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UCLA Producers Program Faculty Member Transforms Television With New Series

Tonight, a new comedy premieres on CW that demonstrates the changing nature of the business of television. Leading the charge is Maggie Murphy, head of the US division of the Canadian production company Shaftesbury, and one of the UCLA Producers Program’s own faculty members. Backpackers follows two twenty-something best friends, Ryan and Brandon, as they race across Europe in search of Ryan’s fiancé, while trying to figure out who they are and what they want to become of their lives.

The idea for Backpackers came from Jay Bennet, Vice President Digital/Creative Director of Smokebomb Entertainment, the digital arm of Shaftesbury. Murphy came on board to help develop the idea internally and planned a new strategy to pitch the show. “Visual sales tools are becoming more and more important in the industry,” says Murphy. “Before they move forward, buyers really want to know what the show will look and feel like.” So for Backpackers, she and her team hired a writer, a small cast and a skeleton crew. They all hopped in a van and drove around Europe for a few days and shot about ten minutes that effectively conveyed what the show was about, as well as the humor of the show.

”We didn’t even pitch it, which is unusual,” recalls Maggie. Instead, they shopped their presentation around to a few networks and immediately received interest from CW. Maggie and her team sold it to CW for their digital-only network, CW Seed, and they got funding from the CW to go into production. Additional financing came from pre-selling the concept to the Canadian network CTV, as well as Canadian tax incentives. Backpackers lived online among several other digital-only comedy series from CW and, to date, is the first and only digital series to be picked up by the network for broadcast.

It’s not surprising that Shaftesbury is bringing a new strategy to TV in the US—the Canadian company is used to a very different modus operandi. “In Canada, they go straight to series, they don’t shoot a pilot. And the same in the international world,” says Murphy. This trend has of course made its way to the states with places like HBO and Netflix giving straight-to-series orders, but even broadcast nets like Fox are giving this model a shot as well. Murphy has seen more and more traditional networks foregoing the traditional pilot order. “I have a series that just had five more scripts ordered, but no pick-up,” says Murphy. She believes it makes good economic sense: “Instead of shooting that pilot that is seven to ten million dollars, and then seeing it’s not good, why not pay half a million for scripts and see what you’ve got.”

Murphy and Shaftesbury are so eager to see up-and-coming creators adopt innovative practices such as these that they recently announced a multi-year gift to benefit the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Producers Program, a highly selective, two-year MFA degree. The gift will allow Shaftesbury production executives to help producing students create and develop television and digital projects, and then provide the necessary resources to complete them. The partnership will also create opportunities for Producers Program students to network with Shaftesbury’s network of top-tier industry experts.

Denise Mann, head of the Producers Program and co-head of Transforming Hollywood, is “thrilled [by the] generous donation.” “With the help of Ms. Murphy and our other key television creators, executives, producers and cutting-edge media scholars teaching in the UCLA TFT Producers Program, the department has been able to be responsive to the renaissance taking place in the television industry,” says Mann.

Murphy intends for the gift to help students create important products that are essential to selling TV series today. “People have less money and they want to have as much insurance as possible,” Murphy explains. “It’s important to be able to go to potential buyers with a clear idea of what the series is and where it goes, and we’ll be able to get these students in a position where they’re ready to be a part of the transformations taking place in Hollywood today.”

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Creating in the Digital Age: A Q&A with Brad Bell

 

In the digital age, there are many paths to creating great content. On the web, creators have the autonomy to write and produce what they want, when they want, and with whomever they choose. This openness has allowed for characters whose stories we might have otherwise missed.

One of the pioneers of this method of storytelling is Brad Bell, the creator of the YouTube personality “Cheeks”—a character he later developed into the web series Husbands with prolific TV producer Jane Espensen. We chatted with Brad (he’s a real smartypants) ahead of his visit to TH5 on April 4 for our panel, “Indie TV: Where Creators and Fans Pilot New Shows.”

What inspired you to take Cheeks and develop a series for him outside the traditional model? What was that process like?

Cheeks was initially a satirical vehicle to express whatever pop culture commentary that struck me. Basically, it was the only conscious through line of my varied creative experiments. But the more I wrote and performed as Cheeks, a fully formed character took shape and, before long, it felt like Cheeks needed to go beyond the confines of the YouTube video window. Then, when Jane and I were first brainstorming Husbands, we envisioned an Odd Couple dynamic, so it just made sense for (and I’m mixing my sitcom analogies, here) Cheeks to be the Dharma to Brady’s Greg.

As far as making Husbands outside of the traditional model, I’ve never been much of a traditionalist. (Shocking, right?) My favorite sitcoms are those which use humor to challenge the status quo, and have discussions about gender politics or double standards or social mores. Shows like All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore, Soap, and South Park. Even I Love Lucy was more subversive than you might realize. (See Episode 36, “Job Switching.”) We wanted to continue that tradition of TV with Husbands, and that style of comedy requires a very precise ratio of camp/realism, silly/cerebral, candy/commentary. Ultimately, I guess Jane and I just trusted ourselves more than anyone else to get that recipe right, and make exactly the kind of show we’d want to watch.

What were some benefits and challenges of forging a new path like you have done with Husbands?

That’s a perfect metaphor —”forging a new path”—to describe the challenges and benefits. Imagine you’re in the jungle, forging said path. You’re cutting vines and toiling for days, smoothing out the uneven Earth little by little. You’re exhausted and dirty, and to top it all off, the speed at which you’re traveling is tedious, because you can’t move forward until you make a path.

Now, compare that to the experience of just walking down an existing path in the jungle. Granted, it’s probable that this path has plenty of deadly predators, and maybe a thick fog that reduces your ability to see more than a few feet ahead, but the work to make the path has already been done. You can focus on putting one foot in front of the other, and give more attention to whatever’s making that rustling in the bushes. However, this path is limiting, because you can only go where it leads you. And sure, this path might be the most direct route to an oasis of unimaginable treasures! Or there might be a shorter route to the same oasis. Or an undiscovered (and even more unimaginable) oasis of treasures awaiting you at the end of a path that no one has yet forged!

Bottom line is, there are infinite possible benefits and challenges because there are an infinite number of possible paths. My strategy is to survey the paths that exist, and walk along them when/if it makes sense to do so. However, if the human bones littering the path start to pile up more as you walk along, be ready to jump into the overgrown forest floor and take your chances.

Do you hope to see Cheeks and Brady on more a traditional platform (i.e., as a series on a network), and if so, what does that say about the value that is still placed on certain platforms over others?

There’s so much to this question! To answer it fully, we need to clarify why there is a higher value placed on content that is perceived to be “legitimate television.” Oddly though, the standards by which people define television isn’t the platform. They just think it is.

For example, Orange is the New Black is a television show, right? I would say yes. But, by platform specifications, it’s a web-series. Why? Because it’s delivered via the Internet, either on your computer, tablet or set-tops boxes and smart TVs. Cable and broadcast (which have actually both been the same platform for years, digital) is a different platform than the one delivering Netflix or YouTube. That begs the question: if Netflix and YouTube are technically delivered by the same system, why is Netflix perceived as TV, while YouTube is a cesspool of skateboarding fails? The two primary reasons are visibility and length.

Let’s start with length. For seventy plus years, the TV viewing public has been fed content with a run time of twenty-two minutes or forty-four minutes, for comedy and drama respectively. TV seasons are anywhere from ten episodes to twenty two episodes—give or take a few, depending on the decade. Interestingly, most award shows (as well as creative unions) determine the classification and qualification of entries (or employment) based on minutes per episode, and the number of episodes produced per season. So, if you’re looking for an empirical answer to “What is television,” then length is your best qualifier.

Now, let’s talk perception. After all, perception determines reality, especially in Hollywood. This is where visibility comes into play. To find House of Cards, you don’t have to weed through endless “crazy card trick” videos on YouTube. It’s presented to you by Netflix on a nice sleek menu, likely on that screen in your living room, and exists among a selection of content you perceive as “real” television. (You’ll notice that, with new media, the goal of visibility has more to do with the psychology of marketing than it does driving viewership.) There are also forty-foot tall billboards for House of Cards, bus ads and fully immersive ads on website home pages. See, in this case, a multi-million dollar advertising budget classifies the content as “legitimate” and “important” in the eyes of the public. Throw in high-quality storytelling and A-List talent, and no one will even notice your show, technically, “isn’t television.”

But of course, it is television. The term web-series is irrelevant, because the platforms are irrelevant. It’s all television now. It’s just a matter of professional television versus amateur hour. The Internet is not “the future of television.” Neither are the two slowly merging. That’s already happened. It’s only the perception of the public that lags behind. My point in saying all this is, I would love to be able to produce Husbands in the volume and frequency that the audience wants, which would be an order of episodes along the lines of a traditional television season. However that happens, or whatever platform it might be on, is less relevant.

What was the impetus for a Husbands graphic novel? Were the things you wanted to do with the characters/world that you felt couldn’t be achieved through the series?

When we wrote the graphic novel, we’d ended the second season, and hadn’t yet met with The CW. There was uncertainty about whether we’d continue the series, so we thought a comic would be a fun way to continue the series in the meantime. Aside from the obvious things that would be too expensive to produce for the show, like exploding meteorites and spaceships, it also gave us a chance to explore familiar gender dynamics, and examine the ways in which those would change—or stay the same—when the roles were filled with two men.

What advice would you give to aspiring creators who would like to follow in your footsteps?

Besides, “Pick someone better to follow?” Hmm. I’d say, if you want to follow in my footsteps, study what I do. Then find a way to do it better.

Apart from Husbands, anything you can share about other projects you’re developing? More web series? Graphic novels? 

Eek! Tough question to answer because, yes, I’m developing a few projects, but nothing I can talk about yet, unfortunately. Although, while I’m really excited about what I’m working on during the present Husbands hiatus, what I’d most love to do next is make more Husbands. (For many, many years to come!)

You can watch Husbands on CW Seed.

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The Future of TV in an Era of Cord Cutters and Cord Nevers

By now, YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix are all household brands. For many people they are new entrants that live alongside established home entertainment mainstays like Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, DirecTV. But new research shows what the Gigaom video above articulates—1.1 million people said goodbye to those mainstays last year, cutting the cords that bind them to big-bill cable packages. And behind that generation of cord-cutters are those that have never even considered the cord, conducting as many aspects of their lives on their computers and mobile devices—especially their entertainment.

It’s easy then to understand the gold rush for original programming by so many non-Hollywood entities like Amazon, Microsoft Xbox and Sony Playstation, as well as the growing set-top market. There’s Roku, Apple has their waiting-for-an-update AppleTV, Google has Chromecast, and Amazon has just announced Amazon Fire TV, compact, streaming box with voice  search via the remote and “three times the power of” the former three competitors.

Amazon Fire TV may not be the first set-top box, and Amazon Studios may not be the first non-Hollywood shot at original series, but both have the Amazon trademark of innovation. “The goal of innovation isn’t simply to cast aside all previously held beliefs,” says Joe Lewis, head of original comedy programming at Amazon Studios, and TH5 panelist. “There are elements of the television viewing experience that have worked well since cable operators first mounted their antennas atop mountains in Pennsylvania in the 1940s. Progress is as much about knowing what can be improved as it is knowing what to leave alone.”

One way Amazon believes the television process can be improved is by inviting viewers and Hollywood outsiders into the development process. “An important mission of Amazon Studios is to bring our users into the process of making television. That doesn’t only mean that viewers get to help decide what pilots get turned into series. It also means that writers can create those pilots as well,” says Lewis.

That’s an exciting and enticing proposition for writers who might otherwise lack access to the inner-workings of Hollywood, and it doesn’t seem to be an empty gesture. From its latest round of pilots, it has given a series order to a series discovered through its submissions process, Gortimer Gibbon’s Life onNormal Street, from UCLA MFA Screenwriting alum David Anaxagoras. Amazon Studios offers $10,000 if a submitted series is added to their development slate and $55,000 if it goes into production. 

Do these new programming and streaming options foretell the end of an era in Hollywood or the beginning of a revised set of practices for creators and additional viewing options for binging viewers? Only time will tell, but on April 4 our A-list panel will explore this question and attempt to read the tea leaves. Join us as Andrew Wallenstein, editor-in-chief, digital for Variety moderates “The Programmers of the Future in an Era of Cord-Cutters and Cord-Nevers” with panelists Joe Lewis, Belisa Balaban (senior vice president, alternative and live programming, Pivot/Participant Media), Jamie Byrne (director, content strategy, YouTube), and David Craig (clinical assistant professor, USC, and producer, Media Nation). To buy tickets, visit http://www.transforminghollywood.tft.ucla.edu/conference/tickets/.

Proudly presented by the Andrew J. Kuehn Jr. Foundation