Last week, Cybergeddon, a nine-part cybercrime webseries from CSI creator Anthony E. Zuiker, debuted on Yahoo Screen. The release was particularly timely: The show is about an FBI agent (played by Stick It star Missy Peregrym) who is framed for an epic series of zero-day virus wreckage that, among other disasters, wipes clean the records of a Hong Kong bank. That same week, a group of hackers launch real-life cyber attacks on six major U.S. banks.
At $6 million, Cybergeddon is the most expensive Web series of all time, topping the roughly $2 million spent on Tom Hanks’ Electric City. It comes in 10 different languages and has been released in 25 countries, giving it a wide reach—Zuiker says they hoped to score 20 million hits.
That’s pretty ambitious for a Web series. One hundred million Americans watch videos online at least once a day, but big Web series have yet to really click with audiences, despite heavy investment: This summer, for instance, Hulu pushed 10 new Web-only series and invested $500 million in original content.
Filmmakers throwing some skin in the world of Internet video get caught in unfamiliar territory—working with budgets and timeframes a fraction of what they’re used to. According to Zuiker, if filmmakers follow the same philosophy for storytelling on the Web as they do for the screen, they’ll end up just creating cheaper, abbreviated versions of films and TV shows. And even the most expertly crafted Web series won’t necessarily have much success. One relative hit has been H+, a 48-part sci-fi series by X-Men director Bryan Singer, which has collected more than 5 million views on YouTube. But that happened only after a huge push by YouTube itself. Meanwhile, in less than a week, video of Justin Bieber throwing up mid-concert has racked up 13 million views–which must be seriously nauseating for the likes of Zuiker and Singer.
If you look at this chart of the most watched viral videos of all time, they’re all either high-budget music videos or amateur content like “David After the Dentist.” Hacktivision’s Aymar Jean Christian makes the point that viewers rarely invest in the rich, serious serials—if you look at the most successful web series, they’re short, non-narrative, and funny—like “Fred” or “Happy Tree Friends.”*
To make the model work for now, Web series seem to be turning to corporate sponsorship, taking lessons from the olden days of TV and the company-backed soap operas. Cybergeddon is backed by the security firm Symantec, makers of Norton Anti-Virus. Wendy—a modernized take on Peter Pan starring Tyler Blackburn of Pretty Little Liars—is sponsored by Macy’s, and Hulu’s Leap Year is sponsored by insurance company Hiscox,
So is Cybergeddon a hit? It’s hard to say. The conversation on Twitter (#cybergeddon and #thereisnoesc) is lukewarm, and most of it comes from the show’s actors. But Zuiker says the show won’t look at viewership figures until after the six-month mark. Given that no corporate-backed Web series has yet to show the same viral potential as “Charlie bit my finger,” Zuiker is counting on the long tail phenomenon—that the momentum will build slowly. He sees Cybergeddon as a challenge to film studios to venture outside the theater, saying that storytelling in the digital age should be “built to the device” In five years, he predicts, movie theaters will be like cigar bars, “a luxury most people won’t be able to afford,” and he might be right.
But if you can’t measure results in views or tickets sold, what makes for a successful Web drama? Zuiker says he really has no idea.
Correction, Oct. 9, 2012: This blog post originally misidentified the website that Aymar Jean Christian edits as Hacktivism. He is editor of Hacktivision.