TORONTO — Amazon burst on the scene with “Transparent.” Netflix made its mark with “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black.” Hulu had its “The Handmaid's Tale."
Facebook thinks it’s time that it had a few programming friends of its own.
The Silicon Valley giant unveiled one of its first high-end series, “Sorry for Your Loss,” on Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival. And it turns out that the show — about a young woman coping with the sudden death of her husband — is at once highly traditional yet very particular to the platform.
“In some ways this comes in a long line of shows and movies about loss,” said Kit Steinkellner, the creator of the series, which will stream on Facebook Watch, Facebook's streaming platform. “But I also like the idea of media meeting message. Facebook is a place where I hear about most deaths, most births, most marriages. It made sense for them to do a series about these life events.”
The decision by Facebook to dive into the Emmy-friendly pool raises the question of whether there’s room for another player in the increasingly crowded streaming market. And if there is, is there appetite for its gentle drama?
The Toronto event saw the debut of four of the 10 episodes of “Sorry for Your Loss,” followed by an onstage talk from Steinkellner, director-producer James Ponsoldt and actor Elizabeth Olsen, along with several other principals. Also speaking, though spontaneously from the audience, was Facebook Watch’s head of development, Mina Lefevre.
The first three personalities come with entertainment bona fides; Steinkellner and Ponsoldt are a noted playwright and indie-film director, respectively, while Olsen, best known for playing the Scarlet Witch in the Marvel superhero movies, is a noted film actress via such movies as “Wind River.” Ditto the notoriety of Lefevre, who arrived at Facebook last year after years in a similar role at MTV.
“Sorry for Your Loss,” which will release four episodes to users next Tuesday, is set up with what seems like a mystery conceit. There is abundant use of flashbacks as Olsen’s character, Leigh, remembers her husband (Mamoudou Athie, also at the Toronto event) and both questions and revels in her memories of him. Unlike a show such as TBS’s “Search Party,” which used an actual disappearance and manhunt in its first season to sustain interest in a young female character’s slow disappearance into herself, the only mystery here is whether Leigh really knew her husband, or herself.
Further unicorn-ing the show is that, despite its dramatic tone, episodes clocked in at only half an hour, rare for the form.
Other subplots concern a sister (Kelly Marie Tran) struggling to find her niche while in recovery and their mother (Janet McTeer) juggling her own professional and personal crucibles. It is the kind of drama that will evoke “Transparent,” “Six Feet Under” and other melancholic human stories that have faded with the rise of “Games of Thrones” and more flashy genre programming.
“I think it’s hard to do the real emotional work that our characters are doing in a television series,” Ponsoldt told The Washington Post. “It’s just not as sexy or as easy to latch on to than if they’re all ghosts or if Leigh is really alien. Making compelling the wants and needs of ordinary people is hard. But that’s what makes it more interesting."
Also helping: Facebook, at its core, is about these same needs and wants.
The company has been circumspect about how it will integrate the show into the platform. But Lefevre said at the screening there will be ways viewers will be encouraged to weigh in on the show in real time — on Facebook, of course — effectively eliminating the need for the "second screen."
“We all know a lot of emotion is shared on Facebook, and this [confessions of loss] is something that is shared on Facebook,” Lefevre said at the screening. “So it felt like a natural place for it. This felt like a really good place to have all the social conversations this platform can provide,” she added.
As for targeting consumers, Steinkellner noted there will be a “very good algorithm” to reach those users (think: people who like indie film or have posted on the kinds of serious subjects of love and loss the shows’ characters experience). Users can also join a group that will alert them to new episodes, which they can then watch in their feed.
"We want to produce shows that people will be super-passionate about," Lefevre told The Post. "It doesn't always have to be shows" that deal with Facebook-specific subjects, she noted; the company recently debuted the dramatic mystery "Sacred Lies." "We just want people to be engaged."
Steinkellner conceded that having her show live amid so much other information might have given her pause, but she liked the immediacy, not to mention the reach, the platform gave her. Facebook has more than 2 billion global users.
Despite the Silicon Valley backdrop, “Sorry for Your Loss” endured a characteristically long Hollywood development process.
Steinkellner wrote a writing sample nearly five years ago, inspired by a night when she thought something terrible had happened to her husband. She then submitted it to Robin Schwartz, a programming executive at a company called Big Beach. (The firm was behind film hits such as “Little Miss Sunshine.”)
Schwartz like it so much she decided to develop it as a script. Big Beach was first able to set up the project at Showtime under the name “Widow,” more than four years ago. After it languished there, Big Beach was able to extract it and took it out again, pitching a number of streaming services and pay-cable networks.
As it happened, producers had been taking comments made by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, who had suffered the sudden death of her husband, and incorporating them into their general pitch.
“I think it seemed to them like we were doing it because it was Facebook. But really we just liked what Sheryl had said,” Schwartz told The Post.
Facebook Watch bought “Sorry,” believing it could anchor a slate that until now has mostly consisted of unscripted content such as “Ball in the Family” or lower-budget multiplatform experiments like “SKAM Austin.”
As one of Facebook’s first high-end series, "Sorry" had the benefit of the company giving creators freedom they might otherwise not have if they’d been doing this for a while. “They didn’t ask for more jokes or more soap,” Steinkellner noted. “Because there was no set brand. So no one was worried about the show’s siblings on the service while we were making it. ”
For those who feel that there’s already enough TV to watch — not to mention enough to read on Facebook — without more to add to the pile, “Sorry for Your Loss” may be fighting a tough battle. But viewers willing to set aside those concerns if the programming successfully takes advantage of the platform could find much to chew on here.
Not everyone on the show is looking to break new ground. When an audience member at the screening asked what it was like to do an OTT show, referring to the acronym for an over-the-top streaming service, Olsen said, “What’s OTT?”
But there may be opportunities just the same. Amazon has mostly abdicated the prestige space. (Amazon.com’s founder and chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Post.) Netflix still makes those shows — along with hundreds of others. Hulu has been undergoing massive organizational change ahead of an ownership transfer that will see Disney become its controlling shareholder.
With so many companies taking their eye off the drama ball, Facebook could be primed to pounce.
“Superheroes are some people’s jams. Other people love slasher films. I love tiny human stories,” Steinkellner said. “And Facebook is all about tiny human stories. ”