The year 2012 witnessed the arrival of a little original comedy series called “Glitch.” The six-episode season was about a game tester going through a quarter-life existential crisis that manifested as video game glitches infecting his reality. Saying you probably haven’t heard of it isn’t a hipster thing: It was originally made for [corporation redacted], but got the ax midway through production because of the company’s unrelated extracurricular budgetary cuts and some other nonsense.
Still, “Glitch” was completed and aired. It started on a website defunct in 2015, and accrued a now unprovable view-count that doesn’t seem possible — it was nominated for an IAWTV Award, found its way onto YouTube and DVD, but otherwise never really caught on. I consider the show, largely speaking, to be an artistic success, but it was definitely a commercial failure. Here’s what my show taught me about what’s difficult about making an independent series.
The signal-to-noise ratio has become insane
I conceived of “Glitch” during a pitch meeting in 2011, but it didn’t come out until 2012. In that time, the several dozen independent series that might have existed had ballooned into hundreds, and for every show with narrative and an attempt at doing it right, there were sixty shows done with a webcam or an iPhone and just chucked out into the ether. When it’s all considered one medium, I can’t even say something like “With a good enough premise, or if you make a quality enough show, you’ll rise above the noise.” Diamonds are hard to find on a hardwood floor when some other folks have come along and dumped three hundred pounds of glass shards everywhere. Which is why:
Make a marketing budget before you do anything else
Without money to throw at marketing, you will sink. We learned this lesson the hard way: At first we were promised a spot on [the legally unnamable corporate entity]’s primary game distribution platform. That was going to take care of our marketing for us! Wanting the best show possible, therefore, we threw every dollar we had (only a few shmeckles to begin with) at trying to make the best show possible. And the advice here is: Don’t do that.
Another site approached us, one that was trying to be a new “TV for the internet!” one-stop destination. A similar deal was struck: We would finish the production and they would supply the marketing, outreach, etc. But I made the mistake of believing that would work out, and when they turned out to be carpetbaggers (their contract stated they’d own any artistic work anyone who worked on the show created, regardless of medium, for five years, and they were paying us less than a thousand bucks, it was beyond insulting) we had to walk away from that table. So when the show finally came out, it mostly just laid there, slowly deflating like a flan in a cupboard. You can make the best show on Earth and nobody will watch it unless they know it exists. You absolutely have to budget for professional and creative marketing. Because:
Counting on shares is death
This one blindsided me. People don’t share anything that requires more commitment than an image. Our most shared Facebook post is a picture of the Swedish Chef parody of “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” For long-form content, getting people to go on Facebook and blast “Here, fellow friends, stop what you’re doing and spend twenty minutes watching a thing I like, who cares about what’s going on with your day!” and have the reaction be “You betcha, let’s do that!” is a tad unreasonable. Fans of our show that bother us about making more of the show don’t even share it. A web original series will be just like a network series: You’re going to hear about it a few times and check it out when you’re bored. Very few people share, fewer advocate, and fewer still will hear those that do and care enough at that moment to remember. You have to get your show out there another way. Especially since:
There’s no good platform yet
Here’s another thing: Indie film arose as a reaction to the Hollywood establishment. But this time, while the Internet existed as a new alternative medium, indie folks and Hollywood/networks figured that out at about the same time. So they ended up competing really for the first time, and man did the establishment win. What’s an indie series now? It’s Netflix. It’s Hulu. It’s not a clever little show that tries to do something different on a minimal budget and appeal to a more selective audience, it’s Kevin Spacey in a political thriller. It’s a $10 million budget lesbian prison romp. It’s putting shows that were on cable or networks online to give them life support. Everyone knows this is the new direction the medium is going to go. And that’s great! Except for the fact that the little guy is being squeezed out.
The real problem is there isn’t a place that exists as an alternative. A few places have tried and failed. YouTube Red is the latest experiment, but (and I’m not even knocking him, he’s doing very well for himself and goodonya mate) any narrative show that is going to sit next to Pewdiepie in the queue is not what we need.
Indie series should aspire to be as worth watching as anything that has a higher budget. You don’t need a billion dollars to make people laugh or to tell a good story. But try to get through most series on the web and you just can’t. And there exists no one destination center that, when you arrive, you know you’re presented with curated indie content that promises a certain level of quality. And so when, in your busy life, the onus is placed on you to go hunt-and-gather your way into the few diamonds in all that glass, you just won’t, and you shouldn’t be judged for that. Moreover, without a curated destination like that, shows seem to be unable to get past the first hurdle anyway, which is:
People don’t judge you based on pilots…except for indie series
Almost every television show that’s ever existed has a pilot that’s subpar in comparison to the rest of the series. Hell, you can say that about a lot of shows’ entire first seasons. And people seem to say, “Well, I won’t judge it based on the pilot alone” before they make any other comments on something new. Until you get to indie series, and then the pilot is all the internet to judge the whole thing and move away from the salted earth they’ve made. For all of my show’s faults, I stand by the quality of the rest of Season 1, but the pilot was a proof-of-concept. Originally we were supposed to have enough of a budget from [corporation redacted] after filming the rest of the season to go back and have a do-over on the pilot, but it never happened. And the first episode feels like a proof-of-concept: Different (worse) cameras, unprepared actors, a style that was still finding its footing, a zero-dollar budget. People who watched the entire show largely stated they liked “Glitch” a billion times better once they got to the ending. But our poor bedraggled pilot was enough of an entry barrier that most didn’t keep with it.
People like things that feel complete, perfect, and already familiar. Which brings us to:
A surprising problem inside Remix Culture
To say we live in a Remix Culture is putting it mildly: All of the major movies these days are sequels, sequels to sequels, sequels to sequels to sequels, prequels, or adaptations of pre-existing franchises. “Glitch” is a love letter to that culture, really, but the premise of the show was fairly unique (and in this context, that’s not a compliment).
When I look at the indie series that have done well, I find that they are all based on something. “The Guild” is literally based on “World of Warcraft.” It’s extremely common to have series based on roleplaying groups in “D&D” (or a cipher for it). “Red vs. Blue” is “Halo.” “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” is based on “Pride and Prejudice” and stands at the pinnacle of a movement to adapt classical novels as web series.
No complaints here, if anything I realize the mistake we made in not doing this. Here’s why: Where do you tell people about a show like “Glitch”? Really, there’s nowhere to do it. “The Guild” was shared on “WoW” community boards. “Red vs. Blue” was shared on Halo forums. There are places online to share those shows because people are already nerding out about the property you are respectfully pilfering from.
We just have this sort of built into us. It’s why we are so quick to be Coke versus Pepsi, this versus that. Way back in the deep corners of our brain where we invented gods and wanted everything to mean something, we developed a predilection for it. We love names. It would be one thing if sports fans had their one team and they rooted for them above all others: but they don’t, they have a favorite for each sport. And on top of that, they’ll watch games their teams aren’t in to root against someone they dislike. Because names have power. This deep-seeded instinct is what makes people go to crappy sequels and defend them, but it’s also the thing that makes me go to crappy remakes just to hate on them. So for all of the references and fun callbacks to every property imaginable, “Glitch” suffered because “quarter-life existential crisis represented by game glitches” isn’t a thing people have heard before, and as of 2015 we still like our new things to be bite-sized and familiar.
I’d say keep this in mind for your next concept, because it might make the difference in your fundraising endeavors, but:
Kickstarter is broken for film
Crowdfunding was a great idea and it still is for a lot of things, but it is broken for film and TV. In part, it’s because all of the early Kickstarters were selfish jerks who didn’t understand the word “kickstart.” You were supposed to get seed money, make something sustainable with it, thanks fans! But instead, filmmakers saw it as the Bank of Free Internet Money and once their second, third, fourth projects were also Kickstarters, people started growing suspicious. Kickstarter is over-saturated, filled with failures and disappointments, and now almost nothing gets funded.
Kickstarter should have been away for independent productions to get started. Instead, a selfish and shortsighted faction of Hollywood fled to Kickstarter and used their fame and influence to milk the community dry because, while they had access to that establishment money they couldn’t get it right then and it’s not fair and I want to do it NOW, so Zach Braff got a couple million dollars to make another story about how amazingly cool he is, and probably fifty potentially different and compelling shows never got their nut. It’s worse when a big ticket property’s creator gets impatient with the system that made them/the show successful, runs a Kickstarter and brings us a “movie” like “Veronica Mars” that mostly just lays there flopping about like a half-dead mermaid on too much ketamine.
Just as a platform for curated content will hopefully emerge, there may be a crowdsourcing alternative (and a few are trying, such as Patreon — if crowdfunding has a future I’m sure it’ll be something more like that). Don’t assume you’re going to get your show because of a hard-worked Kickstarter campaign. And this makes the next bit even more difficult, because:
You need to actually make a budget
The Kickstarter we did run (and even that I sincerely don’t know if we could do again, now that Kickstarter seems broken) was basically food and gas money. The show we were doing needed a budget, and not having one caused problems. One of our primary producers ended up being one of those guys who says things like “It’ll work out,” and then, when everyone else murders themselves to somehow make it happen despite all of his dropped balls, says, “See, I told you it would work out!” (brb screaming into a pillow.) He said he would assistant direct and didn’t, meaning that I had to, and the director also being the AD is like Commander Adama and Colonel Tigh from “Battlestar Galactica” being the same person (trying to be an art-minded patience funnel for other people’s talents, while screaming at everybody to be punctual, made the entire production more problematic than it should have been by a Kentucky mile).
There were actors (working on “deferred pay”) that were prima donnas (some of them thought “Glitch“ was going to make them famous, others were just prickly) and caused drama. Some of the crew didn’t try all that hard. When your budget is zero everyone is donating their time, so there’s nothing to incentivize them. This’ll render a subpar product compared to the exact same version of your show with just enough money to pay people on the days they showed up.
You also need to make sure that you have enough of a budget to rent the right kind of lens for a certain shot, to have a costume that doesn’t look like it was purchased at Target on the first of November, and to generally make sure you don’t look like you shot on a webcam. And that’s because:
Indie doesn’t have to mean crappy
Despite everything above, this is still my takeaway. Indie film and indie series have a place and a purpose in this world, and as the networks struggle in the old paradigm and refuse to change, we have a better and better shot at changing the model. But it’s only going to happen if we make a good product.
“Glitch” looked the way it did because we didn’t have the money to make it look better, but at least it didn’t look lazy or incompetent. Indie series are never going to be able to compete with million-dollar budgets, so don’t even try. However, my city’s film scene seems to mistake completion for accomplishment. Just making the thing isn’t good enough. “Find something you love and do it until it kills you,” you know? (In my case it’s fairly literal, but how I actually nearly died making this show I’ll save for another time.)
Budget for reshoots. If something doesn’t look good enough, redo it. Budget late night shoots. Budget thirty minutes of filming for every minute you want to end up on the screen. Don’t wing anything. Even if you have such a small budget you don’t pay yourself, treat it like a job. Because it is and has to be if you want to keep making things.
The thing is, none of this feels negative to me. In fact, while most of this discussion is about external factors ultimately I consider the responsibility of “Glitch’s” failure to rest squarely and solely on my shoulders. I am not, however, defeatist. I am supremely optimistic about my next endeavor because I have learned all of these lessons and now, I know how to create a better product. I can also say this to all of you: If you have talent and a vision, you can do this. You just have to do it right. So don’t read this as defeatist. Independent series might be the future. If we can figure out the right way to monetize, shows with less than a tenth of network scale can be just as entertaining and also speak directly to fanbases. But it’s up to us to prove we’re a viable option. It’s supposed to be hard. So I stumbled on this project, so what? I’m now more sure we can do it than ever.
Tyler J Hill is a writer of books, blogs and signatures. His most recent book, “Men of Blood,” can be found on Amazon. He currently blogs for Big Fish Games and has lent his voice to local podcasts Clinically Inane, Two Bards One Mic and Surfing Aliens. In addition to his contributions on the page, he is the writer/director of the comedy series “Glitch.”