September 29, 2017

5 Crucial Lessons for Making Your First Web Series

Let Me Die a Nun
Here's what you need to know before you take that leap of faith.

[Editor's Note: NFS asked Sarah Salovaara to write up these tips based on her experiences making the web series 'Let Me Die a Nun'.]

Aspiring filmmakers are told time and again that the most exciting opportunities today lie not in the obsolescent three-act feature, but in the shape-shifting formats of web content, interactive gaming and VR. The most sought after deep pockets belong to digital media companies and streaming networks rather than traditional production outfits. Between funding opportunities and the internet’s status as the world’s favorite 24-hour theater, the web series has seen a major uptick in popularity over the last handful of years.

So I decided to jump in and make one of my own. Below are some things that I learned over the couple of years spent making and shopping around my six-part series, Let Me Die a Nun, about a lesbian nun and her Jewish stalker, starring Ana Fabrega, Hari Nef and Carl Kranz. 

1. Determine why your story warrants the structure

There are many reasons to make a web series, but perhaps the most facile one rests on the viral video thesis that the internet rewards hurried filmmaking with a punchline. I came to the realization that I wanted to make Let Me Die a Nun a series through the writing process. What began as an essay morphed into a short story and then into a series of vignettes that alternated between the two main characters, Ursula and Robert. I eventually settled on making Ursula the sole protagonist, but I utilized the episodic structure as a means to mirror her internal conflict of whether or not she should stay in the church. In one episode, she would pursue her lesbian inclinations; the next, she would retreat back to the comfort of the convent. I also found that the structure allowed me to write out any expository, connective tissue between episodes and concentrate more on dry, situational comedy than plot points.

"Platforms will generally want to invest in an audience rather than season one of a brand new show." 

2. Don’t wait for permission, but don’t wait for a deal either

As mentioned in the introduction, web series are a hot commodity at the moment, for makers and distributors alike. I bullishly assumed that I could make Let Me Die a Nun independently and sell it to a streaming service after the fact, but the reality is that said sites still have very few success stories to point to that warrant a post-acquisition. Series like High Maintenance and The Outs were scooped up by Vimeo only after putting out episodes on their own dime and demonstrating success with their respective audiences in the shape of clicks and press.

In most of my conversations, I found that companies were interested in the idea for my show but wanted full ownership of it, not a pre-produced final product. I still believe an independently-produced series can be successful as far as generating critical and audience interest, but you should be aware that platforms will generally want to invest in an audience rather than season one of a brand new show. Hopefully, season two or three or four is a different story.

Director Sarah Salovaara and Ana Fabrega in 'Let Me Die a Nun'
Director Sarah Salovaara and Ana Fabrega (Ursula) on the set of 'Let Me Die a Nun'.Credit: Courtesy of the filmmakers

3. Be flexible with scene order across episodes

This one applies to the editing process regardless of what type of project you are making, but it bears repeating that you should be prepared to kill your script/darlings when cutting. Some people make web series with standalone episodes, but Let Me Die a Nun was more like a traditional television serial in that it had a narrative arc across all six episodes. Even so, during the edit, I realized that some scenes made more sense in other episodes rather than the ones they were written for. The costume continuity of Ursula (she wears a habit for all but the first episode) allowed me to experiment with scene order and I frequently moved scenes in and out of order to better handle the parallel narratives of the two leading characters. 

"You have to be both a little shameless and a lot less precious."

4. Once it’s released, make connecting with an audience your priority

As mentioned in point #2, finding your audience for any web-based content is key, if only because the barriers to entry are much lower than projects that receive limited theatrical distribution, are installation based, and so forth. Because Let Me Die a Nun deals with LGBTQ subject matter, I reached out to queer publications, like Out, and lesbian writers, like AfterEllen’s former Editor-in-Chief Trish Bendix for coverage opportunities.

In trying to promote anything, I’ve found that you have to be both a little shameless and a lot less precious. You almost have to dissociate from what you’ve created and look at its molecular components and consider what aspects are going to appeal to which people—and then do your best to get the series in front of them. 

DP Ashley Connor and director Sarah Salovaara on the set of 'Let Me Die a Nun'
DP Ashley Connor and director Sarah Salovaara on the set of 'Let Me Die a Nun'Credit: Courtesy of the filmmakers

5. Don’t dismiss screening opportunities

Even though a web series’ final resting place is the internet, I still think there’s nothing like getting a bunch of people in a room to watch the finished product. Many of the bigger American festivals—Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca—now have webseries sidebars, but there are also festivals that are strictly dedicated to serial formats, like the New York Television Festival, where Let Me Die a Nun will play in October. These opportunities allow for industry exposure and exponential growth as far as word of mouth is concerned. We also elected to do a screening and launch party the day before releasing the series online in an effort to get people talking and have a good time. 

What tips do you have for producing a web series? Let us know in the comments.     

You can watch the entire 'Let Me Die a Nun' series here

Featured image: Ana Fabrega as Ursula and Hari Nef as Katherine in 'Let Me Die a Nun'.

Your Comment

2 Comments

These are all great tips, and I love Ana Fabrega's work, so I'm excited to check out this series! I do have two more tips for producing a web series.

1) There's no way to control the order in which people watch your episodes, especially if you've got various actors making cameos throughout the series and then promoting that they're in it, as the friends of each actor are likely to just start with the episode that features the person they know. SO, if at all possible, even if you have an arc for the series, try to make it so anyone can start with any episode and fully understand the context/setup of your series. Hopefully, whatever episode they start with will hook them enough to make them want to watch the rest, and I think your chances of this will go way up if viewers are immediately able to follow what's happening. Realizing the importance of this was a crucial turning point in the writing process for our series, We Have To Move, which features 14 cameos in 6 episodes (including some faces you'll recognize from the HBO episodes of High Maintenance, ironically enough; check it out at www.danielshar.com/we-have-to-move.html).

2) In my experience, the Netflix model of making every episode available at once seems to fare better for web series than the traditional TV model of releasing a new episode every week. When we put out We Have To Move, we posted once a week for 6 weeks to remind people that all 6 episodes were available, but each week, we featured a different episode. This seemed to be a much more effective release strategy with far less diminishing returns than the one-new-episode-a-week approach we took with my other web series, Weird Copcept Album (which actually features one of SNL's new cast members and is available for you to enjoy at www.danielshar.com/weird-copcept-album.html).

September 29, 2017 at 1:45PM

0
Reply
avatar
Daniel Shar
Writer/Director
326

We did a web series and while it is not as big as popularity as others. It did get some attention and viewership. It also gave us opprtotunty to be shown at sci-fi conventions, comic cons and festivals. The series is a Doctor Who Fan Film called. T. R. A. C. E.

It’s been three years now and currently working on a feature martial arts comedy musical so my time been limited in continuing promoting it.

We may revisit the series in the near future and do a 2nd season. But year it was hard lol

September 30, 2017 at 9:51AM

12
Reply
avatar
Johnny Wu
Director, Producer, Editor
393

I received a contract from an internet channel for my web series Mile High Nancy. They were looking for investors. They wanted copyright and creative control. I would not sign it. My lawyer said rights to be assigned by producer after successful funding. So another tip is get an entertainment lawyer.
Also without a budget finding locations can be tough. But there are film friendly bars and such. I try to tailor the script to what is feasible. It can feel limiting though.

October 25, 2017 at 3:12PM

5
Reply
avatar
Nancy Fingerhood
Creator, Mile High Nancy
81