Why TV and Screen Writers Should Create For the Net
By Ross Brown
(adapted in part from his book Byte-Sized Television: Create Your Own TV Series for the Internet)
Let’s say your dream is to write the next Oscar-winning script like Up in the Air, or to create the next groundbreaking TV series like Modern Family or Mad Men. Suddenly, a Voice (maybe yours, maybe someone else’s) cuts in and says Hey, why don’t you write one of those web series thingies , then go out and shoot it? You snort derisively and tell the Voice “I’m a REAL writer. I don’t do that YouTube crap.”
Big mistake. You just scoffed at one of the most powerful tools for improving your craft and advancing your career.
The reasons to create web series for the Internet are nearly as varied as the Internet itself. But the reasons are all linked, in a sense, by one word: opportunity. Creative opportunity, financial opportunity, career opportunity, exposure opportunity, and the opportunity to improve your craft can all be yours if you create a great web series. You may even land the very opportunity you’ve been seeking by churning out those full-length scripts – the chance to have your work discovered and seen on TV or in a theater. Mainstream Hollywood now combs the Web each and every day looking not only for talent, but for material they can purchase and adapt into longer form.
For those skeptics who are still saying No way can a bunch of little two-minute video skits become a fully realized work like an acclaimed television series… well, I have two words for you: The Simpsons. That’s right, the most successful scripted series in the history of television started life as a bunch of short animated interstitials aired between live action sketches on The Tracy Ullman Show on Fox. In the eighties and nineties, creative execs frequented comedy clubs looking for original voices and characters upon which they could base a new TV series. Today those execs look for those fresh voices on the Web.
So join the party. Join the 21st century. And let the opportunities begin.
Broadcast and cable television are limited by all sorts of factors. They must, by necessity, appeal to a broad audience. Even if you could get a meeting with the head of a major broadcast network like CBS, she wouldn’t consider buying your idea unless she thought it would appeal to at least ten million people, most of whom already watch CBS.
The mandate to appeal to the widest possible audience is often why so much of network television is bland or derivative. Cable has a bit more freedom, but is still restricted by their core audience and its tastes, branding choices, potential advertiser objections, government regulations, on and on. The Internet, on the other hand, allows you to create the kind of content you would want to watch and seek out an audience with similar taste.
Where two million regular viewers would be considered a flop on a broadcast network, it would be a phenomenon on the Internet. Take, for example, the acclaimed Internet series quarterlife. This groundbreaking series attracted a loyal audience on the net, not to mention financial support from major advertisers like Toyota and Pepsi. But NBC gave the broadcast version of the series exactly one airing before it yanked it and threw it on the network TV reject pile.
The Opportunity to Improve Your Craft
They say every script you write is a learning experience. True enough. But if the scripts aren’t ever produced, they are in some ways an incomplete learning experience. Screenplays and TV scripts are meant to be performed, shot and edited. Unfortunately, many writers – even some who make a good living writing and selling spec scripts – never get the chance to learn from seeing their work realized on screen.
Ask any produced writer what she learned about writing from seeing her script shot and she’ll instantly reel off a laundry list of invaluable lessons. That great speech you wrote for your hero – cut in half in the editing room and thank God they did. Because when you saw the rough cut you thought holy crap that speech is endless. Who the hell writes a speech that long? Well…maybe someone who hasn’t had the chance to see her work produced.
Producing your own web series will also force you to see filmmaking from other points of view such as the director, the cinematographer, the editor, and most certainly the actors. These new perspectives will all be a tremendous writing education and will no doubt push your craft to a new level.
For those of you saying but I just write, I don’t know anything about production or editing, I’ve got great news. There are eight zillion film students out there who have all the skills (and probably the equipment) you need. They’re dying to use those skills but they need a great script first. Voila! You have the script, they have the production know-how. Win-win.
There are legions of aspiring filmmakers, college students, even high school and junior high school students who are bursting with creative ideas and video talent. They are ready, willing and able to make films today. But rare is the film studio or traditional media business willing to take a chance on “unproven” talent. The aspiring filmmaker, even one with a degree from a prestigious brand-name film school, usually finds he must start at the bottom, fetching coffee and running errands. It can easily be ten years or more before you’ve “paid your dues” and earned the opportunity to do what you set out to do in the first place, make films. On the Internet, however, all that matters is your work. You create your series, make your webisodes, post them, and let the audience decide if you’re ready to direct or not.
Career opportunities also abound for working film and video professionals who want to stretch their creative boundaries. Maybe you’re an assistant director, a grip, gaffer, an editor, or other worker in the film or television business who yearns to tell stories of his own but who will never be taken seriously as a potential writer/director because the industry has pigeonholed you as “crew” rather than “creative.” The Internet allows you stretch beyond these boundaries and prove your creative abilities.
Creative people in a variety of artistic pursuits are discovering the enormous power of the Internet to serve as a giant calling card for their talents. The Groundlings, a legendary Los Angeles improvisational theater troupe that helped launched the likes of Lisa Kudrow, Will Ferrell and others, has spent decades performing in their 99-seat theater. But after shooting the spoof “David Blaine Street Magic” in the alley behind their theater and posting it on YouTube, the video racked up 18 million plays. That’s the power of the Internet. If the Groundlings performed the sketch in their theater to sold-out audiences every night, it would take 181,818 performances or over 6,000 years to reach an audience of 18 million. On the Internet, it happened in a matter of months and scored the group a contract to provide 50 webisodes for Sony’s Crackle.com site.
On the Internet there are no gatekeepers to tell you why you can’t do what you know you can, and virtually no limits to the size of the audience you can reach if your work goes viral and becomes a phenomenon. If you make a great web series – and market it well (another topic for another day) - the audience will find it. To paraphrase the mysterious voice in the corn field in the film Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.”
Hosting sites like Revver and vume (pronounce “view me”) match advertisers with content and share the revenue stream with creators. While it is highly unlikely you’ll get rich this way, it is entirely possible to take in enough ad money to pay for the ongoing production of your series – in a sense paying for more of your higher writing education and giving you more free exposure. Moreover, videomakers are invited to post their work at no charge, as opposed to most film and video festivals that charge an entry fee.
The Ultimate Opportunity – Fun!
Making movies is hard work. It presents endless challenges and frustrations. But bottom line – it’s also a blast. That’s why you got into this whole writing thing in the first place, isn’t it? Because you love watching TV and going to the movies and can’t think of anything more exciting than dreaming up your own stories and seeing them on the screen. If only someone would give you a chance.
Well, thanks to the Internet and inexpensive digital technology, that someone can be you. So go forth and create. Advance your career. Educate yourself. And entertain the rest of us. We’re dying to see what you come up with.
Meet the Author: Ross Brown
ROSS BROWN has written for and produced some of the most successful TV series of all time, including The Cosby Show, Who’s the Boss?, and Step By Step. He has created primetime series for ABC, CBS, and the WB. Ross teaches at Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University, one of the top film schools in the country, where he created the groundbreaking ‘Byte-Sized Television’ courses.