Feature films aren’t the only type of independently produced content to find success. Marty Lang explains how episodic content has had just as much success finding its way to mainstream distribution.
Marty Lang is a screenwriter, filmmaker, journalist and educator. His feature writing/directing debut, RISING STAR, was acquired for worldwide distribution by Content Film in 2013. His producing credits include the 2016 Independent Spirit Award-nominated OUT OF MY HAND, and BEING MICHAEL MADSEN, starring Michael Madsen, Virginia Madsen and Daryl Hannah. Twitter: @marty_lang.
Any film fan knows the story well: a little-known independent film, quirky or intense or hilarious, blasts onto the scene at a top-tier film festival and becomes a hit, rocketing its creators into the heights of the film industry. Indie filmmakers the world over work tirelessly toward becoming the next rags-to-riches example of film success.
But something interesting has been happening in recent years: feature films aren’t the only type of independently produced content to find success. Episodic content has had just as much success finding its way to mainstream distribution, in a variety of ways. If you’re an aspiring showrunner or television writer, going indie might be the way for your work to get noticed.
Lots of film festivals showcase short films from up-and-coming filmmakers, and if you’re interested in television, festivals accommodate an equivalent to this by programming Web series. These short-form episodic series are great ways to hone your skills, and can be a segue to expanding your show to a broadcast or digital/streaming format. There are over 20 well-regarded film festivals that accept web series for screening, and they’re all over the world. You could play in the mountains of Vermont at the Independent Television Fest, underneath the Hollywood sign at the HollyWeb Festival in LA, or among the stars of the Cannes Film Festival in France, at MIPTV.
Some of TV’s hottest new shows came to be as Web series first. The Comedy Central series BROAD CITY, starring Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, started as a Web series on YouTube before fellow Upright Citizens Brigade member Amy Poehler jumped on board as executive producer and expanded the show to a half-hour. You can also find a show that began as a Web series on HBO. The comedy HIGH MAINTENANCE, created by husband-and-wife team Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, before being picked up by the subscription network.
Another HBO show, that’s just been renewed for a third season, has roots on the indie television world. INSECURE, starring Issa Rae, had its start in the Youtube series THE MIS-ADVENTURES OF AWKWARD BLACK GIRL, written by and starring Rae. After the series won a Shorty Award for Best Web Show in 2012. That got the attention of HBO, which teamed her with Larry Wilmore, resulting in the pilot for INSECURE. A different story from AWKWARD BLACK GIRL, something she wanted.
“I didn’t want to do an extension of AWKWARD BLACK GIRL,” Rae told Rolling Stone. “I knew that just by nature of having me in it that there was gonna be awkwardness, and that some of the same themes would be explored. But I wanted to make something more grounded that fit HBO’s sensitivities, and felt a little bit more raw and authentic to me.”
If a Web series isn’t your speed, though, you still have other options to get into the world of television. The long-running FX comedy IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA had a storied beginning, with stars Glenn Howerton, Rob McElheny and Charlie Day producing the pilot on their own, before the network picked it up and beginning an almost-decade run. When that happened, however, that was the exception and not the rule. These days, networks are more open to this kind of up-front production.
After writing and directing the South by Southwest-winning FORT TILDEN, Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers wrote and directed the pilot of their show SEARCH PARTY, about a 20-something Brooklynite who tries to solve the disappearance of her one-time college acquaintance. And their pilot was made completely independently. Bliss and Rogers partnered with Jax Media, a company that produces shows like DIFFICULT PEOPLE and INSIDE AMY SCHUMER. Producer Lilly Burns said they made the pilot “like an indie movie,” and pitched it to networks after it was finished. TBS eventually took an interest in it, and Burns said very little needed to be reshot for the broadcast version of the final pilot.
“We were so lucky that TBS so understood the tone of it and really wants to maintain this very indie sensibility,” Burns told Indiewire. “They are just betting on this show and giving us so much freedom to maintain this really new tone.”
And if you have the time, resources and grit to go a step farther than that, you can actually produce a season of television completely on your own, and try to sell it afterwards. The Sundance film festival has been open to independent television shows screening in recent years, and some of them have led to pickups. HBO has been active on this front as well; after producing the first season of their animated comedy ANIMALS. independently, the Duplass Brothers brought the show to Sundance in 2015. And after a successful screening, HBO picked the show up, with a guarantee of a second season.
Mark Duplass said that after his experiences trying to get television shows off the ground, he knew ANIMALS. creators Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese would not be able to make the show the way they wanted to. So he offered them a new way.
“We just said, ‘Look, this is a broad concept, so everybody’s going to want to make this show,’” Duplass told Forbes. “‘Talking animals? It’s funny?’ Everybody’s going to want to buy this show, but it’s a very specific execution. What worried us about it is, ‘Everybody’s going to want to buy you, but when they find out exactly what you want to do, you’re going to get developed to death and squeeze all the fun-juice out of the show, or you stick to your guns and then they just drop you.’
“So we said, ‘This is what we’ll do. We will basically slave-labor you. We will move you out to L.A. We’ll rent you an apartment and outfit this whole thing like a sound booth. We’ll give you all the computers you need to make 10 episodes of your show. We’ll get private money, and then we’ll take out the show and sell it afterwards.’
All these examples show that taking your television idea straight to networks isn’t the only way to get it made. With a little sweat equity, you might find yourself with content that attract providers to you.