Over the next few weeks and months the Internet will get yet another web series, but this time I have a hand in it! I put on my producer hat and helped shepherd a new comedy, set for release this spring.
She’s Out Of Order is a Philadelphia-set comedy about Tara Moseley, an arts and culture reporter who has been having “just one of those days” on a daily basis. The series is the first filmed production from Under the Spell Productions, a non-profit company whose experience has primarily been in indie theater. The show’s creative team includes: Teresa Lasley, the star and creator; Rhonney Greene, the director; and Derek McPhatter, the writer.
As a scholar and chronicler of independent television, I’ve mostly written about web series and stayed away from cameras (though I have a few projects from graduate school).
With She’s Out Of Order I’ve been able to see every step in the development process for a low-budget web series, from conception to distribution. This experience will be an invaluable part of my forthcoming manuscript, (very) tentatively titled, Off the Line: Independent Television and the Expansion of Creative Economy.
How It Started
Why get involved in production? As I was writing my manuscript on the market for web series, I noticed a gaping hole. I was talking about production — interviewing dozens of web series creators — but I’d never been on-set. Unlike in corporative television, web series rarely advertise themselves before shooting is over. Indie projects are more precarious. I was talking to people after the fact, and people forget things.
One day my partner Derek told me about an idea for a web series his producing partner, Teresa, had come up with. As soon as I heard “She’s Out Of Order” I knew it was a good idea: simple enough to grab people’s attention and broad enough to accomodate the flexibility and brevity proven successful in web comedy.
Before we started shooting I advised Derek on how to sculpt the script for the web. Over the years I’ve covered a lot of web series, and one trap producers fall into is not shooting enough content. It is very hard to build a fan base on six episodes less than ten minutes long (though that has happened, a number of times). I pushed Derek to write a lot of episodes (over 30) and write them in a way that we could shoot several a day (simple narratives all in the same location). Each episode is essentially a joke with a punchline, though we have a several that develop Tara’s romantic and professional life.
Funds for production were raised from Under the Spell’s network, along with family, friends and a few dollars from myself.
Closer to the shoot date, I helped Rhonney and Derek hire crew and secured most of the locations we needed for the show. We shot in apartments across the city — with the help of my friends and fellow grad students — and in the offices of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, where I got my PhD. We also shot a scene at Studio:Christensen, one of the city’s best galleries owned by JT Christensen, a friend of mine.
I also helped secure some equipment. We used some equipment from Penn, but our DP and cameramen opted to use their own stuff.
We shot the series over three, hot weekends in the Philadelphia summer. Shooting went relatively smoothly, though, of course, 12-16 hour days were not fun.
I’ll be writing more about the on-set experience in the book, but a couple of themes stood out. One was the blurry line over on-set roles in indie projects. Without sufficient resources, independent producers end up taking on multiple roles, sometimes at the same time. I did everything from holding boom mics, paying for and delivering lunch, offering up my wardrobe for costumes, even some directing. (I wrote about the politics of web production a couple years ago for In Media Res, the accompanying video is a farcical but honest depiction of what making a web series is like).
What impressed me the most about the on-set experience, however, was how grueling it was for what we were getting paid (mostly nothing, though key crew were given small stipends). Making a web show requires all crew and cast to be invested in the production for different reasons. The “value” derived from this kind of labor is usually not monetary, but rather creative and communal: people work to advance careers in the hopes of creative fulfillment down the line or to help people they care about.
My work on web series looks at the market from production to distribution. In between those two poles is the story itself, or its representation. The hallmark of web content is its ability to target niche communities. She’s Out Of Order is a show by a black woman for, primarily but not exclusively, black women.
More than anything else, Derek and I spoke about how to represent a complicated black woman in 2-5 minute episodes. It was quite a challenge. Teresa’s original idea for a show about a black woman with a bit of an attitude posed clear challenges. Of the many “types” of characters black actresses get cast to play, “bitch” is perhaps the most loathed . By stepping on that third rail, She’s Out Of Order could get attention and laughs but also illicit ire for promoting stereotypes.
Complicated black women are not unheard of television. True Blood‘s own Tara is quite complex, as is Olivia Pope on Scandal. Yet most black women on TV don’t get to play difficult women, perhaps because networks are reluctant to offend. Shonda Rhimes recently told Salon‘s Willa Paskin:
I feel like it’s really…awesome, frankly revolutionary to have a black female character on television who is the lead of the show who is not a saint. Because, frankly, that’s what happens, they always make them a saint, and it’s really boring and nobody cares.
So She’s Out Of Order is premiering in a complicated representational landscape, where scripted black female characters tend to be bland and black women on reality shows tend to be messy. At a time when Girls is pushing forward representations of women on TV, women of color are notably absent from that mix.
Ultimately we will see how viewers respond. Tara has many sides, spread out over two dozen episodes. Sometimes she’s sweet, sometimes sad, and quite often, irritated. We think this reflects the complicated lives of underrepresented people. We hope the Internet agrees.
So far, we’re releasing She’s Out Of Order on our own on YouTube and shesoutoforder.com. (If you like our logos and website design, thank me! I designed the website, logos for the show and on our social media accounts — Facebook and Twitter — which I also set up and help maintain.)
We’re choosing YouTube because it’s the most “spreadable” video site and home to previous hit sitcoms targeting black women, including Awkward Black Girl and The Unwritten Rules. Networks like Blip offer — or say they offer — higher CPMs, but exposure is more important than cash for this creative team. Vimeo is home to art-house hits like The Outs and High Maintenance, but our series is not that arty, and I haven’t seen a black web series take off on that platform yet.
A big part of our distribution strategy is our Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, through which we will be releasing three episodes. Crowdfunding campaigns have become a staple of independent web series. These days, nearly every indie web series I know that has had an audience has done a round of crowdfunding (unless they’ve been able to secure distribution and sponsorship). Typically, a successful campaign is a way to get press and exposure, and, most importantly, a way to connect to and identify your strongest fans. It has become an invaluable tool for building indie TV franchises. That said, the creative team isn’t opposed to selling to a network, and we’re already looking at a few.
UPDATE 9/10/14: Shadow and Act reports on our non-exclusive distribution deal.