For indie filmmakers, the challenges of creating a web series may be the same as for a short or feature – slim funding, a crowded market, difficulties in building an audience and limited path for pricing models. But digital content has its own set of demands and requirements.
Indiewire spoke with the creators of four web series about the unique skills and strategies it takes to get a web series off the ground. Here are their top six tips.
1. Brush up on your social media skills.
Kim Spurlock, director of "Livin’ the Dream," a web series comedy that she created with her sister, producer, Mai Spurlock Sykes, ranked this first on her list of skills they needed to hone.
"Developing the social media and transmedia aspects that go with your production is vital to build your audience. We started these aspects early on in development," said Spurlock. The sisters, having previously collaborated on shorts, ramped up their social media skills quickly when the comedy about a female director trying to make it in the industry in New York launched in July 2015.
"With a film at a festival, people are sort of trapped in their seats. Online, you have to work to draw viewers in to every episode, using keywords, great images, or behind-the scenes clips," said Anne Flournoy, creator of "The Louise Log," a comedic web series about a housewife living in NYC, now in its third season.
Creating a web series means not only developing the story, but also the website, e-mail lists and social media sites – all with a consistent theme – to increase the stickiness. Skills in data analytics will help to evaluate how the audience is accessing and clicking through the series. For some additional tips, you should check out the YouTube Creator Playbook.
2. Then, actually be social.
Talk to your audience wherever they are online. Make friends and plug into their networks. "Build a community of creators who are behind you whose work you truly admire and can support," said Flournoy.
Generate ideas for events that could help to create word-of-mouth. "We have done some creative things, like organizing live events and harnessing issues related to the series, like how to live your dream and highlighting female directors," said Spurlock.
Web series as a form can overlap with transmedia, a format where the story is told across various platforms. "Balance the biases of media and make them work for you," said Jay Bushman, the transmedia producer and writer for the web series "The Lizzie Benet Diaries," a modern-day adaptation of Jane Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice." "The Lizzie Benet Diaries," which ran online for 100 episodes from April 2012 to March 2013, became the first YouTube series to win a Primetime Emmy when it won for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media in 2013.
With "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries," Bushman broke the digital fourth wall by giving the characters Twitter accounts and having them tweet as part of web series plot. Then "fan-fiction" took on new digital meaning as fans tweeted back and created additional online content, such as blogs and their own videos.
3. Find ways to get to the point quickly.
Web series creators have a limited window to capture viewers. "Online you have maybe seven seconds to grab your audience," said Flournoy. "Comedy lends itself to short form and pithiness," added Mai Spurlock. "Timing is important with comedy. The rhythm and the impact of the script are always important, but particularly in this medium."
Keith Josef Adkins, creator of "The Abandon," a sci-fi web series about five African-American male friends on an annual camping trip; things change drastically when they receive news of an alien invasion. Adkins, who was a writer for the CW series "Girlfriends," uses an ensemble cast to propel his story. "Part of my creative mission is to show the complexity in marginalized communities – the diversity within that community. The ensemble provides the opportunity to see that each character has their own point of view and their own journey and with that comes conflict," he said.
Adkins developed the 16-minute pilot in December 2012 with the intention of developing a full series. It’s now the basis for his feature film, called "The First."
4. Get flexible!
Working in a new medium fosters experimentation. Use this to your advantage. According to Kim Spurlock, "It’s an adventure. We evolve as we go and slowly develop the characters."
Adkins agreed, "I felt like I had a license to write what I wanted. It empowered me to let the ideas go."
The production should also reflect flexibility. "We work with lighter, more nimble crew," said Mai Spurlock. "If something is not working, we figure it out and may change our approach."
"You need to be flexible and open to using whatever you can," Adkins said, speaking from experience. During his shoot in upstate New York an unexpected tornado hit the area, causing the power to go out and trees to fall, even hours after the storm due to the excessive ground water. "We could have packed up and left because the environment was too dangerous. We didn’t want people to get hurt. But it was great production value (for the alien invasion) and the crew and actors were on board. So, we captured the sound and footage of the damage."
"There’s freedom to try new things, but it’s a balance," cautioned Bushman. "The weirder it gets, the more difficult it can be to find funding."
5. Release on a consistent schedule.
This may seem to contradict skill #4, but your consistency with your audience cannot be in flux.
"Livin’ the Dream" launched all eight episodes at once. "Our strategy is based on our viewing habits. Each episode is so short, like a tasty snack. We hope that viewers will have one and stay for more,” said Spurlock Sykes. "We shot it all at once in consecutive days for scheduling reasons. We only had the talent for one week at a time."
Flounoy, who releases episodes of "The Louise Log" monthly, recommends that get to know how you like to work and find a schedule that works for you. "Shooting and cutting it all before the launch may seem right at first, but working as you go allows for learning from mistakes and responding to current events and trends," she said.
"Our release strategy was dictated by the needs of the story. For ‘The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,’ we posted video twice a week and used it as a spine to plan out everything else," said Bushman.
Ultimately, the actual release details matter less than choosing one that works for you and your team and sticking with it.
6. Put together a strong team.
"There is a danger with low-budget productions," said Adkins. "It’s not enough just to have a crew — you need the right crew. You have to treat it like a multimillion-dollar project."
Your crew includes your social media team. The fast speed of social media means that you need to build trust with whoever is tweeting and bloging for the series. "Work with a team of true collaborators who are as invested as you are," said Flournoy.
Be strategic about how you call in favors, push your team, and spend money. Web series don’t hit overnight, so plan for the long haul in order to stay afloat while building your audience.