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Producing a Web Series—A Short Overview
06.03.11
The other night, I met up with a friend of a friend who is looking to produce a web series. He had seen my web series, liked it, and wanted to know the nuts and bolts of how to create something like that. I was happy to share.
 
I'd like to broadly think that I'm more than happy to help folks like this -- but I also remember very vividly how much other people helped me when I was trying to produce my web series. Keep in mind -- I had zero experience before that -- I never shot short films or anything like that when I was young so it was completely foreign to me. That being said -- I had quite a number of really accomplished people who lent me great advice for free. Some of them eventually came on in more official capacities but just quickly -- some of the folks who advised me included:
 
My friend Kate who has a great web series called the Actor Diaries [link] off of which she got signed to development deals with Fremantle Media (producers of American Idol) and Fox International.
Chris Tashima who has an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short.
Milton Justice who has an Academy Award for Best Documentary. 
I mention these individuals and their backgrounds because they obviously have some great accomplishments and yet were so willing to help. Not that there's necessarily an inverse correlation between the two -- but I think that is often unexpected or, at the minimum, people can be shy in approaching these types of individuals.
 
I hear all these stories about how crazy / terrible / selfish / etc. people in "Hollywood" or "L.A." are -- and I've broadly had the opposite experience. I've found folks here to be scrappy, motivated, and quite generous. I have been exposed to the crazy elements too -- don't get me wrong -- but to be blunt, it's not that dissimilar than the crazy elements of other industries I've been involved with. My point here is that if you reach out to folks for help -- not all of them will say yes and not all of them will be helpful, but some will say yes and they can make a big difference -- they certainly did for me.
 
One additional thing before I begin. This individual (his name is Tim) -- he's a recent grad who majored in History but got really interested in film because of his senior thesis. To help educate himself, over the course of 1 summer -- he PA'ed 11 student films (6 at Columbia, 5 at NYU.) If you know anything about being a PA or student films -- you know how brutal this is but speaks incredibly highly to how motivated and scrappy someone like this must be. I was really impressed.
 
I'll probably write more postings on particular specifics of producing at later points but I wanted to give a short overview.
 
The Writing
This was probably the hardest part for me. Writing was very foreign to me and something that I frankly hadn't done that much of up to then (besides standard business writing.) I only took 1 class -- John Hindman had a class at iO West on Screenwriting and beyond that, I had read some of the standard screenwriting books that you hear floating around. If you look at the credits list on my web series -- you'll see I had a lot of writing consultants. I ended up getting help from lots of folks -- some were domain experts (like one who is a management consultant herself) while most were actual writers. Usually comedy but sometimes folks who just are really good with structure. These people exist -- if you go to UCB, iO West, the PIT, etc. -- they all offer screenwriting classes and I'm sure all the instructors freelance. If you're looking for more traditional folks (i.e. folks who probably have more standard film credits) -- they're a little harder to find since there isn't as obvious a home for them, but they're out there. John Hindman is a good example. He had a film at Sundance the first year I went and I couldn't believe that he taught classes -- I took his class and afterwards asked him to tutor me privately. He agreed and even offered to do it for free (I paid him, but still, his initial rationale was, "Others did this for me, I'll do it for you."
 
My one feeling on writing is this though. You'll know what you need. Maybe you need help on structure. Maybe you'll need help on characters. Maybe you just need motivation to get started. I'm by no means an expert and still struggle with writing -- but what I found that helped me was a deadline, openness to getting help, and sorting out where my writing was weak and finding people who could help me with it.
 
Budget
A really good benchmark for production value is $1,000 / minute. Both The Consultants [link] and the Actor Diaries are right around there. If you want it to look like "House" -- you're going to need a lot more money. If you don't want it to look like a bunch of guys filmed it on handicams -- you'll either really need to know what you're doing or around $1,000 / minute. Of course, 1 page ~= 1 minute. So if you're planning on shooting 4 episodes at 3 minutes each -- you should probably budget around $12K. Now, I will say that we're now working on something where we'll be way under that figure -- but there are reasons for that and we've frankly also gotten a little better about figuring out costs. $1,000 / minute when you're starting out though gives you some breathing room. So why so expensive?
 
The dominant part of your budget will be consumed by crew. Even if you're paying a relatively low rate like $250 / day for crew -- if you have a dozen crew members and shoot 2 days, that's $6K right there. By the way, you'll typically be able to do 6-8 pages / day (you could do a little more but it gets hairy if it's much more than that) -- so you'll need two days if you have 12 total pages. Could you do it in 1? Maybe -- if you had a very experienced crew, did a lot of planning in advance, and had a long "day". Even then, you probably won't get all the coverage you'd like.
 
If you don't already have insurance -- I think a short term policy for this type of project is on the order of $2K. You might be able to get your actors for free, but if you don't want them flaking -- I'd recommend paying (and it also feels weird not to pay your actors when they're the ones on screen and basically everyone else is there to support them.) That could be another $2K. Equipment rental, location fees, etc. -- and you're easily at $12K total.
 
But again, you can get down much below that but you're probably working with a crew you've worked with before. You're probably getting folks who will work for free (a lot of folks in L.A. have day jobs and will take on projects for low pay or for free if they like it), you already own the equipment or your crew has access to equipment for free, you got your location as a favor, etc.
 
Actors - SAG or not SAG?
I'm really surprised when I get this question, but a lot of folks ask me about whether or not they should do a SAG production or not. SAG, by the way, is the Screen Actors Guild and it's the union for actors. Typically, if you're an actor with a reasonable amount of experience, you're in SAG. (if you work a SAG show once, you're eligible to get in and everyone generally wants to be in SAG because of the social proof. Also, once you do work 3x on SAG shows, you're a must join anyway.) The concerns over SAG usually boil down to cost or hassle.
 
On the cost front, it is true you can get non-Union actors for free. You probably can even get SAG actors for free. They're technically not supposed to work on non-Union projects but this obviously happens. That being said, SAG New Media rules are actually quite producer friendly and I never felt like costs, certainly as a percentage of overall budget, were unreasonable at all. My experience dealing with the SAG New Media department was excellent and the overall amount of paperwork I did was quite limited. Of course, the upside is you get to do a SAG production which gives you access to more experienced actors which makes a big difference not just in terms of performance, but also in terms of just keeping the days much cleaner.
 
Casting 
I hired a casting director for my web series -- I think you can probably get a good casting director for anywhere from $500 - $1000+. Especially if you're willing to get a casting associate / assistant at a major office. A lot of these folks freelance on smaller projects if they like the project -- you just have to ask.
 
You can cast it yourself -- but I just don't think it's worth it. Besides the fact that you may or may not have any casting experience, it costs $ to rent the casting space (usually included in whatever fee to the casting director because they usually have access to space), and it's just a huge huge pain to organize and coordinate. Enormous pain. You might be seeing 20 people for each role so getting it all together is not really where you want to be spending valuable pre-production time. If you're casting 2 roles, maybe not a big deal -- but we were casting 7.
 
Of course, the real value is the fact that an experienced casting director can really help you in terms of getting great actors which is the most important part of producing anything! Getting a great onscreen performance.
 
Equipment
We shot on the HVX-200 -- a solid camera and the same camera I'm now using for my doc. It holds up well especially when the lighting is good (not as good in low light situations). Nowadays, I think a lot of this type of stuff is shot with the 7D. That's a fantastic camera because of its cost, super high quality, ubiquity, and portability. It's actually a really good investment if you plan on shooting on a regular basis. We only shot single cam -- though we did have a 2nd camera on set which we used occasionally (and also used it for a 2nd Unit which is how we have the web clips.) That's another consideration too -- because if you're going to use more than 1 camera, obviously that's 2x the cost in terms of rental if you don't already have the equipment.
 
I'm not as familiar with the specifics of the sound equipment we used -- it's typical that whoever you hire for your sound will bring his/her own sound equipment (which you have to pay a rental fee on.) Similar to lights with the gaffer -- they'll have existing relationships with lighting houses and usually can get a deal on lighting equipment. Another reason to hire professionals -- you may have to pay them a rate, but often times their rate will be more than covered by your savings in terms of rental equipment. Case in point. For my doc, my DP got a light we needed that normally rents for $300/day for free -- covering his rate that day.
 
There are a lot more things that I'm not covering here -- here's a small sampling:
 
Hiring a director or doing it yourself
Why get insurance?
How to get locations?
Pre-production planning
Payroll
Workers' comp -- what is it and do I need it?
Editing -- the value of an editor
Marketing
etc.
I'll cover off more of these in future posts and if folks have questions -- feel free to just email me directly at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The biggest thing I told Tim though was it's really easy to get overwhelmed by how much work everything is -- but to just think of it as work. It may be a large series of checklists -- but just go through them one by one. They'll get done, you'll get your footage, and then you can launch your series.

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