Making a Web Series Part 2 – Let’s Talk About How

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And now Part Two of “Making a Web Series” (if you missed Part One it’s right here)

Production still from "Voyage Trekkers"

How many episodes should I do?  There’s a good deal of variation between how many episodes a season of a show might have, just like with TV.  Ten seems to be a solid number.  Six, I’d say, is the minimum.  I wouldn’t go any more than twelve or fourteen.  If you’re doing sixteen episodes, and it’s taking you two years to make, wouldn’t it be smarter to have eight episodes a year instead then?  Regular quality releases, you’ll find, is better than quantity.

How do I schedule the production?  With my first web series Normally This Weird (there’s two pilot episodes out right now, the rest coming this Fall), I made a dumb mistake.  I thought the best way to do the show would be to shoot one episode a month.  In my thinking that would be more accomplishable than shooting for a full week or two.  Oh so wrong.  That monthly task became a hurdle that sucked out all of our momentum.  And what happened in consequence was that the show got put on hold.  It’s much easier to do in one solid stretch, if at all possible.  It’s also easier to get a crew to commit for a sprint of four days, maybe you can break the production of the series in half or in thirds, than little nibbles here and there for forever.  With “Normally This Weird” we ended up shooting the season over seven weekends throughout the course of four months.  But we weren’t releasing the shows while we were shooting (editing always takes longer than you think it will), and we were shooting the entire season all at once.  We had all the episodes written, and like a feature film, we shot the show out of order.  So one day we might be shooting the mad scientist’s scenes from Episode 3, 5, and 7.  What’s the advantage of this?  Well, it gives you the freedom in a given episode to cut to several locations that would otherwise be too taxing to if your shot episode by episode.  This is what they do in The Guildwhen they bounce from one person’s house to another.  That’s right, on that shooting day they filmed every flipping scene that takes place in that room for the entire season!

How often do I release the shows?  Your priority, like TV, is a regular release schedule.  Weekly installments gives your audience a chance to tune in.  You miss a date and you might be toast.  Has that ever happened to you?  You miss one week of a TV show that’s become part of your routine … and suddenly … it’s not part of your routine anymore.  So what’s a good way to keep your release schedule from missing?  Have most of the shows edited before you release.  Give yourself the time you need to put the shows together, don’t rush them out, and then you won’t be treading water each week to finish the next installment.

How do I promote it?  If you’re making a web series you’re going to feel like you’re spending 20% of your time making the show, and then 80% marketing it.  It’s, frankly, exhausting.  But necessary.  Again, I’m no expert, but here are some of the things I’ve learned …  Make teaser posters.  Make a trailer.  Make more than one trailer.  Start a facebook page for the show.  Be active on twitter.  Get involved with a local band.  Contact bloggers and news sites personally that line up with your niche.  Don’t spam the airwaves with the same content over and over again … free content is always the best form of advertising.  Release behind the scenes featurettes.  Think of fun ways to actually interact with your audience …  With our show “Voyage Trekkers” we hosted a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story on our facebook page.  Each night our fans could vote on three choices on what happens to the crew for a whole week.  Join local filmmaker groups and tell them about the project.

And there’s no way you can do it all on your own.  Your cast and crew can also help spread the word.  They’ll repost news about your show on their facebook pages to their friends.  Go to a local comicon as a team and promote your web series in costume!

How do I make money from the show?  Ah the big question.  There was a “web series bubble” a few years ago, at least here in Phoenix, when every filmmaker was developing a web series.  It was the big new buzz word.  But when they realized that there’s very few ways of making money on a web series, the bubble burst.  It’s very likely, and it’s just something that you’re going to have to come to grips with, that you might never break even.  You’ve got a product that you’re giving away on the web for free, and like TV, the way to make real money (besides the odd T-shirts or DVD) is ads.  But advertisers will only pay out if you’re getting a ton of hits.  Sites like Atom.com finance shows because they get all the traffic … and them getting lots of traffic means more ad money.

It takes a certain kind of crazy filmmaker that’s okay with that.  If you’ve made short films before it’s the same thing.  You do it because you love it.  You can still make some money, or if you’re lucky you can get some one else to spring for the show, but it’s a long hard walk if your goal is to become a profit-generating business.   The major web series do make money, but you can’t bank the farm on achieving that same level of success.  So if you’re okay with that, then awesome, let’s keep making some great shows!

Next week I’ll wrap up with discuss the more esoteric questions of “Why” you want to make a web series.

For those of your curious about the shows discussed you can check out everything Squishy Studios at www.facebook.com/squishystudios.  Also you can check out our “Voyage Trekkers” trailer below!

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Making a Web Series Part 1 – Some of the Whats

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Why the heck would any sane person make a web series?  That’s a legitimate question because creating of a show completely consumes your life, absorbs all of your natural resources, taxes your relationships, and in the end you’re probably never going to break even.  So why even try?  Well that’s the exact same argument against the logic of being a filmmaker in general.  So the answer?  Because you must!  (…and it’s fun)

Over the past four years or so (when everyone and their brother in Phoenix seemed to be developing a web series) I’ve seen a lot of local filmmakers make web series for the right and wrong reasons, do terribly clever things, make awful mistakes … I’m by no means a success story, my two web series are just beginning to launch, but I can share with you some of the things I’ve learned…

Director of photography Josh Gill sets up a shot with director Nathan Blackwell and actors Frank Kitchen (left) and Bret Anderson (right) for the web series "Normally This Weird"

* What is a web series?  Web series’ closest relative is a TV show.  Sometimes I like to think of it as the great-great-great grand child of the old B&W cliff-hanger serials.  But like a TV show, your audience wants to connect to the characters and return again and again to world of your show.  And because web series are like hand-made products, there’s an even closer connection that the audiences and the creators share.

* What kind of web series are out there?  Most series are fiction-based, but there’s also non-fiction shows out there as well.  Many are do-it-yourself instructional shows, like Film Riot and Indie Mogul that teach low-budget filmmaking techniques.

* What do I make my series about?  You know how there’s a billion channels on cable, which each catering to a specific niche?  Web series are the same, but with even smaller and more specific audiences.  You want to tap into the energy of a specific niche group and give them a show that they can be excited about.  The Guild, one of the most popular web series out there, is about online gamers.  The local web series Mantecoza is doing a great job of tapping into the growing and largely unrepresented genre of steampunk.  Another local series, Western X, is … well, you guessed it … a western!

Our show, Voyage Trekkers, is aimed not only at Star Trek fans (which the show is closely based off of) but people who love science fiction.  I was conscious of making sure that it wasn’t a singular parallel with Star Trek … but that there were elements of Flash Gordon, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Star Wars peppered in throughout.  Also, our promotional material is aimed at the nostalgic love of sci-fi, with old Hollywood B&W production stills, choose-your-own-adventure books, and a japanese-release version of our poster.

Production still from "Voyage Trekkers"

* What length should I make the shows?  For narrative shows with a continuing story line and developing characters, five to eight minutes seems to be the sweet spot.  Not too short and not too long.  It’s enough time to develop the meat of the characters and story, to tell a single episode story arc while continuing a season arc, and yet short enough for web attention spans.  My show Normally This Weird is like this.  There’s also more “bite sized” shows that run two or three minutes, which are more skit-oriented, and that feature the same characters but don’t necessarily have a connecting plot (like Voyage Trekkers).  I’ve noticed a lot of non-fiction shows go to ten or even fifteen minutes long, but usually they’re segment-oriented, which allow you to ingest just what interests you.

* What does it cost?  There is a huge, massive, and generally quite large difference in the costs of web shows.  Let’s just make these two distinctions then:  The No-Budget (it’s a labor of love … no one gets paid) and the Professional Low-Budget (everyone gets paid a working salary … there’s still a lot of sacrifice, but in general, it’s produced like a legitimate production with a full crew).  There are also Big Budget productions, but that’s on par with fully financed Hollywood films and out of the sphere of my reality.

The price jump of doing a No-Budget to a Professional Low-Budget can be significant.  The No-Budget pilot episode of a show, shot with family and friends and in someone’s living room, can cost five hundred bucks.  Then the very next episode, now fully financed, could easily cost eight to fifteen grand.  In fact the going rate for shows like The Guild or The Legend of Neil, who have backers like Atom.com or Microsoft, is about that amount.  The general rule of thumb is about a thousand dollars per finished minute.  At first glance (to us No-Budget filmmakers) that seems insanely expensive … but a 90 minute feature film made for $90,000 is definitely very low-budget.

I’m in the No-Budget category.  I wish I could pay people but because I’m using my own meager income, and donations from friends and family, all my budget has to go to food, props, and costumes.  We do what we do because we love it and we’re fools.  But in terms of budget, absolutely nothing is set in stone, and there’s a big variability between budgets that you can get away with.  I’ve seen single episodes shot for a thousand bucks each and I’ve also seen an entire season made for the exact same price.  It all comes down to what you can get for free, who wants to work with you, and how clever you can be with using the resources you have.

Next week I’ll continue this topic with Part Two with the nitty-gritty of the “Hows” of making a web series!

For more on Voyage Trekkers, Normally This Weird, and our other crazy movie projects, please check us out on facebook at www.facebook.com/squishystudios

Voyage Trekkers Event: Choose-Your-Own-Path!

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This Wednesday (June 8th) we’re kicking off a fun, week-long event for “Voyage Trekkers.”  Squishy Studios’ very own Craig Michael Curtis will be creating an interactive text-based adventure for our facebook page.  Every day will be a new installment of this “Choose-Your-Own-Path” adventure where the audience votes on the direction the story takes by leaving their response in the comments section.  Voting closes the next day at noon, and then at 4pm the new installment is posted!  The adventure will conclude on Wednesday June 15th.

Only you can help our heroes in their latest adventure … “Crisis in Space!”

Squishy Studios Facebook – http://www.facebook.com/squishystudios