If, like me, you graduated with a degree in the arts, you probably know at least one person who’s made a web series. Maybe they shot it, or they acted in it, or maybe they just made tiny quiches for it and got to add “craft services” to their resume. You probably also at some point wanted to dip your own hands into a web series. You thought “Why not?” or “Maybe this will help me get laid,” or “I made all these tiny quiches and no one is here to eat them.”
So, with the surge of made-for-internet TV and online content coming out of Brooklyn and New York City that actually looks and sounds praiseworthy (not to mention Broad City getting picked up on Comedy Central), we got ourselves to thinking that someone should find out exactly how it’s done. After all, Brokelyn is nothing if not a highly curated panel of experts posing as your local news source. Just kidding, we talked to real experts who made acclaimed web series, from The Better Half, The Outs, Drunk Girls in Heels, Roomsies and The Triplets of Kings County. When it comes to web series, there’s no tried-and-true recipe for success. There is, however, a formula that most everyone we spoke to agrees upon:
WORK + TIME = RESULT
In other words: if you make this thing your baby (like, you promise to love it unconditionally and raise it responsibly and feed it a strict diet of pureed carrots) then something pretty cool is going to come out the other end, no matter what. So at least there’s that. Don’t take cues from the ‘viral’ media content you find and then blast to your buddies at work. Think network television: the best web series cultivate a steady viewership just like shows do on TV. There’s an extremely targeted demographic for the story you’re trying to tell, and you want to be maintaining the viewers you have. The people who don’t want to listen probably never will.
NO MONEY? NO PROBLEM
What’s that? You don’t have the money, you say? That’s alright: there’s no golden number when it comes to how much cold, hard cash goes into a web series. Even though we met with people who claim not have spent a single penny on their shows, it is possible to have a bigger budget and not pay out-of-pocket. Drunk Girls in Heels managed to rake in $13,000 from investors for their first season alone. Julia Sherman, one of the ladies behind the show, offers sound advice on how to pitch. “Ask people with money. You know people with money. Find folks for whom, in the grand scheme of things, giving a $500-$2,000 donation isn’t a big deal. And stop asking people who don’t have money, i.e. your broke-ass friends.”
More than just asking, says Sherman, it’s also about learning and understanding your own investment model for anyone who asks. “Investors will have questions you can’t give silly answers to. They want to know that their money is in the hands of smart, good folks. My own grandmother literally only invested because she thought the proposal was so well-written.”
If you do want to go a cheaper route (and if you’re reading Brokelyn, you probably do), we’re told it sure helps to come from a comedy/film/television background, or failing that, recruit some friends from that world, since it gives you access to a network of willing cast and crew members—not to mention other people’s equipment. But again: it’s an unregulated medium, so you really can make it up as you go along. And whether it’s a desperate Facebook plea to borrow someone’s Steadicam or pimping SVA kids to work for pizza, your passion for the project can be its own salary. “People like hope,” says Nora Fullmoon, the other face behind Drunk Girls. “Everybody wants to help each other.”
Even though it’s possible to shoot a series on a dime, it sounds like saving up a few for a good camera might make all the difference in your viewership. Hunter Canning (The Outs and Whatever This is) contends that the growing affordability of D-SLRs “pretty much started this web-series revolution.” For the uninitiated: Digital Single-Lens Reflex cameras (D-SLRs) are what make that sharp picture you see onscreen, because they have shallower depths-of-field. You can find a solid entry-level camera new for under $500. Sound equipment is floating around the marketplace in more frequency, too; the upshot is that because of this, it’s becoming easier and easier to make something that looks and sounds good—so more people are doing it. As Michael Wolf, of the Triplets of Kings County, told us “Quality is a surmountable hurdle.”
While that may be true, the high-quality series we know and love have won points on both sides of the equation—production value and narrative content. You have to think about why your idea is relatable, but completely unique to you. We’ll give you a hint: it’s not the cliché part of daily life where you sit on your couch with a friend and complain about relationships. Nora Fullmoon, another face of Drunk Girls in Heels, had a great point about this: “As artists, we create situations that are dreamlike. And if you’re only dreaming in your apartment, that’s pretty boring.” So that means no set-up-the-tripod-and-watch-me-eat-Cheetos (unless you’re that chick who gets paid to do it). “You want to nail down a really specific world; that’s a very interesting thing to watch.”
Don’t despair if your life sounds a lot like the above: a well-done series can make even the most cliché narratives land freshly with their audiences. We talked to the girls behind The Better Half —Lindsay Hicks and Amy Jackson Lewis—about this: their series (recently picked up by millennial-driven channel Pivot TV!) follows two women who are dipping into their 30-something years as a complacent lesbian couple in New York. Now, much as there may not necessarily be an overdose of lesbian-couple shtick onscreen these days, any relationship-based concept risks falling into the same humdrum ennui that colors overdone, heteronormative plot lines based in New York. What’s an auteur to do?
Lewis talked to us about overcoming the conceptual obstacle by turning a creative eye to the tone of their show: “Everything on our radar was negative, or about a neurotic lesbian. And then the ‘millennial’ thing is just about being broke and figuring it out. We really wanted to make something where you get to see [beauty].” For them, that ‘beauty’ means episodes about endearingly botched camping trips, rooftop daydreams about nuder pastures, and joyously quitting office jobs in the service of making ART for a living.
THE CHALLENGE OF INDEPENDENCE
Making a series on your own is also just a lot of fun. And since you don’t have to answer to a big-name production company about your content, the cast and crew get final say about what goes into the web-series and how it looks. “It’s the most collaborative thing you can do,” says Sherman (of Drunk Girls). “And we were doing it for friendship.”
On a comedic level, producing independently for an uncensored network (i.e. the internet) means having the freedom to tell any kind of story or joke, no matter how outlandish it is. Take Triplets of Kings County, a series about a group of identical triplets (played by three completely dissimilar-looking actors) living in Brooklyn, battling supernatural irritants in their environment—everything from abusive insects, to lame ghosts to Wiccan ex-girlfriends—and taking a no-joke-left-unmade approach to storytelling. “We read scripts to our friends,” said Triplet Michael Wolf to us. “Nobody told us ‘no’ yet, so we went and made the thing.”
Remember that “making the thing” does not equal “making money,” so don’t go and put your life on hold if you’re trying to create a one-time web series just to get noticed. “Sure, it’s a step along the way,” admits Amy Jackson Lewis. “But I never want to stop creating.” If you want to stay happy, you’ve gotta strike a balance. Find that sweet spot between your practical life choices and your awesome passion-project.
But my life is my art and therapy is my palette, you say. I don’t need a real life on the side!
To this, Meagan Kensil of Roomsies cautions the overly idealistic: the pre-production process alone is endless, and then you’re looking at up to a year of all-nighters in the editing room. “Writing [scripts] happens at the real estate office,” Meagan told us. She used all her downtime at her “real person job” to work on the Roomsies “artist job.”
The other bad news about this kind of doing-it-for-love indie work is that you won’t get everything you want for the project just by asking. You still might have to settle for using out-of-the-way spaces to film, and not everyone can wrangle special guests like Alan Cumming or Kristen Schaal. Who needs ’em, though? The creative agency that you wield when creating for the Internet can make big differences in your community if you play your cards right. For example, The Outs scored the majority of their series with music by unsigned Brooklyn bands, who later got signed because of it, like WET, and sister group Beauty Feast. And long after their respective releases, both The Outs and The Better Half say they still receive huge amounts of gratitude from kids in the LGBTQ community around the globe.
That leads us to one of the most important tools in your maker’s kit: understanding how to move on with your life once the show is fully released. Since web-series tend to be shorter both in episode length and season duration, the online community isn’t going to be thinking about it for nearly as long as you are; it’s mentally archived much more quickly than long-running TV shows. Wolf (of Triplets) mentioned that he even got depressed after their episodes were released and well-received. “It was so much fun to make…and now it’s just in the ether.”
So in order to succeed, the concept has to be something that everyone on your team really believes in and wants to take the time to do well. You have to love the project for as long as you both shall live, but respect the shift it will inevitably make into the annals of online content. Art is art is art, and it will never be easy. But the Internet is Forever, and one of the best things about making a web series is getting to point at it for the rest of your days and say, “Hey. We made that! Look at it go.”
Follow Sam for more Hollywood dreams at @ahoysamantha
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Thanks for an excellent article on true indie comedy. There’s so much great work being made by people who are creating their own careers.
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