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Can Web Series Creators Turn Their Work Into a Career?

By Aymar Jean Christian | Indiewire July 29, 2013 at 10:36AM

When Netflix is a leading Emmy contender it looks like TV has been completely disrupted.
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Whatever This Is

When Netflix is a leading Emmy contender it looks like TV has been completely disrupted.

Thanks to subscribers, Netflix is already HBO. It can pull together generously budgeted dramas, something most other networks like YouTube, who rely on advertisers, don't have the money to do.

But as multiple critics and scholars have pointed out, Netflix's dominance in top categories overshadows the truly innovative work of short-format producers. The television Academy has honored web series for years but with minimal promotion. The bright young talents working in the indie-friendly format have been largely ignored by Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and the other big networks in their original programming strategies.

Undeterred, indie TV creators, armed with critical cachet and devoted fans, are taking on bigger projects.

Staying Indie While Raising Money for a Web Series

Take Adam Goldman, creator of "The Outs," which I named one of the best web dramas of 2012. Goldman is currently $60,000 into a $165,000 Kickstarter campaign for six, twenty-minute episodes of his new show, Whatever this is. No stranger to Kickstarter, Goldman and his team raised over $20,000 for "The Outs." This time he wants to shoot it faster and with an appropriately-paid crew. Two episodes are already shot, and the first premieres next week at a sold-out screening at the Knitting Factory. Most of 'The Outs'' key talent is back, including cinematographer Jay Gillespie and leading man Hunter Canning.

"That was really everybody's passion project, and nobody got rich off 'The Outs.' Nobody really got paid for 'The Outs,' at all," Goldman said during an interview at Tom's Restaurant, featured in "The Outs"' "Chanukah Special."

Whatever this is follows three twenty-somethings struggling to make ends meet in New York City. Sam (Canning), and Ari (Dylan Marron) have moved to New York to become creative professionals. But after three years they are still living job-to-job.

"There's a lot of media about people our age who have safety nets...but we wanted to do a show about people without safety nets," he said.

Lisa (Madeline Wise) rounds out the cast as Sam's girlfriend, a teacher looking for a summer gig. After getting rejected by Starbucks -- "even Starbucks doesn't want to hire you anymore, unless you want a career at Starbucks" -- she becomes the caretaker of a lesbian couple.

Every other episode, the rent is due. Ari and Sam take jobs -- "Real Housewives"- and "Top Model"-like shoots, a Rebecca Black-style music video in Westchester -- to get it paid. Goldman wanted to keep the plot as close to the real, increasingly unequal, New York as possible. In the script it says: "their apartment is small and cluttered and not in a cute romantic comedy way."

"We wanted it to be about economic survival in New York. In the same way The Outs is about a breakup, and that doesn't sound like an interesting show," Goldman said. "If it's dinnertime before your rent is due, and your rent is $900, and you have $901, then you're going to split a Cup of Noodles."

Pitching Web Series for Big Media (With "Indie" Stuff On the Side)

Not every creator is focusing on the web series genre. Morgan Evans -- another Indiewire favorite -- is using his hiatus from writing on "Best Week Ever" to secure financing for a feature film loosely based on his show, "Untitled Webseries."

"You could see it as an extension of it," said Evans.

Evans’ latest short-format series, "Teacher's Lounge," premiered this month on MTV.com, and he’ll be directing another show soon. While he wouldn’t disclose details of the deal, he said, “it was nice to be able to make a show and get paid for it.”

In Evans' "It's A Hit," a young bike messenger falls for an older woman who coaxes him into killing her ex-husband. The messenger hires a hit man, thinking he can do the job, only to find out the hit man needs a hit man, and so on.

The script is done, he said, but fundraising as a working writer has been a challenge.

"I'd much rather go to the studio system and just sell the thing that gets shelved, take the money from that and pay for it myself," he said.

"But then it's like, 'OK, then write a $500 million movie...that you can't make.'"

Using Web Series to Secure Financing For a Small Feature

A shot from the set of "Disposable Lovers."
A shot from the set of "Disposable Lovers."

For much less, Evans could shoot it. Desiree Akhavan, co-creator of the Vimeo-approved web series The Slope, just finished shooting a micro-budget feature loosely based on her character in that series. Appropriate Behavior, formerly "Disposable Lovers," was shot over the summer in New York and New Jersey, where I visited the team in Alpine shooting scenes of Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

"Appropriate Behavior" follows Shirin, a young lesbian reeling from break-up and searching for her identity. Capitalizing on renewed interest in queer cinema, British production company Parkville Pictures financed the film for in the low six-figures and used "The Slope" as a big part of its case to investors.

"I was pitching 'The Slope,' more than anything," said producer Cecilia Frugiuele. "The tone of 'The Slope' is the same, but obviously it's a different story."

Akhavan would have never guessed "The Slope," co-created with Ingrid Jungermann -- whose post-"Slope" project, "F to 7th," is great -- would help finance her feature. Connecting with Frugiuele as a new creative partner was a key catalyst.

"I definitely wanted to make a feature, but it wasn't with the idea that 'The Slope' would in any way be able to legitimize our work," Akhavan said with a laugh. "It was really shocking that 'The Slope' did well," referring to its cult fan base and accolades from Out and Filmmaker magazines.

A comedy about an Iranian-American lesbian might sound niche, but Akhavan hopes audiences connect with the style of humor.

"I thought it was a straight comedy when I wrote it and then in performing it it's been surprisingly dramatic. I'm excited to share this tone," she said, citing 'Muriel's Wedding' as inspiration, "which is absurd but also really sad, at times."

Parkville is exploring all exhibition options but is particularly focused on direct distribution: selling to British theaters, where its first feature, "Borrowed Time," will premiere in September, and directly to customers online.

This article is related to: web series, Queer Cinema, Filmmaker Toolkit: Production, Filmmaker Toolkit: Budgets





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