Writers on the Web: Interview with Emmy-Winning Writer/Producer & Founder of LAWEBFEST, Michael Ajakwe

michael-ajakweI was honored to have the opportunity to interview Emmy-winning television producer and five-time NAACP Image Award-winning producer and playwright, Michael Ajakwe, Jr. In addition to his work in theater and television on shows such as Martin, Moesha, and Eve, he’s the writer/producer of the hit web series Who and the founder of the Los Angeles Web Series Festival (LAWEBFEST), now in its fifth year!

How did you get your start working in web series, and then creating your own festival?

It’s funny, I didn’t set out to create my own festival, I’m actually a television writer. Got my start in theater, theater led to television, television led to film. And the web thing is something I saw the younger people getting into… I was working on a show in the mid-2000’s called Eve with the rapper, Eve.  I noticed the younger people, the assistants who worked with us, particularly one of the assistants, he was doing this thing online. I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know what he was doing, I thought he was crazy.  I said, “Hey, what are you doing there?” And he said, “It’s a web series.” A web series? It turns out I had actually heard of one before; when they first sprung up, Hollywood embraced web series, they made several deals with web series makers.  They had made a major studio film that was based on a web series, Undercover Brother, written by this guy named John Ridley who went on to write 12 Years a Slave, Three Kings, and U-Turn. Universal bought his web series concept and paid John Ridley to adapt it into a feature film.

Around 2001, Hollywood kind of fell out of love with the web series, and they floundered around for awhile, and then they came back in 2008. I jumped into it in 2009 and went ahead and used some of my resources to make one. I thought it was fun! Especially during the editing process when I was with my editor, and I was like, “God, this is cool to create your own stuff.” And not have to go to a network for notes. I mean, I come from theater, where there’s a lot of freedom, so this was kind of like doing a play, only a hybrid with TV.  I always say, “a web series is a play that never closes.” So I did three episodes, that turned into six, and then nine, and then I did twelve for my season.  And I remember looking at my laptop, showing the series to some friends and thinking, “God, wouldn’t it be cool if a bunch of us who were doing this got together and just showed them to each other?” You know, rooted for each other and then maybe give out some prizes at the end… just putting it out there, someone needs to get us together so we can celebrate this.

Michael Ajakwe at LAWEBFEST sister festival Marseille Webfest with founder Jean Michel Albert

Michael Ajakwe at LAWEBFEST sister festival Marseille Webfest with founder Jean Michel Albert

No one did anything, so at the end of 2009, I said, “How hard can it be?” You need to have a venue… a space… you need to have a big screen… and I knew a space, a small theater in the Miracle Mile area of L.A., a 100-seat theater with a smaller space too where you could do workshops.  I had done a bunch of plays there, so I talked to the owner, and I said, “I’d love to use the space, but I don’t have the money right now.” The owner said, “I know you’re good for it, Mike, you can pay me later.”  So once he gave me the space, I made the announcement online: Let’s all get out of the house, and come and meet each other and get to know each other. That was the birth of the LAWEBFEST.

I believe that these web shows have a value, and although there isn’t a big monetary value yet, because the audience is still being developed–the production is exceeding the audience right now–I think that will change in the future.  People who take the time to make a web series will be sitting on a valuable commodity.

I’m working now on developing a web series channel, something a little different than what’s already out there. We’ve let in a little over 700 shows since we started LAWEBFEST.  And even though we have judges, I make it my business to watch every submission.  And it’s just amazing what people are doing—the industry is underestimating what’s being done by these people. The industry may think they are amateurs, but most of them studied film and television in college, but like so many of us, they couldn’t get a job out of school.  So they did what they needed to do to survive, yet have this amazing skill. So here comes the web series, and it gives you a second chance at your dream.  It’s not a TV show, but it’s like a TV show, and it’s like a film, and it’s like a play.  And the fact that the cost of production has gone down so much since the 80s and 90s makes it possible.  I think Final Cut Pro was the great leveler.  The game changed with Final Cut Pro and the Red Camera and HD cameras.

I’ve been reading this book called An Empire of Our Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. A friend had been telling me for years to read this book; the book is fascinating.  It really outlines how the movie business was founded and how it came up, and a lot of the questions we have with web series, asking ourselves about monetization and growth, they were asking the same questions 100 years ago about film.  That’s saying, we can learn a lot about the future by looking at the past.  Adolph Zukor, the Warner Brothers, and William Fox; that book is helping me, in terms of trying to figure out, where’s the money for web series going to come from? How can we make more money so people can make a living making their shows?

Please tell us about the web series you created, Who.

WHO... BILLBOARDI’m a TV guy, I make my money mainly in television, and at first I was almost looking down on web series as a snob.  As if the web series is less than a TV show or film, solely because of the money.  But the skill to tell a story in six minutes or three minutes or five minutes, that skill is just as elusive as doing it in 30 minutes.  I think it’s even harder to tell a story in that amount of time.  And the people who look down on that process, they just don’t want to do it, because they can’t. Up until now it was only 30 minutes, 60 minutes, or 2 hours.  Now it’s, can you tell a story in three minutes, two minutes? It’s a threat.  It’s much harder to write well short than to write long.  Every word has to count.  No fat.

Who is about two chicks who meet up every day and just talk about people. Who better not look at my man, who needs Jesus, who can kiss my ass, who I like, who gets on my last nerve.  The original concept was that they’d meet at a Starbucks, but then I thought about permits, and traffic, and I decided no, we’ll just have one girl be rich, and the other has a day job, and they just meet up every day for lunch, and the girl who’s rich has a chef who cooks for them, and I just get them talking about something. And it was supposed to just be three episodes, but people liked it, so I made three more and then three more and then three more.

And then I wanted to put my money where my mouth is, when I talk about the fact that I really believe that web series content is valuable as source material to adapt from, as has always been done in film, television, and music. However a lot of the web series makers suffer from low self-esteem. It’s bad enough that they’re not making any money off of them, but they see their series as just a web series.  And in traditional Hollywood, that’s not how it is.  Everything is a transformer.  Every book is a potential film, a potential TV show, or a potential Broadway play.

Cast of "Basketball Wife"

Cast of “Basketball Wife”

So to put my money where my mouth is, I took my web series Who and reimagined it as a TV show, Basketball Wife, and expanded it, created more characters that didn’t exist in the web series. I focused on the wealthy couple, hot girl and rich guy, and at the end of the day, if she didn’t have those looks, and he didn’t have that money, they’d love each other, and they’d still be together.  I call my show a ‘social media sitcom’ in that its parent was a web series.  Even in the credits it says “Based on the Web Series Who.”  I want everyone to know at the end of the day that this TV show was based on a web series.

Now a lot of filmmakers forget to put aside a portion of their budget for film festivals and marketing.  What do you think is the appropriate amount of money to put aside, and can you give examples of web festivals do you think are good to submit to?

I would say an appropriate amount of money to put aside is $250.  For my festival, I try to keep it on the inexpensive side.  The Marseille WebFest in France is free, they’re supported by the city, the Roma WebFest is not too expensive, there’s the Hong Kong WebFest, Melbourne Web Fest… there’s festivals in the U.S., like Austin WebFest, Atlanta WebFest.  But LAWEBFEST is the biggest, everyone wants to be in L.A.  Los Angeles is the web series capital of the world. This upcoming year we’re gonna do the festival for five days.  We started off as a weekend festival, then it was four days, and in 2014 it’ll be five days… five days for our 5th anniversary. My eventual goal is to have the festival last for an entire week.  People would come in on Sunday and leave the following Sunday.

When you come to the Radisson Hotel, we have the entire second floor, and everyone there is there for web series.  You’ll meet people from all over America and all over the world. And the spirit is amazing, and the networking might be the best thing about the festival. We screen all day.  We start screening at 10 am and we don’t finish until 1 in the morning. If you miss something, you can probably catch it the next day or day after.  The goal is to watch what people are making.  Everyone is at a different level, everyone has different resources.  It’s not like the studio level where everything is done at the studio and there’s gonna be a floor as far as quality.

LAFest2013_LaurelsAt LAWEBFEST, let’s say a show doesn’t have great production value, but it’s got a great performance, or one has great cinematography, but the story isn’t as good, whatever it is, if you stand out in one area really well, you’re probably going to receive recognition for that, not just for your show on its own but compared to the other shows.  And if you stand out in more than one area, you’re likely going to get more awards.  We have Outstanding Merit vs. “Best Of” because that’s so relative.  One thing about new media storytelling that I felt when I started the festival was that a lot of people try to copy what’s out in TV and film.  But we don’t have to do that. We can be different.  We don’t have to go by traditional rules; we’re a non-traditional medium.  Our way of being different is, for example, we might have 10 shows that win for Outstanding Comedy.  If you do a great job in your show, you will likely be recognized for it.  A lot of people leave our festival happy.

You can submit to LAWEBEST through February 10, 2014!
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