I didn’t move to Los Angeles to produce a web series. Hell, web series didn’t exist and the internet had just moved past the novelty stage when I began my career.
For years, I went through the ups and downs that most S&A readers are already familiar with in regards to being in the business. It wasn’t all bad; I had some great moments and fun along the way. Then, in 2008 after years of hustling and getting by, I hit a wall. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t want to go to another meeting, premiere, pool party, award show etc. It was around this time that my father had some health complications and I was faced with real life choices to make that had nothing to do with Hollywood.
The idea of going back to being a product placement executive felt like a worse option than being homeless. I enjoyed the work, but wasn’t passionate about it. One night at the Ralph’s grocery store in Miracle Mile, I had a meltdown. I had $2. That’s it. My plan was to get a pack of hotdogs and some buns. I found myself in the bread aisle and realized that I didn’t have enough money. In that moment, I was completely out of focus. I decided to start over. I moved to Virginia to help take care of my father and to regroup. For many reasons, it was one of the best decisions of my life.
One afternoon while packing up my apartment in L.A., I read an article about some guys who had created a web series called “We Need Girlfriends.” Darren Star had come on board to executive produce a pilot based on the show. The creators were friends were film school friends and made show modestly with available resources. I immediately thought, “I could do that.” I called my friend Lisa Robinson who I’d gone to AFI with and shared with her my thoughts about doing a series and just like that, “The PuNanny Diaries” was born. We reached out to some classmates from AFI and other close friends and within days we had a team.
The idea of not needing permission, or approval, from someone excited us about the project. Even though we didn’t have a roadmap for doing a web series, we pressed forward. It kind of felt like the Wild West and it was exciting to be at the beginning of something that was starting to take shape.
Fast-forward four years, thousands of hits and 10 episodes later, the world is a different place. There are too many web series to count. There are dozens of web series festivals. There are even people making decent money from their web endeavors. I’m asked the “how to” questions about starting a web series all of the time. When asked, I have often tempered my responses in order to be encouraging to aspiring web series creators. The truth is, it’s hard.
If you care about what you’re writing and doing any sort of planning in terms of building an audience, there is a lot of work that needs to be done. Then, after doing all of that work, there’s still no guarantee that you’ll notice many tangible results. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way:
Choose your team wisely
Lisa and I have what I consider to be a perfect partnership. As the creators of the show we’ve had to be vulnerable and honest with each other about creative and business ideas. We respect each other and that keeps us on track. Overall, we found people who we worked well with, but when it wasn’t a good fit, it was really taxing on production. Make sure your team is on the same page with you. New producers, don’t be afraid to make changes to your team. Web series crews are too small to deal with bad attitudes, laziness, or missed deadlines. Learn how to both hire and fire.
Write for the medium
A web series isn’t a TV show. Initially, we drafted these scripts that were complex with the intent to replicate what was done on TV. Halfway through the experience we recognized that we needed to write shorter and be more focused on a hook. We have this great premise about a sex-obsessed woman who then becomes celibate, but didn’t really exploit it in the way we could have. I think we wrote some great episodes, but in planning for the next season, we’re concentrating on writing moments, or snapshots that fit much better into a 5-minute narrative.
Editing is essential
We were lucky to have a great editor come on board early in the process. Ultimately, it was his work that made the rest of us look good. The only problem…he had other gigs and we were not paying. He received producer credit for the episodes he worked on, but paid opportunities are always at the top of the list of priorities. It wasn’t like I was skipping out on my job to shoot episodes, so I didn’t expect him to do that either. During the production phase, we struggled with trying to manage a timeline and be respectful of our editor’s other obligations. The truth is, we never quite figured it out. Momentum slowed, morale lowered, the audience waned in between episodes and we were not sure of how to make it work. For a series with a small budget I’d recommend finding at least two editors. We also plan to pay as opposed to the producer credit thing. With multiple editors, you can stagger the episodes and it gives an editor some time to fit your job into his, or her schedule.
The Producer Credit thing…
Yeah, I know a lot of you don’t have much financing and I know it seems like it make sense to make essential members of the crew producers in exchange for services, but it may not be the best route. Our intention with the whole project was to give people we had relationships with an opportunity to work on something that we could all have some stake in. The idea is that we didn’t want people to feel like they were working for us, but for themselves. It didn’t quite work out that way. Giving a credit is often enough for small projects like this, but be sure that there are clear understandings of what is expected. Some of the most dedicated folks on our team showed up for next to nothing, because they believed in what we were doing. They didn’t ask to be producers in exchange for doing sound, or wardrobe. They just showed up and worked their behinds off. At the end of the day, they understood we all benefited from the exercise. Don’t parcel out your vision.
Shoot it all at once
Tambay recently posted about shooting three episodes as starting point and then to assess how it works. That can work, but based on my most recent experience I might go a different way. The biggest regret I have about my series is that we didn’t shoot at a quicker pace. In some respects, the time gaps allowed us to reevaluate the show. As a result, you can see notable differences in both the creative and technical aspects of the production. That said, we were not able to maintain momentum and keep a regular release schedule and that had an impact on the audience. If you are writing a show that fits a small budget, it has a limited amount of locations and characters. Use that to your advantage and get the shooting done. If you have money, or the resources to keep a crew on lock for a week, to ten days, do it! If not, shoot over the course of a couple weekends and be done. This will give you time to edit, plan the marketing and build the audience. People’s lives change. We’ve had essential players book film and TV gigs and become unavailable over the course of production. Plus, we were so worried about producing the next episode, we didn’t spend enough time marketing what was already out there. If the audience wants more, you need to be ready to give them more. People tune out quickly.
Overall, we have a show that we are proud of and that has engendered favorable responses. Sure, it’s a grind and we’ve hit some bumps, but the show has been a great calling card for all involved. The best part is that we did it on our own. It’s all a learning experience and every producer’s experience is going to be different, but in the end if you can get it shot and online, you’ve done you’re job.