The next time a new barista at your favorite coffeehouse gives you a funny look when you order your skinny chai latte, the funny look might be on purpose and the barista might not be an employee at all.
You’re probably not being punked, but you might have walked into filming of a Web series. Elena Weinberg and Mallory Larson, co-creators and stars of “#Atown,” a series about relationships, friendships and what it’s like to be a millennial in Austin, were shooting scenes for the second season of their show at Dominican Joe on Riverside Drive early one day a few weeks ago.
They join other Austin-produced Web series such as “Master Class” and “Pretty Awful” in occasional stealth (though completely legal) filming at locations throughout the city.
A Web series is pretty much what it sounds like: a TV series that is distributed online. Much in the same way podcasting brought radio production to the masses, the Internet provides a number of venues for cheap, or free, distribution of what for all intents and purposes is television. After that, all anyone needs are an idea, like-minded cohorts and access to ubiquitous equipment (smartphone video and apps are enough for beginners, though many creators use pro or “prosumer” gear).
Like broadcast TV, a series can be comedic or dramatic, though, like much online content, they lean toward the comedic. The episodes are shorter than standard television and follow recurring characters through individual and seasonlong arcs.
One reason creative types are turning to online distribution is, increasingly, that’s where the eyeballs are. As the line between television and the Internet continues to blur — one of television’s best dramas, “Transparent,” is created by and available exclusively on Amazon, for Pete’s sake — content hosts such as YouTube and Vimeo remain cheap and easy ways to expose your work to the world.
And while it’s still a relatively rare phenomenon more common among known commodities (think Lisa Kudrow’s “Web Therapy” or Rob Corddry’s “Childrens Hospital”), it’s possible that Web series from unknowns will continue to make the leap to traditional television, cable or big streaming players like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.
Look at “Broad City,” the profane and hilarious Comedy Central series about a pair of young, female besties in New York City. It began as a Web series on YouTube, gained a substantial following online and attracted the attention of actor Amy Poehler, who was instrumental in bringing it to Comedy Central.
Website Funny or Die premiered a series called “Drunk History” in 2007. Six years later, it also made the jump to Comedy Central.
Austin is an attractive location for a number of reasons, including a deep and diverse talent pool from which series creators draw.
“Master Class,” a polished comedy about a group of wannabe actors taking lessons from a questionable “pro” in a nearly abandoned strip mall storefront, draws heavily from the city’s acting community. The 10-episode series, currently in its first season, features familiar local theater names including Briana McKeague and Monique Straw.
“Pretty Awful,” in contrast, recently wrapped a three-episode first season that drew its talent from the local stand-up comedy community. Comic Amber Bixby writes the wild and wooly series about Natashley and Gwenifer — two horribly self-absorbed frenemies. Fellow stand-up Katie Pengra co-stars, and other local comics including Lisa Friedrich, Maggie May and Rob Gagnon make guest appearances.
And “#Atown’s” Weinberg and Larson, portraying an Austin native and a Portland transplant, respectively, have tentacles snaking through Austin’s prolific improv community.
The duo are often able to trade out video production services to performers who appear on the show. “People are willing to barter for each other’s art, which I think is really cool,” Weinberg says.
“Pretty Awful” grew out of a sketch idea Amber Bixby had about two women fighting over a pregnancy scare. As she fleshed out the scene, two distinctly funny (and, let’s just say it, unpleasant) characters developed, and Bixby, along with Voltaic Video producer Dustin Svehlak, pegged stand-up comic and Voltaic partner Katie Pengra to play opposite her in a Web series.
“When my boyfriend watched the series for the first time, he was like, ‘Oh, so you’re just playing yourself?’ ” Pengra says.
Svehlak purchased the equipment necessary to shoot the show with profits from his Voltaic jobs, but says that everybody else — other actors and crew members — have worked as volunteers.
“That’s a testament to how supportive the scene is,” Svehlak says. “If you ask people in this scene to come and do something and it’s comedy-related, they’re going to help.”
Because the first season had just three episodes, most of which take place in Natashley and Gwenifer’s home, the gang has shot scenes mostly in Svehlak’s house. The folks at Kick Butt Coffee were happy to let the series film there, as was Pengra’s boss at a former job when they needed a doctor’s office.
“That’s the cool thing about Austin,” Pengra says. “If you just reach out and tell people about your project and offer them credit, they’re usually cool.”
Bixby says the only concern she hears from potential shooting locations is whether the result is going to make them look bad.
“And then of course we’re like, ‘Yes,’ ” she says, laughing.
The team wrote the season’s third episode first, with other Austin comics pitching in. Each episode takes two to three weeks to write with read-throughs and rewrites along the way, and all of a season’s episodes are written before any filming begins.
Shooting takes about a day for each episode, but it can take longer if a script has multiple locations.
The first season was short because of time constraints, but a longer second season is planned.
“I feel like we were just gaining momentum in season one,” Bixby says. “I’m very proud of it, but I think what we put out for season two is going to be even bigger and stronger.”
All about ‘#Atown’
Three years ago, strangers Elena Weinberg and Mallory Larson ended up on stage next to each other in an ensemble theatrical production. The pair quickly bonded and performed a two-person show called “All About a Boy” at FronteraFest.
“We basically just played gross exaggerations of ourselves and embarrassed ourselves horribly on stage, and it was so much fun,” Larson recalls.
Weinberg and another friend had just started a crowd-funded production company called Turtledove, and Larson pitched the idea of a short film based on those characters. The idea morphed into a Web series, and the friends got to work.
“Neither Mallory nor I had ever written a script before,” Weinberg says. She took classes toward a creative writing minor in college but dropped it, while Larson performed slam poetry during her high school and college years.
“Season one is like, literally just based on Facebook conversations between me and Mallory,” Weinberg says. Her Turtledove partner, Duncan Coe, is a screenwriter and coached the pair on format.
They spent a month working on the pilot script and then knocked out the remaining nine in a couple of weeks. For the second season, the duo added two additional scribes to their writers room.
The women say lessons learned during the creation of the first season have made filming season two easier and more productive.
“The biggest thing that I think I learned in season one was learning how to communicate with Elena on set,” Larson says. “We’re so close, and our characters are so close, and then we’re also creating this thing. We’re not exactly getting paid for it together, but there’s a sense of duties and responsibilities, and trying to navigate that got really tricky at times.”
“Being able to let people help us has been a really big thing,” Weinberg says.
“And also being willing to be honest with each other,” Larson adds.
The barter system Weinberg mentioned earlier makes it possible to shoot here on an extremely low budget, as does writing for performers and locations the duo know they can secure (for example, Weinberg worked at Dominican Joe for six years).
As a result, “#Atown” includes scenes at Mt. Bonnell, Barton Springs, Spider House and other iconic locales around town.
“A lot of places, including Iron Works, reached out to us and said, ‘We love your show; it’s hilarious. If you ever have a scene that you want to film here, let us know,’” Weinberg says.
Does the pair have plans for the show beyond a second season?
“The Web series format is so new,” Weinberg begins, “… that you can dream big,” Larson finishes.
Weinberg says that ushering “#Atown” from the Web to a television network is “the big dream. I’m hoping for something like FX — I think we’d fit really well with FX.”
“Or BBC,” Larson says.
“Totally. Totally BBC, obviously,” Weinberg replies.
“And they’d be like, ‘Oh, this is what Americans do. It’s in Texas!’” Larson says.
“‘Why aren’t they riding horses?’” Weinberg adds. “‘I’m confused.’”
Do it with ‘Class’
“The original idea was to do another pilot,” says Justin Neufeld, the writer and producer of series “Master Class.” He had previously written and filmed another television pilot, “Disenchanted,” that gained notoriety at the New York Television Festival but ultimately stalled.
During the production of “Disenchanted,” Neufeld would joke with actor Bill Wise about Wise’s lax attitude on the set. “We started this riff called ‘Let’s Talk Acting With Billy Wise,’ and it was kind of like, why don’t we do a video series?” Neufeld says.
“Directors — who needs ’em?” Wise says in the pompous, dismissive voice of a cad. “Actresses — am I right? They’re hot.”
The idea was put aside but gained new life as “Disenchanted’s” prospects waned.
After trying (and failing) to get permission to produce a series by selling its pilot, the team decided to see what they could accomplish by “scraping a couple grand together and calling everybody that we know who we want to work with,” says Nick Toti, “Master Class” producer.
“It was very much like, let’s do one for ourselves,” Neufeld adds.
“Master Class,” which was inspired by the Billy Wise riffs and a strip mall acting studio that Neufeld used to walk past in the Crestview neighborhood, was planned as a three-segment, 22-minute pilot script but grew to a full 10-episode story arc.
“If that’s the end of it,” says Toti, “if we never do anything else with it, we’ve done an entire narrative over the course of a season.”
The cast and crew shot most episodes in just one day.
“That’s my naiveté as a first-time director,” Neufeld says. “But no one talked me out of it, either. I had some great co-conspirators on this.”
He wrote the first three as segments of the original pilot. The fourth, he says, he wrote for fun. He just produced rough versions of a couple of other episodes, which he completed the week of shooting. Six episodes were planned.
“Writing it as it goes on becomes a big advantage,” says Toti. “You can adjust your resources.”
They had to work around the cast members’ schedules, which was difficult. Frank Mosley, for example, is a busy Dallas-based actor, writer and producer. If the “Master Class” crew passed up an opportunity to shoot while he was available, they might not get a chance for another several months.
After the six episodes were shot, two of the actors moved to Los Angeles, another moved to New York and a fourth moved to Houston.
So when the episode count grew to 10, “It was like, all right, well, when’s the next time we can get everybody back to Austin?” Toti says. “So, eight months later we shot the (remaining) four.”
The team had no budget for travel expenses and needed to fly the Austin expats back to film on two separate weekends. A crowd-funding campaign did not meet its goal, but money was collected through fundraising and from investors.
“We were cautioned by people, at that midpoint, to not spend any more of our own money. But at the same time, we wanted to complete our thought,” Neufeld says. Part of his frustration with “Disenchanted” was that, as a pilot, the concept had a beginning and that was it. “With 10 episodes, we don’t have to wait for somebody to come in and gift us the ability to do our show. We can just say, ‘Here’s how we would do a whole season.’”
They called in favors, which wasn’t difficult because so many people were eager to be involved in the production, and gave actors and production people a chance to do the kind of work they didn’t usually do.
“Austin is, for better or worse, a good place to do this kind of thing, because you’ve got a lot of disillusioned people who are kind of wondering what they’re doing with themselves,” Tori says. “So, like, do you want to laugh about that and drive yourself crazy over the course of a year making this thing?”
“Who’s up for some irony?” Wise adds.
Where to watch
Eight episodes, 8-13 minutes each; all episodes available.
10 episodes, 8-13 minutes each; new episodes available each Thursday.
Three episodes, 8-11 minutes each; all episodes available.