Endless Summer, one of Snapchat’s first major ventures into “TV”, will sound, to many people over a certain age, like the end of all that is good and holy.
A modern day retooling of the 2000s faux reality series Laguna Beach – predecessor to the Made in Chelseas and Only Way is Essexes of the world – by Keeping Up with the Kardashians producers Bunim-Murray, it centres around two real-life social media personalities, girlfriend and boyfriend Summer McKeen, 19, and Dylan Jordan, 20, as they set up shop (ie prepare to do absolutely nothing) in the Californian town.
Its first season consists of twelve short episodes (3-5 mins), each a melodramatic snapshot of a privileged life. It’s only available on the Snapchat mobile app, and the segments are titled with a clickbait-like question, like the season finale, “Will Summer and Dylan break up, or make up?”
Whatever you think of the proposition though, it’s an intriguing glimpse of Snapchat’s strategy as they roll-out a slate of scripted shows (with initial launch in October 2018) for their young, smartphone-addicted user base. By adding cinematic glitz and some orchestrated scenarios to Summer and Dylan’s lives and placing the show in their Discover section, Snapchat are occupying a space between social media and television, which taps into that sacred, direct line between a public figure and their followers.
It’s not the most effective, nor the most popular series that the social media service has released, but it is perhaps the best representation of what they are trying to achieve, which, according to the company’s head of original content, Sean Mills, does not involving stealing viewers away from Netflix.
“The way we’re trying to make these shows is to really map onto the behaviours – the way people already use Snapchat and the way they already use mobile in general,” he says. “I think that when you settle down and watch a longer form thing on your phone or your TV, it’s not just a different mindset – it’s a different behaviour. These are episodes that you can watch around the edges of your life, you don’t have to really make dedicated time to sit down and do it.”
Mills says Snapchat’s new offerings are “complementary” to what streamers like Amazon and Netflix are doing (Netflix, for their part, said earlier this year that only 10% of viewing is done via smartphone). They’ve even tentatively discussed the ways in which they can work together.
Instagram on the other hand, is a different matter…
Does Snapchat need to be saved?
A lot can change in two years in Silicon Valley. In late 2016, Snapchat was one of the world’s most coveted social media empires, reporting record growth in its user base (51m users). But Mark Zuckerberg, who failed with a $3bn bid for the app in 2013, had other plans.
The launch of Insta-Stories in July 2016, which made ephemeral picture and video messaging (Snapchat’s MO) possible on the Facebook-owned photo-sharing app, coupled with an unpopular redesign that was rolled out on Snapchat in late 2017 in the months following its Initial Public Offering, has seen the social media empire drop 5 million users in the first half of 2018.
To make matters worse, head of content Nick Bell stepped down in November, just as the company entered a crucial period in its attempt to become a content and video platform. Much of the reportage around the issues Snapchat is facing has an air of doom and gloom. MySpace (once a leader, now defunct) comparisons have even been made. All of a sudden, the narrative is that Snapchat needs saving.
But all is not lost. Snapchat are still growing their user base in their key demographics; in the UK, the number of 18-24 year olds using the app is set to overtake that on Facebook by the end of 2018. Instagram, Snapchat’s closest competitor for the attention of young people – which has also recently rolled out IGTV, in direct competition with Snapchat’s non-scripted efforts – still has fewer users in the same age group here. And Snapchat is also the preferred social media of teens in the US.
In other words, the war for our phone screens is far from over.
With the introduction of scripted smartphone shows, Snapchat are becoming increasingly adept at something their competitors have yet to master. And their willingness to invest and experiment with this new format is good news, in particular, for a batch of up-and-coming filmmakers, who are being plucked from relative obscurity and handed an opportunity to create something that will be dropped in front of a global audience of over 180 million people.
Mason Flink, the show-runner of Snapchat’s CoEd, who formerly served as a writer on Judd Apatow’s Netflix series Love, likens this to the indie film boom in the 1990s (bolstered, in part, by another media disruptor: the VHS), which saw investors – notably, Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax – put money behind independently produced films from the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino and Richard Linklater, bringing them to major audiences and to the forefront of popular cinema.
Snapchat shows are still a long way from the mainstream, but the potential audience is attractive to anyone looking to get their start in the industry – and to larger production companies, like Bunim-Murray and Duplass Brothers Productions (run by indie heavyweights Mark and Jay), who see opportunity where others see risk (though, it probably also helps that, with short shoots and relatively low-key production set-ups, Snapchat shows are cheap to produce).
Flink was handed the opportunity to create his own series by the Duplasses, who, after a strong run with independent films like the Jonah Hill-led Cyrus and SNL alumni Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig’s dramatic debut The Skeleton Twins, have expanded their efforts into television (their series Togetherness was recently cancelled by HBO after two seasons).
“The reason I started making short films was because of a keynote that Mark gave at SXSW in 2015 called ‘The Cavalry Isn’t Coming’,” Flink says. “It was all about using your own ingenuity and sticktoitiveness to make short films with your friends and think of your constraints as leverage, and to focus on telling, like, one good joke.”
He took the same attitude into the production of CoEd – an eight-episode series about two gay college roommates in their first year – as he attempted to get creative with a potentially restrictive format, and it worked.
CoEd looks nothing like a regular TV show. Much of it is told through the lens of social media: FaceTime conversations, direct Snapchat messages and iMessages. One entire episode (remember, they’re only five minutes long) consists of one character scrolling through her text history with an ex. Despite the obvious visual restrictions, it’s quite compelling, and it feels real and intimate in a way that TV rarely does.
“How do you tell a story vertically when we’re so used to considering the world in widescreen formats?”
Crafting shows for Snapchat required some outside-of-the-box thinking – most notably around coming to terms with a vertical frame. “How do you tell a story vertically when we’re so used to considering the world in widescreen formats?” asks Suzi Yoonessi, director of Dead Girl’s Detective Agency, a teen crime drama that has emerged as Snapchat’s most popular series. “It’s challenging because you have just this sliver to work with.”
Yoonessi and her team opted to shoot the series – which sees a teenager attempt to solve her own murder from the afterlife – predominantly with a standard widescreen camera, which gave them three vertical frames to choose from. “You’re really considering the ceilings and the entire frame – the frame is just so much longer, so you’re looking at ceilings and floors in a way that you don’t normally look when you’re location scouting.”
Flink, on the other hand, had a leg up, as his team boasted a producer from Searching and an editor from Unfriended – two recent format-bending horror films that take place entirely inside a computer screen – who had some experience with the kind of restrictions they were up against.
“We had conversations with our production designer about dressing vertically. We shot a lot in stairwells, and we have a lofted bunk-bed so we can have two shots where people are in different vertical points in the same frame.”
He reached out to Juan Sebastian Baron, the director of photography on Searching, for tips. “I got a ton of advice [from Baron] in terms of like a tech strategy for how to mount iPhones together. We connected two phones together back-to-back so that the actors were actually doing the FaceTime call with an actor in another room in the house that we shot at.”
Despite the relatively unusual production process, all three show-runners were grateful to Snapchat for providing them with a gateway to an audience whose attention has become increasingly difficult to attract.
“You see kids with phones in their hands 24/7, right – and they’re watching TV, if you will, on their iPhones on a school bus, or in carpool or on the soccer field,” Metz says. “So we kind of have to shake it up and get with the programme. It’s not 1980 anymore.”
Opening the door for LGBT+ storytelling
The app’s young audience base also represents a chance for greater diversity across the board. CoEd, Flink says, is his attempt to create a better version of what his university experience could have been.
“I didn’t come out until I was a junior,” he says, “and I was really excited to find a way to make a show that positioned these queer kids at the centre of the story but still had this warm and humanistic feel.”
The series is centred around two roommates in their first year who are coming to terms with their sexuality. Flink says that Snapchat and brands like it are offering more leeway for LGBT+ storytelling because their users demand it.
“There was this study in 2016 that said that only 48% of generation z identifies as exclusively heterosexual, so that means the majority of teens exist in a queer space or a non binary space,” Flink says. “And that’s snaps main demographic, so you’re seeing a ton of new content that’s queer-focused, and I’m just grateful for that audience and the opportunity to hone my own film-making and storytelling instincts.”
Mills says that this is a priority as they look towards a “bigger and better” 2019 of scripted TV. He adds that an unscripted series about young drag queens is in the works with Endless Summer producers Bunim-Murray.
“They connect over the internet and pursue their dreams and deal with the sort of challenges of various levels of tolerance amongst their families and their communities and cultures,” he says. “It’s a good example of the kind of stories we want to tell and the creators we want to empower.”
The ways in which we consume media are constantly changing. In 2006, Netflix was posting DVDs through letterboxes; in 2018, it’s one of two dominating forces in entertainment, along with Disney, towering above all others. In the 12 years in between, we have been converted from appointment viewers to binge-watchers – as of July, according to Ofcom, Netflix and Amazon have more subscribers than traditional pay TV services in the UK.
Meanwhile, the amount of time we spend staring at phones has now surpassed our time in front of the telly.
Snapchat, in their attempt to occupy the space between the kind of passive engagement that social media offers and the relaxed all-out entertainment of streaming television, are looking to get back on top of the social media game and regain ground ceded to Instagram. There is a gap, but for some younger viewers, it is already being bridged. Ten million people watched the first season of Dead Girls Detective Agency in October, and Snapchat are now faced with the rather cushy dilemma of working out what to do meet increasing demand.
“It’s forced some interesting conversations for us in terms of, is it a good thing that people are clamouring for more, or do we need to make a lot more and do we need to make things longer to give them more to watch around the show besides the episodes?” Mills says. “But it’s a very good problem to have.”