39 Comments

Summary:

For Solo creator Jonathan Nail, producing his own web series was an opportunity to create a showcase for his acting. But after two years of hard work and thousands of dollars, he found that the rewards of independent production are not universal.

jonathan nail solo

The stories that tend to get the most coverage in the web series world are success stories — shows signing deals, partnering with big companies or finding new outlets for distribution. Independent creators working in this space are classic underdogs, attempting to overcome obscurity and low budgets with sheer talent and determination, and it’s exciting to see them break through. What we don’t talk about, however, are the folks who don’t succeed at breaking through to the next level.

Last month, Jonathan Nail, the writer, creator and star of the independently produced Solo, announced that he and his team would not be producing anymore episodes of the sci-fi comedy series. The blog post announcing the decision is a heartfelt thank-you letter to everyone who was involved in the show’s production, but it doesn’t go into detail about the reasons behind Nail’s decision. However, those reasons, as Nail explained during a phone interview, aren’t hard to guess: Like many who bet their time and money on creating an original series, Nail was dissatisfied with producing his own content and receiving minimal reward, and as a result he has decided to move on.

Nail was inspired to create Solo in early 2009, after seeing the success of The Guild and then discovering some of the other content being produced independently at that time. “I didn’t think it was going to be my Sling Blade,” he said (referring to the 1996 film that made Billy Bob Thornton a star), “but the concept hit me pretty strongly, and I realized I either had to put up or shut up.”

After several months of preproduction, three episodes of Solo were shot in the fall of 2009, then released in July 2010. After a second round of production, the remaining six episodes were released beginning on April 15. The total price tag, according to Nail? Approximately $20,000.

Part of that amount, $7,300, came from a crowd-sourcing campaign to fund the second round of production, and in addition, a sponsorship deal with DataDirect Networks provided funds for the show to give away five Apple TVs and an iPad. But Nail bore no small percentage of the budget, including an initial investment of $3,000, $2,500 for set construction and $2,000 for merchandise that, as of writing, remains unsold. Even Nail’s parents chipped in some cash.

Nail attempted to cut as many corners as possible. For example, he and his wife lowered the catering budget by personally cooking meals for the crew, most of whom were donating their time. But factors like travel expenses (when Solo was screened at the New York Television Festival) and paying for equipment rentals, post-production work and on-set sound guys (there is no such thing as a sound guy who works for free, at least in Los Angeles) worked against him.

Did Nail expect to make that money back? “I knew there was going to be some loss, but I was only looking at the success that The Guild was having — I wasn’t paying attention to the fact that no one is really making money in this space,” he said. “Naively, I thought that this could get picked up somewhere like SyFy and I would make some of that money back, or that the audience would support it so I wouldn’t have to invest any more of my money.” As mentioned before, the Solo audience did contribute financially to the show’s production — but the audience, despite being extremely loyal, wasn’t large enough to make that sustainable in the long term.

There were burdens beyond the financial cost, as well. One of Nail’s main reasons for creating Solo was to give him a spotlight for his acting talents (his credits include appearances on ER, Criminal Minds and Mad Men); however, he found that acting was less than 10 percent of the work involved and that producing duties were beyond what he’d anticipated.

“You have to be aware that you will be biting off more than you can chew at first,” he said. “If you want to be an actor, act. If you want to be a producer, produce. I don’t want to discourage anyone, but there’s a lot more work than you’ll expect there to be.”

One element that proved difficult was the search for sponsorship. The DataDirect deal came about through a friend who worked there and knew that the company was looking to sponsor an online series; but other efforts to find a sponsor were unsuccessful.

“Here’s the thing most people don’t understand about sponsors — they don’t deal with budgets that small, and if you can’t show them that you’ve got 100,000 views, they’re not interested in talking to you,” Nail said. “You pretty much have to have proven yourself already.”

Looking back, Nail acknowledged several issues that might have affected Solo‘s ability to reach an audience, including the gap between the first three and final six episodes that slowed the show’s momentum. But he also considered the current state of web content to be a factor.

“Web series are kind of the 99-seat theater of the entertainment world. We’re all promoting to ourselves,” he said. “It takes a lot of time and money to break out of the atmosphere of this world we’ve created.”

That said, when Nail announced the end of Solo, he was happily surprised by the outpouring of support from the web series community, much of which came from producers “who knew how hard this is.” As one producer told him, “It’s always going to be [online]. You’ll always have something to be proud of.” And he looks forward to acting in future web content — just not producing any of it himself.

One positive consequence of moving on: The Nails now have a place to park their car. Over the course of five months in 2009, Nail and his crew built the show’s primary set — the spaceship’s control room — in Nail’s garage, and it remained there until two weeks ago, when Nail and three friends finally took it down. A standing set company in Anaheim, Calif., was at one point interested in buying it, but the deal fell through; instead, Nail now has approximately $600 worth of good quality wood to use on another project. “I can use it to build a shed, or a playhouse for my girls,” he said.

“Taking down the set was very cathartic,” he added. “I had a smile on my face the whole time.”

  1. Robert Welkner Sunday, August 14, 2011

    Jonathan – do you think you have enough material to release the series along with some behind the scenes/outtakes on a dvd? I use createspace to master my dvds and sell on amazon — it’s amazing when i think about how many people buy my show on there that is already readily available for free online but some people like ‘collecting’ stuff. I think with the sci-fi angle you could prob recoup some of your costs over time.

    Share
  2. Liz, eventually you could come out with a how-to book for webseries.

    One of the things that might have helped this one would have been to come out with just one episode initially. A really kick-ass episode that would have let the Internet on fire and then promise to come out with another one if $X is raised. Set up a donation page for this, such as at RocketHub. Into that pot could also go a percentage of tie-in merchandise sales, which would have spurred on sales (or give away tie-in merchandise as a reward to donating $X amount). Look at Order Of The Stick webcomic. He does that full-time now but didn’t make that move until enough people bought his compilation book so it was profitable for him to do so.

    And another thing that seems to always be overlooked by webseries is publicity. Most webseries creators think “If I build it, they will come.” The world doesn’t work at that way. You can have the best mousetrap in the world but if the world doesn’t know you have it, it won’t beat a path to your door. Focus should be to get onto talk shows. Probably one appearance on The Daily Show, Late Night, or Tonight Show could have brought in at least 100,000 views. But how many webseries have a dedicated marketer/publicist? That job tends to be one of many hats worn by the producer … which means it gets not as much attention as it should.

    Then there are product placement deals that I rarely hear any webseries even attempt to do. And when I hear they attempt it, I’ve only heard of them failing to land them. Likely because they ask for too much up front. I’d recommend they ask for product and then sign a deal that pays them according to how many viewers download/watch the show. More importantly, get a cross-promotion deal from them where they promote the webseries on their products and/or in their TV commercials.

    Food for thought.

    Share
  3. Skip Fredricks Sunday, August 14, 2011

    I feel bad for all the talent like these guys that don’t get a break. I am one of them. However all these “Web” producers out there are ruining the production industry by creating an atmosphere of “deferred payment” “work for free/credit” economy. I bring this up cause I noticed the sentence about sound guys “wanting to get paid” U know camera guys, editors, lighting guys all want to get paid too! Producer like these ‘some with the best intentions’ post ads on Craigs List, asking for talented crew to take deferred payment. “On the sale of their program, LOL” Or work for credit. People new to the production game, maybe out of film school (another waste) or the naive crew member, take on these non-pay gigs. So what’s the big deal U ask. Its the crew members choice to work for free or not. Well I am comparing this to the housing market. By the posting of so many of these original web series production on jobs sites, asking people to work for free. They are lowering the bar on what legitimate productions want to pay to crew, if they even want to pay them at all. I have heard major executives in major production companies tell me, “sh#t if these ‘guys’ are willing to work for nothing, I can get them for half of what I paid last year. So as much as I understand and want the ‘little guy’ to break thru and succeed with their projects… They need to also step up and PAY the little guys who are working on their projects.

    Share
    1. As a composer who’s worked on over a hundred shorts, 5 features, television shows, and over two dozen webseries, I scored SOLO for “free.” I believed in Jonathan’s vision and knew that the money needed to go to production costs first in order to make the show look good, and it did. And I would do it again in a heartbeat.

      More times than I can count, a “free” gig has turned into paid work. I scored 9 episodes of another webseries for a creator, who in turn paid me well to score a short and a television pilot, work I would not have received if I hadn’t worked unpaid the first time.

      It’s an individual’s choice on whether or not to choose “free” work. If you’re careful about what you choose to be a part of, and it’s a great marketing and promotion tool. The first year I composed on my own, I worked on two dozen projects and didn’t get paid for any of them. 5 years later, I’m able to score television & film for a living.

      Everyone in the entertainment industry, at some point, interns, assists or defers work when they’re starting out. I can’t stand it when people whine about “unpaid projects advertising for crew.” If you don’t like it, don’t apply, or find a new career. You can’t just walk out of school and into a studio and ask for work. You have to earn your place in the industry.

      Share
      1. Jonathan Nail Sunday, August 14, 2011

        Thank you, Rob.

        Share
    2. zefram cochrane Sunday, August 14, 2011

      I agree with Rob.
      I worked for free (I made English\Italian subtitles for the show) just like the whole subtitling team.
      Sometimes you do something because you believe in a project, in a vision, in a dream.
      Sometimes you get paid in a way that doesn’t involve money: you could find a paid job, as Rob said, or just feel you’re part of something remarkable.
      Of course, you can’t do that for a living, but there are several reasons to do it and I don’t think it has anything to do with ruining the production industry.

      P.S. Thanks to Jonathan, Rob & Allie for letting me join the SOLO crew.

      Share
    3. And if they don’t have enough money to “step up and PAY the little guys who are working on their projects.”??? What then? Too bad so sad? Oh, I know, you’ll say, “Get more money!” Am I right? If so, that reminds me of Steve Martin’s advice on how to become a millionaire, “First you start with a million dollars and then…”

      As a marketing consultant, I did a lot of pro bono work. Did I whine about not being paid what I thought I was worth? No. I knew what I was getting into. Did I do it for some reward down the road? Sometimes but most of the time I just wanted to help a small business owner become get off the ground or become more successful. I love marketing and did this pro bono work in my free time. There’s reward in doing so that goes beyond money. It also commonly paid off with getting an improved reputation, great networking opportunities, and making more friends.

      Share
  4. Jamie McKeller Sunday, August 14, 2011

    Shame, but then creating content to release on the Internet expecting fame, or worse yet fortune is a fools game.

    I’m the writer of a series called “I Am Tim” (check it out, you might become on of our literally DOZENS of fans :D ) but we don’t make the series expecting any kind of financial return. In fact, we almost stopped at the end of our second series but an Indiegogo campaign secured us enough money to make not only series 3, but series 4 as well.

    Don’t ever start down this road expecting to be the next Guild or Dr Horrible. Start (and continue) because you’re driven by a near mad obsession with creating your own work.

    Share
    1. Jonathan Nail Sunday, August 14, 2011

      Jamie, I agree with you and I don’t – I am passionate about creating and always will be. And I have other projects, less taxing on my time and wallet, that are currently in the works. So the creator/entertainer in me is not defeated. I’m refocusing my energies…

      But please do not consider me a fool. I wasn’t expecting fame or fortune, but a boost in the direction of creating a more successful career for myself as an actor in Hollywood. A fool is one who dreams, but never acts on those dreams. I could have produced a 2nd season, and our fans would have supported us with donations to make another season possible, but not enough to be able to pay my actors and my crew. One of my goals for SOLO was to be able to pay people for their work (silly of me, I know). And unfortunately that just wasn’t feasible.

      And as a business minded person if I didn’t have goals to make a return on the investment that would have been foolish, as well.

      SOLO was a brilliant project, extremely well made and for that we all should be proud.

      Share
  5. I love SOLO. I’m sad that Jonathan wasn’t able to keep going with it. There are many options, which I’m sure that Jonathan has already considered. He’s not new to the industry. This entire business is a gamble. That’s just the way it is.

    Skip: We webseries producers aren’t trying to devalue anyone’s work. We pay what we can. It’s not usually as much as a studio or larger indie would pay, but our budgets are a tiny fraction of what theirs are. That’s why we try to work with people who could gain from the experience. We all have to start our careers somewhere. Even crew members. The crew that I work with are some of the best people I know. I never want to take advantage of them or take them for granted, and I’m sure most webseries producers feel the same way.

    Scott: The Daily Show! Why didn’t we all think of that?! ;)

    Publicists are remarkably expensive. Especially the kind of publicists that would be able to get you national press. And ones that have a good understanding of webseries and the internet television industry are pretty rare (though getting less and less so every day). The last time I shopped for a publicist, I found myself with the option to either hire the publicist, …or produce my webseries. I chose the latter.

    The rest of the strategy you laid out is also easier said than done. Not bad ideas, by any means, just easier said than done.

    Like I said, Jonathan isn’t new. He knows about all of this stuff. Most of us do. It’s just that sometimes the planets don’t align. And most of us don’t have the resources to force them to. We might get our hopes up a bit from time to time. But that’s what we do. That’s why we’re creating in this space at this moment.

    I don’t see a big problem with that. Congrats, Mr. Nail on great show! I hope to work with you soon. The nice thing is that I’m familiar with your talents. I mean, I’ve watched your show. :)

    Share
    1. Yes, I know they’re easier said than done. I do them for a living. What webseries producers need to do is go out and find a publicist (or marketer) that is willing to help out for a cut of the possible future action. No, you’re not likely to get a “top gun” publicist this way but the idea that only they are the ones that can help you is simply ridiculous. At a certain level (top tier shows), yes, publicity work is about having the right connections, but that doesn’t mean lower tier publicity is worthless nor does it mean top tiers cannot be reached without connections. In fact, in my opinion, lower tier publicity is the bread-and-butter of any publicity campaign. David Letterman, Jon Stewart, and Jay Leno will likely only have you on once. Each is a big bang but they’re each just a single bang. A good publicity campaign can do even better for a webseries in lower tier shows … even fourth tier.

      Besides, you should always work your way up the tiers. If you skip a tier, the lower tier might not have you on in the future because they may view you as overexposed having done a higher tier. Additionally, as you work up the tiers, your delivery is honed and improved. You learn how to handle any question or any type of host, including shock jocks.

      And publicists and marketers have to start somewhere. Just as you can rope in those film school majors wanting to break into the industry for your camera operators, editors, actors, etc. to work on your webseries, there is no reason why you cannot get public relations, publicity, and marketing majors to do likewise. Sure, the publicity they’ll get you might not be as big and fast as you like, but it is better than nothing.

      Then there are people like me that if you can sell me on your dream, I might help you out during my spare time. Send an email to publicists and see if any would take you on for a cut of the action if your webseries takes off. Go attend PR and marketing conferences and network. Ask around. The person you’re talking to might not be interested but they might know of a publicist or marketer that might be open to such an idea. They might have had a college intern who they think might be up for such a gig. There might be a new public relations firm or marketing firm that has just hung out its shingle and would be up for doing this due to having free time on their hands.

      And if you think you can go and talk to a marketing firm or advertising agency about product placements, tie-in advertising, and cross promotion without being a marketer yourself, you might be a “little” delusional. You need to be able to talk their language and unless you’ve done marketing work, odds are that you cannot and that will hurt your chances of success.

      Any webseries that doesn’t have a publicist or marketer on board is very likely doomed from the start. Hoping and wishing that the Internet will find you and make you a big success is naive. Again, it doesn’t matter if you have the best mousetrap in the world if the world doesn’t know you have it. Why put all the time, effort, and money into a webseries without someone on board that will get the world to know about it? That just doesn’t make sense. I would strongly recommend everyone who has someone tell them about wanting to wanting to produce a webseries to ask them what publicist or marketer they’re bringing on board and if they say none, to strongly encourage them to get one before pushing forward with their project.

      Share
      1. It would be an interesting article to actually examine which of the most popular webseries had PR PRIOR to their success and what, in fact, that PR helped them to gain.

        Most of us webseriers producers have very little experience with publicists (though, my show DID have one for a time).

        We’re offered this PR advice frequently. However, it mostly comes from PR agents.

        This advice SHOULD be quantifiable. Would be very interesting to see what the real data is on this.

        Share
  6. Abdullah AlShalabi Sunday, August 14, 2011

    Many independent producers have great idea for TV shows, however they struggle to find someone to back them up. Actors and other crew members want to be part of a successful story or just to showcase their talent to secure a good job.
    I believe that independent production have enough motives to start their own online series, especially if other talents agreed to work for free.
    This case is especially true with troubled economies. A successful story can be seen in Spain. Malviviendo.com, an online TV show that just secured a sponsorship to release their second series, became so successful in Spain causing a threat to TV channels.

    Share
  7. There is so much to say about all of this. And I’m going to say it eventually. But for now, Jonathan knows how much I feel for him and how discouraging it is to see the end of an excellent weberies. But it’s not a matter of doing anything wrong. It’s one of the pitfalls of being ahead of one’s time. I can only offer tremendous respect and affection for everyone in the webseries community trying to figure out how to do their best work and not have to sell off their house or sleep in their car for the rest of their lives. I also love all our friends and relatives who help us make our work in this new medium. I’m glad Liz Miller decided to do this piece and begin to examine this conundrum by taking a look at Jonathan’s experience with “Solo.”

    Share
    1. Jonathan Nail Sunday, August 14, 2011

      Susan, thank you. It is a huge risk, a major gamble, to create something new and put it out there for the world to approve or disapprove. Or better yet, to connect with or not connect with. SOLO was a success on so many levels. It just didn’t reach a few key goals that would have made it sustainable. A foolish producer would have kept pumping his/her own money/energy/life into a show that wasn’t sustainable – whether sustainability means viewership or funding (both do tend to go hand in hand, though).

      And whether we would have spent half our budget on PR to spread the word, to gain the attention of a more global audience, is beside the point. Sometimes a show finds its audience and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m OK with this. I knew going in that this was one issue I would have to wrestle with if SOLO was to be sustainable. Even with massive PR any show, in any medium, could potentially fail due to lack of finding an audience. I can point to several shows that are considered a success by that measure (i.e. finding their audience) on the web that probably didn’t have any PR helping it to a second or a third season. It comes down to connecting with your audience, finding that niche.

      There are many take-aways (biz term for “I’ve learned something valuable, important and useful” for the lay people out there) that I have gained from producing SOLO. Always learning, growing and creating something better with that knowledge.

      Share
  8. This was a great article. Well done Liz

    Jonathan we’ve talked about this at length. I feel you.

    Also, no matter how good, talented,innovative or interesting. sometimes the world isn’t really for what you have to offer.

    (potential tombstone for me? ;-) )

    Tom

    Share
  9. Since I don’t have a show that I’ve created and produced I can’t speak to any of the struggles or successes involved therein. But what I can talk about is PR. I have to smile when someone says, “you just need more publicity,” because like other things mentioned here in the comments, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

    When it comes to PR – GOOD PR – whether you have $$$ or not to pay a publicist is irrelevant. You do not need a publicist to get PR, what you need is to understand what the story is, and more importantly why it matters.

    Content creators are not only competing for pub with every other show out there, but they’re also competing with every other product, service and news item out there for space or air time.

    So, just because you HAVE a show, does not make it newsworthy. Don’t be offended by this. I’ve had the same conversation with huge companies. Just because they had a “new product” doesn’t mean it should get publicity, or even the EFFORT to create publicity.

    You (and every other creator of anything) need to consider:
    1) Newsworthiness
    2) Relevancy
    3) Timely

    Not only does your show need to be newsworthy and relevant, but you also have to show a reporter why RIGHT NOW, ahead of all the other pitches and shows on a reporter’d desk, your show should be given the publicity.

    So to wrap up, if you DO want to go the publicity route. Find the hook in your show that has something to do what’s happening in the world at the moment. Find the pieces of your show that are relevant to industries other than than the entertainment industry.

    Look at Jeremy Redleaf’s “Odd Jobs” show and site (http://oddjobnation.com/). One glance at his site and you can see the logos of MAJOR news companies that have covered his show. Jeremy created a show about an issue that was affecting many people in this country. His site offers value to people who may not have any interest in watching his show. Of course, his show is also funny and well done, so when someone does tune in, he creates a fan.

    Of course some shows are more difficult to make the natural connection than others, I get that. But heck not every TV show is either. The point is, before rushing to send out a press release and beg for Indigogo donations, know what’s compelling and interesting about your story. IF you do that, doing things like Indigogo will be easier. People will be more connected and compelled to help out.

    I have tremendous respect for Jonathan and what he did. And doing so with a family is all the more admirable. And the next time I have a chance to work with him, you bet I’m going to jump on that experience train.

    Share
    1. Jonathan Nail Sunday, August 14, 2011

      True dat. Spoken like a person who understands marketing – and understanding the audience. Booyeah!

      Share
    2. Good answer Jonathan. Further, PR, and advertising as well as appearance booking are only a few things not available to the middle class artist.

      It’s gonna get harder and we will look back on fondly on these few years when we could put up shows, not pay to upload it or watch it and remember fondly when a few of us had a slim chance on running with the closed ecosystem of conglomerates and celebrities that control it all in the future.

      RIP Solo
      RIP Safety Geeks SVI 3D
      RIP Ask Grim

      Tom

      Share
    3. As a full-time marketer, I might know a little about what I talk about.

      It is about the spin. I know that gets sour looks when someone says that, but it isn’t a bad thing. Spin is how you pitch something to someone. And knowing who you’re pitching is FAR more important than what you’re pitching. Yes, what you’re pitching is important, but not as important as who you’re pitching. Never pitch a new cooking book to a high-tech report nor a new computer to a cooking reporter.

      There are a lot of talk shows out there. The further you go down the tiers, the more of them there are. They have a constant need for guests and are always looking for new guests. Many will have almost anyone on … at least once. Each appearance results in more exposure. For a webseries, each exposure results in more viewers. It is really that simple.

      Getting on the above lower tier talk shows isn’t hard to do. Anyone can do it. You do not even need to work up an expensive media kit. A simple email will do. Short and to the point. Give a link to your webseries’ website, another link to your bio webpages, and, if you got it, a link to your demo tape.

      As for your demo tape, with each talk show appearance, you can build up one. These used to be actual physical audio/video tapes but, today, you can put them on your website. They show what you’ve done. As you climb the tiers, the higher tier shows will want to know you are a good guest before they book you. The demo tape shows that you are. As you give better and better interviews, you need to update your demo tape to reflect that.

      Any public relations, publicity, or marketing major can do the above for a webseries. Getting someone whose sole job is the above is the key.

      Share
      1. Nowadays brand building is important as well and that means making and PUSHING ones’ show, not “pitching” it.

        Share
    4. Awesome comment, Ben!

      Share
  10. Rats. *”reporter’S desk” not “reporter’d” duh.

    Share

Comments have been disabled for this post