Nov. 03--A dozen twentysomething South Florida pals started out just having fun.
They filmed scripted scenes at each other's places and at Florida Atlantic University classrooms, then posted them to YouTube under the name "Close Friends."
Eight months later, "Close Friends," which follows fictional characters' struggles with love, dating and their own friendships, is a weekly web series that attracts on average 20,000 to 50,000 viewers -- with fans so engaged that a recent episode had more than 1,000 comments and 1,900 "likes."
"We have a good solid fan base that is expanding beyond South Florida, which is incredible," said Austin Buda, 24, a FedEx employee who plays Kevin, a character trying to stay sober and reunite with his ex-girlfriend.
Posted every Wednesday, "Close Friends" has been a labor of love, the cast says, as a passion project away from the their day jobs or college classes (though now some of them want to be professional actors). Some of the pals have known each other from as far back as middle school.
Buda dreamed of being an actor when he was in elementary school doing "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" impersonations. The web series has allowed him to flirt with that dream again.
"I have always had a love and drive for acting. We're not getting paid, but I love every minute of it," Buda said. "All of us are really good friends outside the work environment, so it never gets boring."
People posting homemade YouTube videos is certainly nothing new, but "Close Friends" is unique is how prolific the local production has been and in the following it's attracting. Just before the second season began Oct. 16, six cast members appeared in a video asking for $3,200 in donations for production costs. To their surprise, they raised more than $7,800.
"It is growing steadily and organically," said Maria M. Garcia, a social media professor at Florida International University. "If you look at the comments, it has an urban appeal among men and women. They've created a niche, a small market."
Most users post parodies or videos with sex appeal on YouTube, Garcia said. The fact that "Close Friends" is a scripted series, or what she called a teledrama, "in itself makes it unique."
Along with Buda's character, the show follows five other fictional friends: Raheem, Nathan, Valerie, Tori and Kira. And their relationships dramatically intersect. There's an attempted rape. An abortion. A brawl. A death. And that was just the first season.
"It may not be true for us, but it may be happening to someone," said McKinson Souverain, the show's co-creator and Delray Beach social studies teacher who has produced short films on the side.
"Whether it's losing a loved one, or a failed relationship, everyone is able to relate to that or knows someone who has been through that," said Boca Raton's Erica Nicole, 21, an FAU junior who plays Valerie, whom she described as a caring but "dingy" photographer on the show.
Ashley Arielle, 24, who is studying exercise science at FAU, plays Tori, a character juggling two men. Like some of the friends, the Deerfield Beach resident had never acted before.
"This introduced me to it all, and I am grateful to that because I have been learning a lot about production and filming," said Arielle, as cast members rehearsed their scenes on Wednesday night in her Deerfield Beach apartment.
Sometimes, they shoot in another actor's home in Boca Raton, or in FAU hallways and parking lots.
Thanks to their crowdfunding effort over the summer, the group was able to purchase an additional camera along with lighting, sound equipment and editing software, which has given the second season a more polished, enhanced look.
The bright lights and cameras were put to good use for the shoot at Arielle's home. In this scene, Raheem, played by Nigel Hylton, confronts Kira, played by Debbie Obile, about losing their baby.
"Can you talk to me? I am trying to make things right between us," he told her.
"Are you serious? Things will never be the same between us," she fired back defensively.
The scene went on for a few minutes before they performed another take. In a nearby bedroom, the other actors/friends chatted about their day and laughter spilled into the living room, interrupting the scene.
Where the storylines and the show will go, the cast doesn't know. But they hope "Close Friends" will attract the interest of a TV, cable network, or subscription TV video hosting site Hulu.com
"We are trying to get it to that next level," said Ricky Jean-Francois, 23, a Boca Raton waiter who began writing TV and film scripts last year and created the show with friend, Souverain. "I want people to feel like these are your friends and that you are looking into their lives."
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