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

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