Learn from My Failure

I just commented on my previous post yesterday, “Updating Screenwriting Books that Sell,” that breaking into TV writing is, for the moment, easier than breaking into features. I also just finished reading a slender book, Writing the Pilot, by William Rabkin,  where he makes a final point I know to be true. Nobody really wants to read a script. I’m just an aspiring writer, not a working entertainment industry professional who’s inundated with ideas and scripts every day, and I’m not even that eager to read amateur spec scripts any more. Basically, if you want to prove you can make a TV series, you just about have to demonstrate nowadays that you can make one. How? Well, by making one. I had an idea, not so long ago, that I thought would provide me and some friends with a way to, essentially, do that. But, life proved me wrong, and I’m writing this post so you can learn something from my failure.

I once heard that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” I didn’t know what that meant, but as life has gone on, I’ve developed some idea.

Early in 2010, at the suggestion of an actor friend, I enrolled in a local workshop course taught by playwright Lisa Soland,  who had transplanted from Los Angeles to East Tennessee. I was the odd duck in our little class, in that I wrote a feature-length screenplay in ten weeks, while the others wrote a one-act play. At the end of the course, there was a public, staged reading of our works, meaning, all of theirs and an excerpt from mine due to the overall length.

Staged reading, excerpt from “Ignore Alien Orders”

To make it interesting, and to take advantage of a rare chance for immediate feedback during development, I had attempted a comedy; not my usual schtick, but it had its moments. At the end of the process, I was gratified by the response from the recruited actors at the reading, though. With no prompting from me, several of them came up to me in the auditorium after the reading to say how much they enjoyed the experience, and to encourage me to do something with that script. And wheels began to turn in my mind. Maybe these people and I could work together on something that would put us all into substantial new jobs. Maybe we could produce a no-budget web series! Maybe it would develop into a TV series!

At the time, I had a pretty good job, especially in a life history littered with, well, less-good jobs, for the most part. I made money many would dismiss as paltry, but for me the salary was a personal best, and I knew that in the real world, a lot more people would kill to have the working conditions, pay, and benefits I had there for several years.

I also knew all that was sand running through my fingers.

My little, specialized group within the corporation had recently been assigned to a different department and placed under newly-hired management. That’s enough to make one queasy, right there, if one is experienced at all in the corporate world. Sure enough, as I expected, it was instantly clear that these new guys, if only to justify their hiring in the first place, intended to dismantle everything we did and recreate it in their own image. And I was already well-enough aware that I was the only non-conservative, non-religious, non-sports fan on the team. The possession of such characteristics are very important in a conformist, hierarchical society, but I am not an actor in the context of my everyday life. What you see is what you get. That way, I never have to remember what lie I’ve told. But it gets me into trouble, that’s for sure. For instance, in a culture where it’s considered “cool” to scorn the concept of global warming, if you just sit there passively, having missed the joke when your boss has seen fit to verbally sneer about Al Gore’s grossly misguided views to the contrary, it’s as if you’ve dared to argue with the boss, even if you’ve actually restrained yourself from doing so. I sensed, by the time of our workshop reading, that I had a target painted on my back. So, I had my own specific motive for wanting to try something different, and do it immediately. (As it turned out, I had my job for ten more months before my “position was eliminated.” In the meantime, they needed me to carry part of the load of implementing a new system that would make what I did in my job redundant.)

I had no illusions about breaking in to Hollywood with the script I’d just written, but to test the waters and work with some of these folks, I managed to get some of them to work with me on a “trailer” for the film to submit to The Trailer Festival,  a then-new opportunity which I had just heard of. I bought a Canon Vixia and a notebook PC with enough power to edit at least simple high-resolution videos provided they did not contain too many digital layers, and, with their support and about a hundred hours’ spare-time work, made the trailer as best I could. It’s currently posted to my profile at the social network for film creatives, Stage32.com.

We had fun, enjoyed some cameraderie, and made something that’s technically crude, but will probably deliver a few laughs. All in all, it seemed to bode well enough. Well, having the actor/readers’ email addresses from the workshop, I floated the idea that we should try making a web series. I researched the field. I even set up a website as a home for the video clips. I set up a meeting and went in with a concept of my own which I thought was do-able, fresh enough to be interesting, and something we could do for a year, then wrap and get on with our lives, in or out of show business. With an ensemble of seven, nobody would have to be “on call” for every Sunday’s shoots, and the segments would be only a few minutes long, so learning the lines would not be too onerous, I thought. Another advantage, I figured, was that in creating the characters’ traits on paper, I was working with some trait each of these people already had in their real life personas, so no one would have to struggle too hard with developing their characters. The idea I floated was well-received, but one of the actors floated a concept of his own to fold into the series thread, and that was also well-received, so we agreed to make it an integral part of the series. As I had already cast the actors who said they wanted “in,” it meant we needed one more, and I knew an experienced improv comic (who earns his living as a software programmer) whose team had already starred in one indie film, and he agreed to be this furtive, occasional character in the greater scheme of the series.

Great!

But before we could get a single, short segment made, the actress I considered central informed me that suddenly, she and her husband were about to launch a new business venture she expected to tie her up for 16 weeks or so. She assured me she was vitally interested in playing her role in the series and hoped to do it, later, but would understand if I felt I had to let her go. Hmm, I was depending on all these people’s good will. I asked around. Should I just wish her good luck and immediately try to re-cast that role, or work around her absence with other cast, writing and recording video for other segments. I received predictably non-commital answers, and decided on the latter course. No one seemed to mind, and agreed we could work around it.

[ENORMOUS, ANNOYING BUZZER SOUND.] If you find yourself in this spot, don’t dither, don’t hesitate one minute. Wish the person good luck and work on re-casting the role immediately. It’s imperative to keep up all the momentum you can.

I allowed another actress who never said if she was in or out, but whom the rest of the cast wanted in, finally turned up after a couple of months announcing that she was going to be appearing in a web series! — cast in a city about three hours away, and nothing to do with us. I went ahead and “liked” the series on Facebook, but really, I was rather annoyed. She could have at least let me know before.

[ENORMOUS, ANNOYING BUZZER SOUND NUMBER 2.] Anyone who won’t definitively commit should be considered “out” within two days, and alternative casting done, or a whole other part concocted.

A third actress agreed, not knowing me but having the good word from a friend involved, to play the initial female role now, finally, considered officially vacant after four months and a confirmation that the initially-enthusiastic actress still wasn’t going to find time for these webisodes, but never could commit. I kicked myself for letting that go on for four months and trying to work around it all the time.

And I could say something similar of a fourth actress, in another role. she had agreed on principle, but… was just sort of, never there.

[ENORMOUS, ANNOYING BUZZER SOUND NUMBER 3.] Don’t do what I have done. If you’re committed to the project, be pleasant about it, but go on and work on finding someone else right away, after no more than one or two weeks of being blown off. Given the initial enthusiasm that people had shown for the concept and the roles, I clung to hope when I should not have, and let that state of affairs go on for several months. No, it was her life, and my web series was an intrusion, that was the reality of it. She never should have agreed to do it, on top of the other things she was committed to in her world, and it took me too long to acknowledge that was the case and begin pursuing still another person to adopt the role.

In the event, I found it hard to get even two of the cast together on any given day. This is ridiculous, I was saying to myself, more and more often. I was now down to taping partial pieces of the short segments, relying on single actors when I could hook up with them for an hour or two of taping. Anything that required any special effect, such as a TV commercial seen but not heard, or a voice coming from the other end of a phone call, had to be done by me, working in my home “lab” in “post-production,” and they took hours to get done. A two-minute edited taping could cost an actor an hour, and me a day.

Further interference had developed which contributed to the problem. One of my male actors had suddenly been stricken with the tragic, accidental loss of his mother. He had to contend not only with the grief, but the burden of sorting through the affairs of her estate, with siblings involved, and, of course, lawyers. I shot part of one segment which would have included him. We get to the point in the script with this other actor where he stops talking on the phone when there’s a knock at the door. The person on the door was to have been this actor who had lost his mother, and we’d have to tape them together another time for the rest of the webisode.

In the end, that time never came. After eight months of effort, I had a number of segments written, and not one actually finished. The only actress who came through for me, even one time in this endeavor, actually read her lines from the back of a clipboard she conveniently used in her role as a psychologist while her patient improvised approximations of his lines while lying on her office couch. Kudos to that actress for procuring our location on that one, too. But, I needed a couple of minutes of voice-over only, to complete that role. I was going to have a few seconds where I layered in some Flash animation and had the “patient’s” thoughts flying out of his head while his reverb’ed voice was heard reciting their contents. He lived near me and I called him and asked when he could come over to record about ten seconds for the voice over. Once before, he had agreed and we’d gotten some video and voice over for a webisode, no problem. But, this time, I received a somewhat testy response about how little time he had. Uh-oh.

And this actress called me soon after to say she was moving to Los Angeles. We’d started in earnest, as earnest as it got with this thing, anyway, in May, and now the new year was three weeks away. The handwriting was on the wall. I had just cast another actress to fill one of the other holes, and now this word came my way as a recorded cell phone message, negating the one near-complete episode I had managed to record. At that point, I put out the word to all concerned that the effort was off due to everyone’s inability to coordinate. For me, the window of opportunity closed and a new, seemingly-permanent era of scrambling for continued survival without the benefit of even a decent job began. (I stayed busy and did some things short-term, and I held down a crappy job for just over a year. Now, having trained myself in a new area, I’m trying to market my combined old and new skills on the freelance route, prospecting and finding offers online for temporary assistant jobs offering pay of as low as $3.00 an hour, no kidding. Gotta love the global economy.)

Of course, people are managing to do this stuff, and some are doing it very well. I’d like to hear from anyone who may have actually made a web series. A comment on how you managed to do it is welcome, or a guest blog for your interesting insights is available.

If you’re interested, here is a list of  some of the more interesting web series creators I found while researching the field for that project:

Peter Hyoguchi – CEO, Strike.TV
Jim Burns – Executive Producer of Fear Clinic, FearNet.com
Illeana Douglas – Creator/Writer/Actor, “Easy to Assemble”
Mark Gantt – Executive Producer/Co-Writer/Actor “The Bannen Way”
Amber J. Lawson – Comedy Publisher at Babelgum.com
Brady Brim-DeForest – CEO of Tubefilter.com
David Fickas – Drama 3/4 Productions

Anyone interested in doing webisodes might want to Google some of  this information to find out what’s currently going on with these creators and their projects, three years later.

One that is current right now, that I discovered from my Stage 32 membership is called,  Shadow 44, being produced by Alan Ray.

Another is called, “The Crazyman Show,” by Gary Craig.

Peace out.

– Ron

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