I know what you’re thinking—hasn’t every actor you know already made a web series? It’s definitely become the micro-budget medium of choice in recent years, and although the field has become more crowded, you still regularly hear about actor-driven projects that break through the static and launch careers. The truth is, indie web content is the only direct route to a massive audience—there are no gatekeepers here. If you create good work and develop a comprehensive strategy to get the word out, your series has the potential to go viral, attract the attention of critics and journalists and maybe even get picked up for traditional distribution.
In 2012 I self-financed the first two episodes of my web series “EastSiders,” which follows a gay couple in Silver Lake trying to stay together in the aftermath of infidelity. I begged, borrowed and yes, stole to make the first two episodes, essentially a half-hour pilot, for less than $2,000. We put the series on YouTube and the response was overwhelming—the show went viral and got written about by dozens of LGBT and mainstream press outlets.
A Kickstarter campaign to shoot a second season passed its $15,000 goal in just four days, eventually raising $26,000 to complete the first season. While we were in production, we were approached by Viacom’s LGBT cable channel Logo to air the show on their digital platform, and were then picked up for cable broadcast as a TV movie. Since the show premiered we were able to attract the attention of a traditional film distributor, Wolfe Video, cracked the top ten LGBT DVD lists on Amazon and Wolfe’s website and made deals with Hulu and Amazon. We were able to raise over $153,000 on Kickstarter to shoot a second season of the show, and premiered as a Vimeo On Demand Exclusive Series this September, with Wolfe Video releasing the series on DVD and other digital platforms in November, including the launch of two new digital platforms—so stay tuned.
READ MORE: 10 Reasons You Should Make a Web Series (Instead of an Indie Film)
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I can’t understate the impact that creating the series has had on me both personally and professionally. It’s given me a new understanding of this industry and helped me gain perspective on countless issues that had previously plagued me. Actors are in a tricky position—you can’t create your art without a project, so you’re extremely reliant on other people. Making my own series helped me shake off the helplessness I had been feeling waiting for my next gig to come, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I started booking more work, even landing a recurring role on the last two seasons of “Mad Men” There are so many ways that producing my own work has enriched my life, but I’ve done my best to narrow this list down to the top five reasons every actor should make a web series:
1. You will learn more about acting than any class can teach you.
Whether you make the choice to direct your series yourself or partner with a more experienced hand, as a producer I strongly encourage you to review all of the footage (yes, all of it) and sit in on your editing sessions. I discovered more about my habits, good and bad, in post-production on “EastSiders” than I did in four years of college. The subtleties of acting for the camera are much harder to teach than the technique behind stage acting. As a producer you will also get the opportunity to interact with every member of the production team and better understand their responsibilities and how you, as an actor, can be a better collaborator. After producing my own work I am now hyper-aware of tracking the continuity of a scene, hitting my marks, finding my light and delivering a performance that is appropriate for the shot. I also understand the organization of a set, the complexities of scheduling and that my job is just one piece in a large machine and we all have to work together to make the project come to life—it’s not all about me.
2. You will understand why you aren’t getting cast.
Experiencing the other side of the casting process is a crucial part of any actor’s education. Even a non-union web series can receive hundreds of submissions, and you’ll quickly fall into the same casting practices that have stopped you from getting called in for auditions in the past. Generic headshot? No audition. Not enough headshots on your account? No audition. No resume credits? No audition. No reel? No audition. It’s a catch 22—no one’s going to call you in for an audition if you don’t have a good reel, but how do you get a reel if no one calls you in to audition? My suggestion, obviously, is to produce your own web series! If you’re a little further along in your career you’ll start to understand the nuances that go into casting by offer, as you start asking yourself what value beyond their talent potential cast members add to your project in terms of their social network, their fan base, etc. An actor with no Facebook or Twitter presence is unlikely to bring any viewers to a series or dollars to a crowdfunding campaign.
3. You will build your social network.
As noted above, it’s increasingly important that actors have a strong presence on social media. You have to be able to prove that you have a following at any stage of your career, from promoting your first micro-budget web series to proving you can sell tickets in China as the lead of a studio blockbuster—it may not be your favorite part of the industry but there’s no fighting it. So start working towards building your personal brand online.
4. You will build a network of collaborators.
I cannot stress enough the importance of community when it comes to micro-budget filmmaking—it truthfully takes a village and it’s important that you show up on your collaborators’ sets and help out (both as an actor and as a boom op) every bit as often as you ask them to show up on yours. It’s important that you contribute to your friends’ crowdfunding campaigns and share their work with your network. You will learn and grow together and make better and better projects—and get more and more footage for your reels. Treat all your collaborators with respect, because your PA today might make her Sundance debut next year.
5. You will free yourself from the waiting game.
A friend of mine once likened her acting career to getting struck by lightning over and over again. The truth is you have very little control over when your “big break” will come—and you’re going to need a bunch of big breaks to make a living in this industry. If you look at the actors who have staying power, who consistently get to play great roles in acclaimed projects year after year, almost all of them have production companies or play a significant role in the development of those projects. Making your own web series early in your career is a great way to start practicing this skill set early, and to set yourself up for success down the line. And who knows? You might even make your own big break.
Kit Williamson is an actor, filmmaker and 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,” which recently premiered its second season exclusively on Vimeo On Demand. Follow him on Twitter @KitWilliamson.