The Future Of: Screen Media

Featuring Dr Steinar Ellingsen

“The Future Of…” series asks a variety of UOW experts and researchers the same five questions, to provide insight into the potential future states of our lives, communities and world.

Steinar Ellingsen is a senior lecturer in Journalism and Communication and Media at the University of Wollongong. He is Director and co-founder of Melbourne WebFest (MWF), Australia’s international web series festival -  the biggest celebration of web series in the Southern Hemisphere.

Steinar is the creator of the award-winning documentary web series The Inland Sea: An Australian Odyssey, which was part of his practice-led PhD. He is also the creator and Executive Producer of the award-winning student-led documentary web series Magnify Melbourne with Latrobe University.

What are you researching or working on in 2018?

I’m currently directing the sixth annual Melbourne WebFest, which is happening 28 June – 1 July. Melbourne WebFest is one of the longest running festivals in the world dedicated to the web series format — short form episodic series made for online delivery. We have 85 series from 16 countries screening in the festival this year, in addition to a rich professional development program, keynotes, conference panels and masterclasses, a pitching competition sponsored by ABC iview, and our gala awards night.

My research is also very focused on web series, and I’m currently developing a project on the value of the web series to the screen industries. It will be a longitudinal project, tracking career developments of notable practitioners, closely following policy and funding initiatives in Australia and comparable countries, such as Canada and France.

What are some of the most innovative or exciting things expected to emerge from your field of expertise over the next few years?

It is an incredibly exciting time in the web series space, as the broader screen industry has embraced the medium – for various reasons, including as a platform for developing new talent and new ideas, but also to connect with new audiences on new platforms.

The creatives and storytellers that are working in the space are continuously experimenting with distribution and audience engagement strategies, as well as new hybrid narrative formats that are tailored for multiple screens.

Significant investments are being made in Australia and overseas, both on the business side and the creative side, and it’s exhilarating to follow these developments.

Digital screen production is also a more diverse space, as a result of the notional democratisation of media, through proliferation of free or affordable technologies for production as well as distribution, connecting marginalised stories with marginalised and underserved niche audiences.

A couple of years ago, Screen Australia published a report on the notable gender gap in the Australian screen industry and invested $5 million into closing that gap. This year many of those funded productions have come out and it’s refreshing to see more women in leading roles in front of and behind the camera.

In the digital space there’s always been a lingering question of economic viability, and while this nut is yet to be cracked, there are emerging examples that demonstrate how with a mix of traditional approaches, and leveraging the potential of community building via social networks, projects can succeed in different areas of the value chain.

One of the most exciting things about web series, is the close connection between creators and audiences, and the value of entrepreneurship— beyond simply attracting eyeballs — in building communities around content.

What are some of the things readers should be wary of over the next few years?

Increasingly web series creators are viewed as entrepreneurs and cost-effective producers of content of high production value relative to the level of investment, and arguably therefore as relatively low-risk investments.

While this perception in the industry has resulted in more opportunities – and more opportunities for funding – there remains an associated risk amongst independent and emerging practitioners of labour exploitation.

Over the past six years government funded initiatives for web series productions have been established in Australia, and in some other countries too.

These initiatives are driving forces in developing the medium as well as the talent, and that has obviously helped to raise the profile and furthered careers of a new generation of screen producers.

However, web series emerged from innovation, exploration and experimentation, and I am hopeful that although the space is arguably becoming more formalised, it will avoid becoming formulaic like commercial television.

Where do opportunities lie for people thinking about a career in this field?

There are growing opportunities in the creative industries in Australia. Work may be precarious in the media in the sense that there are fewer full-time roles going in the big legacy companies.

However, there remains a growing demand for stories, both factual and fictional, and audiences these days are actively looking for alternatives and there are many opportunities today that didn’t exist only a couple of years ago to give you a foot in the door in the industry.

Regardless of their major, Bachelor of Communication and Media, Journalism or Creative Arts graduates are storytellers and communicators.

Their skill set and understanding of the media landscape — particularly considering the way their own demographic engages with media — are valuable assets in a range of professional areas and organisations outside the immediate realm of traditional media companies, such as NGOs, government departments, and sporting clubs and leagues.

AFL Media, for example, only came into existence in 2012. Today it is the biggest sport media organisation in Australia, with more than 100 full-time employees.

For some, the opportunities may lie in entrepreneurship, in developing creative IPs, and being their own bosses. Perhaps one day these graduates will have jobs to offer the next generation of graduating students, and maybe even those who once taught them at university.

What’s the best piece of advice you can offer our readers based on your expertise?

The web series community lost a great pioneer less than a month ago. Michael Ajakwe, who founded the world’s first web series festival, LA WebFest, passed away after a hard fight with cancer.

Michael was an accomplished writer and producer with decades of experience working with A-list Hollywood actors. He had written for film, TV and the stage and had numerous awards to his name – including an Emmy.

But he was restless and was looking for ways to shake things up in the industry. The LA WebFest became a real catalyst for change and helped spawn dozens of international sister festivals (including in Melbourne), and as such he played a great part in the legitimisation of web series as a new medium and format.

When I first met him in 2012, he told me with great conviction, that 'If you don’t like the way that things are done, you gotta step out and change things yourself'.

I think that is the piece of advice I can give to anyone looking for a leg up in the media industry.

If other people aren’t giving you the opportunities you want and need, go out and create them for yourself.

For more from Dr Steinar Ellingsen, visit his biography on UOW's School of the Arts, English and Media webpage.

To know more about Melbourne Webfest visit the event homepage.