questionmarkBack in 2005, you were generous enough to offer me some thoughts about whether to go to NYU or USC’s screenwriting program. Now, a few years down the line, I am a freshly minted Tisch graduate hoping for some advice on a different topic.

I recently won a modest grant to shoot a half-hour pilot that I co-wrote with a fellow NYU alumna. We assembled a cast of young actors, brought in a skeleton crew, and shot the pilot over six long, exhilarating days this January.

Now, as we wait for the final cut of our show to return from the sound mixer, we are working out a way to get our episode into the right hands — and we aren’t exactly sure whose hands those should be. Independent financiers? The networks and their web initiatives? Talent agencies? Given how new the idea of independently produced episodic work is, there seem to be very few resources for how to go about seeking distribution for a project such as ours.

I know you recently worked on your own privately financed web pilot, and thought you might have some particular insight into how two young writers can best proceed with an independently produced pilot.

Any guidance you can offer would be greatly appreciated.

— Isaac Aptaker

answer iconCongrats on your degree and your pilot. I’m glad you realize you’re not “done” in any meaningful way. You’re about to start a sprint that will hopefully become a marathon lasting your entire career.

You and I are in pretty much in the same boat. We’ve both just finished a scrappy little pilot that could become a series, ideally one that works a little more like independent film than standard television.

This concept of “indie TV” is almost at a point where we can stop putting it in quotes. Give it a year or two. In the meantime, we’re going to be forging some new ground. We both need to find two things: money to make the show, and a way to distribute it. The latter is easy; the former is more challenging.

Big media conglomerates dominate traditional television, both broadcast and cable. There are plenty of other outlets for people to see your show, from basic (YouTube) to more complex (specialized web, cable and satellite networks). The common theme is that none of them are going to be able to pay you the upfront money you need to make the show the way a typical TV network would.

Obviously, our situations are a little different — I have more credits and contacts. But it’s the premise and execution of the pilot that matters most, so a year from now, you may be the one with an actual series.

Let me talk you through what we’re doing, and how it might apply to your show.

1. Don’t dismiss standard TV altogether.

We made the pilot for a web series, but if a network (likely cable) loved it and presented a compelling case for doing it with them, we’d certainly consider it. For all the freedom a web series gives you (flexible running times, interactivity, simplified production), there’s no competing with the money and marketing muscle of a network. For example, South Park started as a Christmas card video, which spread virally in pre-internet Hollywood by videotape. Done today, South Park could easily be a web show. But would it be nearly the same phenomenon (and cash cow) if it didn’t have Viacom behind it? Probably not.1

Particularly if your pilot resembles a traditional TV show, you should get it in the hands of people who work in traditional television. Use anyone you can at Tisch to reach out to television agents, managers and executives. Yes, you’re hoping they love you and want to represent you as a writer/director/whatever for your future career. But the immediate focus is whether this pilot could be a show.

2. Think about how you’ll make money, and how others will, too.

You can do a pilot for very little money because it’s a short time commitment for everyone. For my pilot, I brought in longtime accomplices and newcomers eager to make a relationship. But all the things you can skimp on for a three-day shoot become necessities when scaled up to a series, so you can’t expect a crew to work for praise and Quizno’s.

You’re going to need money. And whoever gives you this money needs to have a reason to believe it’s worth it.

For our show, we’re going to be targeting several big advertisers, trying to find one who will sign on as the exclusive presenter. Like the BMW films, our premise lends itself to very direct product integration. The money to make our show would be a trivial portion of a brand’s ad budget.2

For a web series, advertising can also be handled by a distributor or accumulator, some of whom give content creators a cut. That’s been the way many web shows have been handled so far. Chaotic? Absolutely. And I have no idea what the best practices are, or whether you can realistically expect to make money from it.

If you think you’re headed towards traditional television, your best bet is to target production companies with shows on the air that resemble what you’re doing. They’re most likely to have the contacts and experience to find the money needed. They’ll take a big percentage, but they’ll earn it.

3. Make a lot of screeners. Distribute them.

You don’t know who is going to be the crucial connection in getting your pilot to series, so there’s no benefit to keeping it a secret. If someone expresses any interest in you or the show, get them a DVD as soon as possible. Make it look professional, and follow up. Encourage people to pass it along.

I’m torn whether to recommend putting it online at the start. While it’s convenient to send a link to something, it makes it feel less exclusive. Even in 2008, there’s a sense that if something is already on the internet, it’s no longer valuable. So at least in the first wave, I’d try to keep it on physical media.

We’re at roughly the same stage of production: we finished the sound yesterday, and do final color correction this week. For me, it’s been great to explore what’s possible at budgets well below The Nines, relying on desktop software rather than specialized suites, and trying to remain agnostic about brands and workflows. If we end up doing a series, the pilot process will have taught us a lot about where to spend our money and time.

  1. It’s worth pointing out that Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane is betting on the web. He’s doing a new show directly for the internet, partnering with MRC and Google for advertising.
  2. This is working under the assumption that we’re a web series, but the beauty of a deeply-embedded advertiser is that it doesn’t particularly matter what format or medium the show ultimately takes. If it shows up on the torrents, even better.