5 Crucial Lessons for Making Your First Web Series
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.
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.
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.