HOW IS OPEN TV DEVELOPING?
Aymar Jean Christian
This time last year Open TV beta did not exist. It was a series of pilots called Wide Open, of which Nupita Obama Creates Vogua was to the be first. We shot Vogua in December and that same month Sam Bailey emailed me looking for help with You’re So Talented. In three months I expanded Wide Open from a series of pilots to a platform with three content verticals, where one of three is a series of pilots. Open TV beta went public in March with You’re So Talented as our first original series.
Open TV is a scholarly research project in television development. Development involves organizing production and marketing completed projects. I’m experimenting with arts-based methods for understanding cultural production and distribution by queer, trans and cis-women and artists of color across media and technology.
I want Open TV to be different than most social science experiments. It has to be. The “subjects” are almost all working artists in the city I live in. They’re my community, so I have to be as honest and clear as possible in what I’m doing and why. I have to be open about how I’m developing TV.
PART I: INTRODUCING THE DEVELOPMENT REPORT AND OFFICE HOURS
At least twice a year I will write a development report on how Open TV is developing. We’re about nine months since the beginning. Forgive the delay. I find myself apologizing for delays to a lot of people of late, and that’s just one reason I want to write these reports: to explain what’s taking up so much of my time. Ethically I cannot call this platform more “open” than television unless I am public with my development decisions, something all corporate networks are not: we only sometimes know why shows are greenlit, cancelled or renewed (most of what we know is completely driven by numbers).
Open TV is explicitly in “beta.” I’m borrowing this term from the tech world, where some argue it’s so overused to the point of losing all meaning. Indeed, I cannot imagine a point where Open TV is not in beta, though I am working towards it. Why? We’re developing small-scale television, where there is not much funding or institutional support. Part of my goal is to attract more funding, and we’re already doing that, but there are vast inequalities in media and art worlds that will take years and years to undo (and by some measures it’s only getting worse).
Right now, Open TV is a part-time operation. My full-time job is as a professor, where I have to write and teach. My heads of production (Stephanie Jeter), marketing (Elijah McKinnon), artist/community development (Kemi Adeyemi) and exhibition (Nicole Morse) all have other jobs. As such, the development process will have inefficiencies, delays and issues that need to be regularly accounted for and fixed.
The best way to do that is to provide a space for folks to get updated on what’s been happening and ask for feedback. You can email me at developer [at] weareopen [dot] tv. I updated and integrated all my email addresses in September, so now I received and read all emails. If you don’t get a response within two weeks, send it again because something weird has happened!
However, if you’d like to schedule a meeting with me to talk something over, we are introducing Office Hours! Every Wednesday from 8AM – 10AM Central I will be online available for a Google Hangout to talk over your project or interest face-to-face. Signing up is easy, just use this link, via Book Me, and select open slots (highlighted).
THE STATE OF OPEN TV
I’ve been surprised about the demand for a platform like Open TV. When I first started I was very afraid I didn’t have enough money and Chicago didn’t have enough artists interested in video.
I was wrong, on both counts.
In a little more than nine months we have launched three pilots under Open TV Presents – Nupita Obama Creates Vogua, Southern for Pussy, and Let Go and Let God – and two series under Open TV Originals – You’re So Talented and Futurewomen. 2016 kicks off with our next docu-series, The Bronx Cunt Tour, our newest drama,Full Out and the second season of You’re So Talented. The Open TV Re-Presents vertical, where we will syndicate existing web series, will debut in the summer with work by Kalup Linzy. The Open TV Community vertical includes profiles and coverage of everything Open TV, and more.
When I started Open TV I was afraid I’d run out of content, so I produced a lot of our early programming and took meetings with almost two dozen artists before the platform even premiered. With the exception of You’re So Talented, I have a credit on all of our early series. This is one of the reasons why, if you’ve recently entered development with me or try to submit a work for consideration, I haven’t been working as fast as I’ve wanted to. (The other reasons being I’ve been revising my first book, which I resubmitted in August, and I still have responsibilities to Northwestern, despite a partial leave from teaching). Looking forward I am trying to cultivate producers and not produce shows myself.
The demand from artists in Chicago has already exceeded my capacity to produce and fund series. This is great news! But it means new projects may take longer to materialize. Part of the reason is that I met with a lot of artists in the early months to make sure I had content coming in after You’re So Talented was over. The series we’ve released so far stem from these early conversations.
How did I choose these early, select artists? They are almost all artists across disciplines – performance, dance, storytelling, film/video, music – who I had seen perform or exhibit work in my years in Chicago since 2012. Some I met through referrals from other artists or curators. Some just emailed me out of the blue, or caught me at one of our events, and pitched me an idea. They all met my demographic criteria, meaning they identify as or with queer, trans, cis-women or artists of color.
Unlike TV networks – whether ABC or Netflix – diversity is integral to Open TV’s development. I’m looking for a range of artistic disciplines (dance, theater, music, etc.) and identities (racial and sexual identity, gender expression, primarily but also class, age, religion, disability, citizenship status). This is an ongoing process. I need to constantly challenge myself to think expansively about identity, and yet I also need to work with folks in Chicago who are exhibiting work I can see or who are tapped into my growing network of artists and collaborators. I’m not divorced from inequalities, and I am shaped by my own biases, social position and professional demands.
To date I have spent roughly $20,000 producing and licensing original programming for Open TV. Those funds have led to the completion and release of the three pilots and two series, along with the licensing and production an additional three due next year. All told this is about two and a half hours of original programming, for which I paid the creative talent (artists, writers, photographers, actors) and production crew (editors, camera-persons, sound technicians).
Much of our funds are for “work for hire,” with the exception of the creators of the series, who sign a one-page letter of agreement to receive a licensing fee for Open TV’s right to distribute their intellectual property non-exclusively (meaning after we premiere it they can show it wherever or sell it to whomever). I have a lot of reservations about supporting freelance labor. And yet, I believe I am paying artists enough money for it to be worth their time, because they are given creative control, supporting other artists they believe in and know their work will be showcase in a non-commercial, art and academic context, where it brings value to them in other arenas.
That said, Open TV and our artists have been able to secure outside funding. This month Ricardo Gamboa and his producing team will be awarded $6,000 from the Propeller Fund for Brujos, a 12-episode fantasy drama series we’re developing about gay Latino grad students who are witches. You’re So Talented season 2 will premiere February 2016 thanks to a $19,000 grant from the Chicago Digital Media Production Fund (a joint project of the Voqal Fund and Chicago Filmmakers). Northwestern has funded a lot of our undergraduate production support through the School of Communication Faculty Innovation Grant and Undergraduate Research Assistants Program. In September the platform itself received its first cash injection from the Sexualities Project at Northwestern, which has paid for development consulting and doctoral students to help us develop artists (primarily grant writing) and community (attending and organizing screenings, taking notes, interviewing).
I’m very pleased with our output so far. We have been able to premiere one new video each month since March, and we are on track to keep that up through Spring of next year.
I’m not too focused on our numbers in these early stages of Open TV. We’re new, and it takes time for new, indie work to circulate online. Many successful web series, including Broad City, were little seen in their first season. Still, with our two and a half hours programming, we’ve garnered 40,000 plays, over 150 likes and 110 followers on Vimeo. We’ve added over 300 people to our monthly newsletter, the Open TV Program. Not bad!
I’m very proud that Open TV projects have been screened and exhibited in a variety of academic, artistic and community venues. It’s important for us that Chicagoans get to see our pilots before the world does, and each premiere screening includes a performance, Q&A or workshop from the artist.
You’re So Talented was selected as part of the 2nd Annual Tribeca Film Festival’s N.O.W. Program, premiering its 4th episode exclusively at tribecafilm.com. It has also screened at the School of Art Institute’s Intersectionality Critique Exchange (first episode sneak peek in March) and the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago (all of season one). Nupita Obama screened in Lakeview (Wangs), Wicker Park (Canvas), and Pilsen (1618W17) and was covered by the Windy City Times. Futurewomen premiered at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center as part of Honey Pot Performance’s residency. It screened again at Global Girls’ Studio and theCommunity Film Workshop in October as part of Collected Voices: Chicago’s Ethnographic Film Festival. Zackary Drucker’s Southern for Pussy premiered in an exhibit at the Cooper Gallery in New York (covered byBuzzfeed and Artnet) and in the offices of TransTech Social Enterprises in Chicago. Brujos, a series by Ricardo Gamboa we’re developing by commissioning a graphic novel, staged a reading of the first season and a premiere of the first episode of the novel at La Catrina Café in Pilsen.
In November we had our most ambitious event to date: Open TV: Pilots by Women and Feminine-Spectrum Artists, hosted by Woman Made Gallery and featured by the city of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events as part of Chicago Artists Month. We screened our first four scripted pilots, including the premiere of Let Go and Let God. Kiam Junio, recognized as a featured artist for Chicago Artists Month, joined guests in a lively conversation with Rashida KhanBey, Zakkiyyah Najeebah (director of photography, Let Go and Let God) and Alexa Grae (composer, Let Go and Let God). We commissioned an original participatory performance/video installation by Rashayla Marie Brown, “Immediate Intimacy,” where she interviewed guests on their views on reality television as part of her video series, Reality Is Not Good Enough. We had food curated by Eli’s upcoming Open TV series Two Queens in a Kitchen and desserts by Nicole Melanie Davis of Mindful Indulgences. All of these artists are Chicago-based and regular contributors to the city’s cultural life.
Open TV and our participating artists are already receiving recognition. Our Woman Made Gallery event was one of 20 official featured events, among hundreds, in Chicago Artists Month. Nicole Lane, a writer forBitch magazine, came to the event and wrote up an interview with me, the first coverage of Open TV as a platform! At the Collected Voices film festival, another featured event, Futurewomen took home the award for best cinematography for a documentary. Later this month You’re So Talented will compete for a Gotham Award for Breakthrough Short Format Series; this year the 25th annual show produced by the Independent Film Project is expanding beyond the Oscar-derby to recognize long and short format television!
WHAT I NEED TO WORK ON
Despite Open TV successes, there’s still a lot we need to work on. Going forward I’m focusing on two key areas: capacity and accessibility.
Open TV is a part-time platform. I work as a professor; while research (Open TV) is part of my job, teaching and service to the university are as well. I have missed important events because of university responsibilities. My inbox is a constant struggle. My support staff are also part-time.
For this reason we are constantly managing time, and we’re all stretched thin. In recent weeks I’ve been hiring graduate students help to ease our stress in artist and community development, getting folks to collect reception data of our work and help artists raise money for projects.
Right now, the development process is long. In some cases it’s more efficient than television. But because our marketing team is part time, I cannot take on too much, too fast. I’ve sensed just a little frustration among some artists who find it difficult to schedule a meeting. Of course, they want to make their projects as soon as possible. I have to go slow. This is because I can’t launch more than one or two new videos a month, or else I’m doing a disservice to the artists I’m already working with. I encourage any artist who’s on a faster timeline than we can promise to work on your project anyway and seek other support; if you can’t find it, Open TV will be here. I’m starting to use the analogy of slow food for Open TV. People think the web is fast, but anyone’s who built any enterprise knows it takes time. That said, projects with a clear plan and team in place can move quickly; almost all our existing projects were conceived, funded, shot and edited in 6-9 months.
We have not significantly addressed the accessibility of Open TV. This goes from most of our videos lacking subtitles to the wheelchair accessibility of our events (some are, some aren’t) to lacking a clear way for users to report design flaws on our website. Accessibility is not merely about compliance with laws but about being receptive and active in adapting to the many ways diverse communities and individuals access media texts. Some of these more basic features will be on Open TV in the next year and if you have any suggestions pleaseemail me.
In 2016 we are introducing a button on the website available for anyone to tell us what their experience of the site is so we can accommodate a greater diversity of uses we might not be aware of as a small operation.
PART II. HOW TO DEVELOP WITH OPEN TV
Currently 9 unreleased series are in some stage of development as Open TV Originals and 9 unreleased pilots for Open TV Presents.
WHAT IS DEVELOPMENT?
A project is in development when I’ve met with the artist and we’ve agreed to work towards collaborating on a project. The artist has given me a pitch, outline, treatment or script of their series. Projects in development need funding and a production team before we can enter pre-production. For me, a project starts in development and moves the process never leaving development. In other words, once we start development with you, we’ll always be developing your work, even after it’s released.
Projects in pre-production have secured funding and production team to head into production. This is planning stage. Producers hire the crew, find the locations, organize the shoot and troubleshoot the whole process.
Projects are in production when they are capturing the footage they need to complete the story. Our shoots last anywhere from one day (Let Go and Let God was shot in one day, Nupita Obama in two) to two weeks (forYou’re So Talented season two) to several months (Futurewomen, which shot through all of 2015). Productions need at least one person to capture the image, typically a photographer or cinematographer, and often but not always someone to capture sound on location. While I made an exception in our early months (Southern for Pussy), the vast majority of future Open TV projects will be shot in Chicago or developed in Chicago with Chicago-based artists. Series from elsewhere will have to come to me completed or near completion.
Open TV does provide funding for a limited amount of projects through our partner production company, Under the Spell Productions, a 501c3 non-profit organization tasked with advancing diversity in the arts. No in-house production budget has exceeded $5,000 and most are under $3,000. Thus, for us to fund projects they must be scaled for a low-budget: small crews, minimal locations and special effects, with collaborators for music, art direction, set and costume design, etc.
Post-production involves the editing of a project, adding any elements that cannot be or need not be captured in production. This sometimes includes the creation of a score or licensing of music, transcribing (for documentary) and assembling the story. Editing can be costly, but happily I’ve had support from Northwestern to train and hire students in editing, and they’ve been doing a fabulous job. Many people underestimate the cost of post-production. I’ve done this myself in the past, and not planning for post can delay a project for years. This is why it is very important to have a doable plan for a project in pre-production.
EXHIBITION AND MARKETING
After we reach a final cut, it’s time to plan release. All Open TV projects screen locally before going online on our site, so we have to plan an event! Events range in size. The premiere for Southern For Pussy attracted around 20 people, whereas our event at Woman Made Gallery drew over 50. Events are also key research sites for Open TV, where my graduate students collect feedback from attendees, either through one-on-one interviews, or recording the conversation or Q&A. When it’s ready to release online Eli McKinnon designs a website for the project and a social media campaign.
MAKING IT THROUGH DEVELOPMENT
In Hollywood, a project’s readiness is only one of many factors in its development. Often times projects need powerful producers or studios attached, fully employed departments for all element of production (casting, costumes, makeup, visual effects, etc.), a built-in audience (franchises), the “right” audience (a desirable demographic), and a story that’s acceptable to LA executives, advertisers and/or the press, all of which are brokered by agents, managers, lawyers and unions.
For Open TV our criteria are a little less complicated. In any given project I look for:
ARTISTRY – AN ORIGINAL VOICE
The first question I ask of a project is whether it is “art.” Open TV is interested in expanding the art of television production, narrative and distribution. My definition of good art is one with a clear and unique vision or purpose. Most of the time this means I want to develop series that would have a hard time getting through the commercial – and in particular, advertising-driven – broadcast, cable and web TV networks because of its subject matter or the identity of its creator (their social/cultural identity and their artistic discipline).
READINESS – A PLAN AND A TEAM
The second question I ask of a project is whether it’s ready. A project is ready when there is a script or plan in place, there’s a team to make it happen and the money to pay everyone who needs to be paid. The script, treatment or outline is most important. Having this is critical for us to understand what you want to do and what resources it will take to do it. I accept scripts in any format. There’s tons of resources for writing treatments, but again, I don’t need formulas. It just needs to communicate enough information to show that you thought about the story and its core elements.
That said, a full treatment for me includes:
* A log line (one sentence description of the series)
* A detailed plot summary (for TV, usually a detailed description of the first episode and an outline of the season, with notes on how things sound/look/feel)
* Character profiles (who are they, what do they do, what do they want, also age/race/gender/sexuality and other key identity characteristics)
It might also include:
* List of locations needed and secured
* Average length of episodes
* List of confirmed or desired collaborators (actors, producers, music, crew)
* Exhibition plans (where/how to do the premiere, release schedule)
* Ideal production schedule (when we should shoot based on where you want to shoot)
* Influences (e.g. this show is Transparent meets I Love Lucy meets Game of Thrones): photography/art that inspires, music that inspires, or a vision statement
After the script/treatment, we set about creating a team. Nearly all video projects are collaborative in some way. You cannot make a show on your own, nor can you make an indie show without allowing other people to influence it creatively. The most important part of the team, I’m finding, is the producer – I’ll get to that in a minute. Depending on the project, more could be needed. If you’re planning a music video or musical, you should secure musical collaborators. If you’re planning a scripted series, you should know the actors who will be in it. Open TV has connections to all kinds of artists and crew, but I find production works smoothly when the core team is familiar with each other, passionate about the project and clear on the vision. We can introduce you to people, but, especially if you’re new to video production, I find it is better to work with as many people you are comfortable with as possible and we can fill in the gaps (particularly if the gap is in more technical crew like editors).
NIC Kay, who’s developing a docu-series with Open TV, gave me great advice to give to every artist who wants to work with us: make sure your Open TV project is integrated into your existing artistic practice. This is something experienced interdisciplinary artists know; your time and your ability to learn new skills is limited. If you’re a singer, don’t pitch a silent film, but rather think expansively about what video can do for you. You can pitch a docu-series about the making of your next album, a series of music videos, or an animated film in collaboration with a painter you know where you’d supply the music to their images. Think about what you’re already working on and how video can help you develop it further. This will also help clarify the value of it. In other words, if you’re a performance artist with no intention to leave Chicago, maybe you should use your series to make connections with local artists or pitch a local grant-making institution, and not necessarily something you think will get lots of views online. In general, chasing views is a fool’s game. Don’t play it. Be true to your practice and vision.
Build your team from the start. It makes the whole process smoother for everyone. I strongly suggest you write a complete treatment and/or script in as much detail as possible and find a writer/producer/director you trustcompletely to help you execute the project. That person doesn’t necessarily need film/TV experience. They can have produced performances, events, parties. I can mentor a new producer so long as they’re willing to put in the tremendous amount of work it takes to get a project through development. It’s most important producers be organized, clear, dependable, passionate about your project and have the time to do it. This is the only way scripted series/films get done: if there’s a team in place who are passionate about and 110% on board with your vision.
DEMOGRAPHICS – A CLAIM TO DIFFERENCE
Open TV is not open to everyone. In particular we are not open to artists who get ample support from media industries to make and market series, primarily straight white men, who, study after study shows, disproportionately hold positions of power in Hollywood and art markets.
Open TV develops television by queer, trans, cis-women and artists of color. In our first year, however, I’m finding myself more open to queer, trans, cis-women or artists of color. In this awkward phrasing, race is privileged but I am open to content by and about white people, particularly if they are LGBTQ, represent a range of gender expressions or inhabit some other intersectional identity. When I look at my development slate, I want majority-minority programming but I also want a range of identities, because differences bring out meanings. In other words, I want our audience to compare and contrast our programs and ask themselves why and how race, gender, sexuality, age, class, disability, etc. influence how they interpret programs.
OUR FUTURE – EXPANDING REPRESENTATIONS
In 2016 I am planning on hosting workshops on developing indie TV throughout Chicago to spread the word about how we are developing and how you can develop with us. Again, this is small-scale television, so there will be many fabulous, talented artists who will have to wait a long while before their Open TV series premieres. But I’m committed to trying for as much representation as possible.
A major goal I have for Open TV is expanding debates about representation in TV beyond whether individual stories are “authentic” to whether the platforms for stories (networks) are open and sincere. This way of seeing representation gets us beyond constructing and deconstructing stereotypes and tokens and instead commits us to the work of producing our own culture, together, of constantly trying to expand the kinds of stories and storytellers with which we engage.
It takes communities to make this happen. So even if you’re not an artist, coming to our events, watching our programs, telling us what you think and sharing them with your friends and loved ones is an enormous contribution! Help us make TV the best it can be.