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Posts Tagged ‘Unconventional’

I am honored and excited to announce that the feature documentary that I produced with director Nicole Torre, “Houston We Have a Problem” has been invited to the Documentary Fortnight at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. This is a high profile event, so we hope to have a good crowd for both the 1pm and 3pm showings on February 20th, 2010.

For those of you that don’t know, “Houston We Have a Problem” is a feature film, shot on HD, about the history and future of US domestic energy policies beginning with the Wildcatter’s discovery of oil in the late 1800’s. The film premiered at AFI-DALLAS in March 2009 and has gone on to play at over a dozen festivals to critical acclaim, nationally and internationally, including the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam.

That following day, February 21st, the feature comedy that I produced, “Tales from the Catholic Church of Elvis” will be in competition at the Big Muddy Film Festival in Southern Illinois. I’m glad to have the film playing there since this is the very same film festival that I won my very first film award 22 years ago for “Travelin’ Trains” (Best Narrative Film) That film can now be viewed on IMDB.

I’m also excited to announce the world premiere in March of another comedy I produced, directed by Diane Namm, “Telemafia” at the Dingle Film Festival in Ireland.

In regard to upcoming projects, I am reviewing a few proposals, but like for most of us, funding is tight. I’m still trying to get my documentary feature “Witness Trees” and narrative feature “Press>Play” financed, but am also producing/line producing and Assistant Directing for other production companies again. I have also partnered with Jeff Seckendorf for commerical productions at Snaproll Films. Check out the body of work at the website.

Luckily, I also do have some post production rentals coming in to Unconventional Media through Stefan Rhys, a terrific editor. Check out his reel at www.CoffeeCartProductions.com We are also starting to see a return on the 4-hour DVD of the “BrandU – Conscious Entrepreneur Experience” presentation and talk show that I produced and directed through Unconventional Media last year. You can get a ten minute taste of the show at www.BrandU.com/FreeCEE

I also continue mentoring new filmmakers with the OneOnOne Film Training program and have been scheduled to teach another one of my week long workshops on Line Producing/PM/AD work in Rockport, Maine at the Maine Media Workshops in late June.

Looking forward to a productive 2010. As always, you can get updates at my website, EricMofford.com

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Houston We Have A Problem,” Nicole Torre‘s documentary feature that I helped produce, had a good run of film festivals this year (noted here in previous blogs). After the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam we began discussions on final distribution and if the film was a “feature” documentary or one slated for television.

Doculink, a documenatry discussion board (and one of the great resources for any filmmaker) has recently carried many postings on the top documentaries of the decade and some Listers were limiting their choices on “theatrical” releases. I’ve never met Adam Hyman with Los Angeles Filmforum, but I thought he did an amazing job of addressing the issue on Doculink and with his permission, I reprint it below.

American Documentary “Feature” vs. “Television” by Adam Hyman

There is an absurd division (although one with real economic and artistic effects) between “feature” and “television” docs in America, where almost always only the former are taken seriously, although, as with the UK, probably 95% or more
are made for the latter.

A large element of this is that the television docs almost always have pre-ordained styles from the networks, and often have narrators, and both of these factors are considered limitations on being either “true” documentaries or “expressions of the director.” Most often the latter can be true, when one does watch various television doc series (I am for now separating “reality” from “non-fiction” or “documentary” shows, as even the Academy does now), one can see is the issues, particularly in visuals and in structure. I think that despite those limitations (and lack of budgets for high-end CGI or reenactments), many television docs still have a smart and often interesting (in content if not in style) approach to their topics.

In part this is tied to the eternal hierarchy that the film world does its best to instill, with theatrical releases being “better” or at least more worthy of analysis than works made for television. (In part to overcome the vastly greater viewership of television). In part it’s related to the criticism world, still often conducted in terms of auteurs, where theatrical releases are seen as work of a director, and television works are seen as works of a producer and network executives. There is truth in the latter, of course, but the baby is also thrown out with the bath water.

Usually docs with theatrical releases are the only ones that get on people’s radars. Many of the best docs, of course, never get a theatrical release in the US, nor a TV release; if they are from a foreign country or are
unconventional (or even more just “observational”), perhaps they just play a festival or two, and that’s it. It’s also impossible to keep up with even a reasonable percentage of works made for television (or theaters, really).

Another factor is the bias in America for direct cinema docs as “truer” over any with narration or reenactments, also a longer discussion… There are a variety of other reasons as well, which I hope will be raised by others.

But, in the USA, the only documentary director who works for TV whose name is more generally known is Ken Burns, even though many others should be known. But for example, I think the program “102 Minutes That Changed
America
,” which was a History Channel show, was a remarkable documentary – the experience of the World Trade Center collapse assembled entirely from home videos, without narration. I am amazed that the History Channel aired it. And I can’t tell you the name of the director. But it’s a work that is worthy of viewing and discussion. But at the same time the History Channel (I also will never start calling it “History” as they attempt to rebrand it, especially as they reduce the
historical content on it) also still airs in the daytime lots of WWII docs, almost all stylistically the same, etc.

There’s also a strong bias from the Academy against “music” docs, and for “activism” and “war” docs. People (well, Academies) usually evaluate docs based on their subject and not on how good the film actually is…but that’s a whole other discussion. I did note the absence of music docs from Erin’s very good starting list (I would call it 50 Worthy Films, rather than “Best” but whatever) – “Anvil”; “Some Kind of Monster”; “Devil & Daniel Johnston” and “DiG!” I think are also
worthy films from the Aughts. Ah, but look, I also have just listed 4 that had theatrical releases, and I bet there are some fine ones made for TV. Just thought of one – “Musician” in the “Work” series – a portrait of Ken Vandermark, an hour doc, probably shown only on European television and some alternative venues in the US, but made by a Chicago filmmaker, Daniel Kraus. But portraits of musicians are also never considered to be “important” films, like those of other topics, even though they often get theatrical releases if the musicians have suitable public following.

Ah, another discussion of underlying biases – the best result of “Best of” lists… 🙂

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As a follow up to my previous blog on mentoring, I had the privilege yesterday of attending a director’s retreat sponsored by the DGA.  The subject was the best tools for directing actors in feature films and television.  It was a wealth of information that I’ll only be able to touch on here.

I came into the retreat with more experience then some from my theater directing background (I’m still a directing member with Theatre Neo) and having read Judith Weston‘s wonderful book “Directing Actors” and Sidney Lumet’s important book, “Making Movies.”  Both books were mentioned more then once.  I’ve never taken any of Weston’s workshops but have worked with director’s that have gone through her course and met her a few times at the International Film and Video Workshops (now Maine Media Workshops).  I can’t recommend it enough.

Director John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, War Games), opened with a keynote address promoting his new book, “I’ll be in My Trailer.”  Badham, now directing episodic television, has been in the business for over 35 years.  He outlined five common mistakes director’s make that the other director’s (Neil LaBute, Kimberly Pierce, Jamie Babbit, David O. Russell, Jeremy Kagan, and Gordon and Helen Hunt) reiterated in the panel discussions.  First mistake, especially common in television is the “anonymous” director.  They all discussed the importance of introducing yourself to the actors, especially the nervous Day players.  Many directors get caught up in the technical and get flustered when the actors appear on the set with their own ideas.  Rehearsal is the most important thing and time with the actors must be scheduled into a production.  Television is harder because of time, but even a read through will help the director and actor’s relationship.  Come in early and go to the trailers while the actor is getting make up, introduce yourself, address their concerns before you go to the set at call time.

All the directors found it better for the production if they had enough rehearsal time.  Neil LaBute discussed respecting the actor’s process, no matter how crazy it seems.  Casting is so important especially with short rehearsal times, but if an actor is forced on you because of financing, you’ve got to research what that actor is capable of doing, rethink how you’ll approach the project.  At least, get a lunch meeting before you meet on the set.  Some actors know the camera, understand lenses.  They can deliver their performance in a few takes, others only really deliver after many takes.  The more you know about the actors personalities and previous work, the better you can plan your schedule, shooting the coverage of the actors based on their strongest ability to deliver.

The second mistake is hiding behind video monitors and yelling out direction or saying “nothing,” which is even worse.  Now, I’ve worked on a few feature films with directors like this and it never fails that the end product suffers.  If nothing else, say “great” after “cut.”  “More energy” is not good direction.  Action verbs that mean the same thing but at different degrees works much better then “Make it bigger” or “Make it smaller.”  Directors need to be by the actors.  Kimberly Pierce wears a small video monitor around her neck, so that she can do both.  Helen Hunt felt a little distance is good for sex scenes, certainly a limited crew around the actors.  All the directors hate the “village of idiots” that gather around a video monitor.

Both David O. Russell and Neil LaBute are doing their next film on digital so that they can just keep rolling, let their actors play, but Helen Hunt has been on a couple of digital features and finds them “too loose, not enough focus.”  Kimberly Pierce likes the ability to do more takes by changing the film lens and asking for the actor to give a different performance.  She sees no use in having the same take over and over again.  All agreed that having a second camera (B camera) will save you in the editing room.

Another big mistake is the director wanting to be the nice guy and never creating his or her authority.  Discipline actors that haven’t done their homework or learned their lines.  Failure is OK, but not reading the script is not.  It’s also useless to explain the scene to the actor, they can read that in the script.  They need to understand what their character wants in the scene and why?  But don’t give them the answer, they need to own the reason, then they can bring it to their performance.  Notes are important to the actor, but give it to them privately, a secret note, not a public shout out.

What if the actor doesn’t do what you want them to do, for the blocking of the scene or the line reading you expect.  It’s a big mistake to just tell the actor where to go, you need to help them find it out on their own.  Another big reason for the rehearsal process.  Gordon Hunt, Helen Hunt’s father and a long time television and theater director, including numerous episodes of “Mad about You,” suggests using the term, “how about” when prompting actors to try a blocking idea.  If the actor states that his character wouldn’t do that, then ask what his character would do, most of the time it isn’t the action, but a word that bothers the actor.  Hunt also revealed his secret to getting a line reading.  On the next take, if you are the director, you yell out to begin the next take at the particular line you want corrected and you give the exact line reading you desire.  It’s worked for him almost every time for close to fifty years.

The fifth mistake is saying “No.”  You need to help the actor get out of their personal polite space.  If an actor has an idea, let them discover it doesn’t work on their own.  I certainly have discovered this technique in many of my theater productions.  Actors have come in with some strange concept or prop and usually discover if it isn’t working.  On the other hand, they sometimes added a richness to the character that I didn’t think about before.  Be open.  “We will do it” is better then “you will do it”.  Also, realize that if an actor has a problem with his or her wardrobe, don’t ignore it because usually it has nothing to do with wardrobe and everything to do with the character they are portraying.  That’s an issue that needs to be resolved immediately.

Helen Hunt added much to the day because of her experiences from both in front and behind the camera.  In her view, all directors should take acting classes to understand the actor’s point of reference.  I agree and certainly find myself falling back on those Emerson College acting courses to guide my directing work.  Neil LaBute started as a student actor and many of his best films have been done working with actors like Aaron Eckhart that he has known since those days.  One of my favorite times directing was when I made the web series, “Unconventional,” because I pulled about fifteen actors that I had worked with in the theater, here in Los Angeles, and we created these characters based on my notes and the actors ideas.  There was no script, it was just me, a camera and the actors.  It was exhilarating and fun.  It’s the reason I got into this business in the first place.  It was nice to be reminded.  To quote director Martha Coolidge, “the most important role of a director is to work with actors.”

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sunburstarborglyph1Last Night I saw the IMAX version of “Dark Knight” and all I can say is WOW!  Not only is the film a great story, but it is well acted and very well directed by Christopher Nolan.  I’d seen the film during its original release and enjoyed it at a regular movie theater, but after seeing the footage from the feature that was actually shot with IMAX, on an IMAX screen, I’m blown away.  Okay, I get it.  No wonder no one goes to the theater to see small independent films.  This is a movie worthy of the big screen.

Previous to “Dark Knight” I had seen only documentaries in the IMAX format.  I always enjoyed them, but wondered why the format wasn’t used more often for large scale productions, especially theatrical narrative films.  I’m not talking about blowing up 35mm prints for IMAX screenings, I mean really shooting with IMAX cameras.  I know the cameras are heavy and loud, so some projects are just not suited for the format, but I think it really takes a genius like Christopher Nolan to show what can be done creatively with the format.  These are definitely Unconventional times!

I have an IMAX movie I want to make.  Actually, I’ve wanted to make it for a long time, but now maybe the time is right.  For over 10 years, Singer-Songerwriter-Artist, Sandy Corley and I have been developing, “Witness Trees.”  Only problem is it is not a documentary or a narrative film like “Dark Knight,” it’s an art film (am I even allowed to say that word?).

Beech trees of the Southeast United States have stood for over one hundred years as unspeaking witnesses to sunlit mornings, lashing storms, nocturnal secrets, birth, death and historic occasions of celebration and despair.  Voices from the past still speak through the bark of these trees because beginning with the American Indians and later with the early European settlers, “Arborglyphs” have been carved into the trees, holding vital information and historical memories.  These are the messages spanning the Revolutionary war, the “Trail of Tears”, the war between the States and now, the present day.

You can see this is no ordinary film, it is a story as old as the forests.  Soon these Arborglyph messages will be silenced and lost.  Due to a natural end of lifespan, clear-cutting, acid rain, storms and their status as a non-timber “trash tree”, there is  a very little time left to document these “Witness Trees”.  Today’s remaining Arborglyphs are not only historical artifacts and national treasures, but are art forms from the Cherokees, Creek Confederacy, nameless soldiers, settlers and other travelers on the trails of our past, who left no other visible legacy.  This is an environmental story, an American Indian story, a “DaVinci Code” like story.

These trees exist and many have been documented and included on our website, WitnessTrees.org, but imagine an IMAX film with images of American Indian stories and legend, historical reenactments, environmental and scientific documents, with music and art inspired by these trees.  A film that makes you feel like you are in these forests like only an IMAX film can.  That’s the film I’ve always wanted to make.

I first met Sandy Corley, American Indian, in 1990, as she was developing a site sculpture and performance piece protest of the 500 year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America in 1992.  I was already a huge fan of poet/musician John Trudell and a strong believer in the spiritual and traditional programs of the American Indian Movement (AIM).  Sandy and her husband, Howard Deutsch, had been researching, gathering endorsements, shooting still photos and interviewing historians, authors, activists, wilderness magazine publishers, Georgia trail trees experts, Indian education directors, Georgia land lottery experts, anthropologists, archeologists, and others about this uniquely southern, endangered treasure, the Arborglyph.  In fact, much of Sandy’s music and art centers on these Beech tree carvings.  It was through Sandy that I later met others that cared and worked to save these Southeastern forests including Lamar Marshall and the wonderful organization, Wild South.

Since starting the project many sickening losses have occurred.  Little time is left to document the voices of these silent sentinels in order to preserve and pass on their messages to future southeastern generations and the world.

I don’t know how we got to this point, but speaking of sickening losses, something must be done now to free Leonard Peltier.  For those that don’t know Leonard Peltier, a Lakota Indian, is on Amnesty International’s list of political prisoners.  It is time to stop the 34 years of injustice that this innocent man has spent in prison.  Freedom for Leonard Peltier is way overdue!

If you saw the 1992 film, “Incident at Oglala,” produced by Robert Redford and directed by Michael Apted (and if you haven’t you should), then you will know that Leonard Peltier, a leader of AIM came to assist the Oglala Lakota People of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in the mid 1970’s.  It was here on June 26, 1975, that the tragic shoot-out with Federal Agents occurred.  The court record in this case clearly shows that government prosecutors do not know who killed the agents, nor what role Leonard Peltier “may have’ played in the shoot-out.”  It is known that Peltier participated in the planning of community activities, religious ceremonies, programs for self-sufficiency, and improved living conditions. He also helped to organize security for the traditional people who were being targeted for violence by the pro-assimilation tribal chairman and his vigilantes.  He is a father, a grandfather, an artist, a writer, and an Indigenous rights activist.  He is not a killer.  Leonard Peltier was convicted to two life sentences based on fabricated testimony and circumstantial evidence.  September 12th of this year marked his 64th birthday.

Another parole application will be filed this month. The earliest that hearing is likely to occur is in January 2009 (according to the Parole Commission’s schedule for in-person parole reviews to be held at USP-Lewisburg, where Peltier is currently imprisoned).  We must all help Leonard Peltier get justice and freedom.  Other persons guilty of worse crimes have been released time and time again on parole or pardoned, yet Mr. Peltier remains imprisoned.  Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchu, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, the Dalai Lama, the European Parliament, the Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, and Rev. Jesse Jackson are only a few who have called for his freedom. To many Indigenous Peoples, Leonard Peltier is a symbol of the long history of abuse and repression they have endured.

From behind bars, Leonard Peltier has helped to establish scholarships for Native students and special programs for Indigenous youth. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times.  For more information check out his biography entitled “Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance” (St. Martin’s Press,1999) or contact Freedom Archives.

For me, Leonard Peltier is a white knight in dark times.  If people are truly ready for change, then he will finally be released from prison, just like Nelson Mandela was after the dark days of Apartheid.

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It’s close to Thanksgiving, but I’m not thankful, I’m distracted.  I’m “reworking” the budget for my script “Press>Play” from 3.5 million down to 1 million.  “Press>Play,” is an erotic journey of obsession, a drama about manipulation. Paul Beck is a video vulture, exaggerates news stories, edits images and facts to generate entertainment. Vivian DeBeche is an aspiring actress with little talent, playing out roles from old movies. A modern day couple that communicates, emotional and sexually, using a camera and Internet voyeurism as their tools.  I wrote the first draft in 1990.  At that time it was more science fiction, then slice of life.  Check out the website, PressPlayMovie.com.

When talking about new media and unconventional films, I think this project fits the bill.  So does the producer at Blue Horseshoe Productions, just not at 3.5 million, not in today’s economy, not if you’re making a non-genre independent film.  I’m sure you’ve heard the stories, they’re grim.  Seems every day there is another article in the Hollywood Reporter or Variety about the economy taking it’s toll on making independent films.  In the Sunday, November 23rd issue of the Los Angeles Times, Rachel Abramowitz writes how as funding gets scarce, filmmakers must become more creative.  Last week at the American Film Market (AFM) everyone looked dazed and disappointed.  Few people were buying.  I guess this talk of how difficult it has become to sell an indie film started with CEO of The Film Department (and former President of Miramax) Mark Gill’s now famous “the sky is falling” speech at the Los Angeles Film FestivalIndiewire still has it posted up on their website.  Basically, Gill lists Paramount folding Paramount Vantage, Warner Brothers closing Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse, many other smaller companies laying off employees or closing their doors as just a small sampling of the dying breath of indie film.  The glut of films and high costs of advertising are also destroying the business.  In a world with too many choices, companies can’t risk the marketing money on most movies.  Now, the credit crunch has further squeezed the independent filmmaker.  Many banks have just stopped giving money to films.

So what is someone that has a project like my feature, “Press>Play” to do.  Well, one of the things Gill believes has hurt independent movies is all the other forms of alternative entertainment that exist today, iPods to Xboxes to Tivos to YouTube videos and excellent cable television shows.  Well, isn’t that the Unconventional Media mantra.  If we can’t beat them, let’s join them.  That’s what makes a film like “Press>Play” so perfect for this day and age.  It’s a film that uses these alternatives as part of its story.  We will also use this new media to promote and distribute.  It just won’t be made in Los Angeles because there are no financial incentives like there are in most of the other States.  As I chip away at the budget, I’ve got to make a bunch of compromises, location being one of the first.  It’s depressing, but I want to see the film get made.

In the October 30 issue of indiewire, Anthony Kaufman writes about the cash crunch and the difficulty of raising funds, but some producers are still getting movies made, and new financiers have appeared.  He believes the real problem is in distribution.  There just aren’t as many places to go anymore and the distributors that do still exist are being very careful.  That’s what I was seeing at AFM.  No risk taking.  And why should they, not when it takes a huge publicity and advertising budget, sometimes more then it cost to make the movie, to get seats filled in a theater.  Certainly, the distribution strategy can’t be that your film is going to win at Sundance and then get picked up, because even some of the winners are not playing theatrically anymore.  Independent distributors are even promoting the idea that getting your feature film on the Internet is better for your film then a theatrical run.  Yikes, how can our investors make their money back?

Mark Gill believes “if you decide to make a movie budgeted under $10 million on your own tomorrow, you have a 99.9% chance of failure.”  Thankfully, Stacy Parks offers some more positive solutions through her terrific organization, Film Specific.  It is her belief that any budget over 5 million needs a name attached and studio backing, so keep the budget low and hire up and coming actors, terrific, future names.  In fact if you’re lucky, maybe they’ll be a name by the time your film is completed.  I found it interesting that she warns against shooting DV tape because of the difficulty to sell the film overseas.  An Independent film has such a slim chance of success without global sales, so this is important information.  As indicated in previous posts, I’ve become a huge proponent of the RED camera which I think may change up these odds and still keep the budget low.

Parks also warns against inflated numbers, keep the sales projections realistic.  It is very unlikely that your independent film will make millions, so don’t lie to your investors.  You just want to show that the film will make a profit.  This can be done by finding niche markets on-line and elsewhere.  If you want to do the work, you can also self distribute, which has a much better chance of higher return.  I’ve been experimenting with this idea recently with my short film, Travelin’ Trains.  Searching out the other train websites, fansites, etc and leaving a link to the website for my film.  It seems to be working.  I think Arin Crumley and Susan Buice did this brilliantly with their Slamdance feature film winner, “Four Eyed Monsters.”  They showed the film at festivals, created websites, even edited the film into webisodes for YouTube.  Their experience is really a how-to on self distribution, too bad they didn’t make much money.

So I’m now back to reworking the budget.  It’s a lot of work.  I guess Mark Gill is right, “it’s not enough to have access to the moviemaking process. Talent matters more.”  I’ve had great reactions to the screenplay, many envision a good film.  Now, if I could only get the damn thing made and seen, it will be worth the 18 years I’ve spent developing the project.

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I just watched the premiere of my friend Mary Feuer’s new webisode series, “With the Angels” on Strike.TV.  The story is about a young religious Arkansas woman moving to Venice, California and discovering how much she is a fish out of water.  Some fun stuff, good acting and writing, which in the end is the key to good webisodes.  In fact, there were a few webisode shows on Strike.TV that I found better then most other websites.  I shouldn’t be surprised, Mary comes from doing close to sixty shows as the head writer for LonelyGirl15.  She was also the Story Editor for “Buried Alive” on FEARnet.com.

It really gets you wondering where all these web series are headed.  When I did “Unconventional and “Senior Year” back in 2002, there were very few webisodes, now they seem to be everywhere.  The big question is are people watching.  So many of these shows have the feel of failed television pilots, but others hold up on their own.  The previously mentioned LonelyGirl15 continues to be a leading force, building storylines beyond the original character, Bree.  A whole conspiracy theory and underground resistance keeps the show interesting and worth watching.

Most of these webisodes use YouTube both as a server and as an audience resource, a viral marketplace.  In July, five billion videos were viewed on YouTube, was one of them yours?  Now after experimenting for months with long-form, YouTube recently made the announcement that they would start offering full length episodes of television shows.  YouTube also created “theater view,” a larger video player for longer content.  So if YouTube is now showing television shows, what happens to webisodes?

The longer videos will include advertising before, during and after each episode. YouTube has resisted this for shorter videos, which makes sense, but are now looking at in-video overlays.  I don’t know if you’ve seen these, but I can’t stand them.  The overlays resemble the banner advertisements that appear at the bottom of television programs.  As a content producer and director, I find these things distracting and irritating.  But I guess that is the point.  Unless you’re going to pay for the series yourself, it’s got to have a money source and advertising and sponsors is what is paying those production costs, no matter how small.  So even the advertising banners and advertising breaks will resemble television.

I prefer the format of Strike.TV and FEARnet.com.  They have interactive areas that include advertising banners and usually you get a short commercial before the requested video, but once the program begins, there are no interruptions. In fact, the whole interactive qualities of comments, games, behind the scenes documentaries, etc. is really the thing what separates these webisodes from regular television.  I firmly believe that any web series has to have interactive elements if for no other reason then to draw your audience in and remain on the site beyond the short video.  This is becoming the only difference between a series on the web and one on television.  Something to consider if you are creating a new show.

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