Rebecca Norris is a writer, producer, web enthusiast, and creator of the award-winning web series Split with her production company, Freebird Entertainment. She's proud to serve on the Board of Directors for the International Academy of Web Television (@IAWTV) where she helps web series creators connect and collaborate. Follow Rebecca on Twitter at @beckaroohoo.
As we say goodbye to 2015 and welcome in the new year, it's important to reflect on all we've learned and all of the advancements we've made in the last twelve months. And also any mistakes we don't want to repeat.
I, for one, feel that I've become a much better screenwriter and more savvy producer, and have forged some great connections and friendships in the web series world. I also forged a huge partnership by getting married this year! On the negative side, I've been burning the midnight (make that 3 AM) oil far too often, have started eating too many cookies again, and waste way too much time in the day cuddling my adorable cat, Aces.
Today we'll look back at some of the best web series advice we've learned from creators over the past year, and then discuss putting it into action to propel us toward a proactive, promising, and profitable 2016 that's chock full of alliteration.
The guys from popular web series magazine Snobby Robot, Erik Urtz and Chris Hadley, gave us great advice last January about how to get press on your web series and avoid common mistakes creators make when submitting series for press coverage.
Rebecca: What are some ways in which web series creators can effectively market themselves and their series?
Erik: The most important thing is to strongly define your audience, and research ways you can reach them. The more specific you can be the better. Think like a business. If you haven’t defined a goal at the start then you will fail.
Chris: Obviously, media outreach through sites like Snobby Robot is just one way that they can do that. It’s very important to let people know that your show is online, and that your show can easily be found amid the vast landscape of the web. There are other news sites and blogs that every web series creator needs to use, not just ours.
Press releases and interviews are key towards the success of that outreach. Also, fan interaction through social media (Facebook/Twitter pages), blogs and video blogs (or vlogging) are a great way to build and maintain a fan base for your show. Of course, none of that will matter if you don’t create quality, compelling and entertaining content that people will want to watch. That’s true in mainstream TV, and especially in online web series.
Rebecca: What do you think are some mistakes that web series creators make when reaching out to you for reviews and press? How can creators pitch more effectively to a site like yours?
Erik: I don’t think creators have a good idea about just how many other creators are out there. This is a global movement, and we get submissions from all around the world. There are just not enough hours in the day to be able to write about every single show that crosses my desk. So I would say the biggest mistake creators make when reaching out is assuming that their show should be our priority. If creators understood that we are only able to cover a small percentage of shows I think they would put a little more effort in, and their submissions would feel significantly less self promotional.
Creators looking for press should put themselves in my shoes, as an editor. Become familiar with the content that we post and see where they might fit in. When contacting us make the angle easy for us to find. Everyone has a story, so it’s tough to sell me on your logline alone; it’s the story behind the story I’m interested in. Our readership is skewed towards other creators, so what do you think they would find interesting about your show? Most importantly, keep at it – get my attention. Don’t just email me — tweet me, post comments, share articles, become a part of the community. We seek to help members of the community first, not those just eager to self promote (even if we all are).
Rebecca: Any advice for first time content creators looking to produce their own work?
Erik: Have your long-term goals in mind. Create a style that is uniquely yours and focus on growing your following with everything you do. Your following is your leverage in the world of entertainment and growing it takes time.
Chris: My advice – take as much time as you need to make your show the best it can be, whether it’s casting, shooting each episode, editing, sound, all the technical aspects. Of course, it all means nothing without a great script. You have to write it, and then rewrite it again and again until you feel it’s the best it can be and no better, no matter how many drafts it may take.
Get feedback on it from people you trust, both with the script and with every cut of every episode (before it’s posted, of course). They may pick up on things you didn’t notice before, and they may point out how you can make it better.
The amazing crew at WebVee Guide, Jeff Siniawsky, Susan Siniawsky, Kyle Price-Livingston, and Eli David, gave us fantastic insight on what they look for in submissions and practical advice to inspire creators.
Rebecca:When should web series creators start reaching out for press? What’s the best way to get reviewed by the WebVee Guide and other outlets?
Jeff: Create a good show. Our reviews are positive because we only post reviews of shows we like. We are not inclined to be critical of someone’s hard work. We understand the effort and love put into creating a show and we don’t want to diminish that by a bad review if we don’t like a show. So, we try to avoid shows that miss in one way or another. We’re the guide to what’s good.
Susan: Good question. I have bookmarked several series that, even after several months, only have trailers, but those trailers look so good I can’t wait to see the show. There are a couple of shows I can think of that I’ve waited a year to see, and even though they haven’t yet released a season, they’ve created a buzz by frequent social media posts, photos, and teasers. As far as reviewing a show – we do like to have several episodes, preferably an entire season to review.
Kyle: It certainly doesn’t hurt to reach out early in the process, but try to make sure you have at least something to show people, whether that’s a trailer, concept art, a crowdfunding video, etc. I just did an interview with a creator who is making an animated show, only none of the animation has been done yet. He sent me photos of the voiceover sessions, cast pics, and arranged an interview with himself and one of his actors, and that was plenty. You CAN reach out before finishing the show, and you CERTAINLY need to have started your press outreach by the time you launch.
Eli: Press can start as soon as a trailer is released. WebVee Guide runs a “Today’s Feature” video that often features trailers for upcoming series. Plus, those of us that run the site are always happy to get an early look at a new series.
As far as getting reviewed by WebVee Guide (and, for purposes of this answer, I’ll assume other outlets), the best way to get our attention is through social media. We usually engage those who engage us. Also, we must have seen the show (at least one episode) to review it, so either it has to be released or we need advance screener. We like screeners. (Though we have nothing against released shows.)
Rebecca: Do you have any advice to give web series creators to inspire them on their journey?
Susan: Do your research (Marx Pyle’s book Television on the Wild, Wild Web is a great resource). Explore every avenue to get your show made and presented to the public. Join creators’ groups in your area or online. Go to web fests even if you haven’t submitted your series. You’ll be able to network and learn from the panels presented. Work with people who are like minded. Don’t give up.
Kyle: Advice-wise I would say: there is room for everything on the internet. There will always be someone who wants to see what you’ve made. Don’t stress about how to find your exact target audience, or exactly what platform to use to host your videos, because nobody has solved that mystery yet. You have a vision for a show, and, while there’s no guarantee of success for any series, your best chance is to make your show as good as you possibly can. Go! Make shows! You can do it! You’re the best! [Cue Rocky’s Theme].
Eli: Lots, actually.
- Save your money. You will need it. Possibly to continue eating and sleeping indoors.
- Make sure your scripts are well written. The quality of ideas and concepts is subject to taste; a properly written script rarely is. Don’t assume you can write one because you can put fingers to keyboard. If writing isn’t a strength or focus of yours, consider seeking help from a more talented, dedicated writer (and be honest with yourself about your ability). Even if you are a good writer, double check your format and structure against other examples. And make sure your script is finished prior to shoot. There is no nuisance more avoidable than writing and shooting on the fly. I know much of this should go without saying, but I’ve been surprised before.
- Be mindful of the sacrifices you’re making. Producing and promoting a web series is a months-to-years long process and chances are high that once you start production, other parts of your life will receive significantly less attention. Some won’t receive any at all. Make sure you’re aware of what will be affected and inform any third parties (family, friends, employers) how they might be affected.
- Be the last person to leave the set (and anywhere else you may find yourself working). I know this sounds like generic business advice, but if you’re going to helm your own series, it’s a job requirement. Your series primarily relies on you for completion, and staying until the end is the best (some would say only) way to ensure satisfaction with your production. It may also inspire others to do the same, engendering camaraderie amidst a shared work ethic with hours spent together; y’know, the stuff that makes projects special and memorable and all that.
- Choose your hires and those with whom you work carefully. Base your choices on skill, enthusiasm, and appropriateness for the project. Look for all three qualities, not just one. Bring on people you can trust without having to look over their shoulders. Do not work with a pain in the ass, regardless of any prior relationship or perceived talent. Remember that this is your creation; you deserve to get what you expect (within reason) from those helping you bring it to life.
- Trust your cast and crew. You brought them aboard for a reason; respect them and let them do their jobs. Meddling and micromanagement often slow production and kill on-set morale in the process. Let everyone on set know exactly what you expect them to do and then give them enough space to do it.
- Be patient, and be prepared to be patient. You will get frustrated. You will get angry. You will want to yell and swear and kick things. You may even want to break things and hurt people (DON’T DO THIS). Breathe, take five, and always keep in mind that it will end and your frustration will pass.
- Speaking of patience, be especially patient with any volunteers. Be mindful of their time as you will likely need to work with and around it. If everyone on the project is volunteering, prepare to go out of your way to accomplish this (in addition, of course, to producing your series:).
- Don’t hire your friends (in most cases). Let them volunteer if they’d like to help. If they do, do not overtask them with responsibility and be mindful of their time. Carefully judge any exceptions you might make to this and proceed with caution should you do so.
- Promotion can often be as much of a grind as production, so manage all expectations, including your own. Be as realistic without being cynical. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a production, especially if it’s your first, but regardless of how happy you are with your results, you probably won’t be an instant sensation. Even folks regarded as “instant sensations” like Felicia Day and Freddie Wong put in years promoting their work while consistently creating and releasing new content to achieve the viewership numbers they enjoy today. Don’t take this to mean that no one wants to watch your show, and don’t become disheartened if early viewership numbers aren’t what you’d hoped.
- Realize that you’re in an incredibly crowded space but that, with well-targeted promotion and an entertaining show, you can expect people to watch and enjoy your series. And they will. And with continued release and promotion of content, you can expect that number to grow over time.
ERIN CARDILLO & RICHARD KEITH
Co-creators and Executive Producers of Significant Mother on the CW, Erin and Richard's show started as a web series and quickly made the leap to primetime. We were honored to have them give a little advice to writers looking to break in.
Rebecca: What advice would you give to other writers who want to create their own web series?
We got lucky in that a spec script we wrote led us to a company who hired us to make a web series, but that’s not the most direct way to do it.
If you have an idea for a web series, our advice would be to just go out and make it. With the cost of camera and production equipment today, and the many platforms looking for content, there’s no excuse not to create your own work.
The best way to learn is by doing (and sometimes failing) and then getting back up and doing it again. What we can offer is that when you set out to make your series, ask yourself what your goal is, what your end game is, because everything you do, everything you make, should ideally position you closer to that goal.
Jonathan is one of the busiest web series creators out there, acting in the hit series Out With Dad and Haphead, while producing and directing several series, including Clutch and Asset. Additionally, he's the Executive Director of the IAWTV Awards and gave us some wonderful, straightforward advice on how to best submit a series.
Rebecca: What does the IAWTV look for when going through submissions? What makes a web series or show stand out?
Jonathan: Judging to determine the nominees is currently decided by a third party jury. Members of the IAWTV-appointed Jury Chairs for each category, who sought out qualified individuals to determine the nominees in that category with a mandate of diversity. Award winners were then chosen by the membership of the academy. So it is difficult to say what is particularly being looked for, but from my perspective, what I can see is that shows who have strong technical execution and a strong story or concept do the best. There are of course exceptions, and a new Micro-budget category was added last year which is designed to give a home to those who had to do a lot with little. Our website (www.iawtv.org) contains lists of previous nominees and winners with links to the shows, so you can see for yourself what rises to the top in each category.
Rebecca: Is there anything a web series creator can do to increase his or her success when submitting? Any pet peeves that should be avoided by entrants at all costs?
Jonathan: I have two pieces of advice when submitting to any awards show: A) Make it easy for the judges. Give notes as to what to look for if possible. For example, if you have a stellar five second f/x sequence that is seven minutes into your episode you submitted for Best Visual F/X, note that, so that the judges don’t miss it. B) Bad sound kills everything. Even if an actor’s performance is top notch, if the sound clips or the dialogue is hard to hear, a person judging will be distracted or turned off by that and miss the performance. If recording good sound is not possible for you, find another way to tell the story such as without on screen dialogue.
Founder and producer of the Indie Series Awards, Roger is a web series creator, writer, and actor himself, and maintains his popular blog We Love Soaps and entertainment news series Serial Scoop Now. However, he took a break from his busy schedule to give helpful and practical advice to other web series creators.
Rebecca: What advice would you give to web series creators who are just starting out? What can they do to make their work the kind of quality that will impress in web festivals and awards shows?
Roger: When I made my very first indie film, it had some sound issues that I wish I could have changed later. That was probably the most common issue we saw when we first launched the ISAs in 2009. Production values overall have gone up tremendously since then, and so many people have great cameras these days, but bad sound can turn off potential viewers as much as anything. So invest in sound!
I guess my biggest piece of advice would be to find out what else is happening in the web series space. Check out the shows that are winning awards and getting attention to get an idea of what you consider to the “best” and strive for that. Attending events like the Indie Series Awards where you can network with other creators is also invaluable. You’ll make wonderful new friends, get some great advice along the way and network with the stars of the web space.
I threw myself on here because I had some advice this year from the trenches of web series production as well!
When I was the guest on #Scriptchat a few months back, someone asked if I had any advice for beginners. Here goes:
"In my opinion, the biggest thing to look out for is overspending your budget on your web series. It’s so easy to get caught up in the production, and start spending all sorts of money you don’t have in order to finish your series. It’s not worth bankrupting yourself, taking out a second mortgage, or charging up credit cards to finish your series. Find other creative ways to raise funds, cleverly budget, and save money, and avoid landing yourself in the money trap."
In my last column of 2015, I advised that writers, in order to stay productive, learn to pay yourselves first by making writing the top priority of the day (even before eating or showering if you have to!) to get pages done before the rest of life gets in the way:
"Now, the first thing I’ll do when I wake up, regardless of what’s on tap for the day, is give myself ten to fifteen minutes of writing time. In that time, I can usually crank out at least a page (being as non-judgmental as possible, of course, and not looking back on the previous pages.) If I can write at least a page a day, that means in thirty days I could theoretically have a completed half-hour pilot. And in ninety days I could have a completed feature film. Or in less than a year I could even have a completed novel. And I can still get everything else done that I need to in a day."
Words to live by!
Well, now that we've gone through the best web series advice of last year, let's start applying it to this new year. The best advice in the world is worth nothing if action isn't taken on it. Let's throw caution to the wind (or at least try to keep our fears at bay), write with abandon, prolifically produce, and blaze our own trails this year!
Stay tuned for some amazing interviews in the coming year as we discuss distributing your web series on various exciting platforms and driving audiences to watch your work.
Get more web series advice in Rebecca Norris' webinar
Writing the Web Series