“Susanna” is a 12-part series starring “True Blood’s” Anna Paquin as a new mother who develops acute postpartum depression and her struggles in caring for her child. The Web series, which saw the last of its videos posted June 21, is the latest commission from female-centric WIGS, the top channel for scripted drama on YouTube.
“This whole platform for female-driven narratives and storytelling is just really exciting,” Paquin said. “As a woman, it’s sometimes a little hard to find material that’s challenging or interesting, where you’re not playing a wife or a girlfriend. I’m lucky enough to be on a TV show where I get to play a tough chick. That also is a rarity. This fits into that category. That’s why I wanted to be a part of it.”
Launched a year ago by Jon Avnet, the writer, director and producer best known for “Black Swan” and “Fried Green Tomatoes,” and Rodrigo Garcia, director of “Albert Nobbs” and the HBO series “In Treatment,” WIGS has constructed a roster of fan favorites, such as “Blue,” starring Julia Stiles as a single mom who moonlights as a prostitute; and “Lauren,” a drama about sexual misconduct in the military that features “Pretty Little Liars” star Troian Bellisario and Jennifer Beals.
Its marquee talent, which also includes Jennifer Garner, Alfred Molina, Stephen Moyer and Virginia Madsen, and carefully crafted stories have attracted about 46 million views — a modest performance by YouTube standards, where a South Korean pop star doing a horsy dance can capture 1.7 billion clicks and the site’s most-viewed channel, gamer-focused Machinima, has logged nearly 4.3 billion video views.
But Avnet and Garcia say they are in it for the long haul, thanks to backing from a big-name advertiser, American Express, and a television network, Fox, which views the channel as a way to inexpensively test dramatic concepts that could reach the television screen. Avnet, Garcia and their Hollywood collaborators are eager to learn the nuances of storytelling in a medium that rewards brevity, rapid pacing and near-immediate plot reveals — and do so without creating second-class, tiny-screen entertainment.
“We’re old fuddy-duddies as far as the Internet’s concerned, but . . . you don’t have to read the crystal ball to know that the Internet is here to stay,” Garcia said. “But storytelling is not going to go anywhere. We wanted to tell them on the Internet in a valuable way.”
WIGS also represents a programming experiment by YouTube, which financed 100 channels of original content more than a year ago in hopes of broadening its audience and changing the perceptions of Madison Avenue ad buyers. The experiment yielded mixed results — not unlike the world of broadcast TV, where 65 percent of new network shows can fail in the first season.
Avnet and Garcia received a $5 million initial advance to create 100 episodes of original scripted programming for and about women. WIGS fit with YouTube’s efforts to migrate new audiences to the youthful platform. The creative duo was eager to figure out how to exploit a site that reaches 1 billion users each month at a time when digital distribution, through services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, plays an increasingly important role in delivering programming to new screens and viewers.
“Could it be we could be creating the sort of water cooler experience for the iPad generation?” Avnet said.
Robert Kyncl, YouTube’s global head of content and business operations, described Avnet and Garcia as the ideal YouTube students who search for fresh insights and information to attract and retain audiences. They pay attention to YouTube’s scientific analysis and travel frequently to its headquarters in San Bruno, Calif.
“One of the reasons they’ve succeeded is they have an incredible creative core. Because of that, they’re able to attract amazing talent,” Kyncl said. “Most important, Jon and Rodrigo have embraced this platform model incredibly well. There are no better students of YouTube than Jon Avnet and Rodrigo.”
The little-discussed issue of postpartum depression allowed for an evocative yarn. Avnet had been mulling the idea since an actress in London years ago confided details of her severe depression after the birth of her child.
He wrote several episodes of “Susanna,” in which a new mother, Katie, develops acute depression and is hospitalized, leaving her and her baby in the care of a career-focused younger sister, Susanna, played by Maggie Grace. The little sister struggles to close a big business deal while accepting that Katie won’t be recovering soon — thrusting a resentful and unprepared Susanna into the role of nurturing the infant April, with whom she falls in love. Paquin accepted the role, which she fit in on weekends, while working on HBO’s “True Blood” and before filming started on “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”
“Blue” and “Lauren” have established a fan base, and both returned for second seasons. A more high-profile breakthrough could help define WIGS as an entertainment destination, just as “Mad Men” elevated the AMC cable network or “The Sopranos” made HBO appointment viewing.
“Every single network that has been created, post the three [original broadcasters], has had one hit that put them on the map,” Avnet said. “That’s what our business is: It’s a one-hit business. If we did that today, on our platform, it would be a tectonic shift.”