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Legally Speaking, It Depends: Detangling Web Series Production

I'll admit there is a special appeal to creating your own web series. You might have a nice job writing for TV but are itching to explore new ideas outside of those constrictions. Or you have a feature script that isn't selling though you know there's an audience waiting for it. Or any number of other writing scenarios that just aren't hitting the mark for you. How hard could it be, right? The answer, as always-- nope, not this time. The answer is IT IS HARD, but doable with the right attitude, preparation, a little foreknowledge and stick-to-it-tiveness.

The following information does not represent any particular production. It is a composite gleaned from talking to series producers, participating first hand, watching others work through issues and generally paying attention to the tenor of what's out there. It is a “heads up” to keep aware of what might be involved if you choose to pursue creating your own web series.

Spider Web Series

Ready, Shoot, Aim... Wait

Proper planning is key to the success of any project you undertake. This is especially true for web series production. Far too many writer/producers out there head into production too early with the “gather the kids in the barn and let's make a show!” attitude. With production tools nowadays, it is very easy to start a project. But without enough momentum to carry them through an entire season that inertia dies quickly. Time is precious and when you get into the heat of production there's never enough time to catch your breath, let alone continue to create quality scripts ready for shooting.

Write it, plan it, think it through.

Planning out the entire season before you shoot the first episode will allow efficiencies to surface, perspective to settle into a picture of what it takes to pull it off. Then you can gather resources and make sure you have a real shot of reaching the finish line.

Learning the Ropes

You are writers. Though the form changes (and with that the impact of what you can do and how to do it change) once you know what constitutes a good web series you're set to write the next great one. But how do you know what that form is? The web is one of the most generous venues for creatives in sharing the wealth. If you don't have a chance to watch all of the web series examples out there great resources that point out the bright spots, the upcoming stars and unique visions pop up all the time. Search and you can not only see what works in a web series form, but, also see what's already been done. And don't forget the behind the scenes stuff to learn just how they did it. Ask around, keep your eyes open and you'll usually get answers and probably a few encouraging words from newfound fans pulling for you.

Getting Your Assets Together

Web series productions are more streamlined than typical television or film productions. The shoot times are condensed and you'll have fewer personnel to accomplish the same tasks. But don't skimp on the important tasks if you hope to achieve something worthwhile. You'll need money, professional-level actors and crew, locations, money, rentals, and more money and bits and sundry other things as important as everything else.

How To Pay For It All

Raising money for a web series is like raising money for any production, a daunting and difficult task fraught with enough pitfalls and issues to fill up several future articles and still not scratch the surface. I'll touch on some points where web series are a bit unique. One thing that web series have going for them is the potential longevity. The longer a project stays in the public's attention span the longer you'll be able to raise awareness among those who might want to contribute to its success. But initially your options are limited.

Out-of-Pocket – It goes against the old Hollywood adage of never spend your own money, but, when all other avenues are closed, paying for it yourself can save you or bury you in debt. The good news is, you keep control over your project and you risk no one else's resources. Unless you take loans out or pay for it all with credit cards, that is. But it has been done. Successfully in some noted cases. Unsuccessfully in many more. Still, it is likely to be at least a partial resource.

Crowdfunding – Successful fundraising through reward based crowdfunding sites is now a viable option. But plan well. Make sure that you don't promise more than you can deliver and can deliver what's promised. And don't forget the fees and associated costs: platform and payment processing fees, fulfillment costs, taxes, etc. Also, don't confuse the reward based Kickstarter and Indiegogo type sites with the CROWDFUND ACT sites that are coming that allow equity investment (see below.)

Merchandising – If it makes sense for your production there's no reason why you can't market ancillary merchandise like toys, t-shirts and paraphenalia to raise capital. Just make sure you've got all the rights necessary for the alternative uses of imagery and materials and plan for the costs and fees involved.

In-Kind Donations and Deferrals – Often overlooked as income sources are the “free” use of stuff and locations. As well as the deferrals of salaries you might get from your crew and cast these are real benefits affecting the bottom line both legally and for tax purposes, so, include their real market values in your budgetary calculations and reports.

Equity – Equity = ownership. Simply stated, there are two major kinds. Anyone investing in AND working in a sufficiently legitimate capacity on a project is thought to control their own fate financially. The SEC and states worry mostly about the other kind. Those owners hold what are called Securities. The most succinct definition I can give (and therefore somewhat inaccurate) is: “Investment with potential profit solely through the efforts of others.” There's a boatload of laws involved in protecting the interests of everyone involved with equity investing and you definitely need to consult a lawyer before going down this route.

Don't Forgets

Whenever money is involved there are a number of tangential but important areas to keep in mind: taxes, equity issues, insurance, etc. all require documentation, forms, formalities, reporting, responsibilities and numerous other niggling bits that can easily fall through the cracks, but, will cause havoc if they do. For example, with insurance different exposures prompt different risks. A location that will be visited time and time again during the run of a series might require more protections than a single visit for a short film.

Compensation a.k.a Money, If Ya Got It, Something Else If Ya Don't

Actors and crew need to be compensated. Whether paid, in kind or otherwise, the recompense for the work should be more than “the experience.” You'll find that if a right and fair exchange is negotiated, you'll get incredible efficiency and the end product will be much easier to attain and end up much better than expected. Be gracious, appreciative and share the spotlight. Face it, volunteers, gratis gifts and in kind donations are going to be relied on. Make sure that those who give more than they get end up feeling good about their sacrifices.

Perils of the Web as a Medium

The universal access of the web can have drawbacks. Some avenues of future distribution close because they require exclusivity in a territory. And wide exposure might prompt far flung claims that you stole their idea, or you might see your idea “stolen” by others.

Advertising sold to run alongside episodes is likely out of your control. Make sure sponsors who donate goods/services for exposure are aware of this. Their competition might advertise or advertisers they didn't expect might associate with their products.

A web series is dependent on a lot of technical issues and unique problems: website maintenance, encoding, downtime, social media, trolling issues. Keep on top of problems and plan alternative options where available.

Web series require specialized contractual terms that take into account the medium's unique qualities. Make sure rights issues are fully considered in this different arena.

Expect the Unexpected (and Then Some)

Prepare for not only the impact of the production on those involved, but the foreseeable, potential external impact as well. Example, recently I was on set where they had a cow. Literally. Using a backyard as a “green room” was a good idea, but, it might surprise/alarm the neighbors. Calls to the cops at least slow down legitimate productions, may even stop them.

Plan ahead for as many contingencies as possible. Have alternate locations lined up prior to needing them. Have an alternate schedule pre-approved by everyone who might need to shift with the production.

It's a massive task. Learn to delegate. You can't do it all on your own. Recognize that fact and know that everyone involved wants the project to succeed. You are all in it together. (And don't have a cow!)

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