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How to make a webseries: A ‘Zombie Basement’ case study

‘Zombie Basement’ is a postapocalyptic Wayne’s World, but there’s a catch.


Rae Votta


Just before Halloween, when the world is at its peak saturation of all things ghastly and ghostly, a 77-second teaser for a zombie-themed webseries dropped on YouTube. It packs a punch of high production values and a slate of recognizable names, but it was missing a key element: a release date. That’s because the fate of Zombie Basement is still undetermined.

The shifting attention of Hollywood to the digital space has inspired many to enter the Web world for creative endeavors, with more and more critical attention being placed on Web over traditional media. However, that doesn’t mean big budgets have always followed, and the nature of the medium leaves a lot of ideas fighting for far less cash than is available for even a subpar Hollywood film. It’s in that cutthroat environment that the creative forces behind Zombie Basement find themselves—on the hunt for the perfect way to fund their creativity.

The story of Zombie Basement begins with writer David Schneiderman, who started feeling creatively lethargic while working on Level Up on Cartoon Network.

“A couple years into it, you start feeling very hamstrung by the network and by the rules and regulations of what you can do,” explained Schneiderman. “It became for me a little bit like I couldn’t express myself all the way. So every Christmas I go to my in-laws house and I try to write something while I am there. I’d had this idea. I’m just going to write this little thing, and I think I was really just trying to fall in love with writing and creating again. The basic idea was Wayne’s World during a zombie apocalypse.”

With YouTube as one of the last forms of entertainment left on the planet, a duo of guys trapped at home broadcast an array of interviews, commentary, and “sports” (air hockey is all they have left) from their basement while zombies roam overhead. Their costars are the few remaining survivalists around them: Joel’s mom, a super hot neighbor, and competing YouTubers online.

Schneiderman sat on the idea, which he envisioned as a quick little thing that eventually snowballed into a proper 30-page pilot, as he continued to work on Level Up. As that series ended, his wife began to ask him over and over again when he was going to do something with what became known as Zombie Basement. It was Scheiderman’s wife, film editor Tia Nolan, who connected him with Brian Dannelly, best known for his work on cult film Saved!.

Nolan worked with Dannelly editing 2012’s Struck by Lightning, the indie screenwriting debut of Glee’s Chris Colfer. Dannelly and Schneiderman met, determined Zombie Basement was destined for the Web (not television, as initially thought), and went from there. Dannelly brought in fellow director and executive producer Randall Whittinghill to help create the world of Zombie Basement.

“We started thinking about all the opportunities you have with a webseries,” said Dannelly. “Shooting with GoPros, putting them on guns or helmets. We got excited about shooting this in a way that you couldn’t normally shoot for TV.”

Schneiderman says he doesn’t have to look far to understand the value of YouTube—just as far as his own children.

“I have an 8-year-old son, and his dream is to be a YouTuber,” he said. “Both my son and my daughter have YouTube channels. My son will sit around and watch his favorites, and it gave me a window into that world.”

Through that window, Schneiderman and the rest of the creative team have realized the possibilities on digital platforms that aren’t available in the traditional world where most of them have spent their creative time in the past, from transmedia opportunities to different types of filming techniques. Additionally, the world of webseries offered Schneiderman, Dannelly, and the rest of the creative team a welcome wave of creativity, even if their pockets aren’t deep enough to fully realize that creativity.

“I’m a writer; I get paid, a lot of the time, to write something that ends up sitting on the shelf,” explained Schneiderman. “You write pilot or a movie, and it doesn’t get made because the actor they wanted drops out, whatever. There’s a real desire on everyone’s part here to be making stuff. When you start thinking about the Internet, you start realizing the possibilities are really easy to achieve, and the stakes are a little bit lower because that cost to make something is reasonable, in Hollywood terms. For all of us, just making stuff feels great.”

To bring Zombie Basement from idea to reality, they decided to go ahead and shoot two episodes of the nine they had written, to be able to show potential investors exactly what they were capable of as a team. But that hinged on finding the perfect leads, Joel and Guffy, two affable guys surviving the zombie apocalypse and entertaining themselves with their own YouTube basement show. The search proved accidentally easy when they unknowingly stumbled on two real-life roommates, actors Daryl Sabara and Graham Rogers, who independently snagged auditions.

“We had just started, it was like a week and a half of being roommates,” explained Sabara, who plays Joel. “When we were living together, we’d run sides together, so I’d ran the Guffy sides with him a week before. The next week I got an audition for Joel, but I already knew the sides. The week after I went it, we both went in for a chemistry read.”

“We had such an advantage,” joked Rogers, who plays Guffy. “We’d worked out our own little handshakes, stuff like that.”

The rest of the cast is filled out by friends and favors. Schneiderman brought in Max Martini, a well-known action film actor. Several other Struck by Lightning alumni also joined forces, both behind the camera and in front of it, including Angela Kinsey and Rogers, who knew Dannelly from working on the film. Even Colfer himself makes a cameo as a “Celebrity Zombie” in the early episodes, and his fellow Glee star Ashley Fink takes on a main role as part of the competing YouTube series, Zombie Makeover.

But having a great idea, a script, and even a cast attached isn’t enough to realize the type of higher-budget project they’re intending. For now, Zombie Basement is just a trailer, but fans have already amped up their excitement, viewing it just shy of 10,000 times, which bodes well for an eventual release, although that’s not something the team expects to happen until 2015.

“We won’t be able to play the episodes until after the new year, but I would hope that we find that partner in order to make the rest of it by the end of the year,” said Schneiderman.

The Zombie Basement team is still in the exploratory stage, determining where to go to find the right kind of funding partner or partners. Many other series, especially those on the lower budget end like Classic Alice or The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy, have gone the self-funding route, although that’s not solely the domain of the indies. Even big-buzz projects with backing from digital strongholds have turned to crowdfunding, as Rooster Teeth did for upcoming film Lazer Team. The second season of super-popular Bee and Puppycat also relied on crowdfunding to get produced. However, despite having big names in entertainment attached, crowdfunding is not the first choice for Zombie Basement—although the team hasn’t ruled out completely.

“We thought of a couple different options for [crowdfunding], but we didn’t know if we could get the amount of money required to do it,” explained executive producer Thomas Hartmann, who worked to integrate brands into the initial episodes. The show features Roc Energy Drink, Lemonheads candies, Threadless shirts, and more. They’re open to more brand funding in the future, as well as potential partnerships with a distributor.

“I feel like we should say, ‘We have no idea what we’re doing,’” laughed Dannelly. “Our job is to make the best show that we can. If we thought about what we’re going to do [financially], I just don’t know this world. But as directors, we’re very aware that everything’s going to be on the Internet. You have to figure it out. but in the process we’ve learned that nobody knows anything.”

As for the potential distribution partners, Schneiderman says there haven’t been any negative responses to their work as they’ve started to show it around. However, the obstacle they see is finding a company that sees Zombie Basement as fitting in with their own creative mission.

“I think they have to figure out what their company does, and how this would fit into the mold of what their company does,” he said. “That’s sort of the rub. What we want is someone who joins us creatively as well as financially. We’re hoping someone will see the potential, and see how they can lend their expertise to our unit. As Brian says, we don’t know what we’re doing, except that we’re determined to keep this going.”

Screengrab via Zombie Basement/YouTube

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