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We interviewed Miles Beckett and Greg Goodfried, the creators of Lonelygirl15 and Kate Modern, for the September/October 2008 issue of Script Magazine. Their new media production company EQAL recently landed $5 million in financing and a big contract with CBS.
LonelyGirl15 Creators Not So Lonely Anymore
Miles Beckett and Greg Goodfried Have Built Their DIY Web Series into a Million-Dollar Online Production Company
By Robert Gustafson and Alec McNayr
On an otherwise average Tuesday morning in September 2006, Greg Goodfried made an ominous move. An associate lawyer at Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, he walked into his boss’ office and shut the door behind him. He informed his boss that the following day he would be featured in both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times as one of the masterminds behind the popular YouTube video blogger known simply as “LonelyGirl15.” The articles, he explained, would confirm suspicions that the confessional-style videos were actually part of a fictional series created by he and co-creator Miles Beckett.
Lucky for Goodfried, his boss had actually heard of the Internet sensation and offered him a six-month sabbatical to finish the series, after which he could return to the firm. He never went back. Instead, he and Beckett turned their experience creating LonelyGirl15, now viewed over 100 million times, into an online production company called EQAL. In May 2008—just two years after uploading their first video—EQAL announced a $5 million round of venture capital financing.
We sat down with Goodfried and Beckett less than two weeks after moving into EQAL’s new offices in Sherman Oaks, California.
Doing It Themselves
Similar to Goodfried, writer-director Miles Beckett stepped away from a promising career to venture into online entertainment. Through fresh out of medical school, it was Beckett who originally conceived the idea of a girl on YouTube communicating via a video blog.
“He pitched me the idea,” recalls Goodfried about LonelyGirl15, “She would be an active part of the [online] community, and over a few months we’d start trickling in information: that she’s home-schooled, that her parents are in a cult, and that she’s being prepared for a ceremony. Then, after three months, she‘ll run away and you won’t be sure if she made it or not and we’ll be on the covers of magazines. And I was like, ‘that’s the best f-ing idea I’ve ever heard, let’s go do this thing.’”
They didn’t, however, intend the Web series to take center stage. “Originally, LonelyGirl15 was going to be a prequel,” adds Beckett, “We planned to shoot an independent feature film simultaneous to filming the online series and sell it to a DVD distributor or something.”
Unfortunately, they underestimated just how much effort launching LonelyGirl15 would take. “Just producing an online show is the most overwhelming experience anyone could go through,” says Beckett.
The duo spent a month prior to launching the first episode setting up YouTube and MySpace profiles for Bree, the namesake character of LonelyGirl15. In that time, “Bree” established a real relationship with the online community, so when “she” uploaded her first video, it had a built-in audience.
To build the mystique of the show, Beckett and Goodfried also created a fan Web site run by a fictional and nameless “superfan.” The site stirred conversation and offered a look into the mania the duo hoped to incite. “The idea was that a group of [real-life] fans— along with the [fictional] characters—were going to search for the missing girl,” Beckett says.
By the sixth video—just two and a half weeks into their venture—a LonelyGirl15 video received 500,000 views. Goodfried and Beckett decided to give up their feature film ambitions and focus their efforts on the online series.
The Show is Everywhere
EQAL’s tagline is ”The show is everywhere,” which represents Beckett and Goodfried’s view on the difference between online media and television. “It’s about breaking the fourth wall,” says Beckett, “All good writing is suspension of disbelief, and in TV, you suspend it within the walls of that television screen. It doesn’t extend into your living room. For an Internet show, it’s everywhere. The reality extends into your bedroom, into the real world, and onto other Web sites.” Adds Goodfried, “If you want to take Sex and the City and adapt it from a TV show into a movie, you wouldn’t string four episodes together and put it on a big screen: you would write a three-act structure and shoot it differently.”
Goodfried lists interactivity as the most important characteristic of any Web series: “An online show has three core pieces; the top layer is some type of daily or weekly consistent online content. Then there must be a community-based Web site where the hardcore fans can gather [and participate in] chat rooms, forums, and social networking. The third layer is then some sort of interaction between that community and content. It could be as minimal as American Idol fans texting in their votes, or as extreme as LonelyGirl15, where we might give out ‘secret coordinates,’ and, using them, the viewer can actually go to Central Park, dig up a flash drive, make a video of themselves, and upload it. Then the fan is in the storyline itself.”
To leverage Web interactivity into a story-based experience, the team had to think about all levels of online communication. “We think about [MySpace] profile pages, chats, messaging, and live video streaming like a feature film director would think about camera angles and set design,” says Beckett.
The LonelyGirl15 experience extends past the confessional-style episodic videos. “Each character has their own profile page and can submit their own videos,” says Goodfried. “It’s as if these are two [real] kids. This could actually happen,” adds Beckett, “And there were repercussions of each one uploading a video.”
The series, therefore, is subject to the rules inherent in someone broadcasting their life and thoughts online. LonelyGirl15 is, by its nature, interactive in a way that could never be done on TV. Says Beckett, ”The hardest thing is to be able to think in a linear narrative, but then take that linear narrative and explode it outside the walls of everything.”
Restructuring The Definition of a Series
“Since our initial concept was a feature film, it had a three act structure. It was two or three pages with major beats, inciting incidents, and so forth,” says Beckett.
But as LonelyGirl15 became an online-only experience, the team had to rethink their definition of a series. “The pace online is much faster than TV,” says Beckett, “Every week on the show, something dramatic happens, and then the next week again, and then again and again. You literally burn through plot.”
Goodfried continues the questioning of the status quo: “What is ‘an episode?’ Well, we make videos five days a week: on Monday, we introduce the conflict. By the middle of the week there is heightened dramatic tension, and then by Friday, there is resolution and a cliffhanger. So there are beats each week that fans can get excited about and talk about.”
Just because the show is interactive doesn’t mean that there’s no writing involved. “It’s all scripted. One hundred percent,” admits Beckett, ”As we’ve expanded the team to include a director who isn’t writing and an editor who isn’t directing, we’ve found we have to be even tighter on the script.”
The experience of writing LG15 for almost two years sharpened their skills. “I had written a few screenplays for fun, and also wrote a few articles for my college’s humor magazine, but doing an online show where I literally I had to break story every week made me a much better writer. It’s like writing boot camp!” says Beckett with a chuckle.
You Don’t Have To Do It Alone
“Over the past couple of years, there really haven’t been that many shows online that have achieved really, really big viewership. I don’t thinks it’s due to a lack of creativity or talent; I think it’s a lack of a company like ours,” says Beckett.
“Sure, you can do it by yourself,” explains Goodfried, “Put something together, get something out there, and maybe it gets popular, but to make an online show into an actual business where you can quit your day job, you need something else.” Beckett inserts, ”The bottom line is you’re not going to get anywhere unless you collaborate.”
“We wanted to do more interactive shows, and we knew we would need financing, ad sales, legal, accounting, and someone to build our website and run it,” says Beckett, “But there was nobody who could offer that. Some people offered pieces, but nobody offered the whole solution.”
With the formation of EQAL, Beckett and Goodfried now have the resources to build large-scale interactive Web series. They recently signed with CBS to help the network expand the online experience of their flagship TV shows. But as they reflect on starting a simple Web series, they admit that the basics of storytelling are what really matter.
“Honestly, we were lucky that we did [LonelyGirl15] when we did it. We hit at the same time as YouTube, and that’s a hard thing to replicate, but we’re a perfect example of not needing the ‘right’ equipment to do the job. I didn’t have a Mac or Final Draft, because we didn’t have enough money to pay for it,” admits Beckett. “We shot with a Logitech Webcam plugged into a laptop,” follows Goodfried, “We had no lights, just a desk lamp and a window.”
Beckett summarizes, “the truth is you don’t need it. You just need a good story, and in this case, something that will work in the medium.”
If two guys with a Webcam can turn a story into a multi-million dollar, industry-changing production company, what can you do with the tools you have at your disposal?