By his own admission, Joe Swanberg has achieved as much success as an indie filmmaker could want. Each of the 26-year-old director’s three feature films debuted at the South by Southwest Film Festival, and this summer’s celebration of "mumblecore" indie filmmaking at IFC kicked off with a screening of his latest, Hannah Takes the Stairs. But he figures, all told, less than 100,000 people have seen his festival-circuit films. Compare that to Young American Bodies, the original dramatic series he directs for online consumption via Nerve Video. "More people than that had viewed the first episode within a month," he says. "By a lot."
The show, at Nerve.com, chronicles the romantic—and very sexual—fumblings of a group of Chicago friends. Each five- to seven-minute episode shares the handheld, digital-video look of Swanberg’s features as well as mostly improvised dialogue so laden with emotional minutiae it feels like eavesdropping to hear it. Young American Bodies lives up to its name: All of the characters have plenty of graphic sex, and the show doesn’t hesitate to include full nudity. It plays like an NC-17, DIY soap opera.
Whether viewers are tuning in for the story or just the sex, something’s working. The twenty decidedly not-safe-for-work episodes of the first two seasons have been viewed 1.5 million times, says Sam Apple, director of Nerve Video. The site is profitable, and Swanberg expects about half his income this year to come from Web filmmaking. Which means he’s on track to sustain a career as an online auteur—at least with an assist from young, naked bodies.