Bob Chapin shares his inspiration for the shared story world, The Hunted, a project that’s been running for over a decade. Bob also talks about lessons learned while overseeing this project, how the budgetary practicalities shaped the world mythology, why he says to give up chasing the illusion of control, and how even he had no idea what he was starting when he launched The Hunted.
What was your motivation for deciding to explore collaborative world building and storytelling?
The decision was made even before there were words like “collaborative world building.” The show was created in 2001 as a class project for my stage combat students in Los Angeles. I’ve been teaching and performing swordplay in movies for over thirty years. And one of the most important aspects of stage combat is the “stage” part – practical experience on stage or on camera. I had put together several live shows, but it was always a huge undertaking. I was more interested in film, and so were my students. Our first attempt on camera was a parody called The Ultimate Deathmatch Workout.
But if I wanted to continue creating content, I needed some kind of regular series. At the time, a friend of mine in LA had created a show called Have Sword Will Travel on cable TV. It was extremely ambitious, since it was a fantasy-based series which required costumes and specific locations. We didn’t want to spend money we didn’t have, so we needed a concept that could be shot on a $0 budget. I also wanted to allow students to shoot their own episodes, so we needed a narrative that could support multiple characters and storylines. The idea of the TV show Cops hit me, and it worked perfectly since reality TV was just getting popular, and it fit within our non-existent budget.
But rather than doing a cable access show, I would put my computer science degree to work by trying out this new medium, the “webisode.” Even in its infancy, I could see the awesome potential of the internet as a storytelling medium and worldwide marketing and distribution tool.
Rather than waiting to find funding through a studio or indie production company, we raised the money ourselves through Kickstarter
What were some of the factors that influenced your decision to take a collaborative approach to world building and participatory storytelling?
A collaboration approach allows for a steady stream of content, which is important when trying to maintain a fan base. And it took the pressure off me to create every episode, which was extremely difficult while trying to work a regular day job.
Contributors bring additional resources to the show that you might not have access to: cast, crew, equipment, locations. I now have episodes from all over the country without ever leaving my back yard. We have an episode shot in Canada featuring an entire SWAT team!
User content builds an audience without marketing. Look at YouTube. Contributors tell their friends and family about their work, and they tell their friends, etc.
Contributors even help with traditional marketing – posting their Hunted videos on other sites, interviews, convention appearances, etc. One of our contributors in Florida not only helped us advertise at a major convention on the east coast, he also brought in his friend and actor Richard Hatch for a quick episode.
Mainly, I was interested in seeing where the show would go and what my students would come up with. I had no idea it would go this far.
How do you like to describe The Hunted?
I’ve always described The Hunted as a sword-slinging, vampire-slaying cross between Buffy and Cops. The show follows people who have been bitten by vampires and documents their attempts to prove the existence of the bloodsuckers to the rest of the world.
We’ve tweaked the lore a bit to say that vampires have developed an immunity to everything, and they can only be killed by decapitation, which helps us justify the swordplay. Vampires can also walk around in sunlight, which keeps us from having to shoot the entire show at night, which can require a lot of setup time and money for lighting.
Unfortunately, we never got around to shooting our pilot episode which explains all this, which is why we’re now in production on our feature film.
When we started, there were maybe a couple dozen [online] shows. The last quote I heard from Blip.tv is that there are easily over 50,000 web shows online.
Most shared worlds to date have been text-based in nature. Why did you choose film/video, and how do you think it compares to creating/maintaining a shared world built primarily of text?
I never even considered a text-based world since this was a project for our film combat class. I’m sure it would’ve been a helluva lot easier though! Even though there a plenty of tools out there for virtually anyone to shoot and edit video, it can still be a daunting task for some people to create an episode of The Hunted.
I’m hoping to expand the world soon to include text-based content, although I tried hosting a BBS for a while where people posted as their characters. It was confusing for some who weren’t sure if this was real or not. Eventually, the BBS simply died off, but the interest in filmmaking remained.
Anything else fans can expect outside the webisode format?
Feature film and episodic TV / cable – we’re working on it! And we’ve been talking about an augmented reality iphone app which is very exciting.
What was a pleasant surprise you had with The Hunted?
Before I came up with the show, I tried many venues for my stage combat class – mostly live shows that were extremely difficult to cast, rehearse, and perform. When I came up with the idea of a filmed venue (especially in LA), people suddenly took notice. Los Angeles is a film town, so it was much easier to find talent (even the occasional name actor). What’s more, we didn’t need to herd an entire cast for rehearsals and live performances. We shot episodes when and where we wanted.
And I’m amazed at what we’ve been able to pull off over the years. We’ve shot some fairly ambitious episodes with some awesome talent at locations like the Hollywood Bowl and Comic Con. We’ve had professionals and celebrities come on board and donate their time as cast, crew, or judges for our contests. What’s more, thanks to user content, episodes appear out of nowhere from filmmakers I’ve never heard of before.
And now that all of Hollywood is taking a huge interest in the internet, our little no-budget show suddenly has street cred. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that MTV launched an extremely similar show called Death Valley which is Cops with vampires, werewolves and zombies. Fortunately, they still haven’t figured out how to make this work for user content, which keeps our concept fresh.
My biggest surprise is that I had no idea the show would still be going after ten years and is now slated to become a feature film. Last year we decided to finally shoot the pilot for the show as a feature film. And rather than waiting to find funding through a studio or indie production company, we raised the money ourselves through Kickstarter.
Suddenly, strangers were kicking in thousands of dollars to help make this happen. What’s more, we now have the backing of a major studio to help with production costs.
Give up control. You have to give up the notion that you are not the only one who can tell a compelling story.
What was an unexpected challenge you had with The Hunted?
When I started the series, content delivery was a big issue. I did a lot of R&D on media players to try and deliver the best-looking content in the least amount of time over 56K dialup connections. What’s worse, our show was all action, which sucked when it came to compression. The winner at the time was Realplayer, which could deliver a 5-10 minute episode in about 20 minutes at a resolution of 160×120.
And shooting action proved to be a challenge since we had decided to go with a reality-TV approach, which meant doing entire action sequences without cutaways or cool inserts which is what makes a fight scene really work. We had to actually choreograph our cameraman into the fight to be in the right place at the right time.
But the real challenge nowadays is trying to get eyes on the show. There is so much content out there, it’s easy to get lost in the thousands of web shows that are popping up every day. When we started, there were maybe a couple dozen shows. The last quote I heard from Blip.tv is that there are easily over 50,000 web shows online.
And it’s going to continue to get harder, with network shows making the move to the internet with star names and real directors. It’s incredibly difficult for an indie web show to make it these days with limited budget and resources. That’s why I think that user content is the key. It’s one of the reasons YouTube is still the most watched channel in the world. Also having a $0 budget helps. Over the years I’ve seen thousands of web shows come and go. I believe what’s saved us is a combination of user content and budget, plus a concept that works for both.
My biggest challenge is that for the most part, it’s still a one man show. Sure, user content helps, but there’s a never-ending list when it comes to producing episodes, marketing, web development, etc. I’ve really got to pick my battles and find better ways to automate things. It used to take me forever just to post updates to Facebook, Blogger, Twitter, etc. Thankfully I discovered ping.fm which aggregates all of my social network updates. And I recently managed to delegate some of the work to a new service called oDesk, where you can find contractors online to help with virtually anything from web design to creating a Wikipedia article.
But sometimes a one-man show can be fun, too. Not only do you get to have a hand in everything from filming to music production, you don’t need to get permission or wait on anyone to shoot an episode, as seen in part 2 of the episode “Ghost Hunted” which was shot entirely by myself at an awesome location with no cast or crew.
How much of The Hunted content is available for free (and how is paid-for content accessed – subscription? work-basis?)?
All of our content is free online, although we do have a 2 disc DVD set available for purchase on our website.
How can people participate in The Hunted?
Basically, you create an episode, upload it to your YouTube account and send us a link. I’ve found the easier you allow users to submit content, the better.
I typically like to help with things like story creation and visual effects. Many folks have no idea where to start when it comes to shooting an episode, and the visual effects aren’t extensive, but they can be challenging. We have a “tips” page on our main site to get filmmakers started, and we have a resource board which lists available cast, crew, and services.
Eventually, I’d like to make it easy for users to submit all kinds of content – pictures, blogs, profiles, etc. The more content we get, the more people have a vested interest in the show, the more immersive the world becomes.
Can contributors make money? If so, how?
We hold regular contests with cash prizes up to $1,000 for best episode. Contributors also have the ability to individually monetize their own YouTube videos. Almost as important as money, however, is exposure. Our contests are judged by Hollywood professionals (directors, producers, agents, stunt coordinators, etc). Thanks to our first contest, our winner not only landed a role in the TV series Leverage, he also signed with a major Hollywood agent. Here’s Kendall Wells from Oregon with his submission “Don’t Try This at Home.”
What rights do contributors have over their derivative works?
Filmmakers get to keep all rights to their content through YouTube. YouTube also serves to act as copyright control for our episodes, which is one less thing we have to worry about.
Can a contributor’s derivative work be used by another contributor (i.e., can fans remix other fans’ submitted work)?
I allow any of my episodes to be utilized by other contributors. I think it’s simply common courtesy to ask to use someone else’s footage, characters or storylines. YouTube now has a check box if you’d like your work to be listed under a Creative Commons license. [note: see the recent SSW article on using Creative Commons licenses]
One of the things I asked Felicia Day about her show The Guild was which marketing strategy to use. Her response was “all of them.”
How do you view the relationship between world building and storytelling? Does one drive the other?
I find that there is no interest in collaborative world building unless you have a compelling story. What’s more, it has to be a story that has an established following through some form of media – film, TV, internet, etc. This is why there’s so much fan fiction content out there for shows like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Indiana Jones. So yes, one definitely drives the other. This is why we’ve set out to shoot a feature film based on our show.
What have you learned about participatory storytelling through collaborative world building?
Give up control. You have to give up the notion that you are not the only one who can tell a compelling story. In fact, there are others with far less experience than you who may do a better job and come up with ideas you hadn’t even dreamed of. Even the worst Hunted episode brings in friends and family who serve to build our audience and take the show in different directions.
What were some of the inspirations for creating The Hunted (especially given that it predates Twilight and True Blood)?
Buffy, Cops, Highlander. Truth is, vampires have always been around: Blade, Underworld, Kindred, Dusk to Dawn, Near Dark, Lost Boys. It’s a genre everyone knows, and it seemed to be the simple choice when we were looking for an antagonist for the show. It also gave us the opportunity to parody everything out there and change up the rules.
What were some of the website design considerations you had to incorporate as a result of The Hunted being a shared story world?
When I originally developed the website, I was happy with basic HTML. It lacked the bells and whistles, but it was in keeping with the ragtag spirit of the show, and it made it easier for search engines to find. But it was extremely difficult to facilitate a shared story world. In order to add content to the website, episodes had to be submitted to me (sometimes via regular mail) and I had to digitize the footage to get it online. Now thanks to YouTube, anyone can upload content to their account and send me a link. I link the episode to a playlist, and I’m done!
As I mentioned, I’d like to update the website to make it easier for users to contribute other forms of content: pictures, blogs, profiles, episodes, etc. I’ve been looking at platforms such as Ning and WordPress, but I have a real specific idea for what I want – a CMS (Content Management System) that could also search content by date, popularity, keywords, etc. I have a BS degree in computer programming, and I’m sure I can figure it out, but I need to pick my battles since time and money is limited. I’m really hoping I can find something off the shelf instead of digging through YouTube’s API.
After ten years, no one has quite figured out how to incorporate user content into a cohesive storyline, so it’s still pretty exciting to be on the cutting edge.
How did you initially market The Hunted (and how has your marketing changed since its launch)?
I decided early on not to market the show until I shot the pilot episode. The plan was to shoot a few episodes to get our feet wet, but we kept coming up with cool ideas for episodes and never got around to the pilot. The show spread via word of mouth, and I dabbled in banner ads, but it really didn’t take off until I decided to release the show on YouTube.
Since then, I’ve done a bunch of interviews for blogs and magazines such as Impact Magazine. We also attended various conventions and film festivals such as Comic Con, Dragon Con, the Vampire Film Festival, and Action on Film in L.A. We even took the opportunity to shoot a few episodes with conventions as a backdrop.
But what seemed to work best for our marketing is user content itself. I don’t remember YouTube doing a lot of advertising, but it became the most watched channel in the world. Friends, family, and regular people are tuning in to watch the good, the bad, and the simply ridiculous. What I’m hoping for, however, is to find more quality content, so I spend most of my marketing time seeking out filmmakers and talented actors with swordplay experience.
I’d love to do a whole lot more with traditional marketing. There’s a ton of new options out there – everything from Facebook ads to blogs and related websites, but once again, time and money is limited, so I have to pick my battles. I’m more interested in content, and I believe user content propagates itself without the need for extensive marketing.
Sounds a bit like a “build it and they will come” by default, not design (though it seems to have worked!).
I never really marketed the show, not heavily and not as much as I could have. The show has been built on a $0 budget which included marketing. Over the years I’ve seen plenty of web shows come and go. They typically shoot a handful of episodes and market the hell out of the thing: banner ads, conventions, schwag. It lasts a couple years, and then it dies because they were more focused on buzz instead of content.
If I did have a startup audience it was because of the Highlander fans. I had done a series of conventions with Anthony DeLongis demonstrating swordplay and I somehow developed a fan club. They were extremely supportive when I developed The Hunted, and they are still with us to this day. We even pulled them into one of our first episodes.
Online marketing changes on a daily basis. One day it’s banner ads, the next it’s Google ads or Twitter. One of the things I asked Felicia Day about her show The Guild was which marketing strategy to use. Her response was “all of them.” Find similar websites, blogs, groups, etc., everything that could possibly relate to your show. It doesn’t cost a lot of money, but it does cost a lot of time. Unfortunately, I’m a one man show most of the time, and I have to choose between content creation and marketing. And I’d rather be a web show with more content than hype.
Our biggest push to build awareness right now is our feature film, which is what most web shows aspire to. We decided to stop waiting to be discovered and just do it.
Can you describe what happens to a submission? What’s the review/editing process like? How much editing happens for submissions?
There are no hard and fast rules for submissions. Years ago, I worked extremely hard to make episodes work for the show by editing and adding footage, dialogue or VFX. Eventually I learned the secret to user-based content. We have a multi-tiered approach, just like YouTube has a featured “partner” program in addition to its regular user content.
We allow anyone to submit fan content, although I still have the ability to reject any content that is completely inappropriate. Then there are our featured contest winners and our affiliates, who are typically contest winners who have agreed to create ongoing content for the show (we now have five across the country). Then there is our original show which I still produce. And finally, there is mainstream content such as the feature film.
What advice would you give regarding the submission/review/editing process to someone starting or managing a shared world?
The tighter your rules and the more complicated your world, the more difficult it will be for others to contribute content. Keep it simple.
What are some of the more popular or interesting storylines happening in The Hunted?
The contest winners are really interesting since they’re not anything I would’ve come up with myself. One episode featured a dream sequence (“The Ultimate Weapon“), which is something you’d never see in an episode of Cops, and another one of our affiliates (“The Hunted: Compton“) has an amazing cinematic style that has completely changed my perspective on how the show can be shot.
The show was originally meant to feature vignette storylines – little bite-sized 5-10 minute episodes that had a beginning, middle, and end. There wasn’t really the need to have any large character arcs since the cast changed on a regular basis. At the most we might have a two part episode, but these were risky since you never knew if you could keep the cast together for an extended period of time.
Then our affiliates started producing episodes which all followed a traditional episodic storyline. This allowed us to have content which was both the “bug of the week” (referring to stand-alone episodes of the X-Files TV show) which could be watched in any sequence, along with character arcs that would keep the fans waiting for the next episode.
The most interesting development to me is working user content into our feature film storyline. There are also plans to spinoff characters from the feature into their own episodes.
Speaking of which, how do you balance internally-generated content (that keeps things interesting/dynamic but can dramatically alter the world) with the need to provide contributors a relatively stable world foundation?
You can creatively justify practically anything, at least within our world. Once again, the tighter you make the rules, the more difficult it is to enforce them. One of our most basic rules is that you can’t kill our vampires by traditional means, but we still occasionally get episodes of slayers staking vampires. But if you’re creative, you can creatively justify this event by saying that some vampires can still be killed by a stake, or this was just some twisted form of vampire propaganda. There are all kinds of creative and different ways to go with it.
This is another reason why it’s important to have different levels of content within the shared story world. People know in advance what flavor they’re getting. It’s like tuning into CSI:Miami instead of CSI:New York.
What is your view about the future of collaborative commercial entertainment? Has it changed since you started The Hunted?
After ten years, no one has quite figured out how to incorporate user content into a cohesive storyline, so it’s still pretty exciting to be on the cutting edge.
I keep using YouTube as an example. Virtually overnight, this simple video hosting service became one of the most watched channels in the world. And they did it without producing any content, massive advertising or star names, just people posting videos of everything from kittens to kids wiping out on skateboards. From indie films to world news, this is the future. User content is a huge untapped resource, but no one has quite figured out how to apply it to a narrative yet. Well, some have, including us, and we’re still going at it ten years later.
Thanks very much, Bob!
Absolutely. If you’re interested in more gory details of the early days creating a webshow, check out the article I wrote for Web Series Today.