@SummerBreak: Inside the Social Media Reality Series Starring L.A. High School Students

Entertainment, Features, LA Weekly, Los Angeles

Photo Credit: Maddie Cordoba

Originally published in LA Weekly. For original, please refer to: @SummerBreak: Inside the Social Media Reality Series Starring L.A. High School Students – LA Weekly.

Trevis is sweating. It’s in the 90s at Brooklyn Projects, a skate shop on Melrose with a half pipe behind the store. Though Trevis isn’t much of a skater, he’s suffering the heat to watch his two friends, Zaq and Connor, as his best friend Ray shops inside for a new shirt.

As his friends skate, Trevis tweets a photo of the two on the pipe. The photo goes out to Trevis’ almost 2,000 followers. He’s a popular Santa Monica High School graduate who was point guard of his high school basketball team and president of his student body, so it’s not unusual that he’d have a lot of followers. What is unusual is that his tweet has to get approved before it ever sees the light of day.

Connor and Zaq, drenched in sweat, get off the half pipe and prepare to leave. They sit and chat with Trevis for a bit. He tells them he tweeted a photo of them, and they eagerly go to check it out on their own phones.

They don’t go back inside to meet up with Ray yet, though. They can’t. The film crew’s not ready to shoot their exit.

Trevis, Ray, Zaq and Connor are not just regular L.A. teenagers. They are four of the principal cast members on @SummerBreak, a new summer reality TV show, though that’s technically inaccurate. There’s no TV channel airing @SummerBreak.

@SummerBreak is the first major series to unfold on a combination of online video and social media. Designed with the mobile experience in mind, the series is a collaboration between the Chernin Group — the production company run by Peter Chernin, the former No. 2 at Newscorp — and AT&T.

Executive producer Billy Parks first came up with the idea of having viewers take part in a full social experience — which made it perfect for teenagers.

“Obviously, with Millenials, this is the way they’re talking,” Parks says. “It felt really organic to who they are.” Though the production team flirted with the idea of doing a scripted series, reality felt fresher, and cast the show with high school students who just graduated or are on the cusp of graduating.

On this particular day of shooting, Trevis and Connor had gone to breakfast before joining Ray and Zaq for shopping and skating. While the guys ate and talked, an on-site production team member transcribed every word, conferring with producers after the guys moved on — and the cameras moved on with them. That morning’s conversation, apparently about the guys’ ex-girlfriend troubles, wasn’t as good as the previous night’s conversation between Connor and Zaq. After a brief discussion, producers decide that night’s episode will be of last night’s conversation, which dealt with Connor’s romantic past, present and future.

The cast members themselves are clueless as to what will appear in each day’s episode — and how much they’ll appear. Though the producers choose snippets of the kids’ lives to shoot, not every segment makes it in, and if they do, it won’t necessarily be in chronological order. That morning’s breakfast — and all the footage of the guys shopping — has yet to be used in an episode of @SummerBreak, and might never see the light of day.

Originally, episodes were set to be approximately one minute long and posted six days a week, with no episode on Saturday. The rest of the show would play out on Twitter and Instagram, where each member of the cast regularly posts updates on their lives and interacts with viewers. However, viewers clamored for more in the form of longer episodes — and they got it. Now, daily episodes are three to four minutes each Monday through Thursday, with Sunday episodes being longer anchor episodes that tell more story.

The social media aspect is still huge, though. Cast members use programs like HootSuite to post to their social media accounts, and a team hired by the producers works 20 hours a day to approve these messages. Not all the cast members are super engaged, but some — especially Ray, the son of former champion boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, and Clara, a female cast member headed to culinary school — take the time to respond to fans constantly. It’s all part of a greater theme of engagement — a word Parks and the cast use constantly.

So far, the cast has proven pretty engaging. The core cast is made up of eight L.A. kids — six who just graduated high school, two headed into their senior year. Three girls, five guys. Four Santa Monica High School students, four Pacific Palisades Charter School students. Zaq, Ray, Trevis and Kostas are from the Samohi half, while Clara, Lena, Alex and Connor are Pali kids. Nia, the original ninth cast member, is also a Pali girl, but she’s not with the show anymore.

The show follows the kids through their daily lives during a summer that is (for most) their last before moving on to college and other opportunities. In many ways, @SummerBreak is a throwback to Laguna Beach, the 2004 series that chronicled the lives of Orange County high school kids that pioneered the use of serial narrative in reality shows versus a documentary-style format.

Laguna Beach (and its successor series, The Hills) were known for manipulation behind the scenes, something Parks says the production team is eager to stay away from, pushing for an authentic feel. That’s been a detriment to the show in some ways, as the narrative wasn’t easily frameable early on. Worse even, when the first six episodes went live on June 16, the cast “lost their minds,” according to Parks.

“We had a little viewing party,” Trevis explains. “I walked in [late], and you could feel the tension. Everybody was being so real on the camera.”

That realness transformed into awkwardness off-screen. In a particularly tense example, the three parts of the love triangle from those first episodes — Zaq, Clara and Connor — were all sitting right next to each other as they watched.

Connor had a particularly bad reaction to his romantic entanglements being aired on the show. “I just wasn’t used to having my personal life being broadcast,” he says. “It was just different.”

Connor and the barely-featured Nia didn’t appear again in any major capacity until the cast’s trip to Catalina Island. That trip was an effort on producers’ part to get the kids together, both bonding them and creating more potential storylines in the face of a rapidly growing audience but a lack of substantive plot. (Typical YouTube comment on the first 12 episodes: “This show’s kinda boring.”)

After they got back from Catalina, producers laid down the law with the cast about opening up.

“If you don’t like what you see, change it,” Parks says the producers told them. “You have a luxury that no other reality cast member has ever had. The show is in your hands. But with that responsibility, doesn’t mean if you don’t like what you see, you can go sneak off camera. That’s bullshit. You have to now open yourself up more.”

The lecture affected each cast member differently. While Nia stopped being filmed (in what creators described as a “creative decision”), others like Lena and Connor opened up in new ways, the former even letting her dad’s battle with throat cancer be chronicled. Since then, the show has gained new narrative life, with Lena and Clara getting into the series’ first out-and-out fight and Alex and Kostas’ uneasy flirtation being disturbed by L.A. transplant Raina’s introduction as another love interest for Kostas. The new plotlines have sparked major interest among fans — and the kids have become much more natural, saying they forget the cameras but also, according to Parks, remaining acutely aware of being on a reality show.

One big aspect of that awareness are cast attempts to change the storylines. Lena openly voiced frustration on Twitter about her lack of screentime in Catalina, while at one point during shooting Zaq even questions a production team member about why the guys are being filmed shopping when there’s not much going on. (Since this is the same shopping trip that never made it to air, he might’ve had a point.)

This desire to control their appearance on-screen gives the show a meta level, and presents the production team with what Parks calls “Season 2 problems,” though they’re merely weeks into Season 1.

After finishing their shopping trip, Zaq, Trevis, Ray and Connor sit down to lunch at Baby Blues BBQ in Venice. The cameras are gone, and the production staff is buying, so the guys become more relaxed. After almost immediately hopping on their phones, they begin to chat about topics ranging from the early days of the show to the previous night’s episode, featuring Alex and best friend Karli driving and gossiping about guys, which Zaq bluntly dismisses as having “sucked.”

“I got frustrated. I was like, ‘Yo, what the fuck is this episode? Where am I? Where are my boys?'” Zaq complains. “There’s so much other shit they could have shown.”

“They want to see drama,” Ray says, acknowledging producers’ desire for meatier plotlines. “But that’s just the two of them in the car.”

The guys were clearly frustrated with the drama. Yet stats don’t lie: Each member of the cast has well over a thousand followers on Twitter now, as opposed to far lower numbers before the Catalina trip. The more emotionally open cast has created opportunities for more dramatically fulfilling stories.

Later, while driving back to where shooting began, not half an hour after expressing frustration with the drama, Zaq created some of his own. He gave Ray a gift — a T-shirt with his father’s name and likeness on it.

Ray clearly appreciated the thought, but quickly explained to Zaq that his family gets his dad’s merchandise for free all the time. Zaq, clearly insulted, proceeded to sulk for the rest of the ride. Ray apologized for sounding unappreciative. Zaq refused to respond as the van fell into an awkward silence. Ray looked around in stunned disbelief.

Parks was recording the interaction from the very start.

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