I have seen the future of television, and it is Melissa Cushman Banczak.
The Tucson writer-producer is not by any means well-known; she has yet to make money from her projects; her work has attracted only a small audience; and it isn't even on television—it awaits viewers online.
And that is the future of television.
Broadcast and especially cable TV won't be disappearing anytime soon, but slick, big-budget, formulaic sequences of 60-minute episodes now have to compete with the kind of low-budget, do-it-yourself, short-form Web-only productions that Banczak is cranking out.
Online viewers, at least some of them, will give just about anything a chance. This is a time when an adorable college kid like Julia Nunes can become a YouTube star just by sitting in front of a webcam and strumming her ukulele. Whole series can be similarly low-tech, like Meet Me in the Graveyard (www.thewb.com/shows/meet-me-in-the-graveyard), which consists of videos supposedly exchanged between a woman in a mental institution and a man in a halfway house. Some popular Web series are a little more technically ambitious, like Young American Bodies (www.youngamericanbodies.com), in which Chicagoans in their 20s sit around cheap apartments talking and having sex, with each scene featuring at least two camera angles.
Even professionals with more money and experience are getting in on the low-tech Web-series revolution, the shining example being Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (drhorrible.com), thrown together by Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, during a writers' strike. It's a very well-crafted piece of work, but partly emulates the webcam look of more home-grown productions.
Here in Tucson, Banczak has some decent equipment to work with, and she shoots each scene using traditional multi-angle perspectives. "I hate Web series where people just sit there and talk to you," she says. But her working method is fast, cheap and nearly out of control.
Her magnum opus to date is Crewing Up, a series available at www.crewingup.tv and, soon, on DVD from Amazon.com. It's about an angry TV-news producer who assaults her anchorman fiancé on the air and is sentenced to 500 hours of community service at a cable outfit very much like Access Tucson.
The episodes were fully scripted, but some of the continuity is a little rough. "We worked fast," Banczak recalls. "We'd shoot about 10 pages a day, four hours at a time, which is great, but I forgot to shoot about half the scenes—that's how on the fly we were."
What Crewing Up lacks in polish, it makes up for in solid comic acting; the cast includes such well-known local stage talent as Dallas Thomas, Jonathan Northover, Stephanie Sikes and Eric Schumacher. Trouble is, many of the cast members are a bit too in-demand, and their work in plays and other local films often delayed Crewing Up shoots.
Banczak wrote a second season's worth of scripts, but they'll never be produced, because Thomas is leaving Tucson this summer.
"I thought about recasting her part, and having Jonathan say to her character, 'Oh, you've done something new with your hair,' and going on as if nothing had happened," Banczak claims, but she thought better of it—partly because the series depends on the specific chemistry of Thomas and Northover, who are actually younger than Banczak had intended her characters to be.
"I wanted to target an audience of women in their 30s and 40s, because people this age aren't getting anything that speaks to them on TV," Banczak says. But she couldn't find anybody in that age range to play the leads, and quickly settled on Thomas and Northover when she saw how well they clicked in an audition.
Web productions, thanks to YouTube, still carry a stigma of amateurism, but that doesn't trouble Banczak. "Most little films go to a few festivals, and then they're forgotten," she says. "But once a Web series is online, it can stay online, and more and more people can find it." Crewing Up got only about 8,000 hits when its episodes were fresh, starting last fall. This disappoints Banczak to some extent. "There are so many nice performances; I hate for people not to see it," she says of a project she invested about $1,000 in. Yet she hopes that online, the show will have some longevity, and her actors are already using it as a calling card with casting directors.
Banczak did the editing and much of the camera work herself, besides writing the scripts and directing the scenes. Until a few years ago, her chief film and TV experience had been in front of a word processor; she'd spent five years as an editor and screenplay agent at a Minneapolis literary agency. More recently behind the camera, she's produced a few dramatic shorts and documentaries, and did some video work for a wildlife-rescue organization.
At the agency, even when the scripts she represented were optioned, they tended not to be produced; writers got money, but their work never made it to the screen. "It made me crazy," she says. "There was so much good stuff that never got seen."
In contrast, with a Web series, a writer like Banczak can have control from beginning to end, and make sure that a project comes to fruition—even if it's seen by only 8,000 people.
Crewing Up has gotten Banczak noticed as a writer-director; a Hollywood producer has asked her to put together a science-fiction pilot, and she's working on a new Web series all her own.
She hopes these next projects will go more smoothly now that she's learned some lessons from Crewing Up: Have every word of every script written before shooting begins. Write shorter scenes. Let the actors rehearse without the pressure of having a camera rolling in front of them. Promote the finished product more heavily, so people will actually watch it.
And watch it, they may, but probably not on TV. The future of television is on your computer screen.