NEW YORK -- How much does a good Web series cost?
That's been an evolving but constant question as digital series multiply. Increasingly, Internet-based series aspire to television-level quality, while trying to get by on Web-sized budgets.
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But this has mainly meant that most Web series look shoddy. Fast and cheap has brought a rise in talk-show style productions, particularly among YouTube's channels and Yahoo's original programming. Comedy, less reliant on production value, is also less expensive, a truism proven by Zach Galifianakis' "Between Two Ferns," which flourished with merely a guest and two potted plants.
Drama, though, has always been a more costly proposition. On the Web, the economics usually just haven't added up.
Enter "H+," a digital series produced by Bryan Singer, the director of "The Usual Suspects" and "X-Men," as well as the executive producer of one of those high-price TV dramas, "House." The sci-fi "H+" is an ambitious, 48-part show with clear intentions of raising the bar on digital series and bringing a higher standard of production value to the web.
"There were always different forms of short comedic programming (online), but I primarily come out of narrative drama or action adventure," says Singer. "So for me, I wanted us to try to explore something more cinematic in the Internet space -- something that would be very stylized, with a high production value, but at the same time be structured for the Internet."
The series, produced by Warner Premiere, debuted on YouTube in August and updates with a new 4- to 7-minute episode every Wednesday, a pace that will take its run into January. Its production budget was less than $2 million, a fairly remarkable sum considering the series is 255 minutes in total and includes action scenes, visual effects and international settings.
By stretching every dollar of its budget and managing to achieve a production value far above most Web fare, "H+" could provide a blueprint for an industry striving to make hits with peanuts.
"We somehow managed to pull it off," says director Stewart Hendler, who helmed the 2009 horror film "Sorority Row." "We kind of referred to ourselves as the biggest student film in history."
"H+" is set in a near future where nearly everyone has a chip installed in their brains that blends the Internet with their minds. People scroll through data and make phone calls with the flick of the wrist, toggling an interface laid over eyesight. But a virus has suddenly spread through the device, immediately killing a third of the population.
With obvious inspiration from "Lost," the series shifts back and forth in time, gathering stories from before and after the event to piece together why it happened. The series is meant to be nonlinear, leaving episode order choice up to the viewer. (A sliding timeline helps chart to the plot.)
The series, written by John Cabrera ("Gilmore Girls") and Cosimo De Tommaso, was originally pitched in 2008 to Singer's Bad Hat Harry production company as a TV series. At the time, the Web series outlook was fairly bleak, but "H+" now arrives amid a land rush led by Hulu, Netflix, YouTube and Yahoo, including names like Tom Hanks, Ben Stiller, Jerry Seinfeld and Richard Linklater. Anthony Zuiker, the creator of "CSI," will this fall premiere a 90-minute cybercrime drama for Yahoo.
"It's been incredibly fortuitous," says Hendler. "Web series now have more legitimacy. But we still feel like this project is a lot higher end of polish and scope than the stuff that's coming out. It's doing exactly what we wanted it to in a space that now seems like it's got more attention focused on it."
An early choice that paid dividends was decamping to Santiago, Chile, where the country's varied geography offered stand-ins for the script's international locations. Hendler, whom Singer picked partially based on his ability to wring high production value out of TV commercial he directed, led a 29-day shoot that covered 54 different locations.
The shoot was split up, though, between four weeks of threadbare, simple scenes, and a one week in which the crew size tripled and the larger set pieces were filmed. Those larger "scope moments" were sprinkled out across the 48 episodes.
"That's an old (Roger) Corman philosophy: Shoot the drama, get really good actors," says Singer. "And then for the epic stuff, just make sure you parcel enough for your visual effects and your big set pieces."
"H+" isn't the first digital series to take lessons from the low-budget, independent filmmakers of the `60s and `70s. But its successes could point the way for further dramatic forays on the Web.
"I'm super proud of what we got done for this money," says Hendler, who also recently directed a five-part Halo series to debut in October. "Whether it's a repeatable formula, I don't know. But I don't think it's terribly far off from something that could be done again."
"H+" is aiming to make money through sponsors and advertising, and has thus far found audiences ranging from about 25,000 to 500,000 viewers per episode. Singer declined to judge the series' financial success yet, saying it was too early. A key factor for him, also, was the ability to potentially release "H+" another way, possibly as a two-part miniseries or a long-form movie. Such flexibility, Singer said, was necessary for any chance of making money.
But Singer, whose fondness for labyrinthine plot twists helped forge his career in movies, isn't judging success by the financials. Instead, his satisfaction, he says, comes from a more basic achievement: "The fact that we pulled it off."