('High Maintenance')

Will we pay to watch web series ‘High Maintenance’? Vimeo is finding out

When “High Maintenance” was first released two years ago on the Internet as free, bite-sized vignettes about bourgeois Brooklyn as navigated by a marijuana dealer, it became a surprise hit. Now, its creators are testing the loyalty of fans by charging for new episodes on video-sharing site Vimeo.

Three new episodes released this week and three more scheduled for January cost $7.99 to rent as a bundle — or $1.99 per episode — and have received glowing reviews. With financial backing from Vimeo, the new season is the site’s first effort to fund an original series, joining a deluge of original shows by Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and cable.

The challenges for Vimeo are enormous. The site’s library is small and the rental price for three short “High Maintenance” episodes — all under 20 minutes — is about the same as a monthly subscription to Netflix.

Best reads: Five must-reads celebrating the return of series ‘High Maintenance’

But other filmmakers are watching the performance of new “High Maintenance” episodes with great interest. If consumers pay, then the Vimeo model presents a new way for filmmakers to distribute their work and keep nearly all of the money generated from sales — a model that cuts out powerful middlemen like studios and networks that have traditionally taken a huge portion of profits.

"High Maintenance" creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair (Janky Clown Productions)
“High Maintenance” creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair (Janky Clown Productions)

“It’s really an experiment, and we don’t know if we’ll ever be able to make a living off of this,” co-creator Katja Blichfeld said in an interview. “But we hope this model is financially viable so there’s a case for people who do things like we do to do this also. We don’t want to be an island of ourselves on Vimeo.”

With a budget of just $600, the first episode of “High Maintenance” was released for free on Vimeo two years ago and generated more than 1 million views. The episodes are short — 5 to 20 minutes long — designed to appeal to a generation of mobile-first consumers who prefer bite-sized stories. Co-creator Ben Sinclair plays the central character, “The Guy,” who sells weed to his Brooklyn clients. Blichfeld, who won an Emmy for casting “30 Rock,” co-writes and produces the show.

Blichfeld and Sinclair represent a movement by creative professionals to take greater control over their work. “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway said she put her hit series on Amazon.com because the firm allowed her to retain distribution rights — a practice unheard of in the cable network.

“We’re being open to and demanding different forms and formats for a generation that doesn’t have a TV in the house,” said Greg Clayman, general manager at Vimeo.

Marijuana reality TV is on the rise: From CNN’s “High Profits” to MSNBC’s “Pot Barons,” here’s The Cannabist’s guide to the pot-infused reality TV coming to your television

Freed from the constraints of 30-minute sitcoms or 1-hour dramas, digital content designed to be consumed on the Internet is growing more sophisticated and attracting corporate money. Disney bought YouTube network Maker Studios to create high-quality short-form video. Buzzfeed launched its own Motion Pictures to do the same.

On Vimeo, filmmakers upload their films directly and get 90 percent of all revenues from streaming rentals. On iTunes, filmmakers typically have to go through third-party publishers who take a big cut of the 70 percent of revenues Apple gives back to content creators. On YouTube, video producers get about half of advertising revenues, which is paltry except for the most popular videos.

Days into the launch of of the new season, married co-creators Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair wouldn’t say how many purchases have been made.

“We’re off to a good and steady start,” Sinclair said, saying he’s also heard complaints from consumers about having to pay.

The creators said Vimeo wasn’t their first choice for the new season. They had shopped the script to FX, which initially expressed interest but ultimately passed on the show. Around the same time, Vimeo had announced that it would put $10 million into helping develop original programs for the first time.

The file-sharing platform promised creative control and for the artists to retain licensing rights. “It was too good to be true. I thought, ‘I don’t have to do an organ transplant to do this kind of work?’ ” Sinclair said.

The show’s short format has proved popular with audiences, particularly millennials.

“We did it out of necessity because people’s attention span is short, we thought being short and concise was how we would get viewers online,” Sinclair said.