This is PART TWO of an interview with Justin Kownacki of Something to Be Desired, a hot new web show that’s rising quickly to the top of a strong new media space. Part ONE is here.
Justin: Now, the pressure comes in the form of competition. We’re behind the curve in other ways because a lot of the most popular web programs (Ask a Ninja, Rocketboom, Tiki Bar TV) fill a specific niche and are easily digestible even in stand-alone form.
On the other hand, our show is much more episodic and unfolds in a season-long approach that pays off much better for those who watch regularly. If someone comes in midway through the storyline, the light bulb may not click on immediately. Meanwhile, the ninja answers a question in 3 minutes every week on Ask a Ninja; what more do you need to know?
Me: What are your numbers like?
J: Our numbers are rising steadily right now, and have been ever since January, when I actually had enough time to spread the word more and edit the episodes less. We’d filmed ahead enough that I wasn’t behind a camera for 20 hours a week, which opened the window to put the show in front of more people.
Me:When you started, the world wasn’t ready for you. Now they are. How does this change your perspective?
J: Well, knowing that the benchmarks are being set and the comparisons can be made, where they couldn’t be made before — how many times did we have to explain the concept of a web series to someone with a blank look on their face? — definitely raises the bar of our own expected performance. We now know what the high end traffic rankings look like for the kind of web video people are devouring right now, and we’re constantly surevying the scene to figure out where we fit into the picture.
STBD seems to exist in a strange twilight zone of a genre: the serial comedy. Kind of like a sitcom, except it actually evolves, so it’s more like a funny soap opera. None of these descriptions seems all that appetizing, but it’s a ballpark descriptor.
Me:Do you find the story changing in any way to try and make the numbers go up?
J: Driving the numbers up is always our top priority, but it’s less a matter of streamlining the content — though obviously making it as accessible as possible to new visitors will help — than it is about utilizing the web’s built-in community and marketing tools to spread the word.
Me:If I were writing, I know I’d be fiddling the knobs too much.
J: A lot of the fiddling is done for me by real life circumstances, but other ideas come about from the need to keep exploring the characters. The main attraction for many of the actors in getting involved with STBD — in addition to the immediate feedback of the web — was the opportunity to grow into and with a character over an indefinite period of time, which isn’t usually possible on stage or in film, or even in a sitcom, where the characters tend to define their archetype and then rarely budge from their plot requirements.
Me: Interesting. I imagine more people would say, “it’s all about the art,” but the numbers are nice. You say it’s your top priority. What puts you in that mindset?
J: Well, perhaps I should qualify: “it’s all about the art” in terms of producing the best show we can despite the limitations. That’s the driving force that led us to start creating the show in the first place. However, “it’s all about the numbers” in the sense that there needs to be a certain reliable audience out there clamoring for us to keep going or else, quite logically, the cast and creators will need to find something more profitable to do with our time. Due to the scheduling hoops required to jump through in order to film with 15 volunteers, the creative payoff of a story well-told needs to be balanced by telling it to an audience well-represented.
Justin(about the cast): STBD is also a strange animal in that it’s entirely a volunteer effort thus far, so characters will come and go based upon the realities of their situation. Only half the cast are actual trained actors.
The other half are strong personalities with day jobs that occasionally make scheduling a nightmare. Dan, who plays Jack Boyd, left the show not because his character needed to find himself (show excuse) but because he and his wife had a baby and moved across the state. Ray King didn’t have a nervous breakdown at the end of Season Two; Benjamin Bratt (who plays Ray — and no, not THAT Benjamin Bratt) got a job in Phoenix and gave me two weeks to write him out of the show.
Fortunately, filming on a semi-constant schedule allows us to work out these kinks as quickly as possible.
Me:So, what’s Justin like? What does the crew think you’re like?
Justin: I’m a control freak who’s quickly realizing he can’t do it all alone. I definitely see the gap between what I’m good at (creating / conceiving, editing, communications) and what I’m not good at (the business end). If this were still just a hobby, I wouldn’t be worried. But seeing the potential for growth, and wanting to build the series into the flagship of a web channel, I realize I either need to learn more about business (and therefore do less of what I’m good at, which seems like a bad choice) or team up with a business partner (or other like-minded production companies) and allow those who are good at the creative side excel in that arena while those with a head for numbers handle that side of things.
I’m not entirely certain what the cast would think of me. I’m sure contacting them would produce better answers than I would. Considering I’ve dated two of them, and some of them have dated each other, the behind-the-scenes drama is occasionally more interesting than what we create. Someday, when the STBD tell-all is published, the world will know what was going on when the cameras were off.
Me:Tell me about marketing. What are you doing to get the word out?
J: Literally, every day we’re doing something new. And since there’s no proven blueprint for web video success (besides “make a comic book homage”), anything could work.
Blogs. MySpace. Mailing Lists. Frappr. Instant Messenger. Location shoots. Street Teams. Working with musicians. Working with photographers. Podcasts. eCards. Buddy icons. Posters in bathrooms. The sky’s the limit.
Someday, when someone realizes there’s a logical trajectory to follow, success will be a lot easier to attain and more accurately predicted earlier in a show’s cycle. But, like the movie and TV industries, it’ll become a numbers game with occasional surprises, rather than the constant excitement it currently provides.
Our marketing return has been completely unpredictable. Getting a lengthy mention on a local radio station had less impact on our numbers than getting a mostly negative mention on the blog of a DJ in Austria. Being featured on the cover of a local free paper created less turnout than being mentioned in the mailing list of Australian author Max Barry, who saw the show when Jack read one of his novels in an episode and dug us enough to mention us to his entire fanbase.
You really can’t predict these things, but I have noticed that a link from a favorable website will trump nearly any kind of mainstream media marketing — print, radio, stickers, posters, etc. — because it cuts out the middle man of a potential visitor having to remember our name long enough to get to a computer. Click and join. Genius.
I should note that Justin contacted me via this blog, and so his viral marketing paid off with this interview).
Me:So what’s your family think of this?
J: My family has been supportive from the beginning. My parents are unconventional thinkers, so they encouraged me to think outside the box from a young age. I’m more concerned with what the cast’s families think when they see the show than what my own family thinks.
Every holiday, there’s another horror story that follows the lines of, “So I was telling Uncle So-And-So about the show and he decided to watch it,” and of course there’s either a sexual situation or spectacularly bad language featured in the opening scene and suddenly a silence falls across the dinner table.
Me: So how do you stay motivated? What keeps you from slacking off?
Justin: The need to pay my rent is what keeps me motivated. That, and the knowledge that the window of opportunity between being a web series pioneer and a web series footnote won’t be open forever.
Me: With that in mind, what would you tell the countless creative types who have ideas, but lack the drive? How did you get off your ass and choose NOT to stay mainstream business boy?
Justin: I made the choice because I admitted to myself that working a salaried job was not what would fulfill me deeply. Not everyone who has a creative idea needs to make that choice, though. In fact, it’s a common wisdom that you need the day job to pay the bills and the “night job” to satisfy the soul.
However, when you find you don’t have enough time for both, a choice needs to be made. Either you cut back on the creative side, or you cut back on the day job — and, in all likelihood, your income.
Me: So what else do you want to tell the creative types who come to [chrisbrogan.com] to learn about self-improvement, great business ideas, and forward-thinking concepts like yours?
J: Fabulous question. I’d say this: if you have a creative idea — and I believe everyone does, no matter what the medium — I doubt you’ll be truly content unless you pursue it. That idea may not require all of your time, but if you see that it requires more and more, then you’ll have to decide whether that idea is the The Thing That Drives You, and you’ve just been slow to realize it, or if you’ve bitten off more than you can chew in comparison to the time you need to pay your bills. In that case, ask yourself: what do you actually NEED? Can you cut back on the day job and the income (and therefore on some of the perks of daily life) because the joy you get from creating fulfills you more than the material things do? Or do you need to cut back on the creative time so that your other priorities don’t come unhinged?
The romantic notion of the artist living his dream is somehow less romantic when the camera pulls back to see his family living in squalor.
However, whether it takes an hour a day or the rest of your lifetime, if you have a voice in the back of your head that’s urging you to create something — a film, a book, a cartoon, a shawl, a business — listen to it. We all have a compass to follow, and when we don’t listen, we get lost. And — at the risk of branding myself out the door — those are the times when our lives leave a little… something to be desired.
Me: What does the future hold?
Justin: Now that AOL, Google and Yahoo have stated they prefer to acquire content from content producers rather than pay to produce it in-house, we see the opportunity to partner with other web series creators and produce new voices to provide content to the corporate channels or provide an alternative channel altogether.
Me: What happens when StBD wraps? What comes next? (Or can you even think like that?) Or rather… do you ever think of cheating on StBD before you know you should?
Justin: I certainly hope I haven’t made the production of the series out to be a titanic battle or something I’m fighting through. Sure, it’s a challenge to keep everything together and moving forward, but every day we find new enjoyment in what we’re doing. And we’ve grown into a little family along the way, so our continued success is something we all have a personal stake in.
I’ve considered walking away from the show numerous times. There have been mornings when I’ve thought, “I should just go back to a 9 to 5 job, live a more comfortable life and know that I tried.” But trying isn’t enough, and success is always a matter of perspective, while failure is only assured when you quit.
The concept of STBD actually “wrapping” at some point is interesting to consider, but since the storyline doesn’t have a definitive beginning, middle or end, it’s not like we have a milestone we’re aiming for. Theoretically, the show could survive the loss of anyone involved with it because it’s a fairly decentralized narrative, so characters (and the actors who play them) will always be free to come and go.
And here, we wrap it up
I hope you liked this interview. I found it fascinating from the mix of business and creativity. I love learning about the discipline it took to drive a cast and one’s self through over 50 (and counting) episodes.
Above all else, I strongly encourage you to check out Something to be Desired. It’s a great series, and addictive as all hell. Get the last few episodes, watch them without knowing the backstory, and decide for yourself. And if you send them comments or fan mail, tell them I sent them your way. : )
Tags: interview, iptv, webtv, stbd, kownacki, actors, acting, webmovies, video, production