When it comes to the small screen - the really small screens, of computers, tablets, and mobile devices - Philadelphia has a flourishing scene. At a time when Netflix is going strong with Web-only programs such as Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards, Philadelphia is home to a range of Web-only series, starring or written or produced by Philly folks.
Among the local film crews in town, you'll find Lee Porter's My Ruined Life (MRL) shooting near a Rittenhouse park bench. You might see Deirdre McCullagh and Cassia Rainne of Purple Shamrock Media shooting the shows Flour and UNTITLED throughout Northern Liberties. Or South Philadelphia-born Sonny Vellozzi acting, producing, or directing in front of locations like Geno's.
"The medium is becoming popular, and people are getting comfortable being part of it," says McCullagh about audiences, artists, and networks such as Amazon and Hulu.
How do you get to see these shows? Some local Web series have URLs, such as the stand-up comic-centric It's Always Funny in Philadelphia (www.itsalwaysfunnyinphiladelphia.com), the rude porn-biz comedy NSFW (www.nsfwtheseries.com), and the innovation-community program Developing Philly (www.developingphilly.com). Others have a home on YouTube, including the gay relationship reality comedy Dating, Vellozzi's goofball buddy comedy Finders Keepers (bit.ly/Sw5zWO), or his hip-hop crime drama The Underground Kings (bit.ly/1ilmanp).
MRL (www.myruinedlife.com) is a two-guys comedy set on park benches - 39 episodes, 39 benches - throughout Philly. "I produce MRL on my own, start to finish," says Porter. His show, about the non-adventures of guys recounting their botched dreams, is run on a shoestring. "Imagine what I'm capable of pulling off," he jokes, "with a big budget."
For Porter, a member of the board of directors of Azuka Theater, MRL began as a way to showcase his writing and production skills. "Everything's been done, so it ends up being a race to see who gets to own it in the public's eye first," says Porter. "I got tired of seeing ideas and jokes similar to mine pop up when I was at the movie theater."
For McCullagh, an actress and model, Web series were an accident. "I wanted to make a commercial reel, with the look of a mock advertisement," says McCullagh, who has appeared in ads for Geico and Nike. "As I was doing that, I brought a friend [Jeni Miller], and it became something funnier. We joked that we should make it a Web series . . . and we did."
Flour (flourseries.weebly.com) is a comedy about the imaginary life of two sisters, Tulip (played by McCullagh) and Violet (Miller). The show started in 2011, and now offers 12 episodes. McCullagh's other show, UNTITLED (purpleshamrockmedia.wix.com/untitledseries), born summer 2013, has six episodes so far. UNTITLED started with its cocreators making an intimate conversational film about their funniest experiences. As they talked, the chatter of "ridiculous life moments" took on an episodic feel.
McCullagh does not write specifically for the computer screen, and she thinks Flour and UNTITLED could function as stand-alone shorts. Porter, by contrast, purposely writes for the computer-minded world, mindful of short attention spans and competition from the Web's many options.
"With so much online, it's difficult distinguishing yourself from other comedies," says Porter. "We want to be fast and keep the viewer's attention."
Like Porter and McCullagh, Vellozzi, a character actor with a long list of credits, creates Web series because it allows him to chart his own destiny. If he has an idea, he can shoot it cheaply without having to wait for a conventional network's attentions.
"All of the stuff we do with Web series, we do between paid gigs," says Vellozzi. He just added Brotherhood of the Silver, a series not unlike The Wire, to his list of Web series.
"Downtime hits, we do another show," Vellozzi says. "Say, Finders Keepers. When there's a minute I'll write one, get the cast and a crew together, find locations, and shoot. It's easier and cheaper to shoot a five-page script on the fly in several hours than it is a 100-page script in 18 days."
Whereas many TV shows are shot with professional Arri cameras, most Web series use lightweight Canon handheld digital cameras, which provide a high-quality picture perfect for computers "because you're not worried about blowing the frames up for a 60-foot screen," says Vellozzi. "You don't lose production value, and it looks like a million bucks."
Another advantage is that, thanks to the Screen Actors Guild's 2012 New Media agreement, Web series give nonunion actors opportunities to get SAG cards. "Four years ago, when I started Finders Keepers," Vellozzi says, "I had to get three waivers if I wanted to be in a film as a non-union member, but if I had one spoken line in a Web series, I'd be instantly eligible for my SAG card."
Porter, McCullagh, and Vellozzi say they don't do Web series for money or computer clicks, although the latter do tell them what to put on reels for competitions. (MRL won two prizes at Philly's 2012 FirstGlance Film Festival, and UNTITLED won six prizes at the LA Web Festival this March.
Ultimately, these artists do it for the work, for the writing, acting, and producing. "If MRL leads to something bigger, that'd be a dream come true," says Porter. "If not, I can always write and produce on my own. One day, hopefully, the world will start tuning in. After all, there's always a new Philly bench to sit on and a quirky joke to be made."