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Public broadcasting TV hopes to weave sci-fi web

By Craig Johnson, Special to CNN
  • How the U.S. will handle social issues in the future is the focus of an ITVS movie series
  • The Web-only mini-movies last about 15 minutes and will run through April
  • Impetus for series, now in its second season, came from turmoil of 2008
  • Each film has a downloadable lesson plan that educators can use in their classrooms

(CNN) -- Public broadcasting is more known for stiff-as-a-robot documentaries than sci-fi movies. But the channel is shaking up its sometimes stuffy reputation by producing a cool Web-only series about the future of America.

And yes, there are robots.

The Independent Television Service is currently debuting the second season of its science fiction short film series online, called Futurestates.

The spark for the series came about in the middle of 2008 when a turbulent social climate swept through the nation: Wall Street started to fissure. The housing bubble began to deflate. The country, in the midst of a historic presidential election, seemed to be at a turning point.

"Everybody started forecasting the future," said Karim Ahmad, series manager for Futurestates. The concept for a Web series that would speak to the social issues of the time was needed, he said.

The series, a collection of 10 original mini-movies that take place in the future, began March 13 and will run through April.

For ITVS, the initiative represents public television's foray into the digital space.

"It's true that we're mostly known for doing documentary work," Ahmad said. "At the same time, there's a lot of stuff going on in digital. We decided to try to go around the challenges of public broadcasting and see if we could continue to support fiction in filmmaking."

It is that support that drew J.P. Chan., a New York filmmaker, to the project. "I grew up as a real science fiction nerd, and I always wanted to do science fiction films," Chan said.

In making his short, "Digital Antiquities," which debuts online Thursday, Chan said, "It was so fun to nerd out. I mean I just nerded out for this movie."

It's an excitement that ITVS hopes to translate into a viable Web presence. The station, mainly funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (like its partner, PBS), has failed to attract the Web-friendly demographic that so many television advertisers salivate over.

The Futurestates project, with its blend of science fiction, fantasy and social awareness, offers a chance for public broadcast TV to score a hit with the tech-savvy crowd that spawns viral memes on the internet and in social media.

In essence, it wants to be where the cool kids are.

Ahmad said the hot topics of the day, such as global warming and immigration, make for compelling and educational storytelling for the films, which ITVS executives hope to air on PBS at a later date. "Our goal was to get people thinking, talking and engaging about these issues."

The result, in a word, is epic.

ITVS contracted 10 filmmakers to come up with self-contained stories that ask the proverbial question: What does the future America look like? "We chose a diverse array of filmmakers. All of which had different styles and backgrounds," said Ahmad, who has a background in screenwriting and producing.

Futurestates debuted in the spring of 2010. It screened at the SXSW festival, as it did this year, to rousing success among the tech crowd.

Last year's Web hit, the simple but avant-garde "Plastic Bag," garnered about 300,000 views on YouTube and has fostered discussion on online forums about conservation and green living.

"We hope [the films] spark civic discourse," Ahmad said. "We're hoping these films really bring to light social issues that aren't really talked about and that ultimately these futuristic stories make people think about the way we live our lives today," he said.

True to ITVS's roots, the movies include a teaching component. Each film, which lasts about 15 minutes, comes with a lesson plan that educators can download and incorporate into their classrooms to encourage discussion about the future.

For Chan, who has a handful of shorts to his credit, the film gave him an opportunity to explore a fascination of his: the ease with which we store information online, and what will become of it.

"When I originally pitched the idea for Futurestates, I was really interested in data loss and what that means. The idea of your hard drive crashing or you losing your phone or laptop and losing all your data," he said.

"Data preservation is really interesting to me. In the future, everything is going to be sort of connected and up in the cloud. Right now, we're in a period where a lot of memories are being created, but the way we back things up is sort of up in the air," he said.

Emphasizing the social message of the film, Chan said the theme of his story was "even in a future where there's no privacy anymore -- people will be able to scan your identity when you walk into a store and know your history instantly by Googling you -- there will still be secrets."

"In my story, the secret is a good thing," he said.

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