How do you take a series from script to HBO and the Emmys in just a year?
Tell a story that has never been told on TV. Make sure it reads as sincere to the people represented but relates to folks across identities. Represent community in front and behind the camera. Treat production, writing, directing, design and music as crafts in conversation with the everyday lives and artistry of the communities you’re representing. Keep fans updated on social media from production through release. Solicit coverage in publications relevant to that community. Premiere in the city or cities where there is demand to see your story and plan to engage viewers on social media by watching the story with them in real life.
These are just a few insights Fatimah Asghar and Sam Bailey learned producing and releasing “Brown Girls.” Premiering on February 15 on Elle.com and in over dozen cities around the worldwide amid a torrent of advance press, “Brown Girls”’ sale is the fastest I’ve seen in my eight years researching web TV. It proves how developing artists at small-scale can position them for big-scale development. Open TV (beta) helped Sam develop two seasons of her first series, the Gotham Award-nominated “You’re So Talented,” contributing production funds through non-exclusive licensing (allowing Sam to keep her intellectual property), organizing screenings in Chicago, and assisting with online marketing. Sam developed as a director, producer, and marketer of her work in Chicago and online, skills she put to great use in “Brown Girls.” They didn’t need much of my help.
The “Brown Girls” sale is clear evidence of the power of telling diverse stories in a “peak TV” market. I’m writing this piece because in talking to fans, executives, and other producers I find many people still don’t know all the work Sam, Fati, the crew and their community put in to make this happen. There is a long history of women of color not getting credit for the work of producing innovations, establishing art forms, and helping build organizations like mine.
This is how Sam and Fati did it.
Fatimah invited me and Sam to a reading of the script – always a good idea if you can make it happen – in early 2016. Instantly I could hear how her natural, humorous, and crisp dialogue would translate beautifully on screen. With Sam in the room as a potential director I know the series would look gorgeous. Already at script stage I could see Fatimah making a crucial decision that eventually helped the show when it was released: all characters with speaking roles had to be people of color. There are so many great actors who rarely have the chance to play complex characters, and the series would showcase them in an act of solidarity with communities who have been excluded from Hollywood. A number of media outlets picked up on this and it became a selling point of the show.
Financing is always a challenge but folks should use all resources available to them in their cities. “Brown Girls” was primarily funded by a grant from the Voqal Fund administered by Chicago Filmmakers specifically supporting digital work made in Chicago. The team crowdfunded almost all the rest of the budget. Open TV offered minor financial support.
Another selling point was that most of the crew were women, queer or POC-identified. When NowThis Her covered “Brown Girls” right before its release, they mentioned this fact and the video was seen over 2 million times on Facebook. Sam has spoken extensively about how important representation is behind the camera and how it actually improves the artistry of what you’re making, not only because there are tons of talented crew, but also for the ways it helps bring out great performances, as star Nabila has described in an interview. As Sam told Okayplayer:
To the best of my ability, I try to make sure the people in my production crew mirror the story they’re helping to tell in front of the camera. With Brown Girls, I made that a really strong goal. I wanted the actors to feel like they were entering a safe space to tell this story without being exoticised or judged. I don’t know if other people are doing that on their sets besides Ava DuVernay, Issa Rae and Jill Soloway. I don’t think it is happening on a lot of indie projects, but I’m also not spending a lot of time on other people’s sets. I hope that it becomes more than a trend. I hope that it becomes the status quo. So much of the talk surrounding diversity in media begins and ends with the characters but I think we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t extend that to the people crafting the stories behind the scenes. It’s just as, if not more so, important.
Get the word out about your production before or while you’re shooting. “Brown Girls” had just a temporary title card before shooting and with that and a strong pitch crowdfunded for the remainder of the budget. Crowdfunding is not always ideal, but it allows you to identify key supporters and get buy in before the release.
In production Sam and the team worked to create a distinct world. They shot in Pilsen, a predominantly brown though rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Chicago. The wardrobe, from Vincent Martell of VAM, and production design, Suzannah Linnekin, specifically and artfully represent the complex lives and worlds of the two leads.
The music of “Brown Girls” is intimately tied to the story. The central friendship is loosely based on that of Fatimah and Jamila Woods, a Chicago-based poet and singer whose album “Heavn” comprises the bulk of the soundtrack. Jamila’s stunning album, named one of NPR’s 50 best albums of 2016, serves as the perfect score as it is rooted in black feminism. For the trailer, which dropped in fall 2016, Jamila collaborated with Lisa Mishra, who is Indian, for an original theme song that perfectly reflects the symbolized the bond between black and brown women that is the core of story.
MARKET and EXHIBITION
When the team released the trailer, they reached out to writers who wrote for publications specifically focused on brown people and women. That was essentially their only press out reach. From those few articles in places like Black Nerd Problems, Role Reboot, and Remezcla the mainstream press started to pick it up. “Brown Girls” eventually snagged coverage from over 50 publications including TIME and The Guardian. Filmmakers always want mainstream press, but seeing where the views were coming from, I can say that targeted press is in many ways more helpful. Sites like Out magazine and Autostraddle, which focus on queer communities, and Remezcla that focuses on Latinx culture, were better traffic drivers than bigger sites like Vice and NBC.
Indie creators should get creative about harnessing press. Open TV has had a lot of success coordinating exclusive premieres with various sites, where trailers and episodes are only viewable on specific websites for a limited time. “Brown Girls” premiered a scene from episode 4 exclusively with Out magazine and premiered the first episode exclusively on ELLE magazine’s website. With so much competition for attention online, media outlets want exclusive content, and indie creators need their viewers. It’s win-win.
After releasing the trailer, Fatimah also reached out to her network and asked friends to help spread the word. The result was artists, many of them artists, hosting screenings in over dozen cities internationally on February 15, the night of its release. I counted 16 premieres in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Seattle, Puerto Rico and London. Of course, Chicago was one of the biggest premieres – though 100+ people showed up in NYC, LA and Seattle.
The “Brown Girls” showcased the talents of brown women. Both Chicago and New York invited artists across disciplines of dance, comedy, and music to perform and attract crowds. Both premieres also have local vendors who were women of color selling jewelry and t-shirts.
The premieres helped #BrownGirlsTV soar to the number 2 trending hashtag on the night of its release. The creative team asked a couple of friends to live-tweet the day of the premiere, notably Eve Ewing. Getting folks who are already known among the communities you’re represented to talk about your show the day of its release is key, but many of the tweets for “Brown Girls” came from everyday fans who connected with key moments in the show and showed their enthusiasm by posting GIFs and pics.
While all of this was happening, Sam and Fatimah were taking meetings in Hollywood. They had interest before they release. I credit their success first with their incredible talent and artistry, but also that they very intentionally worked to serve communities who are underrepresented. In a “peak TV” environment, where hundreds of series are being released every year by major corporate TV networks, serving the under-served is a viable strategy for getting attention to your work. It’s also a critical practice at a time when so many communities with intersecting struggles are fighting for their legitimacy and right to exist.
I encourage all filmmakers and creative people, whatever your race, gender, sexuality, class, citizenship status or disability, to support one another. It truly takes multiple communities to advance the art and business of television!