By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act January 28, 2014 at 10:40AM
A question I'm asked frequently, especially in recent months, with what seems like an abundance of new web series, is, what I think makes a good web series.
My response is always the same: it's really not all that different from asking what makes a good film (or TV show). I think the same things that attract us to movies and TV serials are also what attract us to web series - story, script, acting, directing, cinematography, editing, etc. The usual stuff.
It's all subjective, isn't it? What I'm attracted to wouldn't necessarily be universally attractive.
I think knowing who your audience is, as with filmmaking and TV content producing, is key. Know your audience; know what they like; and give them what they want. Forget the other groups of people who don't immediately take to your series. If it finds its audience, and they support it, you've won.
The one thing I'd say, that I think many will agree on, is how long each episode of your web series should be. I get tons of them emailed to me every week, and share one or two, here and there. And I can tell you that I'm most likely to watch those that are short - in the 5 to 10 minute range. That's your sweet spot I'd say. Anything pushing past 10 minutes, is probably in danger of losing, or not attracting eyeballs.
Ignore those voices encouraging you to make your episodes longer; Don't do it! Make each episode short, memorable, and keep audiences hungry for more, from one episode to the next.
If you absolutely MUST make each episode 15 to 20 minutes (or more), make sure you have something so riveting that it keeps audiences engaged the entire time.
But, my suggestion would be to stay in that 5 to 10 minute range per episode.
Another suggestion would be to test the waters; as in, create a few episodes to start, instead of shooting, editing, scoring the entire season of episodes (assuming you're taking that route), before unveiling the series, only to see it die very quickly, due to a lack of audience interest and/or awareness. And then you find yourself stuck with another 10 already-made episodes still to be released; money already spent, time already invested, but little seen in return.
This isn't a steadfast rule; but it's the approach I'd take. For example, let's say you're developing a 10-episode web series. You can opt to produce the first 3 to start (that's the number of episodes I usually give TV and web series to decide whether I'll continue watching them; I figure that by the 3rd episode, I should be able to make an informed decision on how I feel about a series; it's worked for me in the past, and continues to do so). And then release the first 3, spread out over a short period of time. And I'd say that by the time you've let the first episode travel, you should have some idea of what audiences think of it, and even more of an idea by the time you unveil the second episode, and definitely by the 3rd, at which time you'll have to make a decision as to whether it's worth it for you to invest more of your money and time in producing the rest of the series.
There might be a brief hiatus between the 3rd episode, and the 4th, but you should plan to write all 10 episodes first; So the scripts will be done and ready, and it'll be a matter of going back into production to shoot the rest.
Easier said than done, and you run the risk of your audience forgetting your series, especially if the hiatus is a lengthy one. The simplest way to solve that is DON"T LET IT BE A LENGTHY ONE!
Planning is key; be prepared to go into production on the rest of the series by the end of the second week, after episode 2 has aired, if you feel that you've got something, and audiences are digging it.
Another good reason to produce the first 3 episodes first as a test, before investing in a full season, is that doing so also allows you to *fix* what may not be working, assuming you want to continue with the series, especially if you seek feedback from the audiences you expose those first 3 episodes to. Or even if you don't take any audience feedback directly. Having that opportunity to make changes, however drastic, can be a very good thing; saving you money, time, and other resources, including your sanity, and your web series.
But, to wrap all this up:
- Keep each episode short, 5 to 10 minutes long, or about 7 1/2 minutes.
- As with filmmaking, and TV series, the same rules for engaging audiences apply: story, script, acting, directing, cinematography, editing, etc. And knowing who your target audience is.
- You can do as I suggested, which is to write the entire season first, but only produce the first 3 or so episodes, and release those, preferably within a short period of time (a few days, or a week; definitely not a month or longer), but be prepared to produce the rest of the season, if the first 1, 2, 3 episodes are successful.
Those are MY suggestions, based on what I've seen, heard, read, experienced, etc. Others might feel differently on any of these points, and that's just fine too.
And once again, as a refresher, here are my 5 Tips On Writing No-Budget/Low-Budget Feature Screenplays, which applies to web series production as well.
1. K.I.S.S. - A suggestion I've given to others is, before you even start writing, take an inventory of everything you have access to, whether for free, or for cheap - locations, wardrobe, props, equipment, whatever - and then write your script based on your findings.
2. Characters - the fewer the better. No ensemble pieces; Less people to account for. Take a look at some films we've featured on this blog, which were made with very little money, like Medicine For Melancholy, A Good Day To Be Black & Sexy, 6 Things I Never Told You, I Will Follow, and others. Medicine was a 2-character piece; Black & Sexy and 6 Things were more like a series of short films centered on specific themes, with each short having no more than 2 characters at a time; I Will Follow really had 1 star, and a smattering of supporting casts. Some might think that you can't make an "entertaining" film with 1, 2, 3 or 4 characters, but that's B.S. and you should abandon that line of thought.
3. Locations - first, like the number of characters, the fewer the better, and the reasons should be obvious. Once again, I Will Follow for example, 1 house was the primary location; done. Secondly, and just as importantly, relegate much of your script to locations you can fully control - unless you've got money to shut down streets, or use parts of airports and hotels. But if you did, you wouldn't be reading this, would you? 3rd, stay inside as much as possible - especially in any scenes with dialogue. If you're going to shoot any street scenes, you'll be best served by keeping those dialogue-free - or with very little of it. Don't write a scene with a 5-page conversation that takes place on the Brooklyn bridge, for example. That's an extreme example, I know. But you'd be surprised by some of what I've seen. Just do your best to keep your scenes within 4 walls - especially those with dialogue. Obtaining good sound is crucial! Don't jeopardize that by shooting sync sound dialogue scenes in locations you have little control of.
4. Dialogue - and speaking of dialogue... a common mistake novice writers/filmmakers often make is to write scripts filled with dialogue. There's nothing that turns producers off more than being handed a script that, upon initially flipping through, is made up of page after page of dialogue chunks. As I've experienced with scripts I've read, the dialogue is often repetitive and expository. One of the first things you learn in film school is: show, don't tell. Actions really do speak louder than words when it comes to the language of cinema, so keep your dialogue at a minimum, succinct and brisk. Unless you're trying to emulate Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, or David Mamet, amongst others. But why would you be? Especially when working with a tiny budget. Although, I'd say this - if you do have a dialogue-heavy script, keep item numbers 2 and 3 above in consideration when writing. Sure, on your early drafts, you might spill everything out in words spoken by your characters; however, when you're editing in later drafts, clean up as much as possible, and find ways to have your characters express themselves succinctly, or without words.
5. Length - keep it short. I'd say anywhere from 80 to 100 pages max is good - preferably closer to 80. Again, you're working with little to zero financing, so the shorter your script is, the less money you'd likely have to spend. Of course there are exceptions, but, in general, it doesn't take a genius to realize the math here.