TORONTO — Facebook is getting into the streaming business.
The Silicon Valley giant is set to unveil its first high-end series, “Sorry For Your Loss,” which premiered Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival. The show is about a young woman coping with the sudden death of her husband. It is at once highly traditional yet very particular to the platform.
“In some ways this comes in a long line of shows and movies about loss,” said Kit Steinkellner, the creator of the series, which will stream on Facebook Watch, Facebook’s streaming platform. “But I also like the idea of media meeting message. Facebook is a place where I hear about most deaths, most births, most marriages. It made sense for them to do a series about these life events.”
“Sorry For Your Loss” is set up with what seems like a mystery conceit. There is abundant use of flashbacks as star Elizabeth Olsen’s character, Leigh, remembers her husband and both questions and revels in her memories of him. Unlike a show such as TBS’s “Search Party,” which used an actual disappearance and manhunt in its first season, the only mystery here is whether Leigh really knew her husband, or herself.
Four episodes of the show will be released to users on Sept. 18.
Facebook’s decision to dive into the Emmy-friendly pool raises the question of whether there’s room for another player in the increasingly crowded streaming market. And if there is, is there appetite for the gentle drama that it’s making the leap with?
At the Toronto event, four of the 10 episodes of “Sorry For Your Loss” were screened, followed by an onstage talk from Steinkellner, director-producer James Ponsoldt and actor Elizabeth Olsen, along with several other principals. Facebook Watch’s head of development — Mina Lefevre who arrived at Facebook last year after years in a similar role at MTV — also spoke spontaneously from the audience.
Steinkellner and Ponsoldt are a noted playwright and indie-film director, respectively, while Olsen, best known for playing the Scarlet Witch in the Marvel series, is a noted film actress via movies like “Wind River.”
Despite its dramatic tone, the show’s episodes are only half an hour, which is rare for the form.
The drama will likely evoke “Transparent,” “Six Feet Under” and other melancholic human stories that have faded with the rise of “Games of Thrones” and more flashy genre programming.
“I think it’s hard to do the real emotional work that our characters are doing in a television series,” Ponsoldt told The Washington Post. “It’s just not as sexy or as easy to latch on to than if they’re all ghosts or if Leigh is really alien. Making compelling the wants and needs of ordinary people is hard. But that’s what makes it more interesting.”
Also helping: Facebook, at its core, is about these same needs and wants.
The company has been circumspect about how it will integrate the show into the platform. But Lefevre said at the screening there will be ways viewers will be encouraged to weigh in on the show in real time — on Facebook, of course — effectively eliminating the need for the “second screen.”
“We all know a lot of emotion is shared on Facebook, and this [confessions of loss] is something that is shared on Facebook,” Lefevre said at the Toronto screening. “So it felt like a natural place for it.”
“This felt like a really good place to have all the social conversations this platform can provide,” she added.
As for targeting consumers, Steinkellner noted there will be a “very good algorithm” to reach those users (think: people who like indie film or have posted on the kinds of serious subjects of love and loss the shows’ characters experience). There will also be a group for which users can sign up that will alert them to new episodes they can then watch right in their feed. Facebook did not make Lefevre available for an interview.
Steinkellner conceded that having her show live amid so much other information might have given her pause, but she liked the immediacy, not to mention the reach, the platform gave her. Facebook has more than 2 billion global users.
Despite the Silicon Valley backdrop, “Sorry For Your Loss” endured a characteristically long Hollywood development process.
Nearly five years ago, Steinkellner wrote a writing sample inspired by a night when she thought something terrible had happened to her husband. She then submitted it to Robin Schwartz, a programming executive at a company called Big Beach.
Schwartz liked it so much she decided to develop it as a script. More than four years ago, Big Beach was first able to set up the project at Showtime under the name “Widow.” After it languished there, Big Beach took it out again, pitching it to a number of streaming services and pay-cable networks.
As it happened, producers were taking comments made by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, who had suffered the sudden death of her husband, and incorporating them into their general pitch. That turned into an amusing coincidence when the producers decided to pitch Facebook.
“I think it seemed to them like we were doing it because it was Facebook. But really we just liked what Sheryl had said,” Schwartz told The Post.
Facebook Watch bought “Sorry,” believing it could anchor a slate that until now has mostly consisted of unscripted content such as “Ball in the Family” or lower-budget multiplatform experiments like “SKAM Austin.”
As Facebook’s first high-end series, creators had freedom they might otherwise not have had if they’d been doing this for a while, the creators said.
“They didn’t ask for more jokes or more soap,” Steinkellner noted. “Because there was no set brand. So no one was worried about the show’s siblings on the service while we were making it.“
Some might feel there are already enough TV shows to watch — not to mention enough content to read on Facebook — so “Sorry For Your Loss” may be fighting a tough battle. But viewers willing to set aside those concerns could find much to chew on here.