Hollywood is just now waking up to the Netflix vs. Spielberg debate on streaming vs. theatrical movies, but D.C. native Otessa Ghadar has been ahead of the curve for over a decade.
Her digital brainchild, the D.C. Web Fest, returns for its seventh year this Friday and Saturday.
“We’re very proud of our baby that has gone past crawling and is now walking and getting into all kinds of wonderful trouble,” Ghadar told WTOP. “There was one in L.A. [the L.A. Web Fest in 2009] but not in New York, so I thought how amazing would it be if the second time there is something like this, if it was in D.C. and we could establish D.C. as a creative capitol because, yes, there is a creative community here, people! We’re alive and well. Please come and join us.”
The seeds were planted by Ghadar’s frustration during her M.F.A. at Columbia University.
“When I was doing my thesis, I wanted to do an online show,” Ghadar said. “Something they talked a lot about was declining ticket sales: ‘Where are the butts in seats?’ … As I was hearing this in grad school, I was watching my brother and sister at home constantly online and realized, ‘They are consuming content.’ … I did a little data science and tracked the analytics and realized content consumption is up … it’s just not in the theaters, so let me go there.”
Not only did streaming appeal to her love of technology, it also transcended social inequities.
“At film school, there was a group of women in the hallways [and] one of our professors who has Oscars said, ‘I don’t know why all you women are here. Don’t you know you’re not going to be directors or producers, you’re all going to end up being script girls?’ That moment was not a happy moment, but I have to thank that moment [for realizing] if I want to do this, I’m going to go where content consumption is a growth market and where I can actually be a director. And that’s something that we saw if you look at Issa Rae [creator of ‘Insecure’ on HBO Go].”
Today, however, the major streaming services have outgrown the “indie” label.
“No offense to Netflix, but back in the day there was a button where you could submit your work,” Ghadar said. “[Now], Netflix is basically MGM of the 1930s, the new studio system. … It’s important now more than ever for something like the D.C. Web Fest to exist. Even the Webbies [founded in 2006] aren’t indie anymore. As soon as you have Kim Kardashian on there, that’s not indie! So basically we’re the indie Webbies still fighting the good fight.”
This year’s slate kicks off at noon Friday at the Google building on Massachusetts Ave. NW, where Ghadar will deliver the keynote address alongside Google’s Aerica Banks.
This is followed by a video game and virtual reality exhibition from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m., featuring expert advice from Shayna Skolnik of Navteca and NASA, Joey Cathey of Capitol Interactive and Discovery, Mark Lambert of VArtisans and Kristian Bouw of Notion Theory.
After that, Ghadar will provide pro-bono creative consultations, while social media and event coordinator Diana Eaton will offer free headshots from 1 to 3 p.m. Similarly, Creative Control will provide pro-bono legal advice with the city’s leading IP lawyers from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.
Meanwhile, the education group General Assembly will offer two free courses from 1 to 3 p.m., including “Digital Marketing” by Kelly Aratoon and “UX Design” by Maxim Leyzerovich.
“You’re looking at something that when I calculated the value was $875,” Ghadar said. “We’re not charging you $875; we are charging a very, very small fraction. If you wanted to go out and do each of those things piecemeal, you’d be breaking the bank. … The value is close to $1,000 for every single event — and you’ve got four of them priced just to cover our cost.”
At this point, the festival migrates over to Mindspace at The Washington Post building on K Street NW to screen the international web series from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Every continent is represented (except Antarctica) with one of last year’s winners hailing from Sierra Leone.
“Digital storytelling is not just web series,” Ghadar said. “We have more categories: podcasting, VR (virtual reality), AR (augmented reality), indie game development, blogging, online writing, digital art, online representation and social impact. All of these things are now included, so if you are creating a digital story, we’re your home, we love you, join us.”
The tips continue from 8:30 to 10:15 p.m. during fireside chats with Csongor Dobrotka (Die Seriale), Rose of Dolls and Oliver Mend (Bilbao Web Fest), Victor Nguyen-Long (creative strategist and cultural lobbyist) and Darryl Perkins (founder of Broccoli City).
The first day’s activities wrap with an after party ranging from a raffle to a scavenger hunt.
“Basically the way it works, we have special guests there and people have to try to figure out who is who, then the winner gets a prize,” Eaton said.
Day 2 moves over to the MakeOffices in Glover Park on Wisconsin Avenue NW, kicking off with the “State of the Digital Union” remarks by Ghadar from 12:45 to 1 p.m. Saturday.
Immediately after, stick around for the “Podcast Listening Booth” from 1 to 4 p.m. for “The DC Music History Podcast,” “Flyest Fables,” “Gayish,” “Drinkomancy” and “Dealing with My Grief.” This includes a fireside chat with podcast experts Marcus Dowling and Bri Castellini.
“Why do people not think of D.C. as creative? Why if someone gets to a certain level, it’s like they cut their teeth here, then often times they leave and go somewhere else? How can we make sure they stay?” Ghadar said. “In our creative strategy meeting we realized that the creative communities here [are] not connecting with each other. … If it’s your side hustle, you’re going to be exhausted from your day job. … How are you going to then reach out and meet all of these other creative communities? We’re missing the neurons that connect them.”
Thus, she hopes to connect those neurons with “Social Impact & Digital Expression” from 3 to 4 p.m. featuring American University professor and filmmaker Claudia Myers, digital artist Ariel Burgess, Color Story Magazine editor Dayna Hood and blogger Jade Stevenson.
Also, don’t miss the Amazon Web Services Session with Tiffany Harris from 2 to 3 p.m. including a $100 credit for Amazon Web Services. Ghadar is fascinated at the opportunities for continued partnerships with Amazon as it builds its new campus in Arlington, Virginia.
“I’m really interested in what Amazon has been doing with its programming and its properties it’s developing,” Ghadar said. “First, they got Julia Roberts, who had never been on the small screen. Then they’ve been adapting podcasts. That was a major play that Hulu wasn’t doing, Netflix wasn’t doing, that carves out an amazing market. … They’ve also gotten into fandom, so there’s ‘Wheel of Time,’ there’s ‘Tolkien.’ … Those are usually considered bad words, ‘Don’t say science fiction, say speculative fiction,’ … but Amazon is like, ‘We’re going to do that.'”
It all builds to the American web series from 6 to 8 p.m., followed by a Q&A with Bryan Thompson (Miami Web Fest), Elena Moscatt (Baltimore Web Fest & Click On This Show), Csongor Dobrotka (Die Seriale) and Rose of Dolls & Oliver Mend (Bilbao’s BiSeriesLand).
This is followed by the award ceremony and closing party with dinner and drinks provided by Sweetgreen’s new Pop-Up experience and alcohol by the Embassy of Australia. If you’re still ready to rage, head over to the unofficial “after after-party” at Decades in Dupont Circle.
“We really want to create an experience that is intimate, that facilitates connecting, creating and collaborating,” Eaton said. “We’ve all been to festivals with thousands of people and we find that when it’s a huge crowd, you just get washed up, you leave and you don’t have many connections, but when it’s a smaller, more intimate crowd, then it’s more easy for people to communicate, meet and greet, hookup and connect. That’s really what we want people to do.”
Beyond schmoozing about your current project, D.C. Web Fest hopes to aid your next one.
“Sometimes you go to a festival, they give out awards and a pat on the back … but something we saw that was missing is that if you are an indie creator, you need the tools to go out and create again,” Ghadar said. “Things that we offer for our award winners are mentorship, … free creative consultations, pro-bono legal sessions, pro-bono headshots. … You come away with hardware, software, mentorship … everything you need to go out and do it again.”
Find more details on the D.C. Web Fest website. Hear our full chat with Ghadar and Eaton below:
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Otessa Ghadar & Diana Eaton