“So what are you up to at the moment?”
“Oh, I’m just working on a web series.”
The faces of loved ones often fall as quickly as their hearts with the news of yet another striving artist setting off on a quest to write, produce and star in a web series—and with good reason. Once upon a time, the novelty value of the web series as a form was enough to secure some modest viewership. Now? Not so much.
Today, the shows winning the lion’s share of TV awards are actually, quite literally, web series: “House of Cards,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Transparent.” These shows live on Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc.; they stream via VOD platforms that have begun to challenge cable supremacy in the production and delivery of quality serial content.
With the advent of what is essentially online cable, in just a few short years, a distinction has cropped up between “network” web series and “indie” web series. And most indie web series are, let’s face it, quite dreadful. They are independent because only loved ones could ever endure them…which is why friends and family get squeamish at the first mention. Those indie web series that aren’t dreadful are generally confined to the corners and crevices of user-uploaded platforms, unable to compete with the riveting viral videos of teenagers like PewDiePie playing video games and providing running commentary of their virtual achievements. It’s a content jungle out there.
So how in the world wide web does one create an indie web series that actually has a shot of reaching beyond the scope of one’s mother and her social network? These are some tips I wish I had known before getting started:
1. Identify your target audience and then carefully plan the length of your episodes accordingly.
Are you creating your show for 18 year olds? Then plan on 90-second episodes. Do you want to make a show for Millenials commuting to work? Consider 5-minute episodes. Be sure you anticipate how people will be watching, and then shape your storytelling to accommodate that.
2. Avoid creating another show about two best friends who are unemployed actors living together in either in NYC or LA.
While cost-effective, the Unemployed Roommate genre is so worn out that even your mom may not be persuaded to watch.
3. Budget in advance and be firm about your financial limits.
More money spent doesn’t necessarily translate to more eyeballs. The possibility for spending in the world of digital production is limitless, but the possibility of financial return on web content is limited.
4. Do your best to secure some “name” guest stars.
This can make a world of difference in catching the eye of sponsors and project partners. A guest star appearance may only require a few hours of time on behalf of a celeb, but it will save you days of legwork when it comes to self-distributing.
5. Don’t plan on random discovery.
Unless you have a particular strategy to transcend the anonymous sea that is YouTube, try your best to find a supportive project partner. Before you even begin generating content, do some real research to discover MCNs and platforms that will jive with the content you’re making, and if you can, reach out to them in advance and test their interest. You can save yourself a world of pain by developing a clear strategy for your web series from conception through to market—something most artists fail to consider.
6. Consider immersive and innovative presentation of your content to engage audiences in ways that “network” web series can’t.
Rather than create a second-rate version of a “network” web series, experiment with intriguing ways to reach audiences in the digital age. Hedge your bets and diversify your means of going viral: build a Vine campaign for your protagonist, make a mock blog that comments on the content of your show, create quick 20-second interviews with characters, etc. Think outside of the box.
There’s no doubt about it: creating your own web series is a meaningful, life-changing experience. But it’s also a great deal of hard work, which is mostly thankless. Come to think of it, it’s a lot like having a kid. Ask your mom for advice—after she’s recovered from her disappointment that you’re creating a web series…
You can watch “Understudies the Show” via Dailymotion here.
Elisabeth Gray is co-creator, co-writer, producer and star of “Understudies.” She is a playwright and the winner of the Fringe First Award for Innovative and Outstanding New Writing for her first play, the dark comedy “Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath,” which has gone on to have a successful productions Off-Broadway and around the globe, currently running in Norway. Her gothic comedy “Southern Discomfort” ran Off-Broadway this year after touring the US and the UK. She wrote the award-winning short film “Socks and Bonds” (directed by “Understudies” co-creator Daniel Zimbler) and has two feature screenplays in development.