You can’t have it all. The Stareable Film School blog has a lot to say about doing each part of production to the best of your abilities, but at the end of the day, unless you’re independently wealthy and a close personal friend of Lupita Nyong’o, you’re going to need to pick your battles. The best way to do so is to define the goal of making your web series and understand the priorities and sacrifices that come with that choice, as listed and explained below.
As always, I’m not saying this list is definite- everyone’s situation and opportunity is different, and maybe you’re the exception to the rule. However, we all need to accept that as indie creators, we can’t do it all, and in order to give ourselves, our teams, and our projects the best chance to succeed, we need to be thoughtful about the way we go about our process.
Goal: Gain an online audience
Prioritize: Story, multiple episodes, marketing, and base competency
Sacrifice: Long episodes, multiple locations, large casts, quick results
But Why? Gaining an online audience is allegedly (we’ll get to this) the biggest reason why people make content for the web, for good reason. An audience is validating, raises your profile to decision makers and industry connections, and might even help pay you to continue making the content you love. Building an audience is also incredibly time-consuming, and I’m exclusively talking about the work occuring after the project is already shot. Due to the amount of money and time and favors you’re going to spend just in the marketing phase, I recommend, at least for your first project or two, trading longer episodes with more locations and cast with more episodes, so you have more runway for your marketing efforts to succeed.
Of course, you also need to, as Snobby Robot puts it, ‘deliver the goods.’ So make sure your story is solid and your show is watchable on a technical level. There’s always room for improvement as your profile rises and your resources bulk up, but an audience has to start somewhere.
Goal: Sell concept to TV
Prioritize: Pilot, season screenplay, festivals
Sacrifice: Multiple produced episodes, transmedia, marketing
But Why? Let’s all be real with each other: when we say our goal is to gain an audience, what we really mean is that with enough attention we’re hoping to be the next High Maintenance or Broad City. Fair enough. But if TV is actually your goal, building an audience might not actually be the only (or best) way to get there. With a beautifully produced pilot, a solid season’s worth of scripts, and some festival acceptances, you might not be seen by everyone, but you’ll have a much higher likelihood to being seen by the right people. It’s rare that industry executives browse YouTube in their spare time, but they definitely send emissaries to festivals to check out the fresh meat pre-chosen by festival programmers. And when people with decision-making power do check out your work, they’re far more likely to consume a pilot then they are to consume a 30 episode season, no matter how great the episode 7 twist is. They’re busy people, so make your first impression count, because it’s likely all they’ll see.
Goal: Showcase [insert skillset here] for future employment
Prioritize: That skill, base competency, festivals
Sacrifice: Anything that doesn’t immediately serve that skill, marketing
But Why? Even writers benefit from a visual portfolio piece, and certainly cinematographers and actors and directors are hard-pressed to prove themselves without a visual component on their resumes. A web series is a great “show, don’t tell” tool- far more persuasive than spending five minutes explaining that your greatest weakness is that you work too hard. But if the point is to showcase your screenwriting, maybe don’t worry so much about lengthy establishing shots of the beautiful lake and a four-minute single-take tracking shot around the winding spaceship corridors. Instead, tell a great story with compelling dialog and submit to a few festivals in that category so you can add “award-winning” to the beginning of your role for extra resume/reel flavor.
Goal: Make money
Prioritize: Researching brands/partners, versatile script, pilot, marketing
Sacrifice: Multiple episodes, season scripts, full creative control
But Why? From what I understand, the few ways you can make money from a web series specifically (eschewing multiple revenue streams for the purposes of this conversation) are selling merchandise, finding a distributor that pays, setting up a subscription service for superfans (a la Patreon), or partnering with a brand. As such, similar to wanting to sell to TV, you should focus on an amazing first impression (a great pilot) and then building an audience around that content promise to leverage with buyers and distributors. Or if you want to go the true independent route and use that content promise to get people psyched enough to want to pay to make the rest of it, like the creators of Binge. In any case, make a single something great and don’t make more until someone gives you the money to do so.
Goal: Increase representation
Prioritize: Tropes research, base competency, marketing
Sacrifice: Large cast/crew, multiple locations
But Why? Often a project comes together because a creator gets frustrated with the lack of representation of some subset of humanity, like Gal Pals and lesbian representation or Sam and Pat Are Depressed and mental health awareness or Binge and people with eating disorders. The thing I want to emphasize here is that there’s a reason traditional media keeps telling the same stories- the people who want those stories have had more experience, have more power in decision making, and have the benefit of being seen as the default, so they don’t have to try as hard. One bad white guy action movie doesn’t immediately flag all future white guy action movies as not worth it, but we all remember the Sony hack and how long it took female superheroes to bounce back from Catwoman and Elektra.
As such, if your goal is to increase representation, you need to first, make sure your story avoids or recognizes certain harmful tropes for those communities, and second, make sure your series is good. Is that fair? Of course not. I wish we were in a world where subpar straight rom coms and subpar queer rom coms were judged with the same scorecard, but they’re not. You don’t have to be perfect, but you have to be thoughtful and watchable.
Goal: Tell a story you couldn’t tell any other way
Prioritize: Script, actors, project completion, base competency
Sacrifice: Marketing, quick results
But Why? There’s a difference between making a show and telling a story. There’s a happy medium, but if your main goal is just to tell a story, tell it! Don’t worry about the rest. It may take longer to get it right- it’s a passion project after all, and passion is rarely an efficient thing to chase- and it may not find a broad audience since the story, not the promotion, was the focus.
Goal: Finish a project
Prioritize: Finishing the project, scheduling in advance, deadlines
Sacrifice: Marketing, base competency, ambitious elements
But Why? Sometimes the best way to start your career or the best way to get your groove back in a period of artistic doubt is to just finish something. Maybe it’ll never see the light of day. Maybe it shouldn’t. But finishing something is as worthy a creative goal as anything else on this list, so give yourself permission to chill out. Just finish it, learn from it, and use it as a jumping off point. Rome and film careers aren’t built in a day, but that first day is still crucial.