Brent Friedman Interview – Afterworld, Gemini Division, Distribution, and More!
Over the Holiday break, I got a chance to catch up with Brent Friedman, creator of the incredibly popular Sci-Fi series Afterworld. I had talked to him in 2007 about his hit series and thought it was time to get an update from him.
Below is a short interview where he talks about Afterworld, Gemini Division (his production company’s second series starring Rosario Dawson), and some of his thoughts around distribution strategy. Brent has a full plate ahead for 2009 and I’m excited to see what his talents will bring the online video world.
AYP: So last time we talked, you were promoting your new series Afterworld, which was a tremendous success. What’s next for Afterworld?
Brent: An Afterworld mobile game (Afterworld: Global Contact) was recently released by Sony. The narrative of that game offered a preview of our second season, something we are still in the planning stages on. We know exactly where the story goes – we’ve known from the very beginning – but we got sidetracked by our new shows and now we’re trying to find a more practical and affordable way to produce Afterworld webisodes. Mounting another 130 episode season is simply not humanly possible. So we’re looking at the best way to finish the story, probably utilizing more interactive narrative.
AYP: We know that Gemini Division, starring Rosario Dawson, is your current project and is about to go wide and be released on YouTube. Tell us a little about the series and where its been distributed to-date.
Brent: As Electric Farm’s second series, Gemini was intended to raise the bar we set with Afterworld. We wanted to go beyond animation, integrating live action with CG backgrounds. Once Rosario signed onto the show, we decided to center the story around her – narratively and visually. (More on this later…) Although there are less episodes than Afterworld (130 vs. 50) the average episode length of Gemini is almost double that of Afterworld, hopefully allowing viewers to become just a little more immersed in each installment; a shortcoming we acknowledge on Afterworld. Another advancement we wanted to make was in the area of interactivity. This time, we added a lite ARG or, as it became known, an “enhanced experience,” wherein viewers got to conduct a parallel online investigation, play casual games and follow various characters on Twitter.
In terms of where it’s been distributed, so far Gemini has been exclusively available on the NBC/Universal family of sites – NBC.com, SciFi.com and Hulu. Additionally, the show is offered on Amazon Unbox, iTunes, XBOX Marketplace and V.O.D. Very soon, though, the show will also be seen on YouTube.
AYP: What was the logic in a limited distribution strategy through NBC before going to YouTube?
Brent: Another new element we brought to Gemini, something Afterworld did not have, is branded sponsorship. Before production began we made integration deals with Cisco, Intel, Microsoft, Acura and UPS. That meant all these brands were woven into the storyline, appearing in ways that would be narratively seamless. For instance, in the world of Gemini Division it’s quite plausible Anna’s futuristic cell-phone would use WindowsMobile as well as Cisco Security Systems. But integrating the brands was only half of the equation. We also needed to provide a solid blueprint for marketing and distribution, which is where NBC came in. As with Afterworld, Sony is our foreign distribution partner on Gemini but we needed a domestic partner. Having recently formed NBC Digitial, the company had an appetite for our content and Electric Farm, along with the integration partners, wanted a premium label to promote and deliver our show. In the end, it was our deals with NBC and Sony that probably allowed us to close our sponsorship deal.
AYP: For The Hayley Project, we had originally tried to release on several platforms. But the truth is, Youtube was the only one worth pursuing given 1) its incredibly large user base and 2) the social network effects. What are your thoughts on YouTube’s distribution power given its enormous user base, compared to other distribution platforms you’ve tried?
Brent: Afterworld was originally released exclusively on BudTV. But because of some site problems and registration restrictions, that audience was limited. When we expanded distribution of the show to MySpace and YouTube we saw our numbers (impressions and views) skyrocket. In fact, Afterworld became the highest rated dramatic series on MySpace and it is still pulling in hundreds of subscribers each week on YouTube, despite the fact there haven’t been new episodes in almost a year. So the power of those two platforms is undeniable.
Our intention with Gemini was to start on the outside with the casual viewers and work our way inside to the hardcore video viewer. Here’s what I mean by that: NBC’s promotional plans and, in a way their brand identity, exposed our show to a much wider audience of casual online viewers than you get on YouTube or MySpace. This allowed many people who don’t regularly watch webseries to sample our show and, based on many of the blogs and forums I’ve read, we actually brought a decent number of first-time viewers to the dance. By the time we launch on YouTube, our hope is that hardcore video viewers will have heard about the show and help create the loyal fanbase that made Afterworld a hit.
AYP: I’ve tried to be transparent about webseries distribution on this blog by posting some of my key learnings. What are some of your best advice you can provide other webseries’ producers our there?
Brent: If you’re just producing a one-off series with no intention of making a living in digital media, than this answer does not apply to you. But if you are actually trying to make money, you need a viable business model. You must be realistic about your revenue streams and create a series that works within those economic parameters. That means understanding all the hidden costs like web-hosting, platform versioning, legal and promotional expenses, etc. These are the costs most producers don’t always factor in, but if you are looking to produce professional content you need to do your homework before you enter production. Also remember, if you are counting on friends and family to work for little or nothing, that is not a viable business model… as those favors may not always be available on future productions.
AYP: How do you acquire viewers in a world full of clutter? What have you seen work?
Brent: This is the proverbial 64K question, IMHO. There are fairly reliable methods for at least attracting an audience in Film & Television; saturating the print and media markets come to mind. But online there is not a definitive or proven method, yet. Part of that does have to do with clutter, but another factor is audience fracture. Where are the viewers and what’s the best way to reach them? It’s a little bit like drilling for oil. It’s speculative at best. Viewers are often part of millions of online communities, but those communities are constantly shifting and evolving, making them hard to count on. Yes, platforms like YouTube and MySpace are large and can usually be counted on to at least sample content IF it is promoted on the site, or IF it becomes viral. But, as content producers, you can’t really count on either of those things happening. The online audience is ever-changing, like a big, unpredictable school of fish, riding the currents and looking for something new to consume. In a way, that’s the promise of the internet: a vast sea of content. In terms of what works, I happen to believe in that old axiom that the best marketing is good word of mouth. So, for me, you’re best off playing the odds. Spread your content as many places as possible, especially in like-minded social networks, and hope that some viewers start to blog about it, digg it, and spread it further.
AYP: Initially, my current series The Hayley Project drew some criticism of being a lonelygirl15 copycat, given its video blogging format. I had responded to this in a NewTeeVee interview, stating that vlog-style fictional storytelling is more of a format, and within that format, there are millions of stories to be told and types of genres. Your new series also incorporates vlog elements. What are your thoughts on webseries’ future use of this style? Is this something that will just become part of the norm for web series or will people continue to make comparisons to the first mover in this area?
Brent: I totally agree with your assessment. Vlogging is just a narrative device, like flashbacks, voice over, non-linear structure, etc. It’s particularly relevant today because so many people are using it to communicate online. I personally don’t think LG15 became popular for its use of vlogging, but for its use of fictional vlogging – when we learned the “show” was fake, that’s what brought attention to the form. Interestingly, as the show continued it grew out of the vlog format and became a more traditional drama, to its detriment I would argue.
On Afterworld there was some initial criticism that we our use of voice over narration was breaking the rules of good writing, “telling” and not “showing” the drama. But I believe that online media is, at this stage, more of a “telling” medium. The viewing window is smaller, making movie-style frame composition less successful. The relationship between character and viewer is usually 1 to 1, offering a more intimate experience. And without the budgets of regular network and studio fare, the content must rely more on good old fashioned story telling to hook an audience. Using the vblog device allows webseries to play to the medium’s strengths, so I imagine it’s going to become a staple of online media for a while, not unlike “shaky cam” has become something of a staple of indie films.
One thing we tried to do on Gemini was use the vblog device as a springboard. Rather than simply talking to the audience, we decided to have the main character, Anna Diaz, use a futuristic cell-phone/handheld to send video messages recounting her story to an unseen/unknown confidante. This decision gave us several things: first, this handheld actually becomes a character in the story, relaying secondary and tertiary information, as well as analytically commenting on the scenes themselves; secondly, it felt like the perfect use of Rosario, whose character is our onscreen narrator, if you will.
AYP: What other projects are you working on currently? What can we expect in the near future from you?
Brent: Beyond 2nd seasons for Afterworld and Gemini, Electric Farm is in pre-production on “Woke Up Dead,” our next multi-platform series created by John Fasano and starring Jon Heder and Michelle Trachtenberg. We plan to shoot in early ’09 for a late spring/early summer release. We are also in development on another cool webseries called “Valemont,” which I can’t really speak about yet. There should be an official announcement in the trades soon, but suffice to say it’s another multi-platform genre show, which is what we want our company brand to be known for.