Showrunner of Upstairs Amy Duana Taha discussing the showrunning process for a digital series, what it’s like working with brands, and how you navigate that as a creator.
As part of Running the Show, we wanted to focus on showrunning across all its guises, from more traditional television to podcasts and digital series. We interviewed Duana Taha who is a Canadian television writer whose credits include hit programs Degrassi: The Next Generation and Lost & Found Studios.
She is also the creator and executive producer of digital series like Emerald Code and Upstairs Amy, a popular YouTube series funded by Walmart Canada and Interac. In this interview, we focus on the showrunning process for a digital series, what it’s like working with brands, and how you navigate that as a creator.
I’ll start off with the big question of how did you end up developing a show like Upstairs Amy?
Upstairs Amy was created on the heels of a different show called Emerald Code, both of which were done through the production company, Shaftsbury. Way back in the day, they tried to make something that would combine drama and a bit of a how-to, or something that related to a millennial mom audience. So, we started talking about what that would look like.
Upstairs Amy came to be because we had similar ideas about not making it about crafting or not making it about diapers or whatnot. The idea that a millennial mom is a lot like any other millennial, which is to say, obsessed with themselves and their friends and their lives. It really appealed to me to feature a parent who isn't defined by being a parent. It’s not because that's not valid, but because there are a lot of shows, digital or otherwise, that are dealing with that. So, I was really excited about the idea that Upstairs Amy would be about somebody who had other kinds of concerns.
You worked with two brands on this: Walmart Canada and Interac. What was that relationship like and were there any restrictions working with those brands? The series didn't feel necessarily informed by a brand or feel brand heavy, which is what we stereotypically think branded content will be like.
One of the greatest things about working with Shaftsbury, and producer Jay Bennett, is that they know that creators are going to bristle a bit if their work feels like a commercial. They had immense success with Carmilla and Mslabeled, both of which are brand partnerships. You don't actually have any indication of what those brands are until later in the series, if at all. I think if you watch Carmilla, it's not until around episode 20, that there's any sort of placement. If a brand is interested in creating a series like that, then you know they care about story and will let you create the story first.
That’s what was really great about the brands we worked with. Initially, they focused on who they wanted to reach. We talked a lot about the realism of a millennial parent who doesn't live a rural or suburban community. They’re not going to be in a big, beautiful Toronto House, they’d live in a condo. They’re doing fine, but it's not a family from generations of inherited wealth. The only real concern was about realism in the way that the characters lived in as much as that would inform both of their brands. Obviously, they read each script closely and had some questions about where certain storylines were going. But the only real ask from Walmart was that the set colors reflect their brand colors and that certain colors be eliminated because they're not part of their brand story.
For Interac it was very similar. We had a couple of mentions of a debit card and that was it. At one point in the voiceover, I referenced “to get back in the black”—an Interac catch phrase. That was too much for them. Mentioning a debit card was enough. So that definitely speaks to the sophistication of brands in terms of knowing that the customers that they want to reach are sophisticated and know when they're being sold to. The brands want to be a part of something that reflects who they want their customers to be as opposed to telling them how to feel. It was an incredible and welcome surprise. Our stereotype is that brands going to be super controlling or that it's going to wind up being a commercial. And it did not feel that way at all.
So what did success look like to them?
They're watching the views on YouTube itself and also at the engagement on their own Facebook page, The Walmart Canada Facebook page has an incredible participation rate, and Interac as well. So I think they were quite happy with the series.
We released it traditionally, so we released one a week one at a time. It was super gratifying to see that people were legitimately waiting for the next episode, and had opinions about each one. The only person who felt like Walmart was not being represented well enough was my father. He told me that you cannot see the Walmart box. I'm like, it's okay, Dad. It's fine.
What was it like developing this type of digital series?
The development process was a little bit piecemeal, but also very quick. Originally it was just a concept. Then, when it was time to get some more specific about that concept, I held a mini writer’s room. A few weeks later, they told me they liked the idea and asked us to develop six episodes as essentially a pilot. Almost before we finished with those, they wanted 10 more, then four more. It was always an open-threaded continuation. We didn't know at the outset. It was all a bit hypothetical that if they liked this concept, then we'll see what we do. It was very clear at one point that we might only do six and then they wanted more.
The thing with web series, and this is a place where Shaftsbury has been incredibly pioneering, is that there's not a half hour for an audience to stay and get locked in to see if they care. It's the first few seconds. Challenge issued: make them stay in the first five seconds. Challenge accepted: We open with the lead character hanging from a 25th-story balcony. That’s one of those things where you ask: can we do this in a web series? Can we do this in branded content? Everyone wanted to find a way to do it because it kind of breaks the mold of what people are expecting.
A lot web series initially start with somebody turning on a webcam. This is what works in the form, and also because of production constraints. A locked off camera and the idea that everything's taking place sort of in a static room, there's a bit of a three camera sit-com existing there. So definitely production constraints are huge. But everybody had story first in mind, even with the constraints of budget. Even with the constraints of knowing that each segment is only four or five minutes long. So everybody moved mountains to make that happen.
When you were working on Upstairs Amy, you said you had a little room. How did you construct that? Did you focus on writers who have experience in the digital space?
It was a very little room, and with very little notice as is typical in Canadian TV. I wanted people who I knew and who I knew could play in this space. The writers that I worked with were either A) somebody who was a parent or B) somebody who had a lot of experience in condo living. There are situations like running into your sort of hero in the elevator with garbage that are specific to those kinds of lives. So I wanted writers like Ian Malone, and Courtney Walker, who wouldn't be intimidated by the newness of the format or what might seem like constraints. Writers who would play willing in that world.
Obviously the landscape keeps changing in the digital space. How would you do it differently? How would you think differently about your series?
It's less what I would do differently, and more that the possibilities are endless. The thing about digital series that I really like is how intimate it is. That works for me as somebody who loves character. It's a character workspace for sure. It's not terribly about vast visual storytelling.
I'd love to do another whole series from the perspective of Veronica, Amy's best friend. Or create Amy’s husband Dean’s existential diary where he worries if he should grow a mustache or not. Of course you could have those on multiple platforms, sending people from YouTube to Snap to wherever to find out those things.
The way people responded to the stories, it’s clear we could experiment more. A thing that Shaftsbury and producer, Jay Bennett, really espoused, was that it's not about what the constraints of digital storytelling are. It's all about what you get to do that you don't do otherwise. One thing Jay said that I've always really liked is that digital episodes give you the opportunity to tell the stories between what would be episodes of traditional television.
Part of that is a constraint, but you can make it into a plus. So if I'm telling you a story about the thing that happened last week, it creates an intimacy. Then it's not just that we can't go see that thing because of the budget. Instead it creates a sort of excitement, and intimacy that you go, did it really? And I found that really fun and really freeing as opposed to constraint, especially in comedy. Especially as comedy is about wordplay, and character interaction.
People are recommending would-be creators to just get out there and make stuff. So what kind of considerations should digital creators have when they're approaching their own work?
I definitely think that digital it is a medium that speaks to character so focus on characters. You want to make sure you have an intimacy with your characters. You want to spend time with them and they still have things to tell you for X number of episodes. They need to have rich lives that you want to continue to explore, no matter the format. I think that people got really concerned for a while about an omniscient camera versus a personal camera. I don't think that's as much of a concern. No one that we're trying to reach is that concerned about it and they'll accept the conceit. But definitely having characters that you want to get to know is key. And by the same token, because there are often budget constraints, make that your strength.
We had incredible actors that we were incredibly lucky to have, who gave these phenomenal performances. It was a little bit like a variety show. People come in and do their thing and it's like, this is what we have for you that's new this episode. So giving people little treats along the way in that way is going to help. Obviously you can go and shoot a digital film on your phone. We know that people are doing this, making features and that kind of thing. But if you make specifically shorter web-based content, it becomes about making your story rich with the possibility to go on. Whether you want it to be seasons, or just endlessly ongoing.
There’s a real trend for young people, especially when they're going through Netflix, to want to focus on shows that have a huge back catalog. They're not messing with the shows that have one season of 13 episodes. They want to dig into something that has five seasons of 22 each because they want to hang out with people.
There are more and more opportunities happening in the branded space for series. But do you think that's of benefit for people if they want to be TV writers too? Do you see that as the leapfrog into traditional TV?
Branded series aren't normally presented as a real path. Like you could go that way, as opposed to making commercials or music videos. Or writing plays and then somebody buys your play and adapts it into a series. Specifically in branded content, I think obviously the elephant in the room is that people think there would be constraints. But here's the thing: there’ll always be constraints on every show.
Unless you're making Game of Thrones (and even then you have to write defensive articles about cinematography), there are always going to be constraints. So the more you learn how to play within those, have fun and execute what you're doing, the better it will be. It’s better for you to hone that skill, because those constraints will always be there.
Anecdotally, there's a kind of a legend that Canadian writers, who often have tighter budgets and bigger production constraints, do really well when they get to the US. That's because they're already dealing with constraints. So even though the budgets are bigger, and the casts are more accessible in the US, they have that creativity with those limits. So, I think anything that makes you work within any kind of box just trains you so you think that if you can do it here, you can do it anywhere.
It’s better to see those restrictions and constraints as a gift of the form, and not as a limitation. We are the last generation who think of entertainment in discrete units of either 22 minutes or 47 minutes. Those restraints are going away and is not going to be what entertainment is. Content is content. Starting to think of story in new ways, gives you a leg up for sure.
Are there any last words of advice that you'd give to writers embarking on this journey?
First of all, study the format. Study web series, including the branded ones, and the ones that you don't think are for you. Try to figure out what you would make in kind. I think there’s a lot of decision makers who have said tell us what you think it is. There are a lot of places making traditional sort of entertainment formats. If you know something should be a web series for a specific reason, you're ahead of the game. Don't try to make it as a half hour and then if no one wants it, reimagine it as a web series. Think of web first.
Everybody's really afraid of terms like multi-platform and I think that's short-sighted. If you're a writer who's told there isn't enough in an idea for a series to sustain over five seasons or whatnot, you can go, well guess what? I think my ideas lend themselves to series that sustain themselves five minutes a day for 60 days.
Digital series are also a good experiment in playing with genres. If you want to write Game of Thrones, it's going to be harder to make a demo. Maybe your pilot script suffices. If you want to show that you can write sketch, or an intimate drama, maybe digital series are a place to do that. Our portfolios will be a lot more multi-platform in the future as opposed to just words on page.
Lastly, what's next for you?
I have two series in active development. One is a traditional hour long, and one is a comedy. But, I also have a podcast that's all about the work of entertainment and specifically women in entertainment. I actually have a digital idea that I'm cooking up and looking forward to finding ways to do it. It's a bit ambitious for the form, for sure, but I really do think the sky's the limit. So having that ready is going to be the next challenge.