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Sunday, April 5, 2015

How I make content and why

Over the last 8 years I've done a lot of crazy things to try to get my series' seen on the web. Some have been successful, many, many more have been dismal failures. While I'm not proud of some of the lengths I've gone to get people to watch my shows that failed miserably, Wayne Gretzky said something that I carry with me every day:

"You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."

Another good quote to live by is something Woody Allen once said:

"90% of success is just showing up."

This blog is a bit of a doorway into how I've been able to build an audience for my many different series's and ways you can use to find an audience for your projects as well. Now Felicia Day covered a lot of this in her blog a while back, (http://feliciaday.com/blog/web-series-4-things-to-ask-yourself-before-starting,) but I've added some more details and wrinkles of my own.

What exactly DO I do?

Saying I am a filmmaker or a web series creator is fact but there's a lot more to it than that. I make B-Movie fare first and foremost. This is low budget, off beat, filling underserved niches, you name it. Low brow at times? Sure. Not overly mainstream? Yes. Offensive to some? Yep. That said, I am not the least bit sorry about that.


My influences are mostly fellow low budget filmmakers like Roger Corman, Lloyd Kaufman, Fred Olen Ray, Jim Wynorski, Chris Seaver, Henrique Couto, Godfrey Ho and Giuseppe Andrews. I also look up to DIY creators like Astron 6, James Rolfe and Brad Jones. (James and Brad being the Angry Video Game Nerd and The Cinema Snob in the web space.) they do things their own way, found an audience for what they do and love what they do. Most of my education has been watching their works.

The Process The process feels simple for me because I've been doing it this way for so long but I do add wrinkles here and there. Now understand, this is something I do with commercial realities in mind and the ability to make money. If you want to make something more artistic, that's cool but that's not what I involve in my process of creation.

1. Think of the kinds of things I want to see that are underrepresented in the web space: This is harder than it sounds. You definitely need to have your ear to the ground as to what is going on in the web space. I read Tubefilter, Web Series Today, and follow We Love Soaps and Indie Series Network on Twitter. I'm not an expert by any means but I do try to stay on top of things to see what everyone else out there is doing.

I have never been a fan of jumping on oversaturated bandwagons for the reason being that it is easy to get lost in the shuffle. There are so many "geek oriented" shows that it is very hard to stand out.

From there I ask myself, "of what is not being done right now, what kind of show makes me happy?" You really do need to have your heart in the project you are going to do or you won't put as much into it as you should. For instance, I grew up on screwball 80s comedies like Porky's, Up The Creek, Waitress, Joy Sticks, and flicks like Valley Girl, Weird Science and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. These and lesser known movies of the era like Heavenly Bodies were the seeds that sewed what would become Venus Spa.

2. Is There an Audience for This?
This is equally important. I did a LOT of research on this when developing Venus Spa even in the writing process. In this research I found that the most popular workout videos on Youtube were the sexed up Aerobicise videos. (The first and by far most overly sexual workout show in the 80s.) I added similar intros, (doing a feminine version of my voice like the one in the real show,) to the first season of Venus Spa. I also used similar sounding music that sounded less like workout video music and more like something you would play when in a hot tub full of girls. Why? I was goofing on Aerobicise. Now yes the show was indeed sexy but much of what I did was taken directly from this show.

Also during my research I found that Denise Austin, (workout video icon,) had a cult following for her incredibly silly comments during her workout shows and videos. Things like "SQUEEEEEEEZE your BUTTocks! If you don't nobody else will," have become meme material and her being completely oblivious to how suggestive many of her comments are, gave her a fanbase she never knew she had. I added a LOT of these silly lines into the workout sequences on Venus. Interestingly enough, fans of Austin came to our show too.

80s video games were also part of our draw as well because A. retro games are cool, B. there is an audience that loves them and C. Venus wasn't just sweaty girls in spandex. The original Atari addiction storyarc was designed with retro gamers in mind and indeed they found us. When I discovered this in my analytics I started participating in the discussion and our views went up and me and the show developed a level of street cred in the community.

3. What are you promising your potential audience? My primary influence is the B-Movie world. The B-Movie world by its very nature is a different business from mainstream Hollywood. We can't compete with the majors for production values, name stars or name directors. We have to grab people's eyes in other ways.

There were sexy shows on Youtube before but Venus Spa gave people something a little different, we appealed not only to guys looking for sexy women but had fond memories of the 1980s. I was 30 when I started the show and knew there were a LOT of guys in my age range or a little older who had fond memories of the 80s. (Big hair, tight jeans, leg warmers, Huey Lewis, the works.) So instead of a Baywatch clone I decided to do a period piece while using many of the hooks that made Baywatch work for as long as it did.

I knew that there are a lot of nostalgia videos on Youtube but none had sexy women in leotards. This level of titillation is important when you are looking to have hooks and don't have a lot of money to promote your show. My most successful web series promised sexy women and nostalgia. I delivered on both.

4. Script Writing Process: For me writing scripts is easy. I usually watch a movie similar to what I want to do for background noise and scribble ideas, names, story scenarios, character designs and what have you in a Hilroy notebook. I do this until I'm done streamlining it and THEN I write a script. This is my favourite part of the creative process and my home is filled with stacks of notebooks full of past projects, stuff I haven't gotten around to and stuff I will likely never actually do.

In the main writing process I used to make mini scripts with a beginning, middle and end for every episode of the show I was making. I did this with Camp Bloody Beach and the first season of Venus Spa. This is a good way to put your toe in the water when you are new to the web medium. As I got used to it, my writing style changed. By that point I had learned short form composition and knew what would be an open ended scene that would be the end of a given episode. This is the same thing in a way without the extra title pages but it is something I do because I'm used to writing short form for the web.

5. Write what you CAN do, NOT perfect world scenarios: Many of my scripts are open ended in terms of actors' wardrobe, the locations themselves and what not. This is because I have learned NOT to assume I can GET the locations that I want. Sometimes this is unavoidable but if you write your project correctly, you can work around location limitations. I don't usually have much money going into a project and write for worst case scenarios rather than perfect world scenarios. It allows you to adapt to potentially bad situations and I have had to do this several times over the years.

You have the rest of your life to make your dream project so if you don't have the means to do it, make something else that doesn't cost as much until you ARE able to make it. I waited 7 years to make a kung fu series and when a great choreographer was available to me as well as a great team that formed, I finally did it and feel that the experience has been well worth the wait.

But WHAT ABOUT THE STORY??? Now I know, some will, (and have in the past,) groan and say "what about the STORY?" You're right, the story or the oh so important "writing" isn't overly important to Venus Spa or Ninjas' success over the years. That said, in the B-Movie world, in my experience, the story isn't important there either. Story can be something that is discovered, but it isn't bringing people to projects like this.

In the low budget movie world, the most successful projects are genre projects. Genre projects can range from Actionsploitation, Blaxploitation, Horror, Sexploitation, Teensploitation, Screwball Comedy, Sci-Fi. In a genre production the GENRE itself is the star. Why? Because you often don't have a big name actor to topline it or a big name director and the people coming to see your project are fans of this genre and at least take a peek at what new stuff in the genre is out there. Based on this, you HAVE to deliver on what your genre calls for or else you will fail regardless of how good the "story" is. In horror the SCARE is the star, as well as the blood effects. If those suck, the script to Gone With the Wind couldn't save it because horror fans will walk away from it and not come back. In many cases you need the "3 B's" aka Blood, Boobs and Beasts, especially if you are making a horror series or movie. There are exceptions but sexual content is definitely a strong insurance policy when selling your project in this world.

With Ninjas I promised a sexy female lead and some kick ass kung fu action. There have been tight clothes and she had a bikini on in the first main episode but the biggest selling point has been the amazing action sequences. If the fight scenes stunk, the project would have been dead in the water because kung fu fans, (my main target audience) would have crapped on it and it would have failed.

Commercial Realities: The commercial realities of the web space dictate that lower budget projects stand a better chance of making money or at least breaking even. In my case I hire crew when I can afford it but often am a One Man Band doing all camera, lighting, props, craft services and sound duties. Is it crazy to take all of that on? Yes it is, but you do what you have to do if you can't afford to hire people. But sleeping less hours on a shooting day is better than looking at a script collecting dust that may never be made.

UNIONS: I don't hire ACTRA or IATSE. Not because I have a personal problem with them mind you, but because the economic realities of the business I am in dictate that I do. I pay as much as I can but the bottom line is people work with me to be seen so they can move up to larger projects that pay more. Roger Corman and Lloyd Kaufman are better known for the people who got their start working for them than any one movie they have ever made. Neither pay particularly "great" but everyone has to start somewhere. A LOT of Winnipeg actors get their first major parts, (as in large role in the plot and/or speaking parts,) working with me. Now most move on to bigger projects, (including one that moved to Toronto and is now on Degrassi,) but that is a reality I accept and have no hard feelings when they move on and up.

I also don't do mainstream fare like traditional sitcoms or romantic comedies or the likes. Not because I dislike them, hell I still love a good laugh track sitcom. Problem is people will hold you to the standards of broadcast TV when you try to ape them. In the industry I have also learned that romantic comedies or romcoms, don't work even in Hollywood without a big name actor/s/ or a name director. So I look to genre projects instead because there is a better chance to bringing fans of these genres to my productions. In the past I have made money from advertisers, (which will support a niche project if you have that audience cornered or if you have large overall viewcounts,) as well as Youtube money. While my projects don't have superior production values, they have built a strong niche fanbase and have turned a profit.

One good example of this is a place I have seen people fail way more often than not in the web series world: The Superhero Genre. In fandom, in my experience, most fans of comic books and superheroes tend to trust the big studios and the "Big 2" in the comic world. (DC and Marvel.) But indie superheroes don't tend to be successful very often. There are indeed exceptions, but the risks are much higher, even if you have a big budget to make those effects look great.

Shooting for the web: The web is an intimate viewing experience and it's own unique medium. You need to have this in mind if you are going to survive in the web space jungle. This doesn't just mean breaking the 4th wall, adding a "choose your own adventure" element or making a vlog. This means understanding that more and more people are watching content on smartphones, ipads and other small mobile devices. When your face is that close to the action, it is a much more intimate experience for the viewer and your visuals should reflect this.

For instance, using massive wide shots to flaunt huge production values don't work very well on a smart phone because everything looks like ants on a screen that small. You need to mix in more closeups and overall coverage to draw in your audience. Shots that are in your face and sometimes with jump cuts work very effectively with this kind of viewing experience. I do this a lot with Ninjas and many of the shots in the fight scenes use a fast editing style with the impact shots in your face or as I call it, "money shots that break your ribs" because I bring the audience so close to the action that they can feel it. This doesn't work as effectively on the big screen but on a smaller screen that the viewer watches very close to their face, it heightens the experience. And now for some advice when you are ready to release your show:

Youtube is NOT the Big Bad Wolf I have read some pretty nasty things said about Youtube and the people who have become top stars on Youtube. I think the biggest thing holding web series creators back is the snap dismissal of all things Youtube without taking a long, hard look at WHY the Shane Dawson's, the Freddie Wong's and Charles Trippy's of the world are so popular. Watching and studying the big names and the types of videos that become viral hits is actually a good thing. While many popular Youtube videos were a stroke of luck, the lasting success of Freddie, the Fine Brothers and Michael Buckley is not. They created a type of content that resonated with viewers and/or tapped into an existing fanbase, (Chad Vader in particular.) They carved a niche for themselves and busted their asses to get people to watch their shows in that target audience.

The first thing they tell you in film school is to "watch the greats and study their works." The same is true with Youtube. If you aren't willing to sit down and look at the top stars' works and methods, you holding yourself back by tying one arm behind your back.

Now you're probably wondering, "yeah that's great and all but how does that help ME?" It comes down to looking at what is popular not only when it comes to the star Youtubers but also what kind of videos get large numbers of views. For all the hate people throw at the so-called "cat videos" I am yet to see a scripted web series aimed at cat or dog lovers. If cat videos are so popular, (and the numbers don't lie, pet videos are very popular on Youtube,) why hasn't someone tapped into this niche yet? They do this in the TV world all the time. Take something that is either a hot topic in the press or something that is becoming really popular and build a show around it. (See what happened when Dallas brought the prime time soap back.) You can do the same thing with various niches on the web.

Venus Spa was created when I saw a massive amount of sexy workout videos getting amazing amounts of views, but no scripted web series's built around this concept. As someone who grew up in the 80's it showed me that an entire series based on girls you might have seen in said videos could work. This niche of classic 80s workout videos and fans of the Eric Prydz "Call on Me" video was the foundation on which Venus was originally built. Another thing I saw was the popularity of retro game reviewers like the Angry Video Game Nerd and the Irate Gamer. I realized that nobody was making scripted shows with retro gaming in them other than reviewers. (Since the first season of Venus Spa there have been a lot of great NES game parodies that look even better than the NES games they parodied. This also proved that you can learn from the AVGN just as much as you can learn from Felicia Day.) This allowed us to expand upon the sexy workout/spandex fans that we already had.

You're Running for Office Even if Nobody Nominated You! I usually compare promoting a web series to a political campaign and the similarities are eerie. You have to knock on a lot of doors, shake a lot of hands and kiss a lot of babies, (figuratively of course,) if you want to get your name out there to the voters. The same is true in the virtual realm.

Typically I will go looking for content on the web that is either similar to my content or attracts the same target audience as my stuff. Then I will make as many friends among creators in the genre as I possibly can and invite them to check out my stuff as well. Then I do the same with commenters on said videos because if they like those videos, they will probably enjoy my show as well. It's all about starting conversations and joining communities. Yes, they DO exist on Youtube, you just have to find them and WANT to take part.

Time Management It is said that "your time is worth money" but if you don't take the TIME to build your audience, you won't make the MONEY for your show. And YES, you DO have to work for it, even the people who got "lucky" had to work to maintain it or they lost it fast. (See Boxxy's initial rise and fall for a reference.) There is no TV Guide in our space and folks, that is a GOOD thing. The playing field is level but the downside, (if you don't have a strong attachment to your work,) is that by coming into this space you signed up for long hours pushing the show and interacting with people. You do have to ask yourself if this is really what you want. If the answer is yes, roll your sleeves up and throw "personal time value" out the window because it's not a job, it is a lifestyle in many ways.

But one thing I have learned is that once you have a rhythm in terms of your social media and other promotional patterns, the 20 hours it took to get 10-20,000 views will be cut in half when you see what succeeded and what failed. You work insanely hard to start and after a while you have enough results to know how to work smarter.

I hope this article helps you along your way. There are plenty of ways to make a web series and this is just the things that have worked for me. Remember, LOVE what you do first and foremost!

1 comment:

  1. A lot of great points here. Many could be a discussion all on their own so we are very lucky to have them all in one place. Thanks for the post!!!!



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