On July 1, my independently produced LGBT series “EastSiders” made its debut on Netflix. This is the first time in the series’ four-year history that it has been made available internationally, with subtitles in more than a dozen languages. It’s been a long road from YouTube to Netflix, and looking back there were several key decisions we made that helped our show compete in an increasingly crowded space.
I wish I could say that I predicted this, that it was all part of some master plan, but the truth is I had no idea a series could have as many lives as “EastSiders” has had. My goals when I created the show were simple; I wanted to write, direct and star in a project and see it through to completion, because I had been involved in so many micro budget projects that never saw the light of day. I also wanted to create the kind of LGBT series that TV networks refuse to, one where the main characters were not only gay, but flawed, complex individuals trying to navigate their messy lives, just like their straight friends. When I think about how far we’ve come from releasing the first two episodes on YouTube in December 2012, I can honestly say that creating this show has changed the trajectory of both my career and my life.
courtesy of Kit Williamson
After the first two episodes went viral, we launched a Kickstarter to finance the remainder of the first season. We were then approached by Viacom’s LGBT cable channel Logo about premiering the new episodes on their digital platform. Shortly after debuting on Logo, we were picked up for DVD and VOD distribution by Wolfe Video, an LGBT indie film distributor, and Logo broadcast the entire season on cable as a TV movie. We returned to Kickstarter to raise over $153,000 to shoot a second season. We’ve been able to broker TVOD (Transactional Video On Demand) deals for both seasons, including an exclusive window on Vimeo On Demand, and SVOD (Subscription Video On Demand) deals with several services for Season 1, and I’m thrilled that Season 2 will be exclusively available on Netflix, the world’s largest SVOD service. Through this process, I’ve learned a great deal about the world of acquisitions, and these are the four biggest pieces of advice I can offer anyone looking to sell a series to these platforms.
1. Have a flexible format
While many people have strong opinions on the subject, there is no single series format that works. Don’t crunch your content down unnecessarily just because you’re premiering on YouTube. Ask yourself what will serve the story, and then ask yourself if you can structure that story for multiple distribution possibilities at once.
The first season of “EastSiders” was written to function as both 9 episodes of 10 to 20 minutes in length and as a feature length film, and it has been distributed both ways. I didn’t have a distributor in place while creating the second season, so I wanted the format to be as flexible as possible and wrote it as both 6 half-hour episodes or 12 episodes of 10 to 15 minutes in length. I also made sure to keep binge-watching viewers in mind, with B and C storylines bleeding over and building from episode to episode, and had a feature cut planned if we weren’t able to sell the show on SVOD as a series.
With season 2, I have observed that most SVOD partners tend to prefer longer form content, such as movies and half-hour episodes, but that may not be true of every platform, with more and more platforms like Fullscreen and YouTube Red programming content of varying lengths.
2. Appeal to a niche market
There is no question that a great deal of “EastSiders” success can be attributed to the fact that the series appeals to an LGBT audience, in large part because there is a real lack of quality content that follows LGBT characters. The very thing that would make our series difficult to sell as a TV show has caused audiences to embrace it as a digital series.
Many of our first viewers discovered the show because of our star Van Hansis, who has a large and loyal following from his time playing Luke Snyder on “As the World Turns.” Our show has seen mainstream success thanks to press coverage of our success, as well as word of mouth from viewers, and the fact that many women also seek out LGBT stories. We also made sure to cast other prominent LGBT figures in the second season, like comedian Stephen Guarino, drag sensations Willam Belli and Manila Luzon and “Queer Eye” star Jai Rodriguez.
3. Build a following/press/acclaim
This is, without a doubt, the most important element of launching a successful series. I advise all content creators to write their press release before they go into production. If you can’t come up with a newsworthy angle, either through a topical approach or by focusing on the talent you are working with, you may want to go back to the drawing board. A YouTube series can succeed without press, and “going viral” can certainly become a press angle, but most of the digital series I have seen get picked up for distribution or get developed into TV shows received significant press attention when they were first released.
This is possibly because acquisitions and development executives find content creators through press coverage. I know for a fact we were approached by Logo because of the press attention we were receiving from LGBT outlets during our Kickstarter. We also pursued awards and festival prestige, which can be expensive but definitely helps set a series apart from the crowd. We were nominated for two Daytime Emmy Awards, nominated for a Satellite Award by the International Press Academy, and won awards from festivals, The Indie Series Awards and the LA Weekly Awards.
4. Withhold the content so it can be sold
This part is hard. People may be angry with you, especially international fans. Logo Online was geoblocked outside of the United States, and it took longer for us to find an international streaming partner than we anticipated. We also would not have been able to sustain making the show if we didn’t have the revenue from DVD and VOD sales. When our licensing agreement ended and we moved the show to a year long SVOD exclusive deal, people had trouble understanding why we didn’t put it back on YouTube. The truth is, many SVOD platforms require their content to be exclusive, or at least partially unavailable for free online. If we had made the entire season available on YouTube we would’ve never been able to sell it to Netflix.
5. Keep pivoting and reinventing the show
With season 2 of the show I wanted to expand the world and include a larger ensemble, in part because I wanted to stretch myself as a filmmaker and in part because I had noticed a lot of intimate, relationship-driven LGBT series emerging. To help our show to stand out from the crowd, I doubled the length of our episodes and structured them with an A, B and C story. I also leaned into the comedic elements in the story; the series has always been a dark comedy, but season 2 includes storylines featuring STDs, constantly changing drag names and a sex toy bridal shower.
I added a number of well known actors to the cast as well, including Brianna Brown (“Devious Maids,” “Homeland”), Satya Bhabha (“New Girl”), Leith Burke (“The Haves and the Have Nots”) and Lennon Parham (“Playing House,” “Veep”) and made sure to keep diversity in mind, bringing in more straight, lesbian and transgender characters and staying mindful of the racial makeup of the cast.
In closing, it’s important to remember that the digital space is changing constantly. With more and more companies pouring money into SVOD platforms and apps, it’s important to constantly stay on top of what opportunities are out there. There are also more and more web series festivals being founded every year, and a few are starting to attract industry attention.
In 2015 I co-founded one myself, Brooklyn Web Fest and Content Creator Conference, and we were able to showcase a truly incredible slate of projects in our first year. Our board now includes executives at IFC, Maker Studios, Fullscreen, Vimeo, Above Average, Seriously.TV, Black & Sexy TV, Open TV, KollideTV, Tubi TV, Wolfe Video, Scalelab and many other incredible companies eager to connect with indie content creators. Traditional festivals are also starting to feature web series — this year the Tribeca Film Festival even unveiled a digital marketplace. If you can strike the right chord with your audience and the industry, there are more opportunities, and marketplaces, to sell your project than ever before. The biggest piece of advice I can offer is to think of the launch of your series as more than a one-time event — get your show out there in as many ways as possible and more and more opportunities will come to you.
Kit Williamson is an actor, filmmaker and LGBT activist living in New York City. He is best known for playing the role of Ed Gifford on “Mad Men” and creating the LGBT series “EastSiders.” He is the co-founder of Brooklyn Web Fest and Content Creator Conference and the founder of boutique PR consulting firm Go Team Entertainment. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @KitWilliamson.