Playing Dec. 13-15, the seventh edition of Webfest Berlin will run under new ownership but the same set of goals: To spotlight the finest in short-format web series production and to herald them on the international stage.
This year’s edition will feature 27 short-form series from 13 countries in nearly as many languages, all spread over six competitive sections (Including French comedy “Dhanasri, Julies and the Ghosts,” pictured above). Acquired by Russia’s Red Carpet Studio in 2020, Webfest Berlin has kept much of its team in place and will aim to maintain a sense of continuity between this and previous editions.
That is, continuity up to a point. Because the festival’s inaugural edition, in September 2015, didn’t fully augur what was later to come. “Our first festival was a lot smaller,” says Webfest Berlin founder Meredith Burkholder. “We had maybe 80 people in a small studio, and maybe one or two [now defunct] platforms there; it was kind of cobbled together.”
“The market was pretty non-existent at the time,” Burkholder continues. “We had one distributor there, giving a prize for distribution on a platform that now no-longer exists – and that’s kind of telling. Cracking the business model has taken a lot of trial and error. Now it’s starting to even out, with players staying around in the game.”
If the festival has shown considerable growth in the intervening years, so has the short-form industry. Indeed, 2015 was something of a banner year, seeing the launch not only of Webfest Berlin but also of similar, partner events like Rio Webfest and Bilbao Seriesland, and the creation of the Web Series World Cup, a body that oversees this growing circuit of short-form showcases.
With the hundreds of shows making their way across the Web Series World Cup every year creating greater visibility, with technological innovations ensuring greater formal polish at lower costs, and with digital media funds introducing new funding opportunities, the level of production has greatly expanded – but nothing has pushed short-form further than the creators themselves.
“The history of web series is of creators telling their stories without gatekeepers or commissioners,” says Burkholder. “You have a lower barrier to entry, so you can play. Your rhythm can be different in every episode and your style can be completely new and experimental to see what works and what doesn’t. So you see things that are a bit further outside of the box, and you see things from younger and fresher perspectives.”
Burkholder points to projects like “TubeHeads” – a German-language puppet show that was picked up by local broadcasters after winning the audience award in 2016 – and creators like Luke Eve – an Australian filmmaker who has been a festival fixture with projects like “Low Life,” “High Life” and “Cancelled,” and who released his feature debut in 2020 – as particular success stories from the Webfest Berlin’s short history, while emphasizing the new sales opportunities that have emerged as the market has matured.
“From niche platforms to language learning apps, everyone is looking for content, and short-form is handy to have in your arsenal,” she says. “But we’ve also seen shorts developed into longer format series or cut together and sold as mid-to-feature length films. And then there’s just the opportunity of being discovered – of someone discovering a voice, wanting to see what else they’ve got to say.”
As Webfest Berlin grew in stature it reinforced partnerships with the other members of the Web Series World Cup – including Realist Web Fest, the Nizhny Novgorod-set sister event run by Red Carpet Studio. With both showcases now under the same banner, Burkholder – who remains with Webfest as an advisor and member of this year’s jury – believes a more global reach can only push the industry further.
“As audiences consume content differently, they become aware of these other pockets and places where they can see really good quality stories that maybe resonate with them a little more than what they’re seeing on broadcast TV or even on the major streamers,” Burkholder begins.
“So web series really lend themselves to being international; you can find topics where Web series often present a different perspective or a fresh voice or are told by a community that’s been under-represented until now, that hasn’t been able to get the big funding from the mass audiences because they don’t cater to them. Only once you can find and collect these niches all around the world, then you’re talking about a much bigger audience.”