I’ve been talking about serialized content for some time now – and how filmmakers need to look at this as a way to engage with new methods of distribution and marketing for their work. This can take many forms – but the most obvious are episodic television and web series. I asked Carrie Cutforth the creator of Spy Whores and the Executive Director of The Independent Web Series Creators of Canada to write a post about webseries in honor of her new TO Web Fest that happened in Toronto May 9-11th. Here is her post:
Don’t Overlook these 5 Top Essentials in Making a Web Series
by Carrie Cutforth
TO WebFest, Toronto’s screening/conference festival dedicated to web series, took place May 9-11th. Regan Latimer, the program director and myself are no stranger to web series, being both founding board members of then Independent Web Series Creators of Canada. We are very pleased that a highlight of the festival, beyond three days of free screenings, and a two-day conference track, which included a special presentation into an economic profile of web series creators in Ontario, the first of its kind in the world (made possible with the support of the OMDC).
Have you ever thought of making a web series? Here are things you need to know to make the transition from indie film or Television production. This list covers web series (as defined here), which is different than the digital series that broadcasters or portals such as Netflix produce.
1) Your Audience is Not Trapped in a Room full of Strangers
How many films have you walked out of in your life? I think I’ve walked out of one that was “too adult” for me as a young kid, although I did fall asleep once…during Joe Versus the Volcano. What is the psychology of sticking out a bad film to the end in a theatre? Getting one’s money worth?
Online, however, your content is up against a fierce competition of eyeballs, with something “else” waiting to be discovered just a mouse click away. You got 15 seconds to get your audience engaged, and then you need to keep them engaged. You need to be succinct. You need to be haiku.
That means dropping some of the common conventions of film intros, including credits and theme songs. You don’t NEED a theme song. You don’t NEED intro credits. You can shunt that “boring” stuff for the audience to the info section below the player. Boast to the world you are the creator in savvier ways.
That also means things dropping opening conventions like city skyline orgies at the outset of your narrative. Jump into the story with both feet landing right away. Then run.
2) Web Series is not TV Online
Web series is to TV what blogging is to the Six O’clock news: they might seem familiar in content, but there are a lot of nuances between the two simply based on differing distribution methods. For example, unless you are on a portal that behaves more like a broadcaster with requisite running times, the story itself can dictate how long an episode is or even what an episode is. You can have one episode run ten minutes, and another only three. There are many other examples of the nuances besides. Don’t let the confinements of the TV format limit your thinking.
The sooner you think in terms of what works on the web than trying to translate a TV show or a film into a web series, the further ahead you are in the game. This works for both content and format. TV shows require mass appeal to be sustainable, while web series are often nurtured by hardcore fandoms that aren’t getting the content they want anywhere else. Don’t try to be TV of film online.
Audiences online can be pretty forgiving of production values for online content, particularly niche die hard fandoms that are underserved. They don’t expect a Hollywood budget, especially when Hollywood hasn’t had a legacy of producing content that speaks particularly to them – the talking heads of popular vloggers testify to this. But the one area you CANNOT skimp out on is sound.
Your sound budget has to be top notch particularly since you are not in control of the playback situation – is it on mobile? With shitty earbuds? While on a bus competing against the din of the crowd? Any sound issues that seem minimized in optimal conditions will be exasperated the way many people consume video content: in hand and on the go.
As filmmakers know how to package films to attract attention and audiences, web series add value to their production through strategic alliances. This can take shape in many forms, the most popular being cross-overs and cross-promotional strategies with other web series, and casting in a smart way – instead of “named” actors, those who have developed hard core passionate audiences that share a fan base YOU want to target. Get connected with key influences and advocates who have a reputation for activating audiences: this includes online communities, bloggers, and even platforms. This is how some powerful MCN’s (Multi-channel networks) got their start to be the powerhouses they are today.
Think in terms of collaboration not competition. Share your audiences, don’t try to divide and conquer. Partner, partner, and partner.
5) Community Management
And on the topic of social: I had a good friend whose series exploded with popularity that brought an unexpected outcome: hate mail. When the fans didn’t like a turn in the story, they let him know, and they let him know hard. (“We should all have such problems,” I told him while stringing an imaginary violin).
Web Series is social. It allows a direct connection between creators and fans. This can be a mixed blessing, particularly in a cultural climate where fans feel an ownership over their fandoms, and territory fights can break out: even between fans and creators. Connectivity can be a blessing or a curse, but the great thing is you can be in control with how much you want to engage. Some web series creators engage in ongoing dialog with fans daily and others are standoffish. There is no single right way to engage.
However, it is wise to have a community management plan or strategy in place before problems arise. Never be reactionary. There are many great guides online for community management, social media policies, so use these to build your own template and guidelines. Being consistent is key.
And remember: fan hate means people are watching.
One final tip: if you are submitting to WebFests, remember what you might be able to get away with under the radar online you can’t get away with at a Fest. I’m talking particularly about rights management. You might elude the copyright cops by ripping a Top 40 song just through lack of discovery, but WebFests operate like any other Film Fest: they won’t take a risk on shows that may appear to have compromised E&O issues. So make sure you have managed rights properly from the get-go, and don’t take on a permissive attitude cause “everyone else is doing it”.