In 2012, Rodrigo Garcia of Six Feet Under and Sopranos directorial fame joined friend and colleague Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes, Up Close and Personal) to form WIGS, a production company/network with the goal of creating, writing, and producing a series of original dramas under the auspices of YouTube’s original content initiative. The intent was to create Web-delivered dramatic shows aimed at women and pointing to the challenges they face in the workplace, in relationships, and with family.
WIGS's various programming efforts consist of a number of series with short episodes (eight to 11 minutes in length) as well as featurettes with such stars as Catherine O’Hara, Maura Tierney, Rosanna Arquette, and Jennifer Garner. While the current focus is on drama, Garcia views his company’s opportunity as having no creative limits, with pitches coming to him at an accelerated pace. Content, however, is only one part of the path to success for WIGS and others wanting to find a place in the made-for-Web programming universe. Resolving business issues such as financing, distribution, and discoverability is equally important to achieving sustainability in this new medium.
WIGS came out of the gate on May 4, 2012 with Jan, the story of an awkward young photo assistant starring Virginia Madsen and Stephen Moyer. Jan has been a modest success, with YouTube views in the low hundreds of thousands, but it was enough to prove there was a ready-made Internet audience for short, thoughtful dramatic programming. WIGS has more than 340 individual shows with a plan in place to keep the creative juices flowing. Garcia and Avnet recently struck a deal with screenplay database the Black List to find scripts that will allow WIGS to maintain its momentum.
“Why can’t the content [created for the Web] have a quality that can be good enough to be part of a library?” offers Garcia, pointing to television’s general lack of dramatic content that appeals to female audiences.
WIGS has been fortunate to have a strong distribution partner in YouTube, where WIGS has its own dedicated channel with more than 280,000 subscribers. In 2013, Garcia and Avnet stuck a programming and distribution deal with Fox, which sold the rights for Blue, WIGS’s most popular show, to Hulu. Blue, with more than 43 million views across multiple platforms, stars Julia Stiles as Francine (a.k.a. Blue), a full-time single mom and part-time hooker, who consistently turns in a performance worthy of whatever statue they give out for this nascent category of multi-screen, Internet-delivered scripted drama. As part of the deal with Fox, Hulu also gained the rights to other WIGS shows, including Lauren (Jennifer Beals), Christine (America Ferrara), and Jan (Virginia Madsen).
As a way to create differentiation, Garcia and Avnet’s plan was to pair top-notch scripts with premier actors and former colleagues who would then socialize their WIGS work with peers. Julia Stiles, for example, is a friend of former Ugly Betty star America Ferrara and brought her into the fold. Mykelti Williamson, who worked with Avnet on several shows, including Justified, brought his actor friends from past shows to his first-time directorial project, Jennifer, which focuses on a novel way of dealing with prisoners on death row.
Creating differentiation can often come at a cost. So WIGS’s success stems in part from its ability to draw top talent without breaking the bank. An average 10-minute WIGS episode comes in at $50,000—a fraction of typical studio costs for productions of similar stature. Attracting top-tier writers, directors, and actors can be tricky when Hollywood’s unions have been known to take to the picket line to protect their members. The 2008 Writers Guild Strike was instrumental in defining terms for “new media,” and it set up standards that encourage collaboration between producers and writers. At the outset, to spur the flow of content, the terms are fairly broad:
For original programs produced for new media, the minimum compensation is negotiable between the writer and the Company. The full amount of the negotiated compensation is subject to Pension Plan and Health Fund contributions.
To protect its members, however, the WGA spells out terms for residuals for original new media works that generate significant revenue:
For paid/subscription content, the first 26 weeks are free of residuals, but after that a writer will receive 1.2% of the gross if the production costs are greater than $25 per minute. For content that is free to the public, residuals are negotiated between producer and writer.
By allowing producers the flexibility to work within constrained bankrolls, would-be webseries moguls can not only assemble a roster of talented actors and writers but also use Kickstarter and other startup fundraisers. Kickstarter has provided the conduit for launching such made-for-Web shows as Future of Money ($35,000), Spinward Traveller ($49,500), and ReSet ($31,115).
“We believe that the future for content-creators such as ourselves lies in being able to source project money from an audience and deliver on those projects in a timely and cost-effective manner,” says Freddie Wong, one of the creative forces behind Video Game High School. Wong understands firsthand the realities of webseries production—like how an oversubscribed Kickstarter campaign provides only a fraction of what is eventually needed to complete filming and post-production.
Finding the right script, the right talent, and even the right distribution partners does not guarantee success. With new content being uploaded every second, being discovered and watched by a large, loyal audience is yet another challenge. Garcia acknowledges it has been a work in progress for WIGS, but the network is cranking up its social media efforts to spread the word. Competition for eyeballs is at a fever pitch with incumbent TV networks, cable networks, premium channels (HBO, Showtime), over-the-top streamers (Netflix, Hulu) and indie producers who rely on social networking and search engine optimization all going after digitally inclined, attention-starved, multi-platform-viewing millennials. Traditional online guides from TV Guide, Yahoo, and others are not equipped to handle the exponential growth of new webseries.
During over-the-top content’s current Wild West stage, there is no single roadmap to success. And as with many new trends in the entertainment world, there is the chicken and egg conundrum: Which will come first, quality content or audience numbers? As Garcia points out, “This is a new heyday for television. Audiences will grow and budgets will grow. The Web will be the place for adult drama.”
Illustration by Jason Reed