Have you heard of the new WB/Facebook web series Aim High? You know, the show about a high school student/CIA operative that actually allows you to incorporate your own pictures and data into the story? I didn't think so. Neither had any of my 997 Facebook friends, or the people I interrogated at Halloween parties last week, or the 50 teens I tracked down around Fairfax High School.
Exec produced by mega-producer/director McG, Aim High stars Twilight star Jackson Rathbone as Nick Green, a teenage undercover CIA agent who assassinates terrorists in between homework and coffee dates with his crush Amanda -- played by Aimee Teegarden from Friday Night Lights. The first 11-minute episode premiered on Facebook and Cambio.com in October.
The series' signature gimmick is that on Facebook you can choose a "personalize" option and have your public data (profile pic, name, etc.) incorporated subtly into the show. After choosing the option, for instance, I saw a "Steph for Prez" sticker with my picture on it on the back of Nick Green's laptop. Aim High claims to be the first "social series" ever, and with blockbuster production quality, breathtaking stunts, a smart script, some semi-name actors and McG's involvement, I would have expected Aim High to go viral instantly. Yet much like its stealthy hero, this show is still flying way below the radar.
When I explained Aim High's concept to the kids at Fairfax High School, trying to find someone who'd heard of it, I became surrounded by a crowd of enraptured teens who all wanted to know, "Where can I see that?," "That sounds awesome!" "Jackson Rathbone?? AHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" One girl had a full on 30 second teen scream fest when I mentioned his name. So why hadn't they heard of it? Precedent I guess. There's never been a Facebook show before so people don't know to look for it.
Aim High's stars, who also include comedian Johnny Pemberton as Nick's nerdy best friend and Rebecca Mader as the sultry Ms. Walker, are all promoting the show to their Facebook/Twitter audiences furiously. There have also been plenty of articles in publications like the Wall Street Journal and L.A. Times. But what high schooler reads the WSJ? And following your favorite stars on FB and Twitter is still a pretty new phenomenon. One girl had seen a TV commercial for the show, but hadn't been hooked because, as she said, "I just watch things my friends recommend on Facebook." Tough crowd.
I got a chance to chat with Heath Corson, the co-creator of Aim High, about why the show ended up in the Wild West of the Web rather than the much more reliable TV platform.
"We want to do something noisy," Corson said. "We wanted to write something that people would never ever make." So right before the writer's strike in 2007, he and his writing partner Richie Keen began to shop around a pilot about a high school kid whose after school job involved killing people. Bad people, sure, but people. A little too edgy for any network to touch with a ten foot pole. Then the writer's strike hit.
"Everyone said, 'Ah. We can't develop it because of the strike," Corson explained. That was when it fell into the lap of Lydia Antonini, formerly of Warner Brothers Premiere Digital. Antonini saw the potential to develop the show for the internet, which was not covered by the strike. Edgy material? No problem on the Web.
Over the next four years, Aim High's development mirrored audience's growing attention span for web content. "Four years ago you couldn't have anything longer than three minute episodes," Corson explained. In one of its earlier versions, the show had been split up into fourteen five-minute episodes. "Now we're doing eleven minute episodes and fans want them to be even longer," Corson said.
It's true. When I realized I couldn't find anyone to talk to in person who had seen the show, I turned to the 20,300 people who had seen it, the Aim High Facebook page fans. Most comments were from international viewers angry that they couldn't see it yet. (Hello dormant international profits!)
The rest were mostly women in their 20s and 30s who love the show, love Jackson, and all agreed they wanted longer episodes. 20,300 fans may seem like a lot, but when parody music videos like "Fishy Fishy" (spoofing "Gucci Gucci" by Kreayshawn) get 250,000 views in a weekend, and low budget, gross-out web series like Epic Meal Time get 2 to 5 million views per episode, you realize 20,300 is pretty small potatoes.
"There's not a lot of money, but there is a lot of creative control," Corson enthused about why he and Keen plan to continue creating content for the digital space. Today most Americans may turn to the web for music, parodies and extras for their favorite TV shows, but every day a few more people are realizing that original content on the Web may one day surpass TV in style and substance. On Tuesday 20,383 people 'Liked' Aim High's FB page. By Thursday night it was 20,600. By Friday afternoon it was 20,631.
So maybe web watchers are partaking in more of an evolution than a revolution, but slowly viewers are discovering what McG has said all along: "This is the future of Hollywood."