SCRIPT ANATOMY Q & A with TINA CESA WARD – Executive Producer, writer and director of Anyone But Me, an award winning web series about a new generation of gay, straight, and ethnically diverse New York teens coming of age in a post-9/11 world and struggling with identity and modern relationships. Anyone But Me recently won the first ever Writers Guild of America Award for Original New Media.
Note: For this Q & A most of the questions were compilation from followers curious about the process of creating their own web series.
SA: Why ANYONE BUT ME? As in, what incited the decision to create the series and then how did you come up with your concept?
TCW: I had been working on an independent feature film for some time and it happened to fall through. I was pretty heart broken over it and a friend, Steven Alexander, suggested doing a web series. It was 2007 and not a lot was being made yet, but I rolled the thought around and then came up with a thought on what it would be. I was struck by the fact that today’s teenagers are growing up in a post 9/11 world and that they had no idea what this world was like before we were attacked. So the idea came from that thought. I fleshed out the characters and storylines. And with Steve, wrote the first ten episodes of “Anyone But Me”. From there I sought someone with more experience in episodic than I and luckily found Susan. We did some re-writing of the first 10 episodes and went forward from there.
SA: Did you intend to sell the series or was it more about putting out your work and seeing what kind of response you got?
TCW: There was never any thought that this would be created to sell the series to TV. It was written for the web. It’s always fun to explore new mediums. And I’ve always enjoyed writing and directing short films and I liked the idea of short episodics.
SA: Was there consideration given to how your show could convert to a TV ready format?
TCW: Not really. Early on we had some talks with some possible distributors about it but it never got so far that we really had to start devising a plan.
SA: Speaking to format, a big question in the minds of SCRIPT ANATOMY readers is how many minutes should each episode be in this attention deficit digital world? Some believe that webisodes should come in under three minutes, and yet some of ABM’s episodes run up to 12 minutes. What informed your decision to go with longer episodes?
TCW: I think it’s all up for grabs. I’ve heard that you should live below 5 minutes or after 10 minutes according to information gathered by You Tube metrics. When we first started the show, we went with the advice of “Quarterlife” Producer/Writer Marshall Hershkovitz to live around 8 minutes. It’s varied for us throughout the seasons, but it’s mostly about budget for us. We’d love to do longer episodes but right now our scripts come in at 8 pages.
SA: What stands out about ABM is how authentic the characters are and how organically the story unfolds. It reminds me of John Hughes movies which resonate even today because they touch on stereotypes, belonging, identity, self-acceptance and acceptance of others. Those themes can be identified in ABM too – theme feels integrated into the story beautifully without being telegraphed. How much did you and Susan discuss theme and overall direction of story during before the writing process?
TCW: I know for me as a writer. I always start with characters I connect to. I don’t like forced moments nor have we ever wanted to be a show about issues. It’s a show about real kids going through real things. So it makes it easy to relate. Susan and I just stick to the characters and what’s true for them and they then tell us their stories.
SA: ABM didn’t force a big “cliff hang” at the end of each episode to tempt viewers to come back. Why did you choose not to go that route? And for those out there who are looking to create their own web series, what are some tips for keeping your audience engaged?
TCW: I actually think we do leave with some sort of cliff-hangar at the end of our episodes. There’s always something at the end our episodes that gives the audience a tease to comeback for more. Whether it’s an action or an emotional revelation. There’s always something leading to the next episode. And I think it’s essential to do, especially for drama.
SA: There’s quite a large cast and crew on ABM. How did you get people involved? Was it a matter of friends and contacts? How did you get other producers on board, and cast the show etc?
TCW: The cast we just did it the old-fashioned way and put out casting notices and then brought in people to audition. There were a few people that Susan knew from working with in the past, Alexis Slade, Barbara Pitts and Dan Via. But they came in to audition just like everyone else. And we got extremely lucky. As for the crew and Producers they were pretty much all brought in via posting for positions. We’ve had a number of people come through these last few seasons, but we’ve had some great crew members. And I’ve been lucky enough to find a Director of Photography that I really like who lets me be the hands on director I am in Ava Berkofsky.
SA: The big question everyone wants to know is money, money, money. How did you fund your web series?
TCW: We’ve been lucky in finding someone that believes in the show and wanted to fund it for two seasons. For our third season we were able to crowd source $33,000 and have just finished filming. Going forward we have some people in place that are looking for corporate sponsorships for us. They’re confident they’ll make it happen.
SA: Hindsight is 20-20. Knowing what you know now, what do you think are some of the best ways to raise money to produce your web series?
TCW: If I knew the answer to that question I’d be selling it on eBay for thousands of dollars. Raising money stinks honestly. I’m not too shy to say it. But the thing is a lot needs to be done before you go looking for funding. You have to make sure your project is the strongest it can be and you know exactly who your audience is, how you’re going to reach them and how you’re going to the series. Because even if you get money, if you haven’t done your homework your series may not go anywhere.
SA: I read that you will be launching a WEB-A-THON to raise money for Season Three. Just the name web-a-thon sounds cool, but can you explain what that is exactly and how it will work? OR did work out?
TCW: We wanted to try something different to help raise funds for Season 3. Our producer P.J. Palmer threw out the idea of a web-a-thon. Going with the idea of a telethon but for the web. From there we ended up filming 90 mins of new material that we launched over three consecutive days. We also did an auction of ABM items that raised a good amount of money. It was a lot of work, but we feel it was successful. $33,000 is nothing to sneeze at.
SA: For those aiming to create a quality web series like Anyone But Me, what can one expect they’ll need budget-wise per episode?
TCW: The budget question is a tough one. I feel like everyone gets hung up on our budget because our show looks good. When really our budget is quite small comparatively. More than money, you need to find people that know their craft so that you show looks and sounds the best it can on any budget level.
SA: ABM looks fantastic. What type of equipment did you use? What’s the most important element to spend money on? Lighting? Sound? Editing? Do you have recommendations for anyone just starting out who may be on a lower budget?
TCW: Seasons 1 & 2 were shot on the HVX200/HVX200A. We used the Brevis adapter, which enables you to shoot through good glass, which is absolutely key. Lighting and sound has not been anything you wouldn’t find on any other production. Again, it can come down to hiring people that really know their job and spending as much as you can on them. In terms of editing, I’ve pretty much been the editor of the show with a few exceptions. I worked in post for early on because I believed it would help me learn as a director and it has.
SA: Are there unions for the web media? Do I need to follow those rules? I really enjoyed the Q&A webisodes with the cast and I think it was Aster who mentioned “guerilla filmmaking” in Battery Park and being on the down low whenever anyone official strolled by. I assume you shot without permits?
TCW: Our show is SAG and WGA union show. Both unions are recognizing the growth of the web series industry and make it easy enough for anyone to use their union members. With permits, we try to get them. There’s nothing worse than trying to work with the idea of maybe you’re going to get kicked out hanging over your head. The whole thing with Battery Park was circumstantial; normally we’re all about permits. And in New York it’s not too hard.
SA: Do you film episode per episode or do you film the whole season and kind of break it up after?
TCW: It’s more economical to film the whole season at once. We shoot as many episodes together as we can in the same way you’d film a movie.
SA: How many days/weeks did you shoot per season and can you talk about what a typical shooting day was like for you on ABM?
SA: Did you promote your series before you shot anything? And if so, what’s the best way to do that?
TCW: We shot some promos first before episodes and got those out there. But we did most of our push once the episodes came out. I think if you can promote as early as you can the better.
SA: How important is branding your series? Was that a big part of building your site, pr and marketing? And did you and Susan deal with most of that or hire someone to help on that end of things?
TCW: Susan and I have always been the two-man band. We’ve done everything there is to do for ABM. Luckily we now have people that have jumped in to help with marketing/pr and fund raising. But it is very important to know your audience. If you don’t know your audience, you won’t know where to find them. We knew we had a niche audience and went after them. From there, we grew outward.
SA: I heard somewhere that ANYONE BUT ME has 4 1/2 million viewers. Wow. That’s more than the critically acclaimed Mad Men. How did you promote ABM/reach your audience and grow your followers?
TCW: We’re close to 7 million views now across all episodes. I’m sure Mad Men gets that in a couple episodes. I think they’re still doing a little better than us. 😉 Our viewers have grown over time. You have to have patience with a web series and you also have to be ready for long hours of social networking to get those followers hooked. Making your web series is only half the job, other half is marketing.
SA: I noticed there were commercials before and after the webisodes. Does the site/series make money from those? What are ways you recommend to monetize your product and site?
TCW: We do an ad share with blip.tv . We get a 50/50 split of the CPM. They bring in the ads. It’s really a win, win situation for the web creator. You post your series, they get ads for it and it starts making money. We’ve also sold the DVD for the first season of ABM and sell merchandise. Each has brought in money. Not enough to fund a series but enough to manage the business expenditures that you incur along the way.
SA: In the process of creating and producing ABM, what are some of the unexpected things you learned the hard way that you can pass along so that we might prepare for them?
TCW: The biggest is how much marketing was needed to be done, with production I came from an indy filmmaker background so I already knew how hard that was going to be.
SA: What’s next for you, aside from Season 3 of ANYONE BUT ME?
TCW: More stories. That’s all I can say right now.
Visit ANYONE BUT ME to watch the series!
TINA CESA WARD is a writer and director for the screen and web, and also directs for the stage. Her stage work earned her the Jean Dalrymple Award for Best Director in 2002. Her 2003 short film In Their Absence has screened in over a dozen festivals around the world and was awarded five times both domestically and abroad. Two other short works, Thank the War and Salutatorian, have each brought home festival awards. In 2004, Tina directed the successful New York premiere of Colin P. Delaney’s The Red Mollies, which Tina adapted into her first feature film Red Molly.
Currently she is the executive producer, writer and director of the award winning web series, Anyone But Me in which Tina has been nominated four times for her directing and has been awarded several times for her producing and writing work along with producing/writing partner Susan Miller. Including the first ever Writers Guild of America Award for Original New Media. Between the stage and screen Tina has been awarded over a dozen times.