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Free Box keeps clicking

Portland Web series gathers a following as it provides a 'Tube-ful of wackiness
by: Jeffrey Basinger, Drew Hicks (left) and Jon Meyer, co-creators of the Web series “The Free Box,” relax in the shade of Meyer's residence — a van parked behind Brick's Barber in Southwest Portland.

A far cry from Hollywood, where movies and television shows take mega-millions to make, the guys behind 'Free Box' brag about being able to produce their web series shows for practically nothing.

'I always debate on how to answer this question - honestly, or in a way that makes us sound legit?' muses Jon Meyer, the co-writer and director of 'Free Box,' a cute, comedic and whimsically dramatic series that is concluding its third season on the Internet and planning its fourth.

'We never spend more than $5 on an episode,' he adds, laughing.

Welcome to the new age of underground entertainment. 'Free Box,' a series of short (usually eight to 10 minutes) shows propped up by the power and reach of YouTube, stands as an example of what ordinary filmmakers and actors can do with some time on their hands. It's fairly popular, as one of about 12 Portland web series.

Meyer, 28, works part-time at Blue Couch Motion Graphics Media, a video production company. His business partner, Drew Hicks, 27, washes dishes part-time at the Doug Fir Lounge. They wouldn't have it any other way.

'Neither one of us has a TV, a car or money,' adds Meyer. 'I could easily work 40 hours a week in a job. I can get one, I just don't want one.'

Adds Hicks: 'Before I wanted to get into film-making and acting, I was working in a kitchen for 60 hours a week. Then I started doing the acting thing and thought, man, 'This full-time job thing isn't for me.' So, I work my part-time job, 15 hours a week, make sure I can pay my bills. And, I love life more than I ever have, even though I'm dead broke. I don't mind.'

In fact, the third season of 'Free Box' has been tabbed the 'homeless era.' The first two seasons of shows revolved around five roommates in a house. But, the characters got kicked out, and went homeless after one of them burned down the house.

Hicks and Meyer use inspiration from their own lives to write episodes, and Meyer actually recently took up residence in a van that was parked in the back lot of Brick's Barber in Southwest Portland. It'll be the production studio - meaning a place to sit and work on a laptop - for the time being. But, hey, the van can be moved, too.

Brick's Barber owner Eric Cavizo used to live in the same van. Now, he has a burgeoning business, and he realizes the importance of giving back. Cavizo is the biggest supporter of 'Free Box,' meeting Hicks and others while attending an audition discovered through Craigslist - a common meeting place and search location for the 'Free Box' types of the world.

'I've learned you can't do anything by yourself,' says Cavizo, who had the 'Free Box' fellas make a music video advertisement for him. 'It's success by proxy.'

The name says it all - 'Free Box.' You know the people who put out a box in their front yard, write 'free' on it and fill it full of giveaways? Meyer says they're all over Southeast Portland.

Portland themes

Meyer, from the Seattle area, and Hicks, from Indiana, met while Meyer was making videos to win online contests. True story: He didn't win any, but the two decided to collaborate on their own web series, rather than ruin all their good ideas on some corporate pitches.

'We didn't want a title that was really obvious, like 'The Office,' ' says Meyer, who, nonetheless, looks at TV's 'The Office' as another inspiration for his shows.

'We wanted it to be Portland-themed and get people thinking. Unintentionally, we were incorporating the free box into the plot point of our episodes. Like (character) Trevor pops a tire on the Naked Bike Ride and has to find clothes; he looks for some in free boxes, and eventually finds some, but another guy beat him to it. So, he has to wear the free box.'

The early shows centered around roommates, and the ubiquitous search for one on Craigslist.

'Free Box' has about five regular actors, including Hicks, and five crew members. Meyer borrows a camera to shoot the shows. He found a guy who had a camera, and the guy gladly took over boom-mic responsibilities because Meyer likes to do the shooting.

For the fourth season, Meyer says 'Free Box' will use two cameras - you know, to increase the quality of production.

Other than that, the only expense would be food. 'More than a few times, the actors would end up buying us food,' Meyer says. 'We try to get businesses to buy us food, because they'll do that if you present yourself right.' Again, he laughs, clearly enjoying his life as a young and struggling film maker.

Says Hicks: 'We make nothing. I don't know a single web series that makes money. … When we started, there was only one web series made in Portland. He had billboards and everything. I knew him, and asked him how he was making money to put up billboards. He said, 'I'm 10 grand in debt, I don't have a nickel to my name.' So, I thought, 'Guess we'll keep on not spending money.' '

Limited minutes

There are 24 episodes of 'Free Box' on the Internet - yes, there is a storyline. After completing another five episodes or so, Meyer and Hicks will shoot the fourth season - the duo also recently made a feature film called 'The Corners,' and a half-hour public access show is in the works. Predictably, it doesn't take long to produce the web series 'webisodes'; they've done three in one day before. A day after shoveling snow one winter, they made a show about shoveling snow.

YouTube actually limits video entries to 10 minutes.

'If you do want to watch for more than 10 minutes, you can just click on the next one,' Meyer adds. 'Just keep clicking.'

'Free Box' webisodes can be viewed at www.youtube.com/user/TheFreeBoxShow.