[dropcap]J[/dropcap]OEL Fernando, a Brooklyn filmmaker with hipster hair and bright red aviators, pitched his marijuana venture to me at a popular Colorado Springs coffee shop this past Wednesday. A young seeming 30, he has the creative energy of some art students or recent college grads. His plan is two-fold: to startup a major pot production operation in Colorado and to chronicle his process for a new web series, to be distributed by Slate this January.
The series will explore Fernando’s business endeavor through numerous short documentary installments. Each episode will be less than 10 minutes, and will feature people and policies central to Colorado’s budding marijuana economy. The episodes will be released in real time, a conscious choice made by Fernando, who sees his content as pertinent to the modern moment. “If I had chosen a [long form] documentary, then by the time the film would be released, the issues [as they are now] would be irrelevant,” he explained over tea.
Fernando is not the first aspiring marijuana entrepreneur to drive cross-country on a whim. He’s also not the first young urban filmmaker to create a pot-oriented web series.
It’s no surprise that URL world is home to countless super-hyped marijuana video projects, given the ostensibly subversive nature of pot content and the absence of FCC oversight. Online viewers, mostly young people, are also properly suited – we’re known for our short attention spans and proclivity to stream on laptops, rather than on TV’s.
The Marijuana Show, a Denver-based series akin to a competitive reality TV show, calls itself “Shark Tank meets The Apprentice.” In episodes under 15 minutes, contestants propose marijuana-themed business models, hoping for buy-in’s from investors, willing to drop anywhere from $25,000 to over $1 million. Eco-friendly grow operations compete with all-inclusive marijuana resorts, and fancy florists that specialize in cannabis.
If New York is the fifth character in Sex and the City, then pot is the third in the YouTube web series turned half-hour-long Comedy Central show, Broad City. The series, which follows the female twenty-somethings in New York City trope, is known for its crude humor and memorable scenes of pot-smoking through Skype (when it was only streamed online, this detail was kinda meta). Broad City’s buzzed about second season, Executively Produced by Amy Poehler, will premiere in early 2015. Just yesterday, the usually bedraggled duo, creator and star team Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, were featured in Vanity Fair looking flirty and stylized.
The episodes of High Maintenance, the most intricate rendition of the pot web series trend, are the well-crafted vignettes of diverse New Yorkers — middle-aged bird watchers, Passover seder-goers, couch surfers a la Airbnb, a cross-dressing father — all subtly bound together by the narrative of a nameless pot delivery man. The episodes are artfully composed, some are humorous, others more meditative. The creators never intend to use weed as a punch line, but rather see it as a “substance that, like chocolate, causes people to expose their own foibles.”
The best web series sell out, or at least begin to sell. Popular ones gain traction in distribution through legitimized media platforms like Comedy Central, Vimeo, or Netflix. These many venues, including our amateurish old friend YouTube, allow for vibrant communication between creators, fans, and critics. Slate, the distributor of Fernando’s series, publishes stories commenting on all of these shows (here they talk High Maintenance, Broad City, and The Marajuana Show). This, of course, is the porous, interconnected nature of media consumption in the Information Age.
Broad City and High Maintenance, both of which originally held strong cult followings at no cost, now demand payments-per-season or cable subscriptions. Both are also getting serious press and, in the case of High Maintenance, being advertised for all over New York City. Though new costs and mainstream media campaigns may receive backlash from longtime fans, anyone hoping for national legalization should happily drop a couple bucks. Ads, press, and money can catalyze changes in public opinion surrounding marijuana culture, a necessary element of political reform.
As for Joel Fernando, his upcoming series will be free and relatively unpublicized. He’s taking the high road – at least for now.