A few years ago while living in Los Angeles a friend of mine told me to check out a web series he was in. I told him I would, like you do when you live in LA and all your friends are involved in at least one web series, but I didn’t watch it. Months went by and I didn’t watch it. Almost a year had passed when I found myself on the JourneyQuest website and decided to watch the show. An hour later I had finished the entire first season and the only thought running though my head was, “holy shit, that was awesome!”
The show, in the the words of it’s creator Matt Vancil is “a fantasy sitcom.” Any veteran of Fantasy Roleplaying games will immediately notice the character archetypes, but with a twist. The wizard is terrible, the cleric is sarcastic, the elf archer is short fused, and the warrior is a dimwitted brute. They’ve all set out on, you guessed it a quest to find and destroy a magical sword. They are pursued by a Bard who is tasked with chronicling said Quest. Along the way our characters meet a series of mishaps at the hands of archetypical baddies, Orcs and the like.
I was surprised by so much in this show. Web series are low budget in nature and often look like it, but JourneyQuest looked good, the actors were good, and the writing was good. The writing is a favorite of mine, often subtle in it’s humor, unless your paying attention it will pass right by you. Just take the name of the show JourneyQuest, essentially the same thing, or the magical sword they’re searching for, it’s called the Sword for Fighting.
Season one was a hit and soon after they began working on funding for season two, hoping to raise enough money to add more characters and utilize more sets. They far exceeded their goal and now season two is upon us. Immediately it became obvious that the money was put to good use, new sets, a multitude of new characters, and an opening sequence with puppets. It’s a very strong return for the show, a much grander scale for what in season one felt rather small.
Don’t be hampered by your preconceived notions of web series, JourneyQuest is really good, and I look forward to seeing where they’ll take us in season two. If you remember back in January I did an interview with Kevin Pitman who plays the dimwitted warrior Glorion, and the shows creator Matt Vancil. It’s an interview that you won’t want to miss, find it on itunes or here on the website.
Yesterday we examined the question, should art be free? Today I will begin by giving you the short answer, no. If we don’t want to loose an already dwindling artistic community, somehow, someway, someone needs to be paid. The online piracy problem is not one we can ignore, if we do nothing SOPA/PIPA will return and eventually pass. The entertainment industries just have too much money and too many lobbyists to let the industry be eaten away by illegal file sharing.
Because art has never been free, and it’s not going to be anytime soon, we have to look to alternatives: subscriptions, donations, direct artist exchange, tax credits. Whatever it is, it needs to meet some general requirements such as, limited to no corporate involvement, easy accessibility, affordability, and quality. If the publishing and film industries are anything like the record industry, they’ll resist change until they’re staring death right in the face. A clear case of ‘if you can’t beat em’ join em’.’
The article that inspired the question, should art be free, made a great point when saying that many technologies that we don’t think twice about today were once seen as a direct threat to the entertainment industrie’s way of business. Radio begot Sirius, begot Pandora, begot Spotify. Just as Pay-Per-View begot OnDemand, begot Netflix. That essentially means that there will be push back at first, out of fear, when they understand how to use the technology to their advantage they’ll embrace it.
The first alternative we’ll look at is the subscription model. Netflix, Spotify, and Audible all provide content for free, cheap, or relatively cheap. Netflix and Spotify rely heavily on the notion that ownership is becoming obsolete. As long as you have a computer or mobile device with 3G or wifi, thousands of movies or songs are right at your fingertips. While record labels have mostly come around to the idea, the film studios still have great fear of what endless streamable content will do to their business. Is it cheap? Yes. Is it easy and accessible? Yes. Is there limited corporate involvement? For the time being, yes. Currently they act as a third party, you pay Netflix, Netflix pays the studios. If this is to actually compete with free file sharing then undoubtedly there will be more corporate involvement, perhaps even commercials.
Essentially everyone will come around to this technology over time, plugging your ears and pretending it doesn’t exist just won’t work.
One of my favorite alternative is direct artist exchange. You know when you go to a concert and give a band cash for a record they keep in a briefcase? You can do the same thing digitally. What really seems to turn people off is the music industry corporate structure. For instance, on a $15 CD a band is really just pocketing pennies. On a 99 cent itunes song it’s a fraction of a penny. Through the miracle of Paypal, now you can pay an artist directly for digital content.
Back in December Louis CK released his latest concert film as a $5 digital download through his website. The file wasn’t copy protected which was by design. Sure it will get uploaded to sites like BitTorrent and downloaded by many for free, but in this case it’s much more difficult to justify. At just $5 you’re getting the film for a steal and supporting the artist directly, not a major studio. Artists like Louis CK are hoping that you’ll pay for the content on principle rather then get it for free on principle.
This concept is similar to Bandcamp, a website that offers you the opportunity to sell a digital album independently, bypassing the labels. Bandcamp takes a 15% cut (which is chump change compared to the labels). If you sell 5,000 copies that number drops to 10%. Each song is available for individual purchase or you can buy the full album. The prices are affordable, and on occasion you can name your own price. the business model is still in its infancy but very promising. It won’t stop piracy completely but it creates an attractive alternative.
Francis Ford Coppola is skeptical of an artistic industry driven by money. He points out that artists have only been dealing directly with money for a few hundred years, previously they existed thanks to patrons (royalty, institutions, wealthy individuals). That model never really went away, but it’s making a more popular comeback with websites like Kickstarter and IndieGogo.
Kickstarter offers almost any endeavor the opportunity to raise a specific amount of money to fund a project. The money can come from anyone in any amount, the catch is that you must meet your goal or return the donations. This is a proven method of fundraising, two of our past guests here at the website Karl Blau and Matt Vancil have successfully funded projects this way.
Like Bandcamp, this method creates a direct connection with fans and artists. It effectively replaces not only the studios but also the pitch process, it’s the fans who either fund or pass on a project. While most campaigns thus far have been in the $100,000 or less realm, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine this working with a larger budget. JourneyQuest raised $100,000 and in the end all the content will be available free, without corporate involvement, on their website.
While I don’t see Michael Bay going through Kickstarter for his next mega-film it does offer an attractive alternative for any independent production seeking funding.
The last alternative is one that I find very intriguing, it’s the most unique and completely untested, but I find it’s possibilities very intriguing. Author Dean Bakerproposes the idea of an Artistic Freedom Voucher (AFV). This would allow individuals (artistic supporters) a modest refundable tax credit, permitting you to spent up to $100 per year in support of creative endeavors. Baker suggests that this could either go to the artist directly or through an intermediary who supports a range of work. I’m leaving out most of the specifics, so you should read his article here.
The catch is that in accepting this money you become ineligible for copyright protection for a number of years. Baker predicts and I completely agree that this would generate heavy volumes of music, film, performances, fine arts, literature etc. It would restore a thriving community. The other big catch of course is that this would cost the government money, and in a time when supposedly we can’t provide proper healthcare, or education to a nation heavily in debt, many lawmakers would see this as socialism. Consider how much the passing of SOPA/PIPA would have coast to enforce, with extra employees and hours of man power, it would have reached up into the millions if not billions.
There is one final alternative that I’m not calling an alternative only because it seems so far off, it’s probably the most likely scenario next to the subscription alternative. The entertainment industries could simply bite the bullet and find a way to use file sharing networks to their advantage, perhaps even working with them directly. Sure today that seems just as unlikely as having the government support an artistic freedom voucher, but the music industry felt similar about radio and look how that turned out. If they keep trying to force a broad bill like PIPA/SOPA through, they could experience a catastrophic backlash from their own customers.
I don’t see a way for art to be truly free. The alternatives I’ve presented offer new options to a disenchanted group of consumers who have found it easier and more politically motivated to download illegally. One way or another art is going to continue to cost those of us who obtain it legally some amount of money, there are ways to make it more affordable and accessible with limited corporate involvement.
If you have friends connected to the film industry, at some point in your friendship you’re guaranteed to hear this, “Hey I’m in this great web series, you should check it out.” If you know better, you’ll act excited and make your friend feel like their just about to make their big break. But you’ll never watch it. You’ve seen enough of these to know that while a lot of work may have been put into them, web series just aren’t very good. JourneyQuest is the exception to this rule.
It embarrasses me to admit that when my friend Kevin Pitman told me that I should check out the web series he was in, I resisted. For a long time. When I finally did give it a try I was more then just pleasantly surprised, I was blown away. The show was fun, it was well written, well directed, and absolutely hilarious. I was taken back to a time when I played roleplaying games, spending hours improving my character’s skills by rolling dice. This was the product of genetically splicing my youthful love of fantasy with my comedy nerdness.
In my interview with writer/director Matt Vancil and actor Kevin Pitman, Matt put it best when he called JourneyQuest a Fantasy Sitcom. The show follows the adventures of four travelers: a terrible wizard, an elfmaid, a cleric, and a dumb brutish knight, in their pursuit of The Temple of All Dooms. They are shadowed by Wren, a Bard tasked with researching the quest.
This should sound all too familiar to those who’ve played games like Dungeons and Dragons or Everquest. It was created with those people in mind. But you don’t need to have played these games or be a fan of fantasy to enjoy the show, because it’s funny. While the material may be heavily rooted in standard fantasy stereotypes, the humor is genuine. A terrible wizard who wants nothing to do with the quest he’s on, a knight who kills everything in sight, a cleric who dies and is reincarnated as a zombie. This is just a taste of what generates much of the shows humor.
While the first season was funded by investors who were compensated through DVD sales and the like, season two will be funded solely though fan contributions. Which is a testament to how beloved this show has become following it’s first season. They were able to bring in $113,000, which will allow for an even bigger and perhaps better season two.
I sat down with the creator of JourneyQuest Matt Vancil, who was also behind another wonderfully funny fantasy related web series Dorkness Rising. Joining me was a long time friend Kevin Pitman, who plays Glorion, the dumb knight. I had a truly wonderful time talking with these two about a wonderful show that expertly combines humor with the archetypes of the fantasy genre.
What is JourneyQuest?
JourneyQuest is an adventure Comedy, set against the backdrop of what’s become standardized fantasy fiction. There’s a lot of tropes that have been established over the last thirty to fifty years, and solidified with the advent of Dungeons and Dragons and fantasy video games. That is your standardized races: elves, dwarves, orcs [and] how they behave. Standardized professions, how wizards cast their spells, what the role of the cleric is. That explanation actually took longer than many of our episodes. You could just say it’s a fantasy sitcom.
First looking at the material was that it was a funny Everquest or Lord of the Rings. What was your first experience coming to the material Kevin?
I remember getting the script from Matt, maybe six months before we actually got in front of the camera. So we had plenty of time to sit down and review it on our own. Matt called us up and we had these great opportunities to discuss the material, to flesh out the characters and figure out back stories. He told us a lot about the universe of JourneyQuest, and the realm that it exists in. I think I realized approaching that material initially is that there was such an incredible body of work behind it. Especially for the genre that we were working in, which is this comedy fantasy. It’s built for humor.
Where did the whole idea originally come from?
A lot of the individual pieces were a pastiche of ideas I’d been writing down over the years. So for a long time it just existed in a bunch of notes and ideas. And I’d always liked the title JourneyQuest as a… something. It coalesced around a sold idea after Comic Con of 2009. I got to work a booth of a film that was showing there, and in some of the off time I got to see panels with the creators of the Legend of Neil andThe Guild, and realized what could be done with the format of the web series. A serialized show in seven to ten minutes chunks. You can actually tell a surprising amount of story if you keep your writing lean and never let it get stale. The characters, I guess you could say, started talking to me on the train back to Los Angeles and [I] started cracking on the script.
The show is one hundred percent fan supported and it seems that in funding a project like this it would be out of necessity, not choice. How did you make that decision to go with kickstarter as a means to support the show?
I wanted to do a web series because I was living in Los Angeles and I was getting very tired of having project after project not get made or having to wait for someone else to say yes. I’d done a number of films up in Washington including a feature film, then went down to LA and in five years got nothing made. That’s the heart of the industry, that’s where most production would actually happen. Most of it does happen down there, but under a certain budget level, stuff doesn’t exist. Out of that frustration of inactivity and feeling stymied, that’s where the interest in doing something on a micro budget/non-budget came from. You can fund material through more traditional means, but you risk losing creative control of the show or you risk having your show being canceled. We’re still in the early stages. We funded the first one entirely by investment in the first season, then recouped through contributions after the fact. Then we took the more active step a few months back of running a kickstarter campaign and raising the bar for what we needed, to actually pay a crew and a cast to continue to do this, which has been a love of labor so far. We raised $113,000 through kickstarter, through direct contributions, that’s been very gratifying. Then question then is, can we do this year after year? We’re heavy now into season two, it’s going to be longer then season one. I’m hoping that the episodes will be a bit longer, not sitcom episodes, but we’re getting there.
Because the episodes are so short, I imagined that they were all written as one long story. Was that the case, or did you break it up and write each episode separately?
What we wound up shooting in the first season was one quarter of the script that I’d originally written. Originally JourneyQuest was twenty episodes long and it had a seven episode mini story that was the Bard’s story, that was going to be exclusive to the DVD. We actually cast for a twenty episode season but logistically it was just impossible to pull off. So we had to cut the show in half twice and were left with a situation where we were, “okay, what can we film with what we actually have?” And that turned out to be five episodes of JourneyQuest and the two episodes of the Bards story that took place in the same locations. The strength of the creative team made it so we were able to cut that stuff together.
How difficult was it to combine those two plot lines after the fact? Did you loose a lot of material in the editing process?
Actually no, I don’t know if we cut anything. Which is rare to not cut anything in a film. I can say it’s been a bit difficult for this seasons script, because we’re not actually finishing the rest of the story. We did seven out of the twenty seven episodes, so I have twenty left over. We’re doing a ten episode season, I’m taking the middle section of that original mammoth script and then writing new stories for the orcs, and the two major editions to season two, Fran Kranz and Bob Sapp.
We were at this last years PAX where we did a screening of the show and a panel afterwards. I was struck by how devoted the fans were. There were probably two hundred fifty, three hundred people there, and they really loved it. I was really encouraged by how excited they were.
The way we’ve stayed alive is through this fan evangelism. Most of the people who I’ve spoken to at conventions have said I was introduced to this by a friend in my gaming group, or by a friend who said, “I know you don’t play these games but you’d love this.” With JourneyQuest we specifically released it with Creative Commons so that [piracy] wasn’t an issue. People who become passionate about your material will support you. But if they can’t get access to that material in the first place you’re missing an opportunity. If you’re going to exist at this level and count on a grass roots fan base to both grow your fan base and keep yourself supported, you really need to take the time to cultivate those personal relationships, which are the people who are watching your material.
JourneyQuest reminds me of my days playing role playing games or Lord of the Rings and Everquest. What did you draw from to create the show?
A lot does come from Roleplaying games, that was a hobby of mine since middle school. If you’ve heard of Lord of the Rings you should be able to find JourneyQuest amusing.
While this is a fantasy, it also just really funny and has a lot of funny bits. Where did the idea come from to combine the two genres?
I like genre comedy. It’s not something that’s done very often and when it is done it’s done poorly a lot of times. When it’s done right it’s magic, like Galaxy Quest, Ghostbusters, or Men in Black. There’s this idea that speculative fiction is not a legitimate means for communicating important comedy or drama, because it exists in another world. It’s no set here and now, it’s not something people can relate to. Which I think is one of the benefits of speculative fiction, when done right you’re getting people to relate to characters in a completely fictional world, because we all experience the same range of emotions regardless of our time in history. Plus I just like the ridiculous.
What kind of things can we expect from the second season that you weren’t able to do with the first season?
We really didn’t have the ability to stray from the immediate surroundings, the narrative as going on in the Afterlands and around The Temple of All Dooms. We’ll get to broaden the scope of the story telling a bit, of what’s happening elsewhere.
Is it a conscious decision for you to keep it in the Seattle area?
Keeping your production local to the major city is to everyone’s benefit, and Washington is a beautiful place to shoot. We lost some major film incentives last year that the state legislature chose not to renew. There’s a very active film community here that wants to get those reinstated. Because that brings more work to the industry here. Frankly, we’ve got Portland to the south and Vancouver to the north of us and a lot of stuff is getting filmed in those markets. It’s to our detriment that we let those incentives expire. It’s an attractive initiative to axe because it’s saying, “We don’t need to give incentives to major Hollywood films.” You’re not giving them to major Hollywood films. We’re really allowing home grown material to be produced in state, and they always bring in more money to the community then they cost. Seattle is known for a great place in independent films. Last year we had five films at Sundance. This is a good region for the independent film maker and needs to be supported.
What can fans of JourneyQuest look forward to in the coming months?
We will be having an active behinds the scenes film. Preliminary filing in March, we’re hoping to have the show done by the big summer convention season.*
With their kickstarter goal met, Matt is feverishly working on season two. I can’t wait to see what they can do with a bigger budget this second time around. The first seven episodes of the series seem like a really excellent start to what will be a truly great show.
To watch all seven episodes of the show completely free, go to: journey-quest.com. If you’re looking for other great web series including Dorkness Rising, also created by Matt Vancil, go to: zombieorpheus.com. Season one is also available at amazon.com on DVD, packed to the gills with extra features.
As with everyone we’ve profiled here, my goal is to help them reach more mainstream appeal. In this case JourneyQuest is a show that relies heavily on fan support, the more you support them (monetarily) the more show they’ll provide us with. Enjoy, donate, and share this with your friends.
Also stay tuned for the full podcast of the interview next monday.