“The goal from the beginning was just to create something tangible and exist creatively,” M.H. Murray, the creator and jack-of-all-trades filmmaker behind the award-winning web series teenagers says. “I really believe that having the guts to create art and put it out there into the universe to be critiqued is a success in itself. Everything else is a bonus.”
Murray hails from Toronto, Canada, and started teenagers while he was in school for film production at York University. Since that start, teenagers has garnered international acclaim and stars a cast with resumes including credits on Degrassi, Orphan Black, and more. We spoke with Murray as he prepared to release his third and final season about his journey thus far and where he hopes to go next.
Stareable: When did you know you wanted to work in the entertainment industry, and how did you ‘get your start’?
M.H. Murray: I started a YouTube channel when I was in high school, around the age of 15. My friends and I would produce short films, skits, commentary videos, essentially a lot of low-budget, low-quality stuff. I ended up deleting that channel after I graduated because I wanted to work on more “serious” content. I was watching Awkward Black Girl religiously on YouTube and was inspired to create a web-based piece. I love Issa Rae so, so much. Eventually, in my second year of film school, teenagers was born from that inspiration. My co-creator Sara and I rounded up fellow film students and got the ball rolling ourselves. It was through teenagers — going to festivals, building an audience on YouTube, etc — that I was able to make connections, meet producers, and start to learn the ins and outs of the business.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self as he began his entertainment career?
I would tell myself to make realistic deadlines. That’s the toughest thing, creating deadlines for yourself and sticking to them. You have to learn how to hold yourself accountable when you’re starting out because no one is going to do it for you. At the same time, I don’t regret anything, and wouldn’t want to change my trajectory, because I think the naïveté and obliviousness of my 19-year-old self helped me in a lot of ways. As I grow up and learn more about how difficult it is to get work funded and released in this industry, I inevitably become more cynical, so I think starting out as early as I did, before the cynicism, was a blessing. I think the realities of the business can get in the way and sort of bog you down creatively, because once you start working on an idea, inevitably, your brain wanders to “How will this get funded?” “Will anyone want to watch this?” “What am I doing?” Looking back, I feel lucky that I was so motivated to get a head start on things, despite my general lack of knowledge at the time.
You successfully crowdfunded for this series - what do you attribute to your success in that area and what advice do you have for other creators going that route?
The first two seasons were funded out of pocket. The third season we crowdfunded. All three seasons were produced on a very shoestring budget. The best advice I can give is to try creating something with no money, try to build an audience online, and then try to leverage that audience to gather some funding or support. It’s harder than it sounds, but I do think that people, especially on crowdfunding platforms, want to put their money behind something that they recognize and already enjoy watching.
The teenagers cast is an impressive collection of actors - how did you assemble them, and was it a difficult casting process to get a group with as much chemistry?
As a writer and director, it’s a gift to work with such generous and talented actors. They’re all incredibly gifted and I feel so, so lucky to work with them. It all came about back in 2013 when I approached Emmanuel Kabongo with the scripts, and together we searched the city for the best actors we could find. A lot of determination and also a lot of luck. As the series went on and became popular, it became easier to convince more actors to get involved in subsequent seasons.
Why did you decide to start Black Elephant Productions, and how has having an official production company changed your production and future projects?
Having a production company means more costs and more paperwork, but in the end, it’s important to establish something for yourself, I think. I incorporated the company in 2015 and I’m still learning the ropes, but so far, I don’t regret it. I hope to continue to produce projects under Black Elephant and hopefully, one day, help others produce their projects, too.
What is your marketing outlook, and what do you and your team tend to focus on to help spread the word about your projects?
I don’t have much of a marketing strategy, honestly. The success of teenagers has been very organic. It sprouted out of Toronto at a time when a lot of local actors were buzzing and the people in the city were very supportive of the project from the start. Once it was online, the viewership grew and grew to the point where, now, they’re waiting for the next episode. Once an audience gets invested in a story, you don’t have to convince them to watch, but of course, a catchy title and a good thumbnail never hurts. I also think that reaching out and interacting with your fans on social media, especially Twitter, helps to build that base and maintain buzz. The most important thing for us in terms of garnering prestige and attention has been submitting to festivals and awards shows and, in turn, weaving our way into the fabric of the web series community. It’s a very supportive community. I think we all want to see each other succeed.
If you could have any career you wanted and not have to worry about money, what would that career look like? Would you be in traditional media, would you want to stay in the indie sphere, or what?
I try not to view it as a binary. I think the only difference between “traditional media” and the “indie sphere” is money. So, if money was no object, I would just create as much work as possible with all of the artists I love until I drop dead.
What is the best lesson you’ve learned while self-producing projects, and what is your favorite thing about doing them?
The best lesson I’ve learned is to try and make every dollar count. Filmmaking is magical, but it’s also expensive and extremely exhausting. That being said, I think there is always a way to make it work if you’re determined and if you surround yourself with people who believe in you and your vision.
Any advice for other creators in the web series world who want to learn from your success?
Start as soon as possible and learn how to beg with manners.
What’s next for Black Elephant? New series, new short films, or as many seasons of teenagers as you can produce?
This is the final season of teenagers (for now). I’m ready to explore other characters and other worlds. Right now, I have a couple of projects in the pipeline, including a new series and a feature film, both thrillers.
What are your favorite web series?
Awkward Black Girl and High Maintenance would probably be my top two. I also recently binged a web series called Twenty, because it was recommended alongside my teenagers episodes on YouTube. I fell in love with it. It’s hilarious and it centers queer people and it’s just a great, scrappy little show. They’re actually crowdfunding season 2 right now!