Beyond the Vlog - The Business of the Web Series

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Fri, 10/09/2015 - 23:47

As broadcast and cable television series have proliferated we’ve seen a massive growth in the dramatic web series.

One of the panels at VIFF Industry on Friday focused on two very different web series in terms of style and content: Carmilla is a contemporary vlog style adaptation of a 19th century Gothic vampire novella about a young woman preyed upon by a lesbian vampire.

Producer Steph Ouaknine, of Smoke Bomb Entertainment, was inspired by the success of The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, which took Jane Austen’s literary classic Pride and Prejudice and gave it a contemporary spin for the YouTube generation.

Both are rudimentary in terms of production values, but have still managed to amass millions upon millions of views.

Carmilla comprises of 36 scripted episodes, each of a few minutes. In classic YouTube vlog fashion the camera is locked off in one position. So the action doesn’t move out of the protagonist’s dorm room.

In contrast Hannah Cheesman and Julian De Zotti’s Whatever, Linda is a Seventies set, ponzi-scheme dramedy that would pass for traditional television in its look and feel, if it wasn’t for the fact that each of its 10 episodes are only 4 or 5 minutes long.

Funding a Web Series

Both the shows, and moderator S. Siobhan McCarthy’s Vancouver shot comedy Parked, were part funded by the Independent Production Fund (which was sponsor for the panel).

The panelists talked a bit about the funding application process being “rigorous” but helpful in honing the project. Additional funding came from provincial public funding sources, crowdfunding campaigns, and Carmilla partnered with tampon brand U by Kotex.

Ouakine seemed more than happy with the branded content format explaining that the brand owners had allowed the show creative freedom and the advertising element had been relatively subtle within the series - more product placement than anything. She said the brand managers recognised that blatant advertising within the series itself would be counterproductive (“Noone’s tweeting about the next commercial,” said Ouakine). But the brand has been able to milk some of the success of the series with more overt product promotion in clips like Do vampires get their periods?.

Also, on the plus side, branded content means that the video player isn't typically cluttered with Google advertisements as the web series tries to generate income.

Both De Zotti and Ouakine estimated the cost of the programme was “$2,000 to $3,000” per minute of scripted webcast.

The beauty of the series format is that the episodes are short and in the case of Carmilla the shot list straightforward, since it’s all filmed with one set-up.

So 36 Carmilla episodes were shot in 3 days - 12 episodes a day.

The bare-bones format instills a certain pragmatism: “If it’s between the crane shot and another episode, do another episode,” said Ouaknine.

Ouaknine emphasised the importance of getting all the episodes in the can so that you are ready to release the shows at regular intervals - say every Tuesday - and then work on promoting it and drawing in an audience.

A lot of resources clearly go into building the audience. Ouaknine and her partner aimed to hit 60 fans per day initially. She said there is “a lot of talking to the void” but eventually the momentum builds.

Web Series as Showcase

With "Whatever, Linda", De Zotti said although the digital series had a stigma attached to it, he had the “lofty goal to make the best one possible”.

How did the show manage to attain such impressive production values on such a small budget? In the tradition of low-budget filmmaking, many people took a chance and deferred payment and time and “called in favours”.

De Zotti said they did look into finding suitable brands to partner with for their first season but the typical response was “we like the idea, but come back in the second season”.

There was some discussion about whether you are more likely to win brand funding for your project by going directly to the brand or one of the agencies that handles campaigns for the brand. Clearly, it helped the Carmilla team that one of them was well connected in the ad world.

De Zotti also suggested that it wasn’t a waste of time if your search for sponsorship was unsuccessful. The "Whatever, Linda" team kept all the returned letters as they helped strengthen the application.

Toronto daily The Globe and Mail ran a preview episode of "Whatever, Linda" in November, but a delay in getting a prototype internet technology out, which allowed people to share captured frames from the video, meant the series didn’t hit YouTube until January 2015.

De Zotti felt that they had missed out on the publicity generated through the Globe and Mail. The show runners entered into a contract with digital agency Fullscreen (see article about CBC and Fullscreen partnership), hoping it would boost their reach on YouTube, but soon realised that YouTube was the wrong audience. People didn’t get the show. “We were getting a lot of thumbs down,” says De Zotti.

They subsequently ended the contract with Fullscreen and moved to Vimeo, which carries very little advertising, apart from for its own films and commercial video hosting packages. De Zotti said they are much happier there.

De Zotti admitted that only ten episodes is not enough to build an online audience, but said that a US network had recently optioned "Whatever, Linda" for a half hour comedy space, so the web series had worked well as a showcase or alternative to a pilot.

It was helpful having in McCarthy a moderator who'd jumped through the hoops herself. She said working on a web series was a liberating feeling, after the frustrations of having stuff in production for a long time: “I don’t feel like a film fucker anymore. I feel like filmmaker,” she said. “I’m no longer spinning my wheels.”

It was interesting to note that her series initially got “stuck behind the age gate” on YouTube. They moved it to Daily Motion where they got over 100,000 hits, but didn't get the audience engagement of YouTube.

Altogether this was a stimulating introduction to this rapidly expanding dramatic format.