Event Summary: Are Web Series the Future? Auckland Writer’s Room, 27 August, 2013, The Classic, 7:30-8:30pm, with Vela Manusaute, Michael Bennett, Joe Lonie, Roseanne Liang, JJ Fong and chair Kerry Warkia.
The idea of the web series is not a new one but the medium is gaining momentum and popularity. Two locally developed and produced web series, Flat 3 and The Factory, are currently leading the charge and the August Writer’s Room was fortunate to harness the creative energies behind these projects for a full house at The Classic.
Writer/director Roseanne Liang (Flat 3), actor/instigator JJ Fong (Flat 3), writer/director Michael Bennett (The Factory), EP/actor Vela Manusaute (The Factory) and director Joe Lonie (The Factory) joined MC Kerry Warkia to discuss the viability of the web format, funding avenues, the positives about writing for a shorter format and that all-important audience-building.
The evening began with Episode 11 of The Factory and Vela, co-founder of Kila Kokonut Krew, spoke about the background to the series and how it was adapted from the stage.
“The stage show was a musical. NZ on Air had money to give away and I wanted to make a film. I was at a friend’s place and he told me they were looking for coconut ideas. I got a call from Robin Scholes and she said, ‘Give me an hour and I’ll get you the money’. We were confident. I knew we could get the money because Robin is a strong producer. We put our idea out to TV stations and they all turned us down. There was no Pacific Islander who could write this kind of stuff so Robin said, ‘How ’bout a Māori?’ and I said, ‘What? I have to give my stories over to a Māori?’ We had ten years of experience in our own Pacific work and they were looking for Pacific content with budding Māori writers! But I’d worked with Michael before and I trusted him. Joe had a great track record with videos so we put a fantastic team together and had a great time. We jumped through alot of hoops to get it though.”
The Factory stage show could be adapted for television but needed a contemporary story and Michael was up to the task. “The stage show was set in the 70s,” said Michael, “and we wanted to reach the younger Pacific Island audience so the biggest challenge moving the show to a web series was to bring it into today and make it about the younger family members. This fit well with what NZ on Air wanted to achieve.”
“It had to suit what NZ on Air wanted, ” said Vela. “We needed more money so went to Telecom and they gave us more and we tried other businesses because we wanted to make it up to a million dollars and we had $600,000. We had a great time making it, working hard with people who had strong ideas, all helped by the strong concept we had originally. We had no one to answer to – and we didn’t have to write ten scripts either.”
JJ co-created, co-produced and acts in Flat 3. Kerry asked her how the idea came about.
“There was a lack of good roles for Asian females,” said JJ, ” and when I took the idea to the girls all I wanted to do was comedy. Three Asian actresses, now that’s something you rarely see here. Asian actresses don’t get a chance to shine in New Zealand and I wanted to do something that would challenge us.”
Flat 3 began as a theatre show but it didn’t work so JJ asked around and the idea of a web series developed. The girls agreed to ‘give it a go.’ They story-lined together, threw their life stories and ideas into the pot, gave it a good mix … and then approached Roseanne.
“I didn’t really want to do it but then they promised me chocolate and I was theirs forever,” said Roseanne.
JJ admitted to a case of nerves before pitching the idea to Roseanne. “We were nervous, absolutely, but we thought, ‘Who in the industry is Asian and could write this for us?’ Of course it was Roseanne. She has a massive portfolio and is very successful so we thought, ‘Let’s go for the big guns – and Roseanne is big guns – let’s email her and if she says ‘no, you are three nobodies’, we’ll deal with it … but she said ‘OK I want to write it and direct it and edit it too’ and it was like WOW!'”
Both Michael and Roseanne have written for the big screen and Kerry asked why they wanted to take on a web series.
“The draw card for me was the experience, ” said Michael. “It was quite remarkable. I started writing in February, five drafts of 20 episodes in two-and-a-half months … then it was on air and being taught in schools! The turnaround is incredible compared to a film which can take years. The immediacy was fantastic. I followed the stage show from the first read through and admired what they were doing. It was a nice fit for me. It was a free kind of way to tell a story – you’re not answerable to anyone except the unit, no executives. NZ on Air wanted a project that would reach a certain demographic: Pacific Island with a focus on teenage to late 20s. The web series is an amazing medium. One episode could be 5 minutes and another 15. You do have to consider the structure of the series and how each episode fits in but you can make the individual episodes whatever shape you want. It’s a lovely way to work.”
Roseanne agreed that the web series medium is very fast when compared to feature film. “And you can be quite free, you don’t have to go through feedback from others as you often do with features. I connected with these girls right away and that doesn’t always happen. We decided we would keep going as long as we were having fun and when it was no longer fun, we would stop.”
Joe, bass player for Supergroove, came to directing through his work in music video and short film. With The Factory project, he was asked to direct a pre-existing show and make it his own.
“It was a lucky break for me,” said Joe. “I like being a hired gun and it’s awesome not to do any of the writing. I felt privileged coming in and keeping up the energy and the fun. As long as I was engaging with it emotionally I could then turn it into something. I didn’t think much about it as a web series but more as just a great project: humour, music, good structure and a lot I felt I could help with. It’s great on set because you can improvise, condense on the spot, not worry about duration or filling up the time and this freedom can get you out of some tight spots.”
Building an audience and finding funds to sustain a web series is an ongoing challenge. Roseanne said they shot Flat 3 on weekends with a budget of just $1,000. “We couldn’t pay anyone so fortunately we had people who would work for free. Our episodes are released weekly and we market in between, keeping the fun and media machine going as long as we can between episodes.”
The Factory comes out twice a week, a strategy which keeps up the show’s momentum because viewers know new material will be available on Mondays and Thursdays. Vela admitted he loves to gossip and finds that social media such as facebook is a great way to monitor the popularity of the series and receive feedback directly from the audience. “That’s the good thing about Pacific Islanders on facebook. We’re not shy and we all want to see someone succeed. We get lots of viewers and use facebook as a marketing tool to sell the show. Followers engage with the story because they love the characters. There’s nothing like this on at the moment and it’s where we celebrate our Pacific Island culture. It’s a draw card for everyone all around the world and it’s for free. I don’t make any money out of it.”
Michael said audience-wise, The Factory series is one feature film story. “And what do you do with a feature? You don’t let the audience escape, you keep them there. Same with a web series – you keep them coming back each week. I treated the writing as a three-act structure, both episode and series-wide. I looked at the series as a collection of two or three episode blocks where there was one big story to drive you through – then you’re cooking up the next character story – and of course the overriding theme in the series is the family competing in a talent quest and integrating old ways and ideas with new.”
While The Factory was known to some audiences through the Kila Kokonut Krew stage show, Roseanne and JJ had to build theirs from scratch for Flat 3. “I’m still working on this one,” said Roseanne, “but I operated on the principle that if you make it, they will come, and if it’s not good enough, they won’t. Flat 3 appeals to a certain subset of NZ society. It may not go gangbusters on TV One but if it goes on the internet we have immediate access to the niche groups that may find it interesting.”
JJ said they didn’t think about the audience when they began making Flat 3. “Our thinking was, ‘We’ll make what we want and hope they like it’. It was risky because we weren’t writing for the audience. We wrote for ourselves and then thought that maybe someone else out there would like it, tell their friends …”
And reaching international audiences? “When we make something,” said Roseanne, “we set ourselves against the best of the best and always aim for an international standard.”
” I don’t think there is a formula for reaching an international audience,” said Michael. “It’s about making the story you want to tell as best you can. We knew we wanted to make the story moving and funny. Cultural specificity is not a turn off these days and a truthful story in a unique sub-culture can go international if it is a good story. Tell a story well and you’ll be OK.”
During question time, the panel was asked if they had made any money out of their productions. Kerry clarified that a stipulation of NZ On Air was that projects receiving its funding be made available to audiences for free so no money can be made.
“All of the money for The Factory has been spent,” said Vela, “and we haven’t made any. But it’s not about that. It was more about creating an opportunity to do more work, like a stepping stone.”
When asked how important non-linear storytelling could be to a series’ popularity, Roseanne replied, ” We did linear because I’m used to writing that way but non-linear could be wonderful too. That’s why the web series form is so great because it hasn’t been set as it has for TV and film. You can make the web series whatever format you like. Whether people will watch I don’t know but you can certainly do this.” Michael said the average length of an episode is 8 minutes. “You’d have to decide how you would structure this with non-linear storytelling. I was thinking of flashbacks but that was beaten out of me by Joe. There had to be a continuity of storytelling. Sometimes we see viewers coming in at Episode 10 and then a surge on Episode 1 when they go back to see what the series is all about.”
Making a project on a shoe-string is nothing new and the panel shared some insights to conclude the evening. “Perlina, Ally and I did catering, costumes, make up, story lining and Roseanne did other jobs too, “said JJ. “We had no money initially but we did raise some to pay people for season two. We paid a flat rate of $150 per day and that’s not much because we did long hours, 10-12 hours per day, back to back, for about 10 days but it was important to raise the money to pay people.”
Vela said he spent eight years working on low budgets and ‘got sick of it.’ “No one took me seriously but then Robin came along and said, ‘The money goes into the production!’ Having the budget led to the right people and that took it up another level. We were lucky to have that kind of budget.”
Written for Script to Screen by Jane Bissell
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