Originally I was going to write this guest post about ways for YouTubers to generate a mailing list but today I got a better idea. I was having lunch with a friend -- let's call her Nancy -- who asked me for advice on how to raise money for a new web series she wanted to produce. Nancy is no stranger to producing web shows. She has done it before but she always had to work with bare bones budgets and the shows never produced any money, making it hard for her to work on the next project.
Even though she's seasoned at producing for the web, she is struggling to get funding for the next project. This is ultimately because the advice many people have given her is 100% wrong. Many people are still giving advice as if the indie film world hasn't changed in the past decade. Unbelievably, the majority of indie film-makers are still producing pilots on extended credit and doing road-trips to film festivals hoping a distributor takes pity on them. Or they are just dumping their show onto YouTube and crossing their fingers that it goes viral. Some people even think they can get grants. Stop the madness! This is not how the industry works these days! Web TV now works the SAME WAY the broadcast TV business works.
In this guide I am going to tell Nancy exactly how to produce her next web series by drafting her a battle plan, and by studying this guide you too will know how to do the same for any web series you want to make.
Rule #1 Write a Treatment, Not a Screenplay
Yes, a treatment. What? You're going to write all 12 episodes of the show in advance before you make any money? Dude, that's a massive waste of time. What if nobody funds your genius show? Then you've spent weeks working on a project that won't make you money. Oh yes, we're having the money conversation right now and if the words 'sell out' have crossed your mind then you've just confirmed why we need to talk about this subject.
Get your head in the game. Film-making can either be your very expensive hobby or your very lucrative career. You need to decide right now if you want to be a professional who works full-time in the industry while providing for his / her family and leading a fabulous lifestyle, or if you want to be a broke-ass auteur who lives in a van down by the river when she isn't flipping burgers for McDonalds.
Because there are only two routes available for you if you treat film-making like a hobby; broke and alone, or teaching Video Production classes at your local community college. So yes, you will write a treatment and not a screenplay. Like any professional screenwriter, you will not write a screenplay until someone pays you to do so.
In Nancy's case, her treatment is simple. She wants to produce a show about the people who work at a gaming website. Thus her treatment shall be based around the following premise - "What if the characters of The Office worked at Blizzard? This is simple and easy to understand. What kind of shenanigans might the transpire if Michael Scott was in charge of World of Warcraft? Can you imagine Dwight as your unfriendly neighborhood tech support specialist? What if Kevin was the lead programmer? There is vast potential for humor here.
Now here is the more important question: Who might want to sponsor this show? Actually, that's the wrong question to ask. Sorry. Who might want to pay for this show to be made?
Well, Blizzard might. Blizzard could better engage with its customers through a fictional representation of the company. Imagine if Progressive Insurance made a show starring Flo; I'd watch it and so would you. And GEICO did sponsor that Caveman TV Series based on its own commercials so there is some precedence for this in consumer marketing.
But let's say Blizzard won't go for it. No big deal, there are many other online gaming publishers out there and there is a high chance one of them will say yes if the rest of your pitch provides the one thing they want to know: how many potential customers will watch it?
Rule #2 Be Shrewd When Casting Your Talent
If I was the casting director, this is how I'd do my casting. The names below are all web TV celebrities who, I believe, would be capable of performing the role and have large audiences that will appeal to Blizzard and other advertisers. And by 'role' I don't mean a carbon copy of the original Office characters. I mean fulfilling the ROLE they perform in the story. The backgrounds of the characters will be original, but the relationship dynamics and basic persona of the characters will be the same as their The Office counter-parts:
- Michael Scott - Doug Walker
- Jan Levinson - Olga Kay
- Dwight Schrute - Leigh Daniel Avidan
- Jim Halpert - Arin Hanson
- Pam Beesly - Lindsay Ellis
- Kevin Malone - Andre Meadows
- Darryl Philbin - DeStorm Power
- Meredith Palmer - Katie Wilson
- Angela Martin - Jenna Marbles
- Kelly Kapoor - Franchesca Ramsey
- Ryan Howard - Nice Peter
Boom, there you go. Millions of folks will watch this show.
If you are confused, it's okay. That's what screenwriters are for. Anyone versed in monomyth structure will know what to do, so once you get the show funded you can hire some writers to crank the scripts out. So, why did I specifically single out the above actors as the cast for this show? There are three things you are looking for in your casting;
- Combined audience sizes of the talent,
- The demographics of those audiences
- The on-screen chemistry between the talent
I know that all the Channel Awesome folks like Doug Walker and Lindsay Ellis can work together because they do it all the time, and I know Arin Hanson and Danny Avidan can have a Jim / Dwight style relationship because they already do it on Game Grumps. I also know that many of the other talent have worked in the past with Nice Peter on Epic Rap Battles of History. Andre Meadows and Katie Wilson are also frequent collaborators.
Best of all, almost all of these actors have their own personal YouTube channels. You can actually use a screenshot from their YouTube analytics pages to show your advertisers the precise demographics the talent already possess on their own shows, and this inferrers if they all do a show together that their audiences will combine like Voltron.
And if you can't get one of the YouTubers to commit to the show, no big deal. You don't have to get Olga Kay; there are a thousand and one female YouTubers who do the exact same type of comedy she does and have the exact same audience. One of them will take the role Olga Kay turned down so they can brag about it when the show is ultra successful. Advertisers and investors only care about the demographic reach of the talent, not the talent themselves.
Rule #3 Hire a Killer Crew
You can cast whoever you want as crew. Really, it doesn't matter. Okay, sure. Anyone who works in the biz knows that having fantastic crew totally matters a lot. It makes or breaks the production. But the people giving you money do not care about the crew at all because the world's greatest editor and sound guy have no audience to help promote the show.
So really, it doesn't matter who you hire as crew. They don't need to be mentioned in the pitch deck at all. The only thing that matters is the talent and the audience they can bring to the table. Just make sure you hire people who can actually perform their jobs as a professional and produce quality work. Someone might ask to see your Director of Photography's demo reel just to make sure he / she knows how to operate a camera and light a scene, but that's the only reason.
Rule #4 Make Pitch Decks
You need two types of pitch decks; one for advertisers, and one for investors. Do not confuse the two, as while both will be bankrolling your production, each group have different motivations.
Advertisers are companies like Blizzard. They just want to get more customers to their service through exposure, and (usually) don't really care about receiving a cut of the show's revenue. They are in the business of selling a service or product, not making movies. Investors are different; they want a cut of the show's profits. They want to put X amount of money into your show and get back Y amount in return.
They both speak similar languages, but investors are much more risk averse than advertisers because the investor uses his / her personal wealth to fund your show, whereas companies will be using a small portion of their overall annual marketing budget so even if the show completely tanks the chances of it causing them financial ruin are slim to none.
This is why you usually need to get advertisers before you can get investors. The absolute ideal situation for an investor is to invest into "growth"; that is, something that has already produced money. If you have advertisers who have already paid you then investors are much more willing to give you more money because it demonstrates growth.
So basically, your advertising deck is going to be like this:
- Slide 1: Show treatment and concept
- Slide 2: Talent in the show
- Slide 3: Audience demographics of the talent
- Slide 4: How much money you want from the advertiser for different tiers of promotion, mostly integrated brand sponsorships.
Your deck for investors will be nearly identical to the advertiser deck except you replace Slide 4 with how much money advertisers have already given you and add a fifth slide that explains how much money you are asking from investors and how their money will be returned (for example, a cut of future ad earnings). Bear in mind, investors should only get a cut of the money for those episodes they actually helped fund.
If you are only raising money for Season 1, do not give them profits from future Seasons. You will need to go back to your original investors for more money when you need to produce Season 2, 3, 4 etc and if they already get a cut of those seasons they have no incentive to invest again. Some investors will try to get a slice of licensing rights and so on. Don't give it to them; that's what you as the producing studio need to keep for yourself to turn a profit. The brand needs to belong to you, not someone who gave you a few thousand dollars to produce a dozen episodes.
Rule #5 Get a Lawyer. Seriously, Get a Lawyer
If you get advertisers and investors who want to give you money, great! Now it's time to do the contracts. Everything must be in writing with clear expectations written in black ink. Verbal agreements and handshakes are not enforceable things. Remember, if it's not in the contract then it doesn't exist. I am not a lawyer and I am not giving you legal advice. I took a course in paralegal studies during college so I am capable of reading and writing my own contracts, but even I defer to the judgement of lawyers when large amounts of cash start flying around. A decent entertainment lawyer will take their commission fee out of the money you collect from everyone else.
You also need contracts for your talent. It needs to be clear how much they will be paid and what % of any royalties the talent will earn. If your talent is SAG-AFTRA you're gonna get screwed pretty heavily because the guild's rules are designed for major networks who spend a million dollars an episode whereas you will more likely spend $10,000 an episode. They will try to make you hire all kinds of union people you don't need to produce a TV show these days, and enforce all kinds of stupid rules that will slow down production for you. If at all possible avoid hiring union talent and just pay everyone at scale yourself.
Your talent's contracts should also require the talent to do promotion for the show, such as sharing the video on social profiles, attending panels at conventions and whatnot. Remember you are hiring the talent specifically because the advertisers want to reach their fanbases. I've heard many horror stories about people producing web shows and hiring big name talent who never once share the show with anyone and it causes the show to fail. Make sure your talent is contractually obligated to promote the show or they don't get paid.
Now Produce the Show
Congrats, pre-production is over! It's time to produce your show! It's time to write that script and then go film it. You are on your own from here. And if you screw everything up and get sued by your investors, you'll sure be glad you hired that lawyer!