When I attended Stareable Fest 2018 a few months back, I was super lucky to be able to sit on the pitch competition’s panel of judges. We heard almost 2 dozen pitches and there wasn’t a dog in the bunch. But the cold reality was that there was only one unscripted presentation in all those pitches. That wasn’t Starebale’s fault, that’s just a testament to how few series creators trying to break into the industry are interested in unscripted.
I get it, scripted content is the stuff we fell in love with. It’s the stuff we see in our heads all day and the stuff we grew up wanting to make. In scripted, it’s more like the ¾ count of rock & roll as opposed to the wild jazz version that is unscripted. You have total control over the vision and a script is a clear roadmap to what a final project can be. You can clearly see it before you even shoot frame one. In unscripted, one needs to ride a less predictable path with non-actor talent and live locations. Scripted is sexy as hell. It’s glamorous and has the potential for true artistry. Great creators can become super-stars of the motion picture world overnight and they sure as hell get invited to better parties than their unscripted counterparts. I mean, you never hear someone say, “Did you see that last Billy Parks unscripted series. It totally rocked”.
But unscripted web series, by a magnitude of ten, sell faster and more frequently than their scripted counterparts. Below are 4 reasons why.
Unscripted series’ don’t rely on expensive onscreen talent – Unscripted leans on real-life people that usually aren’t in the industry and don’t require the much larger fees associated with known, onscreen talent. Acquiring that level of talent for a scripted series can constitute the majority of your budget. From a budgetary as well as an access standpoint, unscripted talent is a bargain where studios are concerned. Whereas, convincing even a moderately successful actor to attach themselves to an unknown filmmaker’s project is difficult. They can afford to be choosy in what projects they get involved with.
Shorter production schedules – While there is always a schedule unscripted producers are working with, unscripted productions can be shot on a much leaner timetable with a much smaller crew and fewer complicated set-ups. In scripted however, it simply takes longer to shoot each episode. It’s just a more meticulous process that demands time due to more complex lighting and scenic considerations. Even though we’ve all shot an episode of our personal work in a day, when someone else is paying for it there are completely different expectations when a studio gets involved.
Fewer people and resources – Unscripted has fewer needs for crew, particularly in the lighting, wardrobe and art departments. Compared to scripted, unscripted crews can be quite skeletal even on larger productions. As stated above, scripted requires a greater number of specialists like larger grip & electric crews, art department, wardrobe and a more robust production management team.
4 . More sponsorship opportunities – Whenever sponsors consider where they’re going to place their bets, they look for more bang for the buck every time. Because big stories can be told at a much lower price tag in unscripted, sponsors tend to invest in more of these types of projects. They can incorporate their products just as easily and get similar results. Plus, in the event of a failure, they just aren’t hit as hard and can mitigate the financial sting a lot easier.
With scripted however, there needs to be a host of very precise considerations. Namely, who is the talent attached? Do they feel the script is safe enough for their brand? Comedies tend to be their safest bet and as we’ve all seen, the web series world has no shortage of those, so as creators, one finds themselves in a pretty crowded marketplace. On the flipside of that genre pancake, thrillers, sci-fi and horror tend to have darker themes and therefore are much less “brand friendly”. Horror, in most cases, is the toughest sell. Just try to get TARGET to buy into your epic slasher series, what with the severed limbs and all.
I realize that many creators just aren’t interested in making unscripted projects and I’m not suggesting you scrap your narrative dreams. However, if business considerations and selling more projects are front of mind, unscripted is a vastly more lucrative venture.
I’m also not suggesting that scripted is a no-go should you decide to take this unscripted path for the time-being. I’m living proof that you can do both. I started my career in the doc world and got known as someone who could tell unique stories that people watched, so I was given opportunities to create scripted content based on that success.
In the end, studios are conservative. They are always weighing risk vs. reward and stories about unique people in unique situations that don’t cost a ton make great business sense for buyers. This is why we see so many of them investing in unscripted. On the other hand, we as creators often find ourselves balancing artistic expression vs. paying the bills and there is no easy answer, but unscripted can be a place where you can get a lot more opportunity to express ourselves and make money while doing it.