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Are Kickstarter and IndieGogo ruining webseries?

I can feel all independent webseries creators slowly notching their arrows in my direction. How could Kickstarter/IndieGogo possibly be bad for webseries? It’s often the only way webseries can get funded!

Well, yes. That’s true. Often it is. And I have nothing against either operation. I use them both and have supported friends stageplays, records, films and webseries. In fact, I have sat on a panel with Kickstarter’s kickstarter, Yancey Strickland, and found him a great guy with a lot of great motivations and a really fantastic success story. He and his colleagues are doing wonderful, altruistic work for many, many people. Much better work than me, in fact, so I should probably just shut my damn mouth, right?

But what I’m most interested in is quality of web video. Let’s try that filter out.

It used to be (in the aulden dayes of 2008 and before!) that if you wanted to make a webseries, you either had to find some sponsor willing to pay for it (in which case, most of the time, it turned out crappy), or you did it yourself on credit cards (in which case, most of the time, it turned out cheap). Today, everyone can get their shit together, put together a pitch, and send it out to 100+ friends.

Everyone can do this. That is the benefit, and that is the problem.

ISSUE 1: Kickstarter pretty much funds everything. Because it’s social. If you are reasonably popular, you sell your pitch reasonably well, and your friends are not all reasonably homeless, you can count on milking 10 or 25 bucks from them each to do pretty much whatever you want. Extend that to your colleagues, your Facebook friends, the people on Twitter, and probably a couple of older and wealthier relatives, and you can pretty easily get your $5,000.
But just because your friends are willing to support you doesn’t make it good. (In fact, experience has taught me that sometimes folks are willing to fund projects just to get their creators to shut up about it already). The money is now available – for everybody. Which means people who were too timid to spend money, too afraid of taking a risk, or too unsure of the quality of their ideas are now jumping in. Because what’s to lose? It’s not my money, and it’s not real money. Right?

I don’t mean to be aggressive or Randian on anybody here. But I do think that if you have a good idea, you know you have a good idea, and you do whatever it takes to make it. If it crashes and burns along the way, congratulations: you’ve failed, the most important step in success. If it doesn’t crash and burn, then congratulations: you’ve just taken one massive, exciting step towards your next failure.

With crowd-sourced funding of yet-to-be-produced projects, there is little natural weeding of poor ideas. It used to be a little easier to separate the wheat from the chaff, webseries-wise, in that there was just so little of either. Now there’s a lot of both. The meritocrats believe that good content will naturally rise to the top. I don’t believe that anymore. I believe that a glut of chaff will continue to hide most of it, and we keep shoveling in that chaff.

(At least until we have better filtering, which will be the subject of several future entries).

ISSUE 2: These sites are unwittingly setting the standard rate of production for webseries. It seems to be, most people are asking for $5K to $10K for a 6-to-10-episode season. With most webisodes clocking in at 3 minutes these days, let’s do some terrible math and estimate that we are producing our webseries for a rate of about $300-$500 per produced minute.

Now, I’m all for low-budget video. I haven’t really done anything but. My highest budget for an actual webseries (excluding commercial projects) was a half million; yet, that was for about five and a half hours of broadcast-quality content (roughly 3 feature films). I love low-budget, and nothing makes me more angry than “directors” who think they can’t shoot a single frame without a crane, gib arm and pyrotechnics.

Except for being undervalued. That makes me madder. And I’m starting to get afraid here. Because we were producing The Burg for $100 a produced minute, and no one got paid. We shot 60 pages in 3 days for All’s Faire. But that’s supposed to not be the case anymore, in 2011. This is supposed to be becoming an industry. Kickstarter/Indiegogo is setting a potentially dangerous precedent here: 1, you have to have money, but 2, it should only be a little money. If this is defining what webseries are and which ones get made, then should we be concerned about the motivation for more professionals to really get into the business (and thus, real audiences)?

Now before anyone accuses me of being mean, elitist, needlessly antagonistic, or just a douche, I want to make it clear: I am indeed doing the online equivalent of throwing a bunch of darts into the air at the holiday party, and hoping they don’t hit me. Everybody loves Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and they’re making a lot of great stuff happen. I’m just asking questions.

Nor do I have alternatives to suggest. Although I do have interest in a different kind of crowd-sourced model: the audience-supported one. By which I mean, the actual audience that you know you actually have, because you made the first season on your own and built it up. Anyone But Me is the constantly cited example of this, but they’re not the only ones. Reason I like this is it combines the feel-good-social-video model (which we all love to embrace in theory) with the hardcore-objectivist-meritocracy model (that’s what actual business runs on). I, personally, think that’s a more viable longterm trend for web video.

Disagreements? Darts? Throw ‘em my way.

Size Really Does Matter

The numbers for online video consumption in the U.S. came out from comScore (basically, the internet-video version of Nielsen, but site-specific). I found out about it through Marc Hustvedt’s great online video resource, tubefilter.tv.

Two key takeaways:
- 6.3 BILLION viewing sessions. Everybody is watching internet video, and watching more and more of it.
- The average video duration is 5.4 minutes. It’s been climbing steadily from December 2007.

Think about that second stat for a second. If you’re coming from TV land, 5.4 minutes doesn’t sound like much screentime. But if you’re coming from web video land, this is huge.

When my partners and I started The Burg way back in 2006, comScore wasn’t even around, but online ‘common sense’ was. This common sense told us, nay, SCREAMED at us, that a minute and a half was an ideal video length, and anything longer than 3 minutes was suicide. This frightened us, as a typical episode of The Burg was anywhere from 14 to 22 minutes long. So, we played it safe. We began to create shorts of anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes (yes, even our shorts were longer than most people’s ‘longs’.) We interspersed our normal eps with our shorts. We fully anticipated looking at our viewcount and having much less views for our longer eps.

The exact opposite happened. Our views actually went down every time we posted a short. Why? We don’t know exactly. But after talking to fans, we have a pretty good idea: they were outside the chronology of the story. They were little jokes, standalone scenes, things that didn’t fit in the tightly plotted and structured episodes of The Burg. And so, people didn’t care as much. I knew right then that we had something good. People were hooked on the structure and the story and didn’t mind the length.

Ever since then, I’ve rigidly maintained that length should not be the top deciding factor when you’re creating your content. I’ve been mocked for this, as there are many creators who believe otherwise. In the early days, there were a lot of 90-second episodic thrillers. For me, even when well produced, the story jolted and jittered, because 90 seconds of a thriller is enough to get you to a cliffhanger, but usually seems to stop short of great character development. When working with other online portals, I’ve had to cut 5 minute shorts to under 3 minutes, and in the process, lost some of the best moments because they just didn’t fit. (This is not to say you can’t make a great episode in 90 seconds – of course you can. I just think you shouldn’t have to.)

I get why this happens in TV. You have a fixed inventory of time. 22 minutes for your sitcom once commercials are factored in. It becomes a surgical process (and to a degree, it should with all content). But on the internet, there is no such restriction. Yet content creators and programmers decided to all limit themselves to one anyway. It seems cynical, arbitrary, and a big underestimation of viewers’ tastes.

Well, it seems that common sense was wrong in this case. People are now, officially, measurably, watching longer and longer video. And 5.4 minutes is the average. Meaning, many people are consuming video that’s much, much longer.

As Hustvedt states, “If the same trajectory were to be taken forward a few years, which is probably a conservative estimate given the current market, we’d expect to see average online video duration at 10.4 minutes by 2014.”

Which means, by my shoddy estimate, people are going to be ready for The Burg by… let’s see… May 2017. Hm. Oh well. Better 11 years early than too late.

Size Really Does Matter

Two weeks ago the numbers for online video consumption in the U.S. came out from comScore (basically, the internet-video version of Nielsen, but site-specific). I found out about it through Marc Hustvedt’s great online video resource, tubefilter.tv.

Two key takeaways:
- 6.3 BILLION viewing sessions. Everybody is watching internet video, and watching more and more of it.
- The average video duration is 5.4 minutes. It’s been climbing steadily from December 2007.

Think about that second stat for a second. If you’re coming from TV land, 5.4 minutes doesn’t sound like much screentime. But if you’re coming from web video land, this is huge.

When my partners and I started The Burg way back in 2006, comScore wasn’t even around, but online ‘common sense’ was. This common sense told us, nay, SCREAMED at us, that a minute and a half was an ideal video length, and anything longer than 3 minutes was suicide. This frightened us, as a typical episode of The Burg was anywhere from 14 to 22 minutes long. So, we played it safe. We began to create shorts of anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes (yes, even our shorts were longer than most people’s ‘longs’.) We interspersed our normal eps with our shorts. We fully anticipated looking at our viewcount and having much less views for our longer eps.

The exact opposite happened. Our views actually went down every time we posted a short. Why? We don’t know exactly. But after talking to fans, we have a pretty good idea: they were outside the chronology of the story. They were little jokes, standalone scenes, things that didn’t fit in the tightly plotted and structured episodes of The Burg. And so, people didn’t care as much. I knew right then that we had something good. People were hooked on the structure and the story and didn’t mind the length.

Ever since then, I’ve rigidly maintained that length should not be the top deciding factor when you’re creating your content. I’ve been mocked for this, as there are many creators who believe otherwise. In the early days, there were a lot of 90-second episodic thrillers. For me, even when well produced, the story jolted and jittered, because 90 seconds of a thriller is enough to get you to a cliffhanger, but usually seems to stop short of great character development. When working with other online portals, I’ve had to cut 5 minute shorts to under 3 minutes, and in the process, lost some of the best moments because they just didn’t fit. (This is not to say you can’t make a great episode in 90 seconds – of course you can. I just think you shouldn’t have to.)

I get why this happens in TV. You have a fixed inventory of time. 22 minutes for your sitcom once commercials are factored in. It becomes a surgical process (and to a degree, it should with all content). But on the internet, there is no such restriction. Yet content creators and programmers decided to all limit themselves to one anyway. It seems cynical, arbitrary, and a big underestimation of viewers’ tastes.

Well, it seems that common sense was wrong in this case. People are now, officially, measurably, watching longer and longer video. And 5.4 minutes is the average. Meaning, many people are consuming video that’s much, much longer.

As Hustvedt states, “If the same trajectory were to be taken forward a few years, which is probably a conservative estimate given the current market, we’d expect to see average online video duration at 10.4 minutes by 2014.”

Which means, by my shoddy estimate, people are going to be ready for The Burg by… let’s see… May 2017. Hm. Oh well. Better 11 years early than too late.

Soaps? Online? Hell yes!

Shortly after my show All’s Faire came out, I was approached by a gentleman who asked Dinosaur Diorama and I to make The Guidling Light as a webseries. To be clear, he was only a fan of the show, not a producer of any sort. He had seen our show, which starred both Robert Bogue and Mandy Bruno of that show, and likely knew about our casting of other soap stars (Kelli Giddish back when she was on All My Children, Tom Pelphrey) in the past.

I thought long and hard about this. Not because I particularly like soap operas or have any creative interest in The Guiding Light. But I was fascinated by the idea of turning an existing soap property into an online property. I went out and bought Dark Shadows and watched it to see. Could something like this be turned into a webshow? Creatively? Legally?

After doing the math, I couldn’t make it work. The most I would be able to produce might be a short scene per day. Ultimately, I realized that the people who watch soaps wouldn’t be satisfied with that. They watched soaps because they were hooked on the stories, but also to occupy time when they were at home or at work. Soap watchers are a mix of very active fans (buying magazines, talking on forums, following the actors) and very passive fans (turning it on and watching it with half your mind while you do something else).

That said, I loved the idea of the online soap. I loved the idea of event television online. I loved bringing a show to an under-served online audience. I loved the the discipline involved in crafting a daily storyline (even if it does sometimes revolve around amnesia and/or demonic possession). I loved the absolutely seamless and meaningful integration of products into a storyline (they’re not called SOAP operas for nothing, folks). I thought long and hard about getting involved.

But I didn’t. Time went on and other projects swiftly took its place. And then today, I saw this:

Beloved Soaps to migrate online. All My Children and One Life To Live being bought by production company Prospect Park (they make “Royal Pains” among other things).”

And I’m fascinated. This is a proven company. Buying a proven (if a bit faded and temporarily suffering) property. And aiming to produce for a thoroughly unproven medium. This is big. Very big.

Now that people all over the country have high-speed broadband, and people of all ages are much more used to watching video online, how will these soaps do? But the bigger question to me is, what will they look like? Will they be an hour long? Will they be a scene long? Will they be union shows (it looks like yes, the same cast and crew at least will be involved)? Will they be daily? Will they in any way resemble the shows that so many people knew and loved?

Further, they are “expected to be the first of a number of brand-name TV shows” to be programmed on a “new, as-yet-unnamed, TV-focused network”. Big. Very very big!

As some of you know, I have something sort of similar (but also completely different) in the works. But if Rich Frank and Jeff Kwatinetz can take this first massive step and make it work – and I have every reason to believe they can – then I want to be the first to welcome them to the sandbox.

Or should I say soapbox (and buh-dum-CHING and cut to commercial).

P.S. Kudos to Roger Newcomb over at We Love Soaps. This must be a big day for him

The Long Tail Theory: Why Webseries Creators Need Net Neutrality

The following remarks were delivered by Thom Woodley at the WGAE’s Capital Hill briefing on Internet policy.
* * *

Thom Woodley speaks in Senate Judiciary room

Thom Woodley at WGAE Hill briefing in the Senate Judiciary Committee room

Thank you, it’s an honor to be here.
I am a writer, and a creator of content, and as such, by necessity, an entrepreneur. What I’m going to talk about today are the business models of web video, how the open web allows creators to do innovative work, and the dangers that paid prioritization creates for that innovation.

In our discussions of net neutrality today, we’ve a couple of times heard the comparison of the internet to highways. I’d like to expand that. Let’s suppose that a state decides adopt the prioritization model to their roadwork. This would mean they don’t pave roads in a certain area as well as other ones. We all know what would happen. The economy in that area suffers. Trucks can’t get to it, no one wants to drive along the bumpy, dirty road.

It’s the same online. Pavement equals streaming speed. If the streaming speed is slow, no one will watch. We don’t force the people who live on that road, the businesses on that road, to pay directly for paving the whole thing. But Internet Service Providers want to do that exact thing to content providers. If we don’t have net neutrality, ISPs could charge content providers money to deliver their content at a reasonable enough speed.

I am going to make the case that that is tantamount to killing a new industry before it has developed.
There is a business model of independent web video. There are a few. They exist, but they’re still nascent. And it’s very different from television or most other traditional economic structures.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Long Tail Theory of economics. I’ll just give a quick abstract. Say we’re in a book store. 80% of people who come into that store will tend to buy the same top 20% of books. The remaining 20% of people may also buy that top tier, but in addition, seek out products that are more diverse, less common denominator. When we chart these spending habits, rank of products sold against volume of sales, we get a short ‘body’ and a long ‘tail’.

Now, in a store, there’s a physical inventory. So it only makes sense to keep that top 20% in stock. Of course, for an online store, inventory is more vast. So you can open up the full 100% of products, and get that extra business. And here’s a hidden secret: people in this long tail will tend to pay more for the products they love, if they are perceived as rare.

How does this relate to television? TV has a fixed inventory of time that it is selling. As well as a great expense in broadcasting it. So it only makes sense to program shows that 80% of the populace will seek out. The same with movie theaters – a fixed number of screens. But web video has no fixed period of time. It has no fixed numbers of screens. Strictly speaking, it has no distributional limits, except for streaming speed.

That means that online, this long tail of specialized content is now open for everybody.

From an advertising perspective, we know that a message moves farther and more effectively when it is highly tailored to its audience. You are three times more likely to watch a video if a friend shared it to you. So advertisers have an excellent model here. Let’s take as an example, an award-winning and very popular series I participate in called The Temp Life. It is sponsored by a staffing agency who could never afford to buy TV time. But they could afford a more specified and tailored web production with Hollywood celebrities like Milo Ventimiglia and Illeana Douglas. And the show just finished its 5th season, which is longer than most real Hollywood shows.

Web video, due to its long tail nature, has the tendency to gather audiences of more specific demographics. These shows function with a smaller audience, but they become more valuable to the sponsor. My show The Burg gathered an audience of hipsters and influencers mostly based in New York. It’s the kind of audience TV shows desperately try to attract, but had not reliably done so. Sure, the show did not rack up the millions of views per episode that a TV show needs. That’s okay. We did not need it. We had a highly activated audience who, when we did do sponsorships, were much more accepting of our sponsors’ products.

Web TV will not be, in the future, about gathering the ‘most views’, but gathering the ‘best views’.
But it’s worth pointing out that putting any of this content behind a paywall, or tiered download situation where it didn’t stream quickly, that would have killed it. People would not have watched.
There are two more models I’d like to briefly discuss.

One is the audience-supported show. Take the show Anyone But Me. It’s a multiple award-winning show about a lesbian teenager and her struggles. It’s excellent. It tells a difficult story about a topic some would think is controversial. And it likely would never have been made on TV. They are able to make this show because they have an audience who is demanding it. Again, it’s a smaller audience, but they are so passionate about this show that they pay for it. Not per download – by donation.
But it’s tight. Profit margins are slim in both of these models. If we were charging Anyone But Me an extra fee to stream fast enough so that the audience can watch it, then they probably would not be able to make it.

Another model that is developing is even more interesting to me, as a small business owner: the local webseries scene.
Distribution is, at present, open to everyone. I can make a video and put it up – there are no walls between me and a prospective audience of millions. At the same time, the means of film production are accessible to everyone, with consumer-level editing software and digital cameras. This means that a webseries can be generated and created anywhere, for any audience. This is of course different from film and TV, where you have to be in LA or NY.

What we are seeing now is communities of content creators and webseries makers beginning to pop up in every state of the union. In places that never had any sort of film industry before, we suddenly see one popping up. And it can be sponsored by local advertisers. I point to one of the shows I’m involved in, Greg and Donny, which is about two guys just chatting about stuff going on in the small, post-industrial steel town Johnstown, PA. Now, that sounds like a very specific show that no one outside that town would want to watch, right? Well… stay tuned.

I believe in a few years, we will be seeing small town film scenes. Communities of webseries creators and vloggers from Maine to Utah. Decentralized micro-industries of creative professionals from Alabama to Wyoming. I believe we will see this… down the road.

But not if the road is too expensive to travel on.
Net neutrality is vital to keeping the lanes of communication open. The creative economy of the future depends on it. Thank you.
___________________

Writer and web video pioneer Thom Woodley created one of the first narrative web series “The Burg“, the Streamy and Webby nominated shows “The All-For-Nots“, “All’s Faire” and “Greg & Donny“, and is the founder of DIORAMA, a new web video channel aimed at programming television-quality independent content.