Hey, Kids, Let’s Put on a Show!

A friend of mine is leaping into the web series fray and wanted my advice, since I’d been a writer/producer on the series Faux Baby.  During an hour and a half of coffee-sipping, we went over details ranging from casting to cameras to distribution tips.  And you know what?  None of that really matters.  The single most important piece of advice I could give her had nothing to do with production values, and it had to be said now, before the script was even written:

Why do you want to produce a web series?

Now, I could say it with genuine exhaustion in my voice, since that’s how I remember the whirlwind three months leading up to Faux Baby, but I really don’t mean it in a snarky way.  Your personal reason for creating a web series needs to be your driving force, because the type of show – length, tone, genre – depend upon what you want to get out of the experience.  Here’s what I mean: 

Reason #1: You want to do something creative and fun, and the web is a relatively cheap way to produce and distribute.  This is the Wild West of filmmaking.  Grab your friends, a camera, and put your passion project on your YouTube channel.  Note that you expect nothing to happen from this series, career-wise.  This is not to say that nothing will happen – passion is addictive and engaging, and someone with money and power might see it and hand you a sitcom (see: $#*! My Dad Says for proof positive that the weirdest things can net you a TV series) but most likely your reward will be the fun of doing it. 

Personally, I think this is a fantastic reason to do a series, because it’s all about you and your friends and the experience itself, and you have complete creative freedom.  But be honest with yourself, because most people, in their hearts, also want their shows to lead to something bigger.

Reason #2: You need a professional calling card.  In this case, you want to design something with production values in mind.  What can you shoot well?  Do you have a “set” – apartment, coffee shop, bowling alley – available to you for several hours at a time that you can dress and light properly?  How can it look expensive without being expensive?  Your show and your scripts will depend upon your resources.  It doesn’t matter if you love dinosaurs and ninjas, unless you have special effects wizards and a dozen black belts at your beck and call – and a way to capture their magic on camera. 

In terms of your script, the story needs to be compelling, but it doesn’t have to be any particular genre.  You can still do something “artistic,” a passion project, within the confines of needing to pull off the best possible production values.

Reason #3: You want people to get hooked and watch your show online addictively, allowing you to sell ad space, become a YouTube partner, and make actual money from your project.  Production values, weirdly, matter less here, but the script is critical.  The show’s design needs to be: A) Short.  People won’t watch more than three minutes, especially if they’re watching on their phone or tablet.  B) Funny.  Funny gets shared, re-watched, subscribed-to.  Make ’em laugh.  C) Repeatable.  You need a lot of short episodes to feed the beast.  People will start to depend on regular uploads of new material, and if you disappoint them, you lose them.  So this isn’t about what you can shoot well or prettily, it’s about what you can shoot weekly – or even daily.

We did not know any of this when we set out to make Faux Baby.  We thought we were going for Reason #3, really it was Reason #1, and then, luckily for us, our production values turned it into Reason #2.  It’s been a useful calling card, but as a series, it never made back its production costs.  So learn from our scrambling: knowing what you’re getting into before you start shooting a web series is a good idea, but knowing why can vastly increase your chances of success.