Why Writers Should Not Neglect Sundance—and Web Series!
While at Sundance this year, I had the pleasure to meet with Timothy Cooper, a New York-based screenwriter who recently received a 2011 WGA Award nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Writing Original New Media, for his web series, Concierge.
The interesting story about Timothy is that all this—the web series, becoming a WGA member, the WGA nomination—happened in over the course of two years, between three Sundance festivals. And luckily for us, he agreed to share his story:
Sundance 2009—On How It All Started:
While I was at my first Sundance, everybody was asking me, “Where can I see your stuff?” “Seeing your stuff” means that you have short films or a web series on YouTube, and I thought that I had to do something that people could see. I have some friends, one in particular, who became very successful by having a web series. I looked at what she did and thought, I could do a web series too. I think that a web series can more easily lead to a writing career in TV, perhaps more easily than a short film can lead to a movie.
On Writing and Pre-Production:
I talked to some friends who wanted to work with me and [whom] I wanted to work with—my DP, my editor, actors. I started thinking about a project that would be unique in a way, and commercial. I was doing my best thinking—which means I was napping—when I thought, “Oh, a hotel.” There’ve been some series and movies set in a hotel, but very few that were sitcom-y. I thought that would be a great topic. I just wrote a bunch of scenes, and eventually divided them into episodes. That took a few days in February. I wrote approximately 5 episodes, but initially they were not divided into episodes; it was one 18-page script. I had met a friend at Sundance, that first year, who was looking for new projects to produce. So I talked to her, the cast, the DP, and the editor. They were all interested in shooting, and it all came together by July 2009. We shot everything in 2 nights, less than 8 hours per night. But we actually never shot the first several scenes that I thought were going to be the first episode, because it didn’t seem like they were going to make too much sense as far as character development.
I had directed several short films that were never released, and a web video that was a parody of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008, but I had relatively little experience directing for film, so I was glad that people trusted me. I did have experience directing improv at Upright Citizens Brigade New York. I didn’t look for a director, because I knew what I wanted, and I thought it would be fairly easy to direct it. I knew how the comedy went, the pace and what the characters would be like, and I really enjoyed directing comedy.
On Shooting and Editing:
Pretty much everyone worked for free or close to free. Everyone had called their friends to work on it. I funded the project myself, and we kept the budget really low. I had an amazing production designer and costume designers who managed to get almost everything for free, and we got donations for food. We shot on the Panasonic HVX200 with P2 cards, and had a technician who would upload the cards while we were shooting. AWe had a super-simple and cheap lighting rig; I think it was three lights. It gave an Office-type look, which we thought would be fine. It took us around five months to edit the episodes, only because we had to find time in our schedules to work on it. Sometimes my editor and I would be able to meet just once a week, for only a few hours.
On Launching the Website and Reaching an Audience (Or Not):
Our deadline was to be ready for Sundance 2010, and we thought we would be done way before it. But building the website took the longest and was much more difficult than shooting. Eventually everything came online the day before Sundance began.
The main way people knew about Concierge was via e-mails and Facebook messages the cast and crew and I had all sent around, and that’s basically the only thing we did. My strategy was to reach people who can make things happen in the future, rather than to aim for a mass audience (which was my backup plan). First what I tried to do was to reach out directly to the people at Sundance.
Then I went to Sundance. I had printed up cards, and people remembered them because they look like a hotel key. I knew that I had to be ready by Sundance, so I printed them before we knew if the website would be ready on time. I think people liked the website because it builds a world around this fake hotel and the fake characters.
Now Sundance is more into alternative media, but last year, fewer people were doing web series. So people thought, ”That’s weird, why would you do that…but I’ll watch it.” In a way, it’s easier to watch: You don’t have to stand in line to get a ticket for the screening. You just need to click on it, and the video starts right away, which really helped people get into it.
I was going to a conference called Yale in Hollywood in March 2010, so I followed up on all the contacts I made at Sundance. People gave me positive feedback and started calling me in for meetings when they heard I was coming to L.A. After the meetings in March, I realized everyone wanted to see spec scripts, so I wrote one for Modern Family and one for Community, pretty much my favorite sitcoms on TV right now. After that, I had more meetings in August and…I knew this, but…when people read your spec scripts, after that they want to read a pilot. So I’m working on several pilots now, including one for Concierge, and I should be back in L.A. in March, hopefully with two pilots and a completed feature screenplay.
On His Feature: Weirdly, I’m now working on a murder-mystery along the lines of Seven, which is one of my favorite movies. But it has nothing to do with anything that people will want to see from me, because I’m supposed to be a comedy writer. In my naiveté, I want to think that I can write professionally in every genre, although if I had to choose one, it would have to be comedy because that’s my strong suit.
On Becoming WGA: In November 2009, the Writers Guild of America, East started accepting web series into the Guild. I met a representative at the Guild who’s actually my friend now, and she told me, ”You should apply.” So I applied, and it turned out I was the first one to apply under the New Media category. At first I was rejected, because under the question, ”How much did you get paid for this?” I wrote down “$0.” Because I was the first to apply, there was still some confusion, so I received an e-mail saying, ”You’ve been accepted,” and then the day after, I received another e-mail saying, ”You’ve been rejected because you got paid $0, and no writer gets paid $0 under the Guild’s rate.” They’re still trying to figure out the rates for New Media. Luckily my rep fixed things, and then I got accepted. That was really cool; it’s definitely been one of my dreams to be part of the Guild.
More on Timothy Cooper:
As an independent script consultant, Timothy has edited or doctored features and teleplays for dozens of clients, and wrote the upcoming indie drama The Boarding House. His screenplay Between Two Worlds, cowritten with Andre Degas, was an IFP Market Emerging Narrative Official Selection. His short screenplay Teddy won the NYC Midnight Movie Making Madness Screenwriting Competition award for Best Sci-Fi Screenplay, and his short film The Chocolateer has won several awards. “Transparency,” his short political comedy video, was featured on the front pages of both YouTube Comedy and Slate magazine.
Timothy wrote and directed the original comedy web series Concierge, set behind the scenes at a down-on-its-luck hotel. The first three episodes, featuring cast members from 30 Rock, Last Comic Standing, I Love You, Man, the Onion News Network, and Upright Citizens Brigade, were launched at http://ConciergeTheSeries.com in early 2010.Contact Timothy: firstname.lastname@example.org http://365loglines.com.