open the "Confessions of the Garrett" previews. Does anyone else agree that would be a great option as theme song?
3. The length of the episodes is too short. This is a common complaint from daytime soap fans about most indie web soaps. I think the 5-10 minute length is pretty standard for most web series (ANACOSTIA is a notable web soap exception with 20 minute episodes, and VENICE has promised to be over 12 minutes this season). Each "Chapter" of THE BAY will consist of four webisodes (ie four webisodes equal one Chapter). A Chapter is equivalent to the 30 minute TV version (THE BAY has an international TV deal! And hopefully one in the U.S. soon.). Some video distributors do not allow shows over 10 minutes and that may be one reason why this "standard" has sort of developed for the length of most web series. There is also an assumption that people have a shorter attention span for web programming and that is probably correct, at least at this point in time.
I've recommended to the many indie soap producers who have talked to me over the past year to not divide up a bigger script, such as a two-hour television pilot, or take an indie film script and just break it down into 7 minute webisodes randomly because it tends to not work as a web series. Each webisode really needs a beginning, middle and end within the confines of the overall continuing story. Some type of cliffhanger to make people want to watch the next time is also necessary. Fans may not stick around for 10 webisodes to see where the story is going.
I think the way THE BAY is divided their Chapters into webisodes is going to be one of the better scenarios, and the first one felt about right. Perhaps something more dramatic could have happened at the end, but it did set things up nicely for future story. When you see the end of the Chapters it will probably feel more like the ending of a primetime weekly soap or a Friday cliffhanger on daytime. Again, under 10 minute episodes may just be the industry standard at the moment. And perhaps it makes it easier to get the show edited together on a smaller budget. You can edit one webisode at a time and release it and get feedback versus editing an entire Chapter which may be too long for many web content viewers. I believe THE BAY did revisit this as they produced the first webisodes to try to achieve that feel as much as possible within the confines of knowing they were also shooting a 30 minute TV show.
Knowing what's coming, I encourage everyone to at least watch a couple of additional episodes if you are having doubts after the first one. Shows on TV and the web may only get one chance to make a first impression, but how about waiting until the end of the first Chapter to decide if you will keep watching? It's free! And sadly, after Friday, we will have five hours less of a daytime soap to watch each week as AS THE WORLD TURNS leaves the airwaves.
Let us know what you thought of the premiere of THE BAY in the comments section as well as any other thoughts on indie soaps in general and the future. Look for our Indie Soap Beat Fall Preview Guide this weekend.