We’re back with another installment in the #Aspiring2ActWriteDirect Series. This time TeamTC tackles the rapidly evolving world of web series and provides a primer on how to plan, prepare and produce your own original content. Of all our aspiring guides covering the entertainment industry—that list includes guides for actors, directors and filmmakers, film editors, producers, screenwriters, stuntmen, cinematographers and visual effects artists—this one on how to make a web series delves into a field that is just now beginning to take shape.
WHAT IS A WEB SERIES?
Loosely speaking, a web series (also known as web originals, web shows, webisodes, and online series), is a show in episodic form released online or, in some cases, across various mobile platforms. The series is created to live on the web, and given the nature of online viewership, individual shows within a web series tend to run between 3 minutes and 6 minutes, with an entire season, from beginning to end, averaging an hour to an hour and a half. That’s both the appeal and complexity of the industry: Trying to say something engaging in matter of minutes. The hook, however, must come even sooner than that. According to the Youtube Creator Playbook, viewers decide within 15 seconds whether they are going to spend the next few minutes with your web series, let alone the next 90.
When making a web show, the question is what kind of web show will you make? While web series take many forms, TC.com will focus on scripted (fictional) episodic digital entertainment. Typical categories include sci-fi/fantasy (The Guild), comedies (Wainy Days) and dramas (Anyone But Me), but many shows are multi-genre experiments (The Crew). Regardless of where your web series falls, the lion share of information here can be applied across the board, and to content like talk shows, tutorials, documentaries and other reality-based programming.
HOW TO MAKE A WEB SERIES TABLE OF CONTENTS
—In The Beginning: Story & Audience
—Keys To Success
—Books, Magazine, Online News Sites
—Web Series Host Sites
—Web Series 101: Practical Advice From A Creator
—How-To Online Resourses
—Festivals & Award Ceremonies
WHY MAKE A WEB SERIES?
Web series are attractive projects for filmmakers for many reasons—and the majority of content creators are experienced filmmakers. To begin with, the only restriction on content is your imagination. Unlike other more established mediums, web originals can be just that: Original. In fact, originality is encouraged. Online audiences tend to appreciate the diversity of content found there, and if they can find it, are likely to seek it out. And unlike television or even independent filmmaking, quality online programming can be achieved on a small budget.
In fact, the vast majority of web series are funded out of pocket by aspiring filmmakers looking for a way to highlight their talent in a crowded and fiercely competitive industry. In many cases, they aren’t concerned with making their money back. Instead, they make web series as a way to create a marketable portfolio piece at an affordable price. Creating your own web show could be the calling card you need to gain access to larger projects.
START WITH STORY
As stated above, the medium is still growing and is therefore open to a broad array of content. If you have a story to tell that isn’t represented on mainstream entertainment channels and isn’t likely to be, digital platforms could provide a foothold for you. But despite the content flexibility and the shorter, more concise format, web series still succeed or fail on the basis of story. So ask yourself, “What do I want to say?” “How do I want to say it?”
Mike Ajakwe jr, founder and Executive Director of The LA Web Series Festival, has watched more than 500 web series. He’s endured and enjoyed more web originals than most mortals, and he is unequivocal about what works: “The story has to move. The same rules of film, television and theater apply. You want a three-act structure—a beginning, a middle and an end. Every scene must mean something, must drive the story forward,” he says. ”You can have a show that looks great, but if it’s not about anything, then it’s not taking your audience anywhere.”
Norman Hollyn and Larry Jordan, two veterans of film, talk about how to tell a story.
FIND YOUR AUDIENCE
No matter how good your story ends up being, if you can’t find someone to watch it, then you’re not likely to get much traction from your work. Felicia Day, the writer and star of The Guild, an orginal online series in its fifth season, and a well-known personality in the online web-series community, seconds that opinion. On her website, Feliciaday.com, she wrote a blog called “Web Series: Four Thing To Ask Yourself Before Starting.” Question three asks you to consider this: “Who is my audience and how will I reach them?” She goes on to say: “If you can’t sit down and easily identify what kind of person will like your show and name 5 places that person might go to on the internet, you will have a hard time getting the word out, no matter how good it is.”
Rich Mbariket, founder and publisher of Web Series Network, a site devoted exclusively to the web-series community, goes even further. Once you’ve identified your potential viewership, “discover where they are offline and online and become part of their conversation,” he says. “From there tell them about your series and even consider taking out paid advertising.”
MARKETING YOUR WEB SERIES
All of which brings up an easy to overlook but important component in creating content that people can find. Marketing. As much as you may dread the idea, you’ll have to put in due diligence in order to alert the masses to your series. “Build it and they will come does not work,” say Scott Staven, the creator of the web series Hitman 101. “You have to market and promote. Even if your series is the best ever, you may have to work just as hard to convince people to watch as you did to make it.” (See our interview with Staven below.)
Two good places to start this process are with Julie Giles guide, How To Build An Audience For Your Web Series, and the Youtube Creator Playbook, both of which can be downloaded for free. They offer tips, strategies and detailed analysis about finding an audience for your work. Essential reading for content creators seriously interested in putting their series in front of the largest audience possible.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
Without question the vast majority of web-series makers work with a small budget and will be fortunate to make their money back. As stated above, reasons other than money drive these individuals. And that is still the best mind set with which to approach this industry.
However, within the last year more money has been devoted to original web content than at any time in the past. Youtube recently committed $100 million to nurturing new web-based talent. A half a billion dollars is the number Hulu claims to be earmarking for original content. That’s right, $500 million. Yahoo! recently partnered with Tom Hanks and Vuguru, Michael Eisner’s web-based production company, to create original programs for Yahoo’s online screening room.
Much of this monied interest comes as web series demonstrate their ability to reach larger groups of people and generate revenue. “Most successful web shows have appealed to very specific niche audiences and then have grown out from there,” says Jennifer Warren, co-founder of BrandCinema, a content and production company focused on bringing storytelling and brands together.
That growth, or course, is a function of perseverance. If you can produce a series, find an audience and keep it, then the industry might just catch up to you with sponsors. Because the most forward leaning web-series are interactive, allowing viewers to participate through various social media networks, Warren’s BrandCinema recognizes the opportunity to create unique branding campaigns around original web content.
On occasion a web series does get picked up by television or optioned for a movie. Lisa Kudrow’s “Web Therapy” started online and has just signed for a second season on Showtime, and Hulu’s “The Confession”, staring Kiefer Sutherland, recently inked a movie deal. Exceptional as these cases are, they show that well-known actors are willing to take chances with online content, and that the relative low cost of production means corporate sponsors do not have to leverage the silverware to get involved.
We offer these examples not to pump you up with unrealistic expectations but to show you that digital entertainment is carving out an increasingly respectable niche and potential corporate sponsors are paying serious attention.
A big advantage this series will likely have over yours is the well-know actress. Still, it’s an example of where a quality production can lead.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
TomCruise.com spoke with LAWEBFEST founder, and writer and director, Mike Ajakwe Jr, about the state of the web series. Ajakwe has watched more than 500 web series in his capacity as Executive Director of LAWEBFEST, the first festival devoted exclusively to this medium. In its third year, the festival has grown substantially, as has the quality of the content. Given his experience with original web content, Ajakwe gave us five keys to success when producing an online series.
1. What’s Your Story? — It seems almost simplistic, but with the cost of filmmaking dropping all the time, jumping headlong into your own series can be enticing, but heed these simple words to the wise: “You have to have something to say,” says Ajakwe. “You’ve got to have passion and you’ve got to have a story to tell.” The advantage of the Internet is that it makes for an almost limitless content platform, but no matter what your topic, the story needs to be compelling.
2. Manage Your Imagination — Says Ajakwe: “Scale down your vision into something that’s shootable; something that you can make without waiting for approval or money.” He believes the great advantage of a web series is that you don’t need anyone’s okay to make it, and you don’t need anyone’s funding. “You can still shoot something compelling and engaging without a lot money,” he says.
3. Use The Resources Around You — If you live in a filmmaking hub, but even if you don’t, you can find talented people will often work for free for the experience or to bolster their resume. “There are so many people around you that can help. There are sound people, hair and make-up people, wardrobe experts,” he says. “If you put an ad on Craigslist in the area of production, the people who will respond are amazing.”
4. Have A Plan — Another seemingly obvious step, but it’s easy to overlook in your haste to get started. “If it’s your web series, then you’re the leader. Everyone is looking to you as the captain,” says Ajakwe. “If you don’t have a plan, then you’re probably going nowhere.”
5. Don’t Worry About The Money — Sounds unrealistic, but Ajakwe explains: “I’m a believer that if you do good work consistently, the money will come. Whether somebody wants to buy your web series or buy you and have you put the same effort into a television show or a film. Don’t limit yourself to being a web-series producer—you’re a creator. Period.”
BOOKS, MAGAZINE, ONLINE NEWS SITES
The more you know about making web series, the better your chances of producing something of lasting value. While not everything below focuses exclusively on this genre, all the resources provide advice, news and the latest updates about this growing industry.
The Script Selling Game by Kathie Fong Yoneda,
In addition to veteran advice about script writing, the second edition of Yoneda’s book takes up the internet as a promotional channel. Chapter 15 is called “Using The Internet: How The Web Can Be Your New B.F.F.” As you strike out into this new arena, any advantage will help.
Byte-Sized Televsion: Create Your Own TV Series For The Internet by Ross Brown
If you’re jumping into web series for the first time and have more hutzputh than technical skill and production and marketing know how, this book provides a good entry point. Brown provides a step-by-step approach to this still-emerging industry. Neophytes to this medium will find it entertaining as well as informative.
Rebel Without A Crew: Or How A 27-Year-old Filmmaker With $7000 Became a Hollywood Player by Robert Rodriguez
This book has been around for a while, but for anyone shooting with limited resources, Rebel Without A Crew provides amble evidence that money makes many things easier, but doesn’t stop driving ambition.
Published by the website Web Series Network, WSN magazine is the first print and digital publication that covers the web series community. Features, talent profiles and technical how-to articles keep readers in the thick of the conversation. This is a good place to start if you’re new to filmmaking and especially web series.
Keeping up with what’s going down in the web world keeps your own content fresh, and this site provides perspective on the direction of digital entertainment. Tubefilter covers the latest industry news and is an information tool for any web producer.
Web Series Network
In addition to publishing WSN magazine, this site has reviews, news and a forum where the curious can ask questions that might unlock the door to the next great web series.
FIND A HOST FOR YOUR WEB SERIES
Once you have a web series in the bag, or even a few episodes (though we encourage shooting a full season before you start releasing) you need to find the appropriate host for your content. We’ve listed the usual suspects here, but we’ve also included some sites that are increasingly making a name for themselves. In many cases your content has to be approved before it can be included on the channel, but in others, you can upload without approval as long as your content is in-line with the host’s content requirements.
YOUTUBE: Unparalleled in size and scope, the world’s largest video-sharing site is an obvious choice for your series. Anyone can download content here, which means you have an immediate location for your work. However, because youtube is so huge, finding a visible foothold among the millions of videos can be tough. Still, it’s a great option for first-time creators. Should your series become a youtube hit and show the capacity to generate consistent viewer interest, you might want to consider the Youtube Partner Program, which gives you a chance to make money from your videos. This year, Youtube began launching niche channels for original content, which gathers specific programming in one location.
My Damn Channel — Many of the series on this popular site tend to feature recognizable actors—but not all— and the production quality is quite high. As with Blip and Hulu, MDC is a great place to see where the industry is heading. We recommend You Suck At Photo Shop and Easy To Assemble, two very different shows with large audiences.
Blip —The aim at Blip is to create a destination exclusively for web series, where viewers can expect to find the best content available. Unlike Youtube, however, Blip is selective about what gets a home on their channel, and the overall quality of your production will be a factor in acceptance. If you produce a hit, Blip splits ad revenue 50-50 with content creators, some of whom are supposedly making up to six figures.
Hulu Web Originals— Like Youtube, Hulu is investing in original content, supposedly to the tune of $500 million. Right now they host some of the more popular series like Battleground, The Booth At The End and The Guild, but as their investment continues, they will be in the market for more quality original content, and that opens the door for creative web-series producers.
Yahoo! Screen: Yahoo! recently inked deals with a number of content producers, including Funny or Die and Vuguru, the Michael Eisner company that produced the popular web series Prom Queen. This alliance should bring further recognition to this emerging industry, and open more doors for ambitious creators.
Vimeo: This site doesn’t pull the numbers of youtube, but it also offers a less diluted environment in which to have your content hosted. And Vimeo hosts only original material, so your content doesn’t have to compete against clips from television, movies or video games.
The web-series industry is flourishing these days as the medium fights to gain a lucrative foothold in the online entertainment industry. Yet despite the outpouring of creativity, most productions still end up abandoned mid-stream, the promise of some filmmaker’s brainchild left forever half-clothed in the amber of the Internet. Hitman 101 is not one of them. Canadian filmmaker Scott Staven’s 12-episode crime-thriller web series completes a full character arch from episode 1 to 12, pulling viewers along on a gripping, if at times gory, journey that leaves the story open to another season yet provides a satisfying ending.
TomCruise.com talked to Staven to find out how you can buck the odds and create a finished product that meets your expectations. To watch the entire Hitman 101 series, visit hitman101.com. The website not only contains all 12 episodes but also has an in-depth blog about the making of the series as well as 70-minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, a photo gallery, and a section with news and updates.
TC.Com: When you decided to make a web series, what was your first step?
SS: Research. I watched web series, a lot of them, which isn’t too time consuming because entire web series can range anywhere between 30 and 90 minutes. I looked into what series were popular and what popularity meant. It didn’t take me long to realize that making a web series in the hope of achieving fortune and fame would only set me up for great disappointment.
What appealed to me was the fact that anyone would have the ability to watch something I created. The Internet is a distribution platform, one in which you can potentially showcase your art in perpetuity. That appealed to me. One issue I came across in my research was unfinished series. Either they ended abruptly a few episodes in or ended on a cliffhanger to be resolved in season two, which never happened. So I determined very quickly that I would tell a full story in 12 episodes, and that it would have the potential to continue on, whether it did or not.
TC.COM: How much should a story be developed before the start of production?
SS: There are essentially two styles of web series, the kind that shoot while they release episodes and those that shoot the entire season at once, edit, then release. We were the latter. We shot all 12 episodes at once like one would shoot a feature film. We did this style to try to ensure we released the episodes without fail and to ensure we kept our schedule on time.
TC.COM: Webisodes tend be very short. Is there a formula for keeping the viewer engaged?
SS: I wanted every episode to push the story forward but still be engaging on its own merits. Each episode had its own originality and ended with an event that piqued viewer interest enough for them to want to see what happened next. I wrote it as one script with the 12 episodes.
TC.COM: Should producers of web series use professional actors, or will friends work?
SS: Professional actors are ideal because they should be like-minded and ready for long days on set. Since this was a volunteer project that could take months to shoot, we did our due diligence to attempt to cast good actors who were good people. Having someone quit halfway through the project on a whim could kill the series.
TC.COM: When it comes to equipment, what are the minimum requirements in your opinion?
SS: A decent camera with enough batteries and recordable media to get you through the day on set is important. Sound is probably the most important aspect. Bad sound is distracting and can turn a viewer off from a video. Good sound plus good sound design can make an okay episode good and a good episode great.
TC.Com: And how important is lighting?
S.S: Lighting is an art form that I wish I was good at, but, unfortunately, I’m not. What I try to avoid is having the picture look too dark or too dull. Whether it’s natural or practical lighting, construction lights or studio lighting, or even handheld LED lights from Home Depot, adding lighting helps enhance the picture.
TC.COM: Were you pulling permits or just using locations supplied by family and friends?
SS: We were a “Shoot-Within-Our-Means” production, which meant using locations we could attain without cost, which mostly meant through family and friends. What I did was stockpile all usable locations in advance of writing the script, then I used many of those as locations in the script. The idea was to create a story I knew I could shoot. We also did some guerrilla shoots.
TC.COM: For those concerned with financing, can you provide a general cost per episode in your case?
SS: From doing my research on web series, I came across a few too many that overspent thinking there would be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I set a budget I was comfortable losing, which was $500 per episode. Don’t bank on getting your money back. If you have time, look for sponsors who might want to advertise either as an ad before your series or on your website or as product placement.
TC.COM: What can filmmakers expect to go wrong?
S.S: Everything! Filmmaking is problem solving. Like pretty much any production, there will be roadblocks that will make you want to run and hide. Perseverance and patience are key to seeing it through. A supportive team will help, as will loads of preparation in advance of production.
TC.COM: What are the advantages of this approach to filmmaking?
SS: Making a web series was an exceptional way to gain experience as a filmmaker. We made 12 short films in eight or nine months. Everything from writing condensed stories to fit the short episode lengths to creating a weekly schedule and meeting our deadlines were all great challenges that felt very rewarding to achieve. Having a portfolio piece that is online for people to see is quite satisfying.
TC.COM: Did you do any preproduction promotion?
SS: We didn’t, but a lot of successful series do. They begin promoting the series well in advance of shooting by attending comic conventions or releasing viral campaigns, or creating a fan page and a website. They are building the foundation of a fan base.
HOW-TO ONLINE RESOURCES
As the web-series industry grows and demonstrates its ability to generate revenue, companies with a vested interested in quality programming are offering services that help content creators produce sellable work. Here are a few options that provide hours of in-depth technical know-how for anyone interested in putting together quality digital content.
YOUTUBE Creators Hub: Most everything ends up on Youtube eventually. You can search for almost any question and find a digital explanation. Although thousands of contributors upload how-to filmmaking videos, Youtube has its own tutorials on filmmaking designed to help potential content creators produce quality shows.
2 REEL GUYS : Norman Hollyn, a professional film editor, author, instructor, and University of Southern California professor, and Larry Jordan, a post-production consultant and professional producer, editor, and director, host this series of videos exploring the process of visual storytelling. Each episode covers one topic in 10 minutes or less. Among the subjects covered are story, lighting, collaboration, editing, music, production secrets and working with actors. Highly recommended for the in-depth knowledge these experience pros lend to each episode.
Vimeo Video School: The video-sharing website offers free lessons and video tutorials for aspiring filmmakers. From Video 101, geared toward novice filmmakers, to Vimeo Featured Lessons, with detailed information and examples created by the in-house staff, filmmakers of any level can learn some new skills or refine their existing skills. Members of the site are also invited to submit user-made video tutorials, a great way to share your knowledge and expand your network
Even on a tight budget there are ways to add special effects to your production without breaking the bank or accidently blowing the arm off one of your actors.
Video Copilot—Video Copilot specializes in after effects, many quite affordable. The site is also full of informative free video tutorials, and every after effect, motion graphic and plug in product you would want to buy.
VideoHive— Another after effects house, VH also has very affordable stock footage and motion graphics. Great budget-filmmaking tool.
Music or specialized audio is a complicated component of making your own series. If you didn’t write the music yourself, and you don’t own the rights to it, don’t use it. If you’re not a musician and don’t have access to musical friends, there are soundtrack solutions on the market. But don’t be shy about approaching musicians. Many would like the chance to produce music for an original web series. As for stock options, here are some sites that can probably help.
Music Alley — If you’re hoping to find high-quality music that doesn’t necessarily come from a sound garden, Music Alley could be a solution. Musicians offer their music for use in exchange for exposure and credit. You might be surprised by what you find here.
AudioJungle — This stock sound house, run by the creators of VideoHive, has a cornucopia of affordable music loops and sound effects for your series.
Free Sound — The name says it all. Free sound—of almost anything. Want to hear someone kicking a shed? This is the place.
The great advantage of making your own web series is that you’re not waiting for anyone to green light your project or okay funds. With careful preparation, you can create a quality product on a very limited budget.
Self-Funding: This is by far the most common route to getting a series produced. Maxing out credit cards is a time-honored tradition in entertainment. Most such productions are done on a volunteer basis, where actors and other crew are working for the experience and the reel. In such productions, it’s important that you vet your cast and crew carefully to determine commitment. A cast defection mid-production can undo the entire project.
Crowdsourcing-Funding: Two common platforms are KickStarter and Indiegogo. Both work on the same principle: Make your case about why you need money, attach a dollar sign, then start your campaign. You aren’t beholden to contributors beyond what you agree to offer in exchange for a donation. What you produce is 100 percent yours. The catch with KickStarter is that you only receive money if your campaign reaches the set dollar amount in the time allotted. With Indiegogo, you can choose either a Fixed Funding option, which means you only get your cash if you hit the designated number, or Flexible Funding, which means you can keep any money that is raised, whether it meets your goal or not.
Sponsorships: Another potential avenue for start-up money is to sell ad space on a website devoted to the project in question or offer product placement in the series in exchange for a fee. These are more difficult sells for first-time independent producers, but if you’re offering an attractive platform on which to feature brands, then the possibility does exists.
FESTIVALS & AWARD CEREMONIES
With more and more corporate money finding its way into the genre, festivals and awards shows are sure to proliferate. At the moment these are the most prominent such contests, and the best ways to put your work in front of interested audiences.
LA Web Series Festival 2012
LAWEBFEST was started in 2010 Mike Ajakwe, a writer-director-producer in film, television and theatre. After producing his own online content, he was surprised by the number serialized shows calling the Internet home. Believing the content could hold its own on the big screen, he organized the first web festival of it kind, during which 50 web series were screened. The following year that number went up to 123. This year LAWEBFEST III is hosting 172 web series. During the three-day festival workshops and panels covering the growing industry will be offered in addition to the more than 12 hours of programing. If you’re interested in pursuing your own project, LAWEBFEST offers a total immersion in the genre. The festival takes place April 6-8, 2012.
Marseille Web Fest 2012
This French version of the Los Angeles festival also focuses exclusively on web series. American enthusiasts of the genre and creators make the international trek to see what’s happening on the other side of the Atlantic, and to give their work more exposure. The chairman of the festival, Jean Michel Albert, believes the web series is becoming too difficult to ignore and that the subject matter is more relevent to the cultural dialogue than that found on television. The Marseille Web Fest takes place October 12-13, 2012.
Potential Legal Issues
Aspiring web series makers should familiarize themselves with any laws that may be applicable to their film project such as those concerning royalties, licensing agreements, copyright and distribution contracts.
One of the most common legal issues affecting filmmakers who publically share their films or videos concerns music. While there is no doubt great music can make your film even better, you must have the rights to use it, as stated above. Even when you work with friends, it’s a good idea to secure a signed release from everyone involved in your film. If your film turns out well, there may come a time when you need to produce the paperwork to prove that you have the right use those actors. Depending upon the scope and intended purpose of your film, you may want to consider asking an attorney to draw up a boilerplate agreement for your use. Where your script is concerned, consider registering it with the Writer’s Guild of America and your original script or movie with the U.S. Copyright Office.
A less common legal concern involves any logos and labels that might appear in your film. The simplest and easiest answer is to avoid filming any products with recognizable names unless you have written approval from the official company. While product placement has become a popular form of advertising, there is usually quite a bit of behind-the-scenes negotiating before any product appears on screen. An overwhelming majority of logos and labels are trademarked, including those appearing on tee shirts, posters, food products, DVD covers, etc. Save yourself the headache and just avoid or cover-up any potentially trademarked items.
That’s a wrap film fans! Should you find yourself drawn to a career in entertainment, don’t forget to check out our guides for actors, directors and filmmakers, film editors, producers, screenwriters, stuntmen and visual effects artists.
We hope you found our resource guide informative and inspiring. If you have something you’d like to add to this guide, we welcome suggestions, updates and professional guidance that can enhance the process of making a web series. You can comment in the section below or connect with the TOMCRUISE.COM team on Twitter, Facebook, WhoSay, Orkut, Gree, Sina Weibo, Google+ and Tencent Weibo. Plus, get all the latest news and insider information when you sign up for the TomCruise.com official newsletter today!