This week Screen Australia chipped in with the announcement of a new initiative to develop “premium Australian vertical mobile series” in partnership with Snapchat. And in January Samsung released a TV that turns 90 degrees to match your phone. Is this, literally, a revolution?
Ludo’s vertical series is called Content and, made for the ABC, it launched on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The conceit was that viewers were looking at the phone screen of a woman whose video of her car accident goes viral – and who then becomes a social media star.
It was counted a success. A publicity clip went viral on social media, amid confusion over whether people were watching real life or fiction. Now, Ludo is in early talks for a US remake.
At first they thought it would be easy, says Pearson. Get an iPhone, give it to the actors. But instead “it took a lot of work to make something that felt natural,” he says. “We talked about Blair Witch [Project] a lot, Waiting for Guffman. Films that were the first in their genres.
“There are new rules about how to tell a story on a phone. It felt very unprofessional, it felt like we were wasting the ABC’s money.
“But when you get the feeling right it’s very rewarding. Because it’s so intimate, you don’t have to wait 20 minutes to meet the lead [character], to meet the best friend. You don’t need that two-act structure to understand their life. People engaged with this character within 30 seconds.”
It turns out that portrait mode is made for people, just like landscape mode is made for, uh, landscapes.
“There was a real gasp from the audience,” Pearson says. “We were really surprised how engaged people were. It helped us reach the comedy and the drama quicker. It felt like the phone was possessed.”
Australian director, writer and actor Hannah Lehmann has a ‘Streamy Award’ on her shelf for her 2019 relationship drama Two Sides, commissioned by and created for Snapchat. It was designed in split screen: a clever hedge that works in vertical as in horizontal. Given the platform, it was likely mostly watched in the former.
“Making the audience follow from top to bottom is not a huge ask, or something that feels terribly confusing to the eye,” Lehmann says.
Snap Inc., Snapchat’s parent company, doesn’t release viewing figures, but on Two Sides‘ release 20 per cent of viewers who completed the first episode went on to watch all 10 – the same day.
“The platform has 210 million daily users so you can imagine how many eyes would have watched the series,” says Lehmann, who is working on a second season of Two Sides and also last year made a scripted comedy for Facebook Watch called The Unboxing.
She spent “many hours” prepping for the new format – but at the same time it “feels right and normal from the get-go,” Lehmann says. “There is a language, but it is one that I think we are all still adjusting to, particularly as filmmakers. It becomes native, however, as people … spend more time on their devices and grow used to watching things from top to bottom, rather than left to right. It’s just adapting.”
It’s definitely not a gimmick, she says. “I don’t think young people care about what platform they are watching their content on as long as it’s honest, relatable and entertaining.”
Screen Australia’s online investment manager Lee Naimo says the Snapchat partnership came from a year-long conversation with the company, with the aim of giving Aussie filmmakers a pathway to commissions from the social giants. It will include seed funding for producing work, and a workshop at Snap Inc. in LA for tools and tips on working vertically.
“I don’t believe people who say vertical will replace horizontal,” Naimo says. “But we will see many more ways of viewing content like that. With Snap, Instagram and TikTok, vertical is cornering the young market.
“Young people are also going to the cinema in droves, so I’m not sure our brains are being trained one way or the other. We’re pretty adaptable. People are going to be able to flick back and forth.”
The important thing is to be there, creating something great, he says. “It’s a blank canvas.”
Nick Miller is Arts Editor of The Age.