Small-Screen 'Prom Queen' Clicks With Online Audience
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Whenever the season finale of a show has guns, pills, a crazy assistant principal, at least one knife and an auditorium full of improbably attractive teenagers in prom gowns and tuxes, you know it's going to be "good," at least in the sense that "The O.C." or "Beverly Hills, 90210" was "good."
The difference is that "Prom Queen" isn't shown on Fox. It's on MySpace.
"Prom Queen" chronicles the lives of a dozen second-semester seniors passing classes, graduating, preparing for college or jobs -- all that growing up stuff -- but, most importantly, prepping for the big dance. After 80 episodes and a madcap prom (not to spoil it, but some of those weapons get used), the series finale debuts today for the show, which, judging from view counts and MySpace friends, has developed a cultish audience in the tens of thousands and a steady stream of media attention, owing to its status as the first online production of Michael Eisner, the former Disney CEO who is now investing in digital content with his newly formed production studio, Vuguru.
Each episode? Just 90 seconds. ("When we were watching online content, we noticed that we started looking for something else after 90 seconds," explained show co-creator Chris Hampel.) The full season, in fact, is just two hours. Air date? Seven days a week, since on the Internet there are no programming schedules. Commercials? Let's just say the characters drink a lot of prominently placed POM Wonderful and Fiji Water for a reason.
Even the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which hands out the Daytime Emmys, has acknowledged that something is developing online. Last year, the organization created a collection of Broadband Emmy awards. "Prom Queen" was nominated for this year's award for outstanding broadband drama.
Thanks to YouTube, watching video on a computer no longer boggles the mind. But serialized content on the Internet is still something of a novelty; there's not even a commonly accepted name for scripted online entertainment: Internet serials, Internet shows or Internet mini-series? Broadband drama? Webisodes? Regardless, "Prom Queen" joins a burgeoning slate of shows across the Internet that includes "lonelygirl15," which began in 2006 and is still the second-most-subscribed-to channel on YouTube. "Satacracy 88," the thriller that beat "Prom Queen" for the Emmy, is one of four "choose your own adventure" shows from Itsallinyourhands.com. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of producers creating shows of various genres, though the quality ranges from professional productions -- like "Prom Queen," which uses paid actors -- to slapdash novice experiments.
Douglas Gomery, a professor of media economics at the University of Maryland and resident scholar at the Library of American Broadcasting, says of Internet shows: "Nobody knows what will happen and how it will work. That's why it's so exciting to be in the middle of it. It's like TV in 1946 or radio in 1921."
There are no standards for these shows -- no guidelines for content, no Screen Actors Guild regulations, no MPAA ratings, no business model -- and this potential for creative freedom is the lure for early producers within the medium.
While "Prom Queen" owes a debt to televised teen dramas, you wouldn't confuse it with "Dawson's Creek." Given the brevity of each episode, if characters get in a fight, fall in love, go to a party or spew a monologue, they only have a minute and a half to get it all out. The show moves along at the pace of a Dan Brown novel, every brief scene punctuated with a mini-cliffhanger.
John Ruzic, 26, a fan from the San Francisco Bay Area who stumbled across "Prom Queen" on MySpace, said in an electronic message, "It's nice. Short. To the point. More accessible throughout the day." He added: "You didn't have to sit and devote a half an hour to the show; it was something you could watch in 90 seconds, and then move on."
The show can jump from everyone at a bright and peppy pool party in one episode to a character alone at home struggling with insomnia in the next. Watching the whole run of "Prom Queen" back-to-back is dizzying. Before every episode a voice announces " 'Prom Queen' is sponsored by 'Hairspray,' in theaters July 20," and a 15-second commercial for the upcoming movie rolls at the end.
"Prom Queen" is its directors' second production. In early 2006, Hampel and Chris McCaleb finished four years working for Michael Mann on the films "Collateral" and "Miami Vice," with Hampel as Mann's assistant and McCaleb as an assistant editor. They joined with friends Ryan Wise and Douglas Cheney, also working production jobs around Hollywood and, with their own money, produced a show called "SamHas7Friends." "Sam" followed a cast of 20-somethings around Los Angeles, with the hook that in the final episode, unveiled last December, one of Sam's seven friends was going to murder her.
Sam lasted for 80 episodes before, as promised, she was murdered, garroted in her own living room. The show was slick (it also earned a Broadband Emmy nomination), but it didn't develop a huge following: Only a few thousand watched on YouTube, a similar number on video-sharing site Revver and a slightly bigger audience on iTunes.
But, according to Hampel, "the right people were watching." A few months into the run of "SamHas7Friends," the producers were signed by the United Talent Agency, which put them in touch with Eisner. He bought the rights to "SamHas7Friends" and started signing up advertisers and partners to support "Prom Queen."
Hampel sees signs of the growing recognition of the medium. While casting "SamHas7Friends," many of the auditioners had "heard it was R-rated and on the Internet and thought it sounded like porn." Just a few months later, when casting "Prom Queen," those auditioning were familiar with the medium.
"Prom Queen" was designed to test the business model as much as the content. The budget for the show was between $100,000 and $150,000 -- high for an Internet production but minuscule compared with the budgets Eisner handled at Disney. And financially, it worked. Although Eisner declined to say exactly how much the show earned, he did note that "on our first venture we did not lose money. This is not what we expected. We committed to it with no anticipation of any revenue."
Eisner says he's plowing ahead with four or five shows in various stages of production and he's confident that Internet entertainment is not going away: "It's not going to displace movie theaters and broadcast and cable, but it's going to be one of the dominant platforms. You've got to be nervous if you own one of these other platforms."
And the "Prom Queen" characters? They're not going away either, according to Eisner. Details are still being worked out, but those who survive the prom will be headed off on a post-high-school trip to Mexico some time later this summer -- an outing coming to a computer screen near you.