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[This article originally appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Script Magazine.]
What’s Selling Online?
As online entertainment matures into a viable business, is it worthwhile to sell your web series concepts to the new crop of online studios?
By Robert Gustafson and Alec McNayr
For two years, online video entertainment has been an industry on the verge of something big. As a showcase for entrepreneurial talent who haven’t quite arrived, it is an artistic platform akin to independent film festivals: just short of the mainstream. It’s exciting and groundbreaking, but certainly not lucrative.
Innovative filmmakers and writers created “web series” before such a thing existed. In the “wild west” landscape of online video, it took guts, grit, and luck to stand out. But ultimately, standing out online meant being a “big fish in a small pond” when compared to traditional movies and television.
However, the online media industry has just recently moved out of its infancy, signified by “big media” companies arriving on the scene. They want to take advantage of the fact that nearly half of Americans have smartphones, and that even phones like the T-Mobile simple phone can stream video from the internet now. Their plan is to leverage their access to talent, advertisers, and audiences to successfully compete with small independent creators and user-generated clips. In the past few months:
- New online divisions of television studios have sprung up, like Warner Bros. 2.0, ABC’s Stage 9 Digital, and Sony’s Crackle.
- CBS recently hired the creators of online hits Lonelygirl15 and Kate Modern to create web content for their popular TV shows.
- NBC unveiled an unprecedented three Web series during their Fall 2008 Upfronts.
- The Webby Awards (the “Oscars of the Web”), once awarded to independently-created eclectic fare, are now annually dominated by networks like NBC, HBO, CBS, and MTV.
- And finally, all the biggest talent agencies in Hollywood now all have “online divisions.”
As “big media” descends upon online video, so have the processes normally associated with the entertainment business: pitching and selling. New online studios may offer creators financing, development, and marketing resources much like traditional studios in the past, but they still come at a price: ownership and control.
We asked online experts from both sides of the pitching table to share their thoughts on this new market for online content. We asked them what’s selling, what aspiring creators can do to better their shot, and whether or not selling your ideas is even worth it.
What Are Buyers Looking For?
At the forefront of Web series development is 60 Frames, an online-only studio influenced by the traditional Hollywood business model: Beverly Hills offices, executives from the agency world, and an aggressive plan to launch 50 original series in 2008. Jessica Connell, a 60 Frames development executive, states, “When we are considering a project, we ask ourselves, ‘if we put our financial resources in the hands of these artists, are they going to deliver great work?’” For that reason, some of the studio’s short-form comedies and dramas feature recognizable actors, writers, and producers from network television (some, but not all, mind you).
Connell continues to list her criteria for buying a pitched show concept: “Is it custom-built for the Internet? Does [the show] fit into our budgetary parameters?” Revenue possibilities are also a key decision-making focus. She states, “since internet programming is traditionally advertising-supported, what are the advertising opportunities surrounding and inherent in this pitch? All of these are very important issues.”
Video aggregator blip.tv doesn’t buy creative concepts outright, but co-founder and COO Dina Kaplan has noticed a trend in the video series posted to her site: “Comedy seemed to be huge in 2007, but we are [now] seeing some really creative and interesting dramas, such as Heathens, Drawn By Pain, and Meet Me at the Graveyard.” But whether pitching a comedy or drama, the produce-ability of a script is essential: “Web shows are not earning as much as TV shows right now, so if you can keep the costs of production down, that will be a big benefit to the distributor who [finances] the show. Write for four actors instead of twenty. That’s going to keep your show a lot more manageable.”
JibJab has been featuring video content online since 1999, both producing its own creations and commissioning projects from outside talent. The site’s co-founder and “Head Art Guy” Evan Spiridellis uses one simple measure when considering a pitched concept: “Does it makes us laugh? We never try to pander to our audience by guessing what they might like. The simple truth is that we make stuff that makes us laugh with the hope that if we find it funny, our audience will too.”
Pitching From the Trenches
From her view at 60 Frames, Connell sees a newly forming online hierarchy of talent. “Just like film and TV have their ‘A-list’ writers, a group of writers will naturally emerge [online] and take a leadership position. And as more artists get comfortable with the platform and the economics, the content will naturally get better and better.”
Two early entrants into that online talent pool are Kent Nichols, co-creator of Ask A Ninja, and Chris McCaleb from Big Fantastic, the production company behind online series Sam Has 7 Friends, Prom Queen, and (60 Frames-backed) Cockpit. Both are excited about the prospect of a growing online entertainment industry, but have very different views of selling concepts to online development studios.
Nichols, whose independently-produced Ninja series gained a large audience through viral marketing, fears the cost of working with an online studio isn’t worth the fee a creator can expect to receive. “The problem is that all of the online [studios] are trying to buy everything for too little. [The payout] may sound attractive on its face, but is in reality the total production budget, with just a small fraction coming back to you.”
Indeed, producing a series with an online development studio can net the creator a few thousand dollars, but cost a percentage (or all) of their intellectual property ownership. This may mean a loss of participation in future profits, a loss of creative control, or even being prohibited from getting to produce the series itself. For some people, signing away their rights for a small fee may be a good trade-off to get their “foot in the door.”
When Sam Has 7 Friends launched in 2006, McCaleb and his team could have never guessed it would lead to a pitch meeting with Michael Eisner-backed online studio Vuguru. “We [financed the show ourselves] because the Internet provided a direct link to the holy grail of any filmmaker: the audience.” Yet, with limited resources to create another series, his company pitched and sold Prom Queen to Vuguru, which then provided a production budget, a distribution deal with MySpace, and access to advertising that, in the end, made the series profitable.
McCaleb could not comment on his company’s participation in Prom Queen’s profits, but they have benefitted from additional work: the Big Fantastic team recently wrapped shooting another Vuguru-backed web series—this time, on location in India. In addition to focusing on longer-term revenues gained by full ownership (the group does maintain an ongoing stake in their 60 Frames-backed comedy series Cockpit), the promise of continual work seems to fit Big Fantastic’s goals: “While we are very interested in how to monetize Internet entertainment, our primary interest is in pushing the medium to tell new and exciting stories.”
Nichols also seems to have gotten the best of both worlds. Ninja remains a profitable media entity, and he was recently chosen to write and direct his first feature film, a remake of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Even with a foray into traditional entertainment, he remains focused on becoming an “A-list” online creator: “I think more companies will either start paying a lot better to compete for scarce talent, or they will offer limited licensing agreements [that allow the creator to keep more ownership of the content].”
Keep Moving Forward
The Web is growing into its own unique medium, providing storytellers new tools and tactics for creating compelling content, completely separate from television or movies. McCaleb warns, “Don’t break up feature films or busted pilots and dump them on the Internet. Tell an organic story that yearns to be online, that could only exist online. Look for new ways to tell your stories, especially opportunities for your audience to interact.”
Today’s new online studios are banking on finding the new voices and distinctive ideas that will establish new standards of online success. JibJab’s Spiridellis further explains, “A definite set of rules will emerge. It happened with film at the turn of the century, and again with television in the 50’s and 60’s and I have no doubt that it will happen with the Web as well. But the best thing about rules is that they are always there to be broken!”
Even in this undefined era, many of the tenets of traditional entertainment still ring true. 60 Frames’ Connell states, “Even though we are working in 2-5 minute webisodes, it all comes down to the quality of the writing, direction and performances.” It is also still imperative to continue to stand out from the crowd. According to Kaplan, “As we see the networks put more money into Web shows, it will raise the bar higher for independent producers creating online content.” Nichols agrees: “Write to your resources, have a very strong take on whatever your concept, and be different. You have to stand out from a sea of other online folks, as well as shows like 30 Rock and Lost.”
No matter your final destination—to pitch or produce—writing the story is where it begins. McCaleb confirms this: “Whether it’s television, the Internet, or a holographic box implanted in your eyes, everyone’s still looking for a great story.” No gimmick, personal connection, studio backing, or online tool can replace the hard work necessary to writing a great story. Take it from Spiridellis: “Don’t sit around and wait for anybody! If you’re a writer, then write until your knuckles bleed.”
If your stories are good, there’s finally an opportunity to sell your online scripts and buy some gauze for those bloody knuckles.