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Independent TV’s New High: Vimeo’s High Maintenance and the Future of Series-Makers

Independent TV’s New High: Vimeo’s High Maintenance and the Future of Series-Makers

Distribution

It’s been a topsy-turvy year for the independent world, with moviemakers making TV, TV feeling more like movies, web series earning increasingly mainstream levels of recognition (and not a moment too soon), and the models for making all the above becoming increasingly blurred.

One excellent example—which points toward the future of series content, web or TV-based—is High Maintenance, the first Vimeo-produced web series.

Vimeo—which recently unveiled a new option for viewers to download videos in 4K—has thrust an enormous amount of marketing effort into the series, created by New York-based Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair. (Blichfeld is a longtime casting department fixture who worked as a casting associate on 30 Rock.) High Maintenance exists somewhere between a web series and a shorts anthology, following the exploits of various characters who are united by nothing other than the fact that they share a pot dealer (played by Sinclair). With episodes that vary in length and narrative interests that tend to veer, the expansive outlook of High Maintenance’s story evidences the fact that the web is solidifying as the place for serial content to push artistic boundaries.

Yet the most telling item the series’ success illuminates is the fact that it was not conceived at the Vimeo offices, nor did it begin with the creators pitching it to that company. Rather, High Maintenance, which its creators put onto Vimeo on Demand independently in November 2012, had four cycles (with three to four episodes each) that proved popular on the web before the streaming platform decided to enter the partnership in June 2014. The fifth (newly Vimeo-funded) cycle premiered on November 11, 2014, with three more episodes to debut on February 5, 2015.

High Maintenance co-creators and husband-and-wife team, Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld.  Photograph by Paul Kwiatkowski

High Maintenance co-creators and husband-and-wife team, Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld. Photograph by Paul Kwiatkowski

“The show had been on our radar for quite some time, says Greg Clayman, general manager of audience network at Vimeo. “In fact, individual episodes of High Maintenance were selected by our curation team as Vimeo Staff Picks [in 2013]. After we heard that Ben and Katja weren’t moving forward with a network deal, we jumped at the chance to finance High Maintenance as our first Vimeo Original.”

This opens up some interesting lines of thought with respect to the future of series-based content. At the moment, successful independent filmmakers are tripping over themselves trying to get pilots greenlit so they can complete a migration from a conservative industry (studio films) to one that feels like a wild west of opportunity (TV). But working in TV is often a slower, and far more frustrating, process than that of getting an indie film made. While in indie film a moviemaker’s obstacle is primarily the raising of funds, with TV there are a number of additional hurdles one must clear—getting a pilot order, getting a series order—that can drag down the process. Consider all the great series that might have been if only they were allowed to go to pilot, but for a mistaken exec’s decision.

This is where things connect with High Maintenance’s trajectory. The show, in effect, is a web series made “on spec,” ultimately “picked up” by what is basically a web-based studio. How long is it until we see this model adopted en masse in the realm of series content? Independent TV festivals already exist, and individuals do sometimes shoot pilots on spec, but doing a whole season of a series on spec is extremely uncommon. Yet the increasingly low cost of entry to producing quality content means that what Blichfeld and Sinclair accomplished is set to become a commonplace component of how web and TV series work.

This will, in effect, be the final cornerstone in turning the realm of series into the new indie realm. With independently produced pilots and seasons of series being made and seeking buyers, a series-content answer to the big independent film festivals is just a step away, and with that comes an entirely new infrastructure of doing business. The barrier to entry for making shows is about to get a whole lot smaller. MM

A new cycle of High Maintenance premieres on Vimeo on Demand on February 5, 2015. Top photograph by Gus Powell. This article appears in the Callboard department of MovieMaker‘s Winter 2015 issue, on newsstands now.
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