When Starting From… Now creator Julie Kalceff was growing up, she felt frustrated by the lack of realistic representations of queer women on TV. Noting that the shortfall has yet to shift in any major way, particularly on Australian screens, she set about making significant changes herself by dodging traditional platforms all together.
With three six-episode seasons of the under 10-minute episodes under her belt - all produced on the smell of an oily rag - the hugely successful web series depicting the ups and downs of a group of inner-Sydney lesbian friends (and sometime enemies) has built up a vocally hungry audience across more than 200 countries.
“One of the reasons we decided to do it as a web series was so we could reach the audience directly without going through any gatekeepers,” Kalceff said.
“We didn’t have to prove that people wanted to see this content, we were able to access that audience directly, and the numbers are incredible.”
So big is the demand for more that fans were willing to chip in from their own pockets. They’ll be rewarded when season four debuts in its entirety at the Mardi Gras Film Festival (MGFF) before screening on SBS2, with the first three seasons already live at SBS On Demand.
Starting life as a screenplay for an abandoned feature film, Kalceff recognised broader scope in its strong female characters and the ability to expand it into an ensemble piece that would challenge perceptions and dodge the usual hurdles.
“One thing that the web does well is that people have access to more diversity that they’re not getting in mainstream media,” she said.
“We don’t focus on the characters sexuality. They are just complex women who happen to be lesbian.”
That’s something that appealed to star Rosie Lourde who plays Darcy Peters, a frustrated writer at the heart of a complicated love triangle.
“With so much queer film and TV, the characters are often focusing on the problems of their sexuality and coming out, and of course there’s always going to be a space for those incredible stories, but when you limit a person to their sexuality alone for too long it becomes quite detrimental,” she said.
“Julie had a vision for telling the stories of these incredible women who just happen to be lesbian and as such the audience response has been extraordinary.”
The direct and pretty much instantaneous feedback from fans, via online comments and social media responses, has been instrumental in the development of the series.
“We’ve been lucky that we’ve released three series already and have quite a bit of content and a long relationship with our audience,” Kalceff said.
“You pick up on the sort of things they respond to, so it makes sense then to develop them in the next season.”
Lourde has been amazed by the global reach of Starting From… Now, with the majority of their views coming from America.
“There’s a really strong culture of watching web series' in the states and their bandwidth supports that a lot more. A lot of people will go home and YouTube their nightly viewing as opposed to sitting down in front of the TV, which is really different to here in Australia.”
Another factor that has heartened both women is that the series is breaking through to several predominantly Muslim countries, where access to this sort of content is extremely difficult. It’s also being championed at international web series festivals, including an upcoming trip to LA WebFest.
The irony of creating the series because she didn’t see these stories on TV, only for it to make it onto SBS, is not lost on Kalceff, who is overjoyed at the development. She sees a strong future in multi-platform storytelling, with viewing patterns shifting significantly, and expects to see more and more webisodes sitting side-by-side traditional TV series and movies, arguing that the massive viewing figures enjoyed by Starting From… Now are proof of concept.
“It’s very rare to see an all-female cast on TV, never mind an all-female lesbian cast. In the early stages it would never have gotten on to television, but given we were able to go out and prove that there’s an audience, we’ve been able to open some doors and get responses from people we wouldn’t have been able to before.”
Lourde can’t wait to share the new series with the loyal home crowd at the MGFF before the rest of the world can get their eyes on it.
“To be able to connect so much with our Sydney fans is also going to be really fantastic, to welcome season four at the festival and then for it to go out on SBS the week after is a perfect synergy.”
"It’s very rare to see an all-female cast on TV, never mind an all-female lesbian cast."
Season five was shot concurrently, with Lourde saying the entire process cost almost as much as it would have had they been filming a feature, relying on help from community groups like ACON and funding bodies including Screen NSW and Screen Australia.
Ardent fans might want to steel themselves, not only because season four (and five) will go to some darker places, but also because it might be almost time for Starting From… Now to say goodbye, Kalceff hints.
“Never say never, but we kind of feel as though the story is coming to an end, at least in this format. It’s very difficult to sustain making a web series, so what we’re looking at is to develop a project that talks to the same audience.
"We’ve spent a lot of time developing that audience and we feel like we can service them through feature films or longer-form series. It might be a direct relationship to this world or something completely new.”
Starting from… Now! season 4 premieres on Monday 7 March, 9.15pm on SBS 2.
You can start your journey with seasons 1-3, available on SBS On Demand now.