In the middle of 2020, a lot of people were stressing about the fate of the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, but perhaps few more so than Alexandra Keddie and Bobbie-Jean Henning. Are they athletes? No. But the release of their mockumentary web series The Power of the Dream, about two unathletic friends who think they can qualify for an Olympic berth, had been planned around the Games going ahead – and as the COVID-19 pandemic increased the likelihood that the event might be cancelled altogether, the show’s premise was on thin ice. ‘We started to think about all the things we could change; like, maybe we could do the Commonwealth Games or the Winter [Olympic] Games,’ Henning tells me.
Serendipitously, both the Olympics and the shoot for The Power of the Dream ended up being delayed, allowing Keddie and Henning to tweak their project for a July 2021 release – perfect timing, as it turned out. ‘It was definitely a good exercise to consider the time and place we were in,’ says Keddie. ‘We really didn’t want to make this a show about COVID [… The series] isn’t ignoring what happened, but still acknowledges it from the perspective of these characters.’
The Power of the Dream is just one title among a wave of Australian web series currently capitalising on the unique characteristics of shortform content. Another is Hug the Sun, an apparent long-lost Australian kids television series that is somewhere between a deranged version of Play School and the cult sci-fi series Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Created by comedians and performers Xavier Michelides and Ben Russell, and starring members of comedy troupe Aunty Donna, the series presents itself as an educational show teaching children about the sun god Oxtos and the fringe cult of followers who offer their lives, money and general wellbeing to the deity.
Director and producer Aaron McCann tells me that the project was inspired by a real Australian series. ‘The big touchstone was a 1980s show called Sing Me a Rainbow, […] a Christian TV show that Xavier remembered watching when he was a kid,’ says McCann. ‘He found some of it online […] and we watched that all the way through.’
Hug the Sun is attention-grabbing in part due to its seemingly authentic appearance and its use of VHS tracking: each episode has the appearance of having been videorecorded over the top of AFL matches and commercials. Currently, the series’ episodes on YouTube have cumulatively notched well over 500,000 views – Oxtos provides.
The show is so wild and inventive that it’s hard to imagine it as anything else but a web series in the current screen landscape in Australia. ‘Everything that’s around us – the zeitgeist – allows for new storytelling, especially in the web space,’ says McCann. ‘I don’t think traditional-model [TV] stations, traditional platforms, want strange, weird, interesting things.’
Online platforms provide not only new approaches to storytelling, but also new audiences. Scattered, the first production exclusively distributed on TikTok to have received development and production funding from Screen Australia, is a case in point. The dramedy series, consisting of thirty-eight one-minute episodes and shot entirely in portrait mode, revolves around the efforts of besties Sami (Zenya Carmellotti), Jules (Campbell Connelly) and Bo (Kurt Pimblett) to find the lost urn housing the ashes of their late friend Wil. To date, the series’ episodes have cumulatively received close to 700,000 views on TikTok, with the show’s profile on the website boasting 52,000 followers and over half-a-million likes.
Co-producer Hayley Adams – whose previous TikTok series, Love Songs, amassed 20 million views – has a strong focus and dedication to web series: ‘Most people approach a web series […] like, “Oh, I really wanted to make a movie but it’s not possible, so I’m going to make a web series,”’ she tells me. ‘[But] not every feature-film idea or TV series is going to work as a web series.’
Scattered is loaded with style, but it hasn’t been retrofitted for TikTok – rather, it was made with the platform and its audience top of mind, something that Adams says is key:
Given that Scattered is on TikTok specifically, it’s predominantly going out to Gen Z and young millennials [… Their] content literacy is so high; their ability to understand story quickly is very high. They recognise tropes; they recognise archetypes; they can see story arcs instantly. A certain shot, a certain costume, a certain word can communicate a lot, because we’re so used to consuming media, and I think that goes the same for content form.
Gen Z are so used to swapping between Netflix, TikTok and YouTube on their [phones] that they understand the visual language so fast that they can watch things at different lengths on different devices and it doesn’t disturb their viewing […] People assume that attention spans are waning; they’re so obsessed with social media; they can’t get off their phones […] But I don’t think it’s about attention span – I think there’s just [a] version of pace and visual language that they’re so across that they can just consume quickly and understand so quickly.
Talking after The Power of the Dream debuted at the same time as athletes from all around the world marched at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics, Keddie expresses a belief that, despite the pandemic’s impacts on the screen industries, the past year-and-a-half has been a prosperous period for a lot of creators.
‘Last year was a really great time for writers because there was so much support from the funding bodies and a lot of the broadcasters as well,’ she says.
So I think it’s exciting this year and next year to see what comes out of those developments, because a lot of people were afforded the opportunity to really sink their teeth into developing without the need to produce as quickly as we usually do.
The success of The Power of the Dream, Hug the Sun and Scattered suggests that that optimism may well be justified. Web series have always been a hub for new Australian talent, but these creators and producers are taking the format to the next level.