I recently wrote a post for Indiewire about why every actor (or filmmaker, for that matter) should make a web series, but before you take the plunge, there are some basic things you can do to ensure that your project stands out from the crowd.
After running the press campaign for my indie web series “EastSiders,” my producing partner John Haibach and I discovered that we able to drum up as much or more press than many of the PR teams we worked with as the series was released on various platforms; starting out on YouTube, moving over to Viacom’s LGBT channel Logo and eventually syndicating across Hulu, Amazon and other VOD platforms, with the second season recently premiering as a Vimeo On Demand Exclusive.
While we’ve had many great collaborators, we also discovered that the innovation we brought to creating our content on a budget could be applied to our press and marketing efforts, so we formed a company in 2013, Go Team Entertainment, to help other web content creators make their mark on the web. Since then we have managed the PR campaigns and consulted on the launch strategies of several series that have achieved critical acclaim and viral success, with views in the millions, and worked alongside networks and ad agencies to shape their digital campaigns.
Even after three years working in the field I still begin every consultation with the same disclaimer; there is nothing that we can do for you that you cannot do for yourself. The key is to create a plan for your launch early on and identify the steps you need to accomplish your goals. My faith in this philosophy was cemented this year, when I co-founded Brooklyn Web Fest. At the end of nine hours of panels and 10 hours of screenings over two days at the Made in NY Center by IFP in DUMBO, I saw the same key elements emerging in almost every web series that had broken through and achieved their goals online; they had big dreams and a plan for how to accomplish them.
Don’t despair if you’ve already shot your series—it’s never too late to start thinking ahead. But I know if you follow these five steps before you make your first web series you will drastically improve your chances for success:
1. Write your press release first.
The field is very crowded with what I affectionately call “Web Series: The Web Series.” I don’t mean to be unkind, but I’m certain you know what I’m referring to—I’ve even accidentally written it myself a few times. While it’s solid advice to suggest that actors write what they know, nobody wants to watch a web series about a struggling actor struggling to make a web series about struggling as an actor. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel—but you do need to look at your script from an outside perspective and ask yourself, honestly, if you are offering anything new or innovative to the market.
Study the anatomy of an entertainment press release—there are free templates online—and identify what your hook is; is there anything topical or subversive about your script or your method of storytelling, can you identify a niche market for stories like yours, have you assembled a newsworthy cast and creative team, etc. I had a number of ideas kicking around before I decided to produce “EastSiders,” but I felt confident in it because there was a clear market for LGBT stories online but not many dark comedies with dramatic elements and professional actors at the time.
Casting an actor with an amazing following like Van Hansis from “As the World Turns” was also a huge help. Once you’ve identified your press angles, you need to look at model shows that have achieved the kind of PR success you want for your show and create a spreadsheet of all the websites and journalists that have written about web content—don’t wait until the week of your launch to figure out how you plan on getting the word out.
2. Plan post-production first.
Finishing strong is the key to making a successful, polished micro-budget project that stands out from the crowd. You may get comedy gold on set, but without the right editing, sound and color correction your project won’t catch people’s attention. Bad sound, especially, is the hallmark of an amateur production and many people won’t make it through 30 seconds, no matter how beautiful it looks. If you know you aren’t going to be able to afford a professional mix, hire an editor that can claim this as a secondary skill set or teach yourself.
Anticipate ambient sound issues before they arise in production and never, ever utter the on-set cliche “we’ll fix it in post.” Nine times out of ten you can’t afford it. If you can, consider partnering with a producer or director who also works as an editor—or develop the skill set yourself. Knowing what you don’t know is half the battle. After three years of relying on others for every export and clip I needed I decided to teach myself Final Cut. I don’t aspire to compete with the pros, but I am a better collaborator now that I’m not completely reliant on their knowledge.
READ MORE: 10 Reasons You Should Make a Web Series (Instead of an Indie Film)
3. Let your friends take advantage of you.
I can’t stress enough that the key to finding good collaborators is being a good collaborator. Show up on your friends’ sets and volunteer your time. You may need to spend your weekend holding a boom if you want your friend to hold a boom for you next weekend. Run errands, stand in the background pretending to talk, and treat every menial task like it’s your job—because it is. Until you can afford to pay everyone on your set you’re going to have to rely on a currency of favors. And don’t act like you’re doing anyone a favor by showing up late, slacking off and leaving early, unless that’s how you want them to return the favor to you.
Be a good collaborator to your friends as they promote and publicize their projects as well; show up to screenings, donate to crowdfunding campaigns and share their episodes on social media, because right above your Facebook message asking for them to share your series they will still be able to see where you ignored their request for help six months ago. Start acting like you’re a member of a community and hopefully you’ll find out that you actually are.
4. Take advantage of your friends—respectfully.
As you progress into mid-career projects, you’ll discover that the people you want to work with are still doing you a favor by showing up for $100 a day. Or $1,000 a day, for that matter. Hopefully they do it without ego or attitude, because they accepted the job and they believe in your project, but you have to accept that making good work on a micro-budget requires everyone to humble themselves a little.
Don’t let that stop you from asking for help, but make sure you treat everyone with respect and bend over backwards to make their experience on your set a good one. No, you can’t afford a trailer for the accomplished TV actress who is guest starring in your series, but you can make sure she has sides, a bottle of water, a private place to change and prepare and that you don’t call her five hours before her first scene. It’s the oldest, best advice, but make sure you feed people well, no matter how tight your budget is.
5. Don’t crowdfund until you’ve got a track record.
You’ve come up with a killer concept, you’ve assembled a great team for both production and post and you’ve built up a lot of good karma by volunteering your time and celebrating your friends’ work online. Now all you need is $50,000 from Kickstarter and you’ve got the green light, right?
Stop right there—if you haven’t shot the first season of your series, or at least a compelling pilot episode, you’re setting yourself up for an uphill battle. You’ve got to give away free samples at the grocery store if you want your campaign to spread outside of your social group, and even if you are just banking on the goodwill of friends and family, ask yourself who you would rather give your money to; someone who has taken the initiative and made the first steps towards realizing their vision, or someone who is asking you to invest in an unproven idea.
I know your vision will be better realized with $50,000—of course it will be—but what can you do with the resources you have available? Embrace the journey, and you’re much more likely to reach your destination. Hopefully, we’ll all look back together with wonder as to how we were able to shoot a project with only $50,000 someday. Or $500,000, for that matter. Or even—okay, don’t get greedy.
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.
READ MORE: 7 Things to Consider Before Launching Your Web Series