YouTube's WIGS channel finds the drama in women

September 7, 2012 - 9:49 AM
Web Channel-WIGS

This image released by WIGSCO, LLC shows actress Caitlin Gerard as Jan in a scene from the series on the WIGS channel. Launched in May as one of YouTube's numerous new channels of original content, WIGS is a destination for short films _ both series and one-offs _ unlike anything you're likely to find on TV or a movie screen. (AP Photo/WIGSCO, LLC/YouTube)

NEW YORK (AP) — Not to play favorites, but if you'd like to sample the tasty new WIGS channel, just take 9 minutes and try "Denise."

This nifty little set piece was written by celebrated playwright Neil LaBute, directed by Lee Toland Krieger ("Celeste & Jesse Forever") and stars straight-from-"The-Newsroom" Alison Pill and Chris Messina as two actors awaiting auditions who awkwardly revisit a past one-night stand.

"Denise" is witty, well-observed and packs a sly punch. It's a treat.

Appetite whetted? There's plenty more WIGS where that came from: a dozen titles so far, with more rolling out through November. They will collectively comprise some 100 video chapters, most of them 6 minutes to 8 minutes in length. Warning: WIGS could prove habit-forming.

Launched in May as one of YouTube's numerous new channels of original content, WIGS is a destination for short films — both series and one-offs — unlike anything you're likely to find on TV or a movie screen.

Each work focuses on a female protagonist in a novel situation (whether funny, sad or in-between) as performed by a top-notch cast including A-list actors and actresses along with promising newcomers. The roster of writers is equally impressive, including unexpected names like Mitch Albom and Scott Turow. Half of the directors are women.

Handsomely produced, WIGS even boasts intoxicating theme music by multi-Oscar-nominated Thomas Newman.

The channel's name (an acronym for Where It Gets Interesting) is meant to address the multifaceted nature of women, who in their daily lives are called upon to wear, metaphorically, not only many hats but also many wigs.

The creators of WIGS are two men who, despite their Y chromosomes, have built careers exploring the world of women.

Writer-producer-director Jon Avnet's credits include the films "Black Swan" and "Risky Business" and the TV series "The Starter Wife." Rodrigo Garcia produced the HBO series "In Treatment" and "Six Feet Under" and directed the gender-bender feature "Albert Nobbs," which earned its star, Glenn Close, a best-actress Oscar nod.

Several years ago they began cooking up WIGS as a way to mold their artistic visions to the Internet medium while targeting what they saw as an underserved Web audience: adult women.

They also wanted to adapt for the Web the experience of cinema.

"The Internet isn't going to be dogs on skateboards forever," says Garcia. "We wanted to produce projects that are entertaining but aren't as disposable as what was gaining popularity at the time."

The arrival of the iPad made online even more suited to scripted entertainment.

Then YouTube recruited them for its new 100-channel portfolio. Suddenly their fledgling enterprise (in partnership with News Corp. Digital Media Group) had a well-established, massively visited home base.

An early WIGS offering was "Jan," written and directed by Avnet, a 15-part tale about a budding photographer who's focused on sex. It stars Caitlin Gerard ("The Social Network") and features Virginia Madsen, Stephen Moyer and Jaime Murray.

Garcia wrote and directed the 12-part "Blue," which stars Julia Stiles as the single mother of a teenage boy who has no idea that his mom's a prostitute.

Meanwhile, Avnet and Garcia were inviting other filmmakers and actors to come play.

The guidelines, in a sense, were simple: Each project had to have a woman at its center, "and we wanted her to be multidimensional and difficult to pin down at times," says Avnet. "We want it more complex than broadcast, not as graphic as cable. Beyond that, our green-light committee is two guys who look at each other and say, 'Well, whattaya think?'"

"Dakota," written and directed by Ami Canaan Mann ("Texas Killing Fields"), finds Jena Malone as a woman juggling motherhood and a poker addiction.

"Lauren" stars Jennifer Beals and Troian Bellisario in a drama about a female service member seeking justice after being raped by three fellow soldiers. It was directed by Lesli Linka Glatter ("Mad Men," ''The West Wing").

"Christine," written and directed by Garcia, follows an evening of speed dating with America Ferrera, also starring Eric Balfour and Gary Dourdan as two of her speed dates.

A speed-dating event is again the setting stocked with crossover characters from "Jan": Written and directed by Avnet, "Vanessa & Jan" premiered a few days ago.

And among those still ahead: "Georgia," a comic three-parter written and directed by Marta Kauffman ("Friends").

Production of the programs began last November and continued in Los Angeles through March in what Avnet describes as "an insanely demanding task."

"Budgets were tight and we were shooting very quickly," adds Garcia. "But in exchange there was freedom and the excitement of working on something new."

Even with the welcome participation of two sponsors (American Express and Unilever), WIGS isn't seen by its creators as a get-rich-quick scheme, but rather a slow build.

Avnet considers it "highly likely" that WIGS will be invited to do a second cycle of films.

"Maybe by the third cycle, we can be paying our actors close to cable rates," he proposes, "and making a little money ourselves."

YouTube isn't saying when it will declare WIGS' fate. But it's putting out enthusiastic signals.

"They're building a really loyal fan base among the female viewers," says Jamie Byrne, YouTube's head of content strategy. "And they're building one of the great new media brands — not only with viewers, but also with the talent community and with advertisers."

Since its May debut, WIGS says it has logged more than 15 million views and gathered 83,000 subscribers.

But if all the signs look hopeful, the founders of WIGS retain a pleasantly philosophical stance.

"There is no one, yet, who can tell us what success is in this online world," says Avnet. "But it's fun when you don't know what you're doing, and when the price of success and failure isn't so high that you have committees trying to tell you what works.

"An expert," he says cheerfully, "knows what happened in the past." He and Garcia hope WIGS is happening for the future.

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier