Danger 5: find them online, bring them to the TV screen

Dario Russo got millions of hits online with his Italian Spider-Man. He told Miguel Gonzalez how he’s going to bring that existing audience to his new TV show, Danger 5.

When Dario Russo first conceived Italian Spider-Man – a parody of Italian action films of the 70s – as a short film for his final year at Flinders University and uploaded it to YouTube in late 2007, just as he had done with all his previous work, he did not anticipate that the fake trailer would find a cult following online… but it did.
“It was shot on a JVC prosumer HD camera, and it reflected the absolute zero budget we were working on then. It was made essentially with what we could borrow, but for some reason a whole bunch of people decided to watch the trailer,” he said.
The initial success helped Russo secure funding for 10 more shorts, which were also released via YouTube. Soon, Italian Spider-Man had reached 3.5 million views for the trailer, and something between 150,000 to 1m for each of the episodes. SBS wanted to turnItalian Spider-Man into a TV show, but due to internal issues within the production team, the project fell over.
“For me, understanding why it worked was all reverse engineering. We had a product that a lot of people were watching, and we could have potentially made a lot of money from merchandise,” he added.
The broadcaster was still interested in working with Russo, so it offered him and his writing partner David Ashby a development deal for a new show. The result was Danger 5, a comedy set in an alternate world in which World War II is taking place in the 60s, and a group of international spies is on a mission to kill Hitler.
The low-budget series, financed by SBS, the South Australian Film Corporation and the Adelaide Film Festival Investment Fund, is the first created out of South Australia with an entirely local team. Its six episodes, set to debut in the second half of 2011, will be preceded by a prologue, which will premiere at this month’s BigPond Adelaide Film Festival. It will then be split into mini-episodes for online release, to build an audience for the upcoming broadcast. “With Italian Spiderman we learned that you can foster quite a good fan base on the internet. We still have contact with them, so SBS recognised the potential in being able to cultivate your audience online– especially with the type of audience that we want, which is internet users, young people,” explained Russo. “So we designed a prologue episode to be used as an internet series, preceding the rest of the show, to give it a bit more depth and to build a following before it airs on television. The online content is like a smorgasbord of a lot of the stuff that’s going to happen in the series. It also ties ends with Italian Spiderman, because although this is a very different beast, there are many stylistic cues that link in with that project. It’s of a similar ilk. SBS has supported the online component, and it will be a good test to see what
people think.”
Producer Kate Crosser first met Russo and Ashby when she was working at Adelaide’s Media Resource Centre. The failedItalian Spider-Man TV series was meant to be their first project together, but when that didn’t happen, they decided to collaborate on Danger 5. According to Crosser, the series was conceived based on what an online audience is looking for.

“It was always designed to feed back to that audience. The idea was that we would engage an online audience before it went to a broadcast stage. That’s the starting point; the first time anyone will see these characters will be online,” she explained.
According to Russo, Danger 5 is what he and Ashby “wanted to see on TV”, since they identified segments of the market that aren’t being catered for by Australian broadcasters.
“I don’t necessarily know if what’s been broadcast is a reflection of what people want to see. I can’t pretend to know why; perhaps conservative ways of thinking or financing.

“We wanted something that was entertaining and appealed to our sensibilities and sense of humour. Lots of people our age would really respond to it; your Gen Xs, your Gen Ys will enjoy this kind of program.  Australian comedy usually falls within the same spectrum, and there isn’t much local surreal, stylised content.”

Although the feedback from Italian Spider-Man informed Russo that there is an appetite for such content, he knows that there is no guarantee or secret to online success, even if you’ve already had one.
“You can analyse it as much as you like, but with the internet, a huge percentage of success is based on chance. You can’t tell people what to look at or like at the end of the day; you need that spark of interest that can be gathered by a single person posting your video on the right blog, starting a snowball reaction and building a fan base,” explained Russo.

“You can’t manufacture ‘viral’. You can study previous viral successes, and you can design a video or a series for the internet and say you’re creating a ‘viral’ series, but at the end of the day, you can’t guarantee it.”
With Italian Spider-Man, some episodes were featured on YouTube’s main page at some point, generating more views than others. This led Russo to a frustrating realisation about the balance between success and quality.
“Depending on the amount of support you get from whatever platform you’re launching it on, it seemed like the least contributing factor to the popularity of the show was the actual quality of the content. It’s all the other environmental factors if you would!
“Like any other medium, just because a lot of people are watching doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, and just because it’s good doesn’t mean a lot of people are going to watch it.”
One thing that online audiences do respect, he found, is consistency: “People kept watching it because the quality was the same, and the content was the same.”
Another problem when working online is the narrative limitations of the current formats.
“The internet is very restrictive,” explained Russo. “One of the key elements of making a successful video is finding the format to suit the attention span of the internet viewer. You can’t work outside 3.5 minutes if you’re making episodes for the web; it’s hard to get people to watch them. If you’re trying to make a show, it gets really frustrating trying to write in three-minute chunks, to get a real sense of continuity and a
real narrative going.
“David Ashby and I have been writing concepts that are more suited for longer formats; even Italian Spiderman, when joined together, is 37 minutes long, broken down into pieces that made sense. I wanted to work on a medium where you have more time to tell a story, and to be able to incorporate all your concepts.”
That’s why, even if he has already found success online, Russo still believes in the power of television.
“I don’t have any intention to continue working exclusively for the internet. I respect it and I think it’s a very valuable place to foster a fan base if you can get one, but I enjoy the romance of working on a conventional platform.

“I don’t think TV is going anywhere. SBS are being extremely innovative in the way they’re licensing their content; they use the internet in conjunction with the TV material. They can both coexist very effectively; television will always be an essential platform, incorporating new avenues of distribution to its audience,” he said.

The prologue episode of Danger 5, entitled The Diamond Girls, will premiere at the Bigpond Adelaide Film Festival on February 27, followed by screenings in the Made in SA program on March 1 and 5.  It will then be split into six mini-episodes that will be released online; the full series will air on SBS later in 2011.


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