Thursday, November 5, 2015

Matthew G. Anderson on "Theater People" (Seasons 2 & 3)

A while back, we spoke with Matthew G. Anderson about his web series, Theater People. Since its launch, he and his team went on to raise money for a second season and were so successful that they received enough donations to produce both Season 2 and Season 3.

When it comes to trying to get attention for a web series, what did you learn when you released Season 1 on the web?

MATTHEW: Well, it’s still the wild west out there with regard to web content. No rules, no standards, not even much in the way of general guidelines. There’s also no central hub, so once you’ve completed your project, trying to get eyes on the result turns out to be just as difficult as getting the thing made in the first place.

One of the first important decisions we had to make was about our release strategy – how we’d be dropping the episodes. We had 10 Season 1 episodes and were in a position to release the whole season at once like Netflix does with their original content. The benefit of that, so goes the philosophy, is that you’re enabling binge viewing so anyone who discovers the show can just camp out and watch everything in one sitting.

Instead of going that route, we decided to release one episode a week. Our main motivation was probably just the comfort level of the traditional network TV model. The whole “same bat-time, same bat-channel” is what I grew up with and I’m still programmed that way.

What we discovered, though – and which ended up being the real benefit of that strategy for us – was that it provided 10 weeks of conversation. Instead of having to hit the same promotional points again and again ad nauseam, we were able to talk about the show every week for two and a half months without having to repeat ourselves. Each new episode created the opportunity for new promo pics, Facebook posts, tweets... if there’d been the production capacity for it, we could’ve even done 30-second spots for each episode.

The 10-week release model allowed us to generate momentum, with more new viewers discovering the show every week and going back to catch up.

In the social media realm, Facebook continues to be our biggest promotional tool. We stay active on Twitter (@TheaterPeople), but we’re based out of Minneapolis/St. Paul and Twitter doesn’t have much of a footprint there, so Facebook is still where we get most of our word-of-mouth.

We have more than 1,000 Facebook followers now (, which is our core audience. Most of our views come from fans who Like or Share our posts on their pages. That seems to be how the word gets around.

Did reactions to Season 1 have any impact on your creative process for Seasons 2 and 3?

MATTHEW: Not really, aside from the most important reaction, which was that people seemed to like the show and want more. 

In the wake of releasing Season 1, we’d made a short film and were considering what we wanted to do next. Then one day, about a year after the Season 1 release, American Theatre magazine posted a link to the show on their Facebook page and that post generated something like 3,000 episode views in a week. That’s not a huge number when you’re talking about an internet audience – it was always unlikely that 10-minute comedy episodes with a 10-episode story arc would go viral – but suddenly we were getting emails from people in places like Peru and Australia who were connecting with our little Minnesota-set indie theater sitcom.

That was the motivation we needed to commit to putting together another season.

What was your plan to create a successful Kickstarter campaign? 

MATTHEW: We always said that if we did another season, we’d need to finally attempt a crowdsourcing campaign. Season 1 was financed entirely out of pocket and then released for free online with the goal of seeing if there was an audience for this kind of show. We discovered there was and so then the question became, “Will that audience contribute to making more?”

My co-producers and I aren’t salespeople – asking for money is way out of our comfort zone – so we went into this thing trying to find a way to make it as comfortable for ourselves as possible. One thing we all agreed early on was that if we were going to spend a month asking people for money, we wanted to also be providing some kind of entertainment. So we planned out a month-long campaign involving not just the usual campaign intro video, but also nine other videos to be released over the course of the month.

Once a week we released a “Help Us Pay” video that spotlighted a member of our team (Composer, Chief PA, Director of Photography, Webmaster) in a little dialogue-free one-minute clip with music. It helped put faces to the costs we were attempting to cover. Then we also released a special one-off video every week – Season 1 outtakes, a new video starring a couple of Season 1 characters, etc.

So not only did we feel like we were singing for our supper, but (like with the episode release schedule) we created the opportunity to talk about the campaign every few days without having to repeat ourselves. And when we’d release a video, if it was funny enough or sharp enough, people would Share it on their FB pages and the word would spread.

How did you adjust that plan as you went along? 

MATTHEW: We stuck to the plan pretty rigidly – there were so many production/promotion elements at play, having a playbook to adhere to was hugely helpful.

The one major adjustment we had to make was the kind you want to have to make, which is “Hey, we hit our fundraising goal early... now what?” With a few days left on the clock, we had to strategize how to get the most out of our campaign from that point on. We did that by announcing that any funds raised above our goal would go to increasing our actor stipends. It was a great, specific motivator for people to continue to contribute even once we’d reached goal.

And how successful were those plan elements?

MATTHEW: It was a very successful campaign. People seemed to enjoy the new material we were putting out, I think we staved off “sales pitch fatigue” pretty effectively and we ended up exceeding our goal by nearly $3,000, which allowed us not only to increase our actor stipends but actually produce an additional mini-season of the show.

What surprised you about the Kickstarter process?

MATTHEW: How much work it was. Seriously – I’m not sure I’ve ever worked harder than I did that month.

In addition to producing and releasing nine new videos, every day was about social media promotion and strategy as well as personal emails and Facebook messages to everyone we’d ever met. It was constant “ask ask ask”. Particularly if you don’t have that kind of personality, it’s an exhausting process. Totally worth it for the end result. But crowdsourcing is definitely not “free money” – you work for that like crazy.

What was the upside of shooting two seasons at once? And the downside?

MATTHEW: We’d gone into the fundraising phase expecting to put together enough money to do another 10-episode season like Season 1. Once we were in the thick of crowdsourcing, however, we were contacted by a friend of the series who had an idea for Season 2 – he owned an old farmhouse in rural Minnesota and he’d been thinking it might be funny if our ridiculous Season 1 theater director, Jamy Gumb, decided to do a site-specific play in the middle of nowhere.

He offered the use of the house for free and the idea was just too good to pass up. The fundraising campaign was going well enough that we decided we’d find a way to make it work and instead of a 10-episode Season 2, we ended up with a mini 6-episode Season 2 and the 10-episode storyline became Season 3.

We started shooting Season 3 first due to actor availability – 20-some days of shooting throughout December and January. For our new 6-episode season, we had to shoot it fast over 3 weekends at the end of January while we were wrapping up the Season 3 shoots during the week.

The downside of doing the two seasons at once was really just the enormous amount of time and work and organization it required. We were running pretty much constantly and it was only due to the superhuman organizational and scheduling skills of my producer Lydia that we were able to keep everything straight.

Usually the benefit of simultaneous production is that you can save time and money by squeezing a ton of material out of the same locations, actors and equipment rather than having to double up. However, because of the very different natures of our two seasons, we weren’t able to do that. Season 2 was shot by me on the same consumer cam I used for Season 1 and took place entirely at our farmhouse location half an hour out of Minneapolis. Season 3 was shot around the Twin Cities by DP Amber Johnson on higher quality equipment and, with the exception of a few cameo appearances, there was no overlap between the S2 and S3 casts.

The upside we did have was less tangible but beneficial nonetheless and that’s that we were able to stay in the production groove the entire time. Starting a production, it usually takes a while to get the ball rolling before you click into that mode and everything starts happening more smoothly. We were able to really hit the ground running with Season 2 because it was a transition rather than a cold start. That was key to successfully shooting a full 80-minute season in 8 days.

What did you learn from Season 1 that you took to Seasons 2 and 3?

MATTHEW: Honestly, I think the biggest gain from Season 1 was just confidence. “Semi-controlled chaos” is a good way to describe our production method that first season. Knowing that we were able to put together a good show that first time out on the strength of good material and performances, even under less-than-ideal conditions, gave us a little more courage to stretch ourselves creatively and aesthetically this time.

Where to next?

MATTHEW: Right now we’re exploring our options. We made it clear during the Kickstarter campaign that crowdsourcing was a one-time deal for “Theater People.”. I feel like there has to be a forward progression. From out-of-pocket to crowdsourced and then from crowdsourced to funded. Where those funds might come from, I don’t know. Advertisers? Investors? I really like the model we’ve been operating under – free for all, donate if you like it – but obviously the possibility of charging for access is something to consider.

I’m also interested in what else we could do with the series format. I’ve got ideas for a couple other shows that would be well-suited for either the web or streaming/cable. If we found the right home for a project like those, we’d jump at the chance.

We’ve had a lot of great response to Season 2 on the festival circuit and I think Season 3 really represents a step forward for the show in terms of production and content. Hopefully those achievements will open some new doors for us. I figure our job is to be prepared to walk through them when they do.

Here's a link to the first interview:

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