In 2007 someone told me they were making a webseries. My response was… “a what?” (cue the crickets).
These days my facebook feed is flooded with Kickstarter campaigns for webseries, and I get why. Producing a series for the web has the potential to bring exposure, build a fanbase, and possibly get your show picked up by HBO! Well…
As digital creator and pioneer Kathleen Grace, Chief Creative Officer at New Form Digital and former Head of Creative Development at the YouTube Space LA says, “sure, some shows have made the move like High Maintenance. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that this show is some indie darling plucked out of obscurity. The creator of High Maintenance is a casting director from 30 Rock. They are very talented people with very talented friends.”
Creating scripted shows for the web comes with a slew of challenges. With over 300 hours of video uploaded onto YouTube every minute, it’s a Herculean task to be able to rise above the clutter. Between the significant production costs and the difficulty in putting out episodes on an ongoing basis, it’s hard to compete with popular channels that upload videos daily.
Simply making a show is not enough. As Grace points out, “you can do all that and have no audience, and kind of achieve nothing.”
Have a Plan
Grace suggests asking yourself, “What are your goals? Is it to build an audience? Is it to be a really great showcase for you as a writer or actress? Really pinpoint what your goals are, and then build a show that achieves those goals.”
When Grace stormed onto the scene back in 2005 as the co-creator of the comedy series The Burg, “it was a totally different environment. I didn’t go in thinking I want to be big on YouTube; YouTube didn’t exist. In the middle of post (production) I was like ‘what’s this thing?’. There was no such thing as a webseries, except for Rocketboom and Homestar Runner.
“I knew I wanted all the actors to come out of this with a really good showcase for their reels. I thought maybe we’ll get some attention and I’ll get an agent, which is exactly what happened. We got agents. We got managers. We pitched people. We did a cool project with Vuguru.”
Identify your Audience
While some of the The Burg’s success can be attributed to being first in the space, they were able to identify who the show’s audience was and how to reach them.
“Our show idea about Williamsburg hipsters was Gawker bait. It’s making fun of everything they like to make fun of. We’re just going to make Gawker pay attention. On May 24th, 2006 we uploaded our first short. Within days we were on Gawker. Within weeks we were in the NY Times. All of the press for the first year was ‘who are these kids and what are they doing?’. I said, ‘we’re going to keep on doing it until they can’t help but pay attention to us’.”
Engage your Audience
Unlike creating for television, Grace points out, “YouTube is a social medium. The audience wants and expects to be engaged.”
Shilpi Roy, creator of the LA based comedy series Hipsterhood, says “my favorite thing about webseries is the fandom. People want to interact with you and it’s really easy for them to do so.
“I would watch people discussing Hipsterhood online. They’d ask a question, and I as the creator would respond. They were super excited that I was looking at what they were saying. It was because of their conversations on Twitter and YouTube that I decided to make Season 2. They really wanted to know what happened next.”
Roy found interesting ways to keep her audience engaged. “I did contests where I had them send me their favorite names for hipster bands, movies or foodie dishes. Small things I could pepper throughout the script. People really like being creative so if you give them that chance in a small way I think it really helps.”
For Hipsterhood, Roy went in with the goal of getting three press articles. She achieved that and more, including a write up in the Huffington Post, and was even featured on the local news. The show led to new opportunities for her, most recently directing the comedy series Disillusioned about the everyday life of a magician.
“I’m an advocate for just going out there and making it. If you really want some big company to pick up your work, prove it to them. Do something on your own. Then people will be more excited to help you reach your next goal. You come in with twice the potential and you have some credibility.”
Grace’s company New Form Digital, a digital studio founded by Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Discovery, is actively seeking out creators on platforms like YouTube and Vine. The good news is you don’t need a million subscribers to be on their radar.
Yulin Kuang, one of fourteen YouTubers chosen to be a part of New Form’s Incubator Series, is a great example of this. As Grace says, “When I found her she had only 5 thousand subscribers, but she had a really dedicated fanbase on tumblr. So I was like ‘this girl gets the internet’, and she’s a very talented filmmaker.
“We look at how engaged their audience is. Do they have good ideas? Do they have a proclivity for narrative? Do we want to work with them? Because making scripted is a partnership. It’s really hard work and they need to be on the same creative page as you, or at least the same creative process as you, to make it the best thing possible.”
Over the last 10 years, thousands of webseries have been created and released online. While some have risen above the noise, most have struggled to find an audience. With a little research into the best online practices and a strong plan, today’s webseries creators can position themselves with the greatest possible chance of success.