I've been writing about web series for almost four years now, and I've seen a lot of them. Mostly I've seen a lot of bad ones.
That's because making a good web series is just as hard, if not harder, than making an independent film. Why harder? In addition to getting the basics of production right and crafting an engaging story (which even TV networks have a hard time doing), indie TV creators also have to forge individual distribution and marketing strategies, design websites, merchandise and build audiences. In short, they have to take on responsibilities that in traditional film and television are more often handled by established firms. Contemporary web TV is only a few years old. Everything is new.
Where can you learn to make a web series?
Already there are plenty of classes available through formal institutions and groups, but they are all located in New York and Los Angeles. Perhaps one of the best known is Frank Chindamo's class at the University of Southern California, which has helped launch a few successful projects. David Title, who has developed programs for MySpace and Comedy Central, has a class at the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts. Jorge Rivera, who has written for a number of prominent indie web series (East WillyB, Lenox Ave) teaches web and TV writing at Brooklyn's Steiner Studios through Long Island University. Thom Woodley, one the space's veteran producers (The Burg, The All-For-Nots, Greg & Donny) teaches it at the School of Visual Arts in New York. There are workshops and meetups like BigScreen LittleScreen (Los Angeles and New York), Tubefilter's meetups (Los Angeles) and the Web TV Workshop (Los Angeles).
But what if you're not in Los Angeles or New York? Or you can't afford one of the options above? Or want web series-specific help?
That's the niche scrappy newcomer CreatorUp hopes to dominate.
CreatorUp: Cheap, Online Film School?
CreatorUp is a very new start-up from USC masters grads Michael Tringe, Sara Akhteh and Xiaoyu Hugh Hou. Debuting late last year, CreatorUp has a small but growing roster of classes from heavyweights and up-and-comers in the independent television market.
The idea behind CreatorUp came after the graduates found themselves with a prestigious degree from USC but in significant debt and without certain, basic knowledge of our fragmented, new media environment.
"There are a lot of things that are not taught in film schools," Tringe told me in an interview.
After graduating, Tringe went on to work for leading traditional and new media firms CAA, Vuguru and Blip, getting an inside look at the independent film and digital economies. He and his friends decided to make an "open-source film school," or, at least, film school at a dramatically lower price point.
CreatorUp is not for everyone. The courses currently available are mostly for beginners, perhaps for intermediate producers who have made a film/series without much success. CreatorUp would benefit amateurs more than producers who already have decent/successful projects under their belt. If you're a first-timer who knows the basics of on-set production, but need help with crafting stories and marketing plans tailored to the web, there are some classes for you. Of the nine courses planned, some are more specific and might benefit those producers with basic on-set skills and with specific aims like using green screen, or mastering genres like "Funny or Die"-style comedy or horror.
CreatorUp gave me access to two courses to review the site: "How to Prep Your Production," taught by Generic Girl creators Steve Wasserman and Victor Solis, and "How to Distribute and Cash in On Your Web Series," taught by Tringe.
Here's how it works. Students pay-per-course. Courses range from around $30 to $60 and 70 to 120 minutes of video content broken up into chapters and episodes. Each class is organized into two to four chapters, and each chapter has about five episodes, each under around 10 minutes, that breaks down the information into detail. Each episode gives students a task to complete, detailed below. CreatorUp also has interactive "labs" organized on Google hangouts for those who want live feedback and more personalized guidance. For now, those labs are free, and are led by experts in the indie TV field — check out this upcoming one with Dan Williams, the creator of sci-fi series Asylum, which sold to BET.
Visit page 2 for a breakdown of the benefits and cons of CreatorUp.
Benefits of CreatorUp
CreatorUp would benefit those who are new to the medium and have little idea what they're doing, or are short-staffed and need help managing the project from story conception to release and marketing.
"How to Prep Your Production" probably wouldn't help many USC MFA grads, but for people who can't afford to move to LA and pay tuition, most everything you'd need to know to create an acceptable product is in the course. The class introduces filmmakers to basic concepts of production prep, from shooting ratios to lighting and sound to hiring crew. Solis and Wasserman are expressive and fun to watch on camera.
In Tringe's "How to Distribute and Cash in On Your Web Series," students are forced to confront simple but oft-forgotten questions like, "who's your audience and how do you reach them?" Tringe gives detailed information: links to web TV networks, sites and resources; information on the pros and cons of corporation distribution; honest explanations about CPMs and monetization with comparisons between platforms like YouTube and Blip. Nothing is sugar-coated. Tringe forces students to have real expectations about how far their product can go and, in turn, how to set realistic and attainable goals.
The format of the courses is flexible enough that if you're in a rush you can skip to the parts most relevant to you. Every episode has a bulleted list of main points beside it, along with a "to do" list: assignments!
This is the real value of CreatorUp: accountability and simple, direct tasks. On their own, they are straight-forward, common sense. But in the rush to release many creators miss things. Most beginning filmmakers know certain things have to be done, but simply don't do them. CreatorUp gives people an easy way to structure and schedule their production and distribution timetables so nothing gets missed. Students are asked to complete simple tasks like "make a Tumblr or website for your show" — you'd be shocked how often this does not happen, even with experienced producers — or "create a Like My Page campaign on Facebook in your network." When Tringe asks you to select a distribution platform for your show — yes, there's much more than YouTube — he lists around a dozen options from which to choose.
Nearly everything CreatorUp teachers tell students "to do" are things every independent producer should do, but, I know from experience, do not. As someone who's been writing and researching about the the space for years, not a lot was new to me, but I did learn new things. For example, CreatorUp has an Audiosocket store with music licenses tailored specifically for web series budgets (Vimeo does as well). A number of the questions it posed of students are ones I'd have forgotten to ask myself.
Mostly, though, all the information I saw on CreatorUp is available on the Internet. This shouldn't be a surprise. There are plenty of production tutorials online, like Vimeo's Video School and YouTube's Creator Playbook. If you read my blog or Tubefilter, or follow and watch other successful web series, you can learn everything you need to know how success is achieved. But all that information is scattered and disorganized. It's the difference between searching for workout routines on YouTube versus hiring a personal trainer at a gym. CreatorUp has your personal trainers, keeping you accountable so get your project is in the best shape it can be before going to costlier options.
If you want to test the waters or just start delving into the issues without committing to paying, the site hosts free labs with industry leaders, with sign-ups on the homepage.
Cons of CreatorUp
I can't vouch for all of CreatorUp, since I've only taken two classes. I can say that, as is the case with real school, not every class will be valuable. Some lecturers are better on camera than others. Some will know more than others.
If you're considering paying for a course, do research on the person teaching it. A number of CreatorUp's teachers are known in the industry, like Mark Gantt, creator of one the web's most successful dramas, The Bannen Way (on Sony's Crackle). Others have been nominated for and won Streamy and IAWTV Awards, including Scott Brown (director of Larry King Now, writer of Stockholm, on "How to Write A Web Series") and Kristen Nedopak (Skyrim Parodies, "How To Make a Sci-Fi/Fantasy Web Series on Green Screen").
Since it's a start-up, some classes are less polished than others. And CreatorUp isn't necessarily more "fun" than being inside a classroom. It's self-directed, though you can get feedback in labs.
Still, if you've managed to raise a few thousand dollars for your first web/TV/indie film project, spending $30 to $60 to make sure you're not missing any key bits of information and you've asked yourself all the right questions might be a good investment, particularly for those far from resource-rich production hubs in New York and Los Angeles.