The internet is amazing. No longer are you confined to the people who you physically see day to day for potential friends. As such, many artistic collaborations now begin on the internet, or are largely carried out over the internet. And because web series are, by definition, film projects intended to be uploaded to the internet, there is a lot of long-distance collaboration within the community.
As idyllic as this global community is, long-distance producing is complicated. I talked to several web series creators who spend either part or all of their production long-distance to hear how they dealt with it.
Some of the challenges we all had in common:
- Margins of error
Define your goals. As Jonathan Kaplan @jonathankyall from Killing It puts it, “be unified in your dream.” The only way to ensure a project gets completed in spite of distance is getting everyone on the same page. “These projects are all self-driven, so if there is no particular goal in mind-- the project will fail,” Marianne Bayard, also of Killing It, explains. “Life gets busy-- if we want to keep the project alive-- we need to continue to have something we are working for, and it can't just be some vague idea.” What are you making, what is your timeline, and how will all members of the team come together to achieve that goal?
Define your roles. Once your goal is in place, what part will each team member play in making that happen? Oftentimes on smaller production, you won’t have separate departments, you’ll have like five people all doing the work of ten other people. What falls under each person’s purview? Play to strengths- the organized person should be in charge of scheduling, the outgoing person should be communicating with locations and sponsors, the person who knows how to use the camera should be in charge of equipment and filming, etc. This is especially important for the team members who can’t be on site for much of the process.
Chelsey Saatkamp @chelsaat, a producer with Apple Juice Productions (Cate Morland Chronicles, Lily Evans and the Eleventh Hour, Stoneybrook Revisited), is based in New York, while the productions themselves take place in Utah. She explains that “it's important to let the rest of the cast and crew know about your role upfront, so even though they may not see you as often, they know who you are and where all these demanding emails are coming from.”
Clarify accountability up front. A unified dream isn’t quite enough, though, if members of the team have differing levels of dedication. That’s not always a problem, but when distance is added to the equation, every teammate has to hold up their side of the project otherwise no one else can hold theirs up effectively. This is where a contract might come in handy- what are the expectations for each person? What are they accountable for, and if they fail to come through in the appropriate timeline, what is plan B? Plan G?
Communicate constantly and consistently. “I honestly don't feel that disconnected from my team because we talk pretty much every day,” Chelsey admits. “We [also] do weekly check-ins via video call to go over our tasks.” Marianne said much the same. “We would schedule [times to talk] and do our best to keep to them; they were not social calls but work calls. I think of the project as work sometimes; it's not all fun and games.” Furthermore, RJ Davies, co-creator of dusk of the dead, encourages you to not “overthink messages via text; you're probably missing context.”
Another part of this communication is being open to making changes to the process. Chris Hadley’s @filmwritr4 series, The Late Late News, “splits production between Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Los Angeles, California, where our lead actor James Chillingworth currently resides. In season 1, he filmed his scenes in his hometown of Toronto, Canada, where he's originally from. The rest of my cast - Manny Fajardo and Paula Shreve - reside in Baton Rouge, and we film their scenes there. In addition, our editor, Daryn Murphy, is located in Florida. We also have 2 new writers, Kriss Sprules (located in the U.K.) and Matt Barnard (based in Ohio).”
In order to keep the project moving forward, Chris has frequent Google Hangouts with his team, emphasizing being open to “suggestions on how to make [the process] better,” because in good communication, listening is just as important as talking.
Emphasize trust over loyalty. More than anything else on this list, you need to be able to trust the people you’re working with. Being friends with someone or being a fan of their previous work does not necessarily translate to being good collaborators. If you cannot trust your teammates, because they don’t communicate, or they’re consistently late, or they don’t do the tasks they’ve agreed to, you should probably walk away. Everyone will deal with this differently, and sometimes, breaking off a collaboration won’t be met with acceptance and understanding, but that’s a risk you have to take if you take yourself and your project seriously.
Google Drive and Dropbox. Every producer I spoke with mentioned Google Drive as a key way to stay organized long distance. You can share spreadsheets, documents, photos, and files instantly, without having to make new files every time a change is made. Dropbox is similar, but more skewed towards files like videos, photos, and audio, because you can’t create and edit content within Dropbox itself. Fair warning: with film projects, you’ll eat through your free space on these sites pretty quickly, so either make offline backups of older materials no longer needed, or be willing to pay a little extra per month to keep everything up. It’s actually only $2/month for 100 GB of Google Drive storage space, and personally, I can tell you- it’s worth it.
WriterDuet. Google Drive is pretty holistic in its use for people in different places to edit a document at the same time, but its formatting isn’t built for screenwriters. That’s where WriterDuet comes in- a free cloud-based screenwriting program that allows you to collaborate on a script with as many people as you want at the exact same time. It’s also great because everyone always has access to the most updated version of the script- no more trading emails with attachments and hoping that the version your co-writer is editing isn’t from three months ago.
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Agendas. Even when I’m producing “in person” and not long-distance, for every meeting I have with collaborators, I write an agenda, and share it on Google Docs with other meeting attendees so we’re all on the same page. I’ll also usually send the agenda a day or two before the meeting so other team members can add notes or other items I might have forgotten/not known about. It’s essentially a road map for what we need to achieve and discuss at that meeting. Usually, the first item is updates- what has each team member done since the last meeting? Is there something they’re having trouble with, or haven’t completed? This is a good time to let us know so we can readjust our schedule and workflow accordingly.
Next, we’ll talk about the project’s progress, problems or concerns we’re having, schedules, and make decisions on whatever’s coming up. I’ve found the best way to organize these meetings and stay on track is to write out the agenda in the order you wish to tackle each item.
Shared to-do lists. At the end of each agenda, I add a link to a separate To Do List document, which is the last part of each meeting. Each person has a section, and as a team, we condense the decisions and discussions from the meeting into actionable tasks to complete. That way, everyone knows what they need to complete next in order to keep the project on schedule, and they know what everyone else is doing. It allows for accountability and transparency in the production process, and it inherently defines the roles of each team member. If possible, have team members mark tasks as they complete them, so everyone always knows what things still need to get done and can offer help.
Long distance producing is never ideal, but sometimes that can’t be helped. As Marianne puts it- “if you have to [long-distance produce], the only way it's going to work is if you want it REALLY BAD. If you don't want it really bad- it's too much hassle, too much money or too much stress, then let it go and do something else. This work is an uphill battle.”
I would go further and say that if you’re considering long-distance producing, make sure that you have defined goals, defined roles, transparent accountability, effective communication, and trust. No picking and choosing- you have all those items, or you don’t do the project. None of them work without the others, and you and your project are worth holding out for the best, I promise you.