7 Keys to Developing Ideas for Web Series
Or, Do you have to be Vulcan to be Transmedian?
By WBC Founder Jeffrey Gordon
"Transmedia" is a buzz word that may evolve into another term soon, but it definitely means a lot today. The huge marketing expense and subsequent bottleneck of feature production has made it even more crucial for artists to understand how to translate their ideas across media and to all entertainment formats, including DVD packaging and self-distribution, identification of international outlets, breaking down long form into web series, television potential and branded platforms, as well as translating web series back into long form and integration with digital portals, social media and mobile technology.
At Writers Boot Camp, we now actively discourage our members from writing a feature film script without a 360-degree plan for all markets, especially testing the small, independent project or personal drama. Unless the venture is specifically designed as a micro-budget production, or is written solely as a tent-pole writing sample for the few-years process of gradual entry into the circle of studio assignment ranks, we will generally shift our people into television, which is where the jobs are anyway and have always been.
To gather some perspective, the marketing of feature films and identification of supplemental markets has always been a part of the business that has impacted creative project choices. While there were more financial players, companies and producers connected to the studio system just 10-15 years ago, including the Mini-Majors, listed in the many exciting pages of Daily Variety’s annual “Facts on Pacts” issue, you can fit them all onto a single page today.
But, as always, filmmakers who are not entirely entrepreneurial or marketing savvy may not thrive. Today, the old keepers are still figuring things out and the consumer brands are perhaps poised to become the equivalent of the new studios. And similar to the lottery climate of the spec script market of the 80s and 90s, and the festival circus spawned by success at Sundance back in the Indie heyday, the new frontier represented by the presumed democratization of entertainment via digital cameras and the web is yet to prove itself as a financially viable artistic lifestyle. In other words, we haven’t retired the urging to “keep your day job.”
The lack of predictable methods of monetization of content, beyond commercial buys and ad sponsorship, makes it difficult to justify production costs and investment, otherwise called “the burn rate.” Apart from website development as a promotional vehicle and easy access to one’s project reel, we may have seen the evolution of writer to owner. The question is whether there’s a pay-off, let alone a pay day, for your ownership stake?
Writers Boot Camp has abided a crossover philosophy for many years. There are distinctions between writing and development for movies, television and the web, mostly based on each studio, network, show runner’s and portal’s editorial slant. These forms are more the same, however, than they are different. It’s just like the subject of structure—structure is crucial if you don’t know it; when you do nail structure, then it’s much less important than its primary role to serve as a platform to convey fresh entertainment and a compelling audience experience.
When working on web series through coursework at Writers Boot Camp, we recommend approaching the material at minimum as a television pilot broken into six to 12 five-minute episodes. The actual length of each will fall naturally into place through the process of Scene Testing, finding the key character encounters and emotional highlights, and based on setpieces—the crafted lines and moments of entertainment—that represent the layer of unique action and personality that we haven’t seen before.
Here are seven approaches to keep in mind when evaluating and developing ideas for web series:
1. Depending on budget issues, limit locations to get more mileage out of organic interaction between characters and story. When effects budgets are also limited, exteriors may create a more expansive sense of the world even when the parameters of the genre and small-screen presentation will tend to rely on two-shot storytelling and framing.
2. Consistent with the effective traits of any short film, create a fluid beginning, middle and ending within each episode. Start your episode development process by identifying three major scenes or beats to bear the burden of that flow. Character-driven projects may rely more on emotional foibles and moments of intimate conflict as the events that turn the story. Action-oriented genres will provide you with more typical, plot-based culmination of scenes.
3. Whether the series tracks only an A-story or multiple story lines, choose a Main Character and Dynamic Character in every scene. The Dynamic Character at Writers Boot Camp is the second star, usually the character spending the middle of the adventure or story line with the Main Character, offering a kind of opposition that grounds the audience’s rooting interest and provides a window into the Main Character’s struggle to change.
4. Even when providing a character arc in an episode, end with a cliffhanger or new piece of information, the equivalent of a writer’s asterisk, to pick up where the story and/or character left off. Whether the next episode actually starts on that same moment, topic or location, the placeholder can also remind the audience of the appeal, sexiness, comedy, action—whatever is that kind of setpiece. Through compression and compacting of your scene ideas, a page or two will become a sufficient average length of a scene.
5. Identify the chewy center of your concept by listing as many setpieces as possible prior to writing the actual scenes. Too much lip service is paid to story when all story is inherently derivative. Instead, it’s the fresh approach to content that will translate to entertaining moments that illustrate a concept on the page. We refer to these moments that serve the entertainment layer as setpieces, lines of actual scene direction or dialogue that carry some quality at the core of your concept. Listing setpieces, or highlighting them on the pages of the existing script, will show you whether you’ve made the concept explicit and out of your head.
6. Drilldown the specific audience of your series. Watch other series and notice the consumer products and sponsoring brands. In addition to realizing your voice and your brand within the industry, it’s crucial to determine which consumer brands would be attracted to the quality of your material. Brands today are in need of quality content versus user-generated content. Once you define a more particular profile of your audience target, your opportunities for partnership will increase immensely and propel you into the process of connecting with brands and platforms to support your vision.
7. When combining episodes into a television pilot, there will be additional considerations. New writers underestimate the challenge of writing a television pilot in that it represents not simply an introductory episode but a template for 60-100 future episodes that work similarly, for cable and broadcast respectively.
Many of Writers Boot Camp’s members and alumni are on the vanguard of web development. For samples of successfully produced and distributed digital series and viral video, check out:
--Ylse by Ruth Livier, who plays the lead character of the series and was the first WGA member accepted into the New Media division;
Among Writers Boot Camp’s many forums and speaker series is The Business Breakfast, held 20 times per year at our Santa Monica headquarters at Bergamot Station, every other Wednesday from February through October, where we bring the new leaders of the entertainment industry to discuss emerging opportunities for artists, filmmakers and writers. Details are available at writersbootcamp.com.