Why DeVanity Matters

A web series producer considers DeVanity’s Emmy nom


Ah, and so it ends. This great and gorgeous world that was DeVanity. But wait, newsflash, May 1, 2014: Daytime Emmy Award Nomination: DeVanity !

Lance Von Trachtenberg, Web TV Reporter, Placevine, a guy who knows his stuff when it comes to the web series universe, said of DeVanity, in the Fall of 2012, that there was in DeVanity the “nail biting tension of a solidly crafted soap.” In December, 2012, DeVanity was nominated for a whopping nine nominations by the 4th Annual Indie Soap Awards. This year DeVanity went up again for seven awards at the Indie Series Awards and won again.

DeVanity’s Daytime Emmy Nomination may be part of a breakthrough event signaling that true independent web series have entered the “big room” of mainstream television.

Here is one web series producer’s take on why the DeVanity nom matters.

Within the web series community something about DeVanity always smacked of a gold standard pointing toward network quality. The show exerted leadership and set standards of production excellence. Its producers exhibited intense creative thinking, planning and risk-taking. And they were a true independent web series in all respects.

As a modernized soap, DeVanity’s creative genius lay in making explicit all the subtext, the Id, of sixty years of soaps, barricaded as it was by network standards and practices. It exposed a deliciously crazy soap subconscious, put it on speed dial and set it to Vivaldi.

Michael Caruso played Jason DeVanity the half-crazed Tony Soprano of this world. From his acerbic fatigue, to his confused efforts to shore up a deteriorating family dynasty where sociopathic men and women beset him at every space on the board. He lived in a glossy LA snow globe swirling with the flakes of his family’s detritus and demise.

Cracking wise, he persisted. Nobly venal, or just as nuts as the rest ? Jason’s monologues were beautifully written, lucid yet representing an insane worldview.

While older generations of daytime loyalists might understandably find DeVanity, disturbing, an acquired taste (or not), clearly the show was an homage to the wonderful canon of American soap opera. It had teeth, but it was closely calibrated crass with class. Never sleazy nudity, or over-the-line cheezsalacious. DeVanity knew where the boundaries were. It walked them artfully.

For fans, the episodes were tight. Buttons and turns in all the right places. You wanted to hit that next episode button. You had to. The show was crack.

So it is natural to ask how this was done on the average, and ludicrously small, budget of a web series.

The simple answer is, through profoundly hard work, pluck, brute force creativity and persistence. This is a television business story as well as a show success story.

In the web series world, all results from risk-taking are compounded by the fragility of serialized web programming as an overall business proposition. It is always sudden death overtime in this league. Who wants to finance a show that has no coherent back-end revenue scenario or network ? Who wants to finance a show by waiting tables?

DeVanity’s charm and grit was its absolute boldness in the face of all that.

DeVanity was an important show because it exemplified three things: forward-leaning creative excellence, calculated risk-taking (high quality programming at low cost), and preternatural acumen about its fans.

Creative Leader . . .

It is well-known in daytime that a generational shift has occurred. Mid-lifers who watched daytime with their grandmothers in the ‘80s live in a different society today. Soaps were due for some kind of change. But the fans wanted, and deserved, the original soap DNA they rightly love in any next evolution.

The show proposed a brilliantly simple idea: say what all the other soaps didn’t dare by capturing our times’ brass and flash, while retaining the golden gauze of the classic soap trope.

But how to merge today’s more venal zeitgeist with the beloved daytime ? What formula of storyline outrage and tonal taste could newly define the edge of the format ? Most of all how do you convert the creative material to authentic fan loyalty and growth year on year ?

DeVanity took great pains to know the genre. It created a world that felt like a half a century of soaps, then cranked mania into its aortal line. They bent the rules with love for the genre and respect for its traditions. Striking this balance isn’t Twitter-simple.

DP Rodolphe Portier’s frames often cleverly delivered a classic soap visual. Yet, the writing and the playing teased you to understand “we’re not in Pine Valley anymore.” Exterior locations pulled viewers in the direction of an ‘80s-style Dallas or Falcon Crest. Suave leading men and women swanned in lavish wardrobe and jewelry in true soap homage, but the insane story lines and dialogue made you know a new subliminal balance was being struck. Season Four’s lush opening titles were groundbreaking against that classic scoring, because fans knew the spilling jewels portended pure craziness.

Very, very hard to do on a Cub Scout meeting budget.

Fan Feedback and Production Value

The magic bullet for DeVanity was working the feedback loop between production value and production management and growing the fan base. DeVanity gave die-hard soap fans an evolution in their genre while leaving the main DNA. They did it by listening to fans season after season. They turned fan feedback into increasingly tight and luscious programming through expert and efficient production management.

Season Two had wild buttons and hooks. Then they upped the ante in Season Three with character nuances, new locations (France, Big Bear, Ca.), and more soap stars. Season 4 solidified and seasoned all these elements. All fan-driven.

Micro web series budgets mean the gritty details of production management no one ever sees — scheduling, locations and management skills — are everything. DeVanity clearly got ultra-efficiency out of its locations, wardrobe and use of camera frames. They shot out seasons very quickly with a small team in efficient shooting days. A management act worthy of a Fortune 500 sub.

One can speculate that The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS) saw in DeVanity a show that both earned a creative rep with its fans, but also moved like a management team that knew what it was doing with stunningly limited resources.

Great Marketing in a High Metabolism Environment

In the web TV world, “marketing” changes every seven seconds. And there are no entire departments to handle the flow and pace. Web series producers constantly ask themselves which tools work best, when, how ? What can’t you afford to not do ? We all struggle with this.

In addition to being smart production managers, DeVanity were also disciplined marketeers. No two shows will have the same matrix of business, promo and traffic- support needs. DeVanity’s intelligent custom mix of new and time-honored marketing tools built an avid fan base the old-fashioned way. By resolute, retail fan focus — individual reach-out, listening and responding.

Strategic casting, site design, crafty publicity, social media outreach, focused distribution, gorgeous key art and trailers, festival and award presence, marketable location work, design — it all worked en suite. In a way that few have really paralleled in the web series community.

The Way Forward…A “Singularity” ?

So what to make of the Emmys recognizing DeVanity’s brilliant effort ?

For many in the the web series community it always felt like DeVanity, a true independent web series, was one of the few that clicked on all cylinders like a network show. The community is abuzz with gratitude to NATAS for selecting one of our leaders. Team DeVanity is a pluperfect example of a true independent web series, and as such is a great ambassador from the web series community to mainstream TV.

It is a peculiar feeling as a web series producer to work as hard as we do, without a real network or coherent back-end revenue model, knowing that “the big game is in the other room.” At the same time we witness the bleeding edge creative of our web series colleagues around the world, who by now garner millions of loyal eyeballs. For almost a decade, some of us have been 24/7, direct-by-web-worldwide, with intense personal fan contact in real time. Our nimbleness, cost-effectiveness, work ethic and sense of community are distinctive.

Perhaps NATAS’ establishment of the Outstanding New Approaches — Drama Series category, and the recognition of DeVanity, et al, is a straw in the wind. A first date for a nervous couple. Clearly as distribution changed, and the means of production spread, the opportunities for careful cross-pollination would grow. Film stars EP streaming hit shows and do cable. DVDs are sold when theatrical opens. Soap stars do web series. 4K is coming. The transmedia tsunami is hitting. It is a time of wonder when advertisers can interact with individual consumer fans and movie stars do crowdfunding.

The Emmys’ creation of Outstanding New Approach — Drama Series is a forward- thinking act that shows great vision and intelligent benevolence. The benefits of reaching out to the web series community will be looked on as a smart and timely thing in years hence. It has the feeling of things being right in the Kingdom as we all move forward toward the Jetsons possibilities before us now.

What was reassuring about DeVanity was the way they kept their heads down and went to work producing for their fans, with scant resources, no matter what else was going on in the Industry. And the fans piled on. Isn’t this the grail of the biz as a whole, and the font of revenue — true and intense fan loyalty, no matter how the screen gets its feed ?

Finally, what DeVanity showed us was sheer grit. Persistence of vision in a hurricane. A fevered lover in its arms (fans), and a gun at their belly (money), they rode the web series unicycle across the Niagara Falls of what comes next. For four years.

A lot like those scrappy men and women who took trains out to LA in 1910, held onto their hats in the Santa Ana wind, and showed audiences something. The first flickers in the new Kingdom at the start of a new century.

- Richard Cutting, Executive Producer and Creator of Milgram And The Fastwalkers, a noir soap opera about UFOs.

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