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Blowing up

Winnipeg-centric web series merges marketing and storyline

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It's a comedy. It's digital content. It's a marketing opportunity. It's a video love letter to everyone's favourite frozen hometown.

The new online short-form series WindCity is all of those things, and perhaps a few more. The brainchild of local writer/producer Paul Vieira, the locally produced web comedy -- which debuted Jan. 7 on the Winnipeg Free Press's website (winnipegfreepress.com/WindCity) -- was designed with two distinct but complementary goals in mind: to entertain its online viewership and, by doing so, to provide local companies and organizations with an innovative forum in which to promote their products and services.

"I think the marketing part was probably the original impetus," Vieira explains. "I didn't really know what the story would be, but I was interested in the concept of how a project like this could be funded without relying on the traditional film and television (financing) models.

"I had been following a few web series in the States that were focused more on incorporating brands as a way of funding a certain type of entertainment. I was a big fan of a web series put out by IKEA, and Leap Year, a web TV series put out by a small-business insurance company called Hiscox, and another web series that BMW put out.

"There's all these big brands that are putting out web series as a way to engage with their audiences and expand their brand awareness -- they're spending millions of dollars and hiring Hollywood directors and actors to do this. And about two years ago, I was sitting on the bus, thinking about how we could do this in Manitoba, where most of the companies are small- to medium-sized and no one has that kind of marketing budget. And it just sort of hit me -- what if a number of brands all came together under a common banner or umbrella? If one prospers, everyone prospers. And what if that umbrella was a city, or specifically the downtown area, where there are hundreds of businesses represented?"

And with that, the idea for WindCity was formed -- a web series that would offer downtown businesses an opportunity to incorporate their brands, logos and locations into a scripted series focused on life in Winnipeg's urban centre.

"If downtown is thriving and full of people and there's lots going on, then everyone wins. The battle for downtown is a battle of perception; even the battle for Winnipeg is a battle of perception. There are a lot of very smart people putting money and time and thought into how to reposition our city and recreate the perception of Winnipeg, and I think this web series can be a piece in that bigger picture," Vieira says.

Vieira, whose previous career background includes writing, motivational speaking, adult education and working in the provincial government's immigration department, pitched his idea to a couple of local production companies, Frantic Films and MidCanada Productions, and soon after began working on WindCity under the banner of a newly formed production arm, Frank Digital.

The storyline in WindCity's six episodes, which run between five and seven minutes each, follows a young man named Dylan (played by Adam Hurtig) who's searching for a way to put his career, his company and his love life back on track.

The series' local cast also includes Rebecca Gibson, Sierra Noble, Kyle Nobess, Sarah Constible, Trish Cooper, Ali Tataryn, Karl Thordarson and Abbey Thickson. Kevin McDonald (The Kids in the Hall) and local radio personality Ace Burpee make cameo appearances.

The series concept was pitched to dozens of local companies as a promotional vehicle in which different levels of sponsorship would afford them various forms of brand incorporation and product placement. For the initial six-episode run, Manitoba Public Insurance and Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries signed on at the highest level, as "anchor partners," with the RBC Convention Centre, Red River College and RBC Royal Bank joining in at the next level as "prime partners."

Seven other companies and agencies, including Carnaval Brazilian BBQ, CentreVenture, Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, the Fort Garry Hotel, The Forks, Johnston Group and Neil Bardal Funeral Centre, are listed as "supporting partners."

The Winnipeg Free Press is one of WindCity's two media sponsors and will be the official online home of the series' episodes. The first instalment debuted on Jan. 7; a new episode will be released each Tuesday and additional related content will be posted every day during the series' six-week run.

Vieira admitted selling the series as an untested commodity was a bit of a challenge, but notes there are several downtown businesses eagerly awaiting the results of WindCity's first-season launch.

"The hope, obviously, is that Season 1 does extremely well, because there were a number of companies that told us to come back when we had metrics from Season 1 and we're ready to do Season 2," he says, adding he'll consider something in the range of 100,000 online views to be a successful first season. "We're already putting word out about Season 2; I'm constantly communicating with different companies to let them know we're up and running, we have a trailer out and this is where we're at so far.

"I'm sending out emails updating our early metrics in terms of the number of views our trailer has had, the number of Facebook likes we have, and how many impressions we've made through Twitter. Basically, I'm documenting everything and reporting it along the way. Once the series comes out, it will all come down to how many views the series gets."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 9, 2014 C3

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