For any creator out there, the following question must be a scary one: What do you do when you no longer work for the company that owns the rights to the show you created? For Woody Tondorf, it’s been a way of life since December 2009, after he stopped working at Break.com — but still kept producing the long-running Elevator series.
Tondorf initially began producing the comic-strip-style comedy series for HBOlab in May 2007. When Break acquired HBOlab properties and staff in early 2009, Tondorf simply continued making the show for his new employers on top of the branded content which Break specializes in.
But, beginning around Thanksgiving 2009, Tondorf was starting to question whether he wanted to continue with the company, and then in mid-December 2009, he and Break came to what Tondorf calls “a mutual decision” about his departure. “Break and I had been going in different directions for a little while,” Tondorf said via IM. “It was something I think both of us had been entertaining for a bit, but like any break up, the day of always seems a bit sudden.”
And like any break up, there was collateral damage — specifically, the long-running show that had been Tondorf’s calling card in the online video world, but belonged to Break due to the terms of Tondorf’s original development deal with HBOlab (which he received immediately out of college).
According to a Break spokesperson via email, they decided to discontinue Elevator last December after “We put significant resources behind it in an attempt to promote it, it did not meet our internal benchmarks, and as such we decided to move in another direction.” That promotional period would appear to be the months of October through December 2009, when the series first penetrated Mashable/Visible Measures’s Top Web Series chart — first appearing in November in the number four slot, before moving becoming number 3 in December, above Smosh and The Station.
While in that two month period, the show did jump from nine million views to 16 million views, the show dropped off the chart in January, after Break’s heavy promotion of the show (and Break and Tondorf’s relationship) ended. According to Break, “We were looking for it to continue growing, and the growth did not continue. We used many means to get as many eyeballs to the show as possible, but the show wasn’t able to sustain it.”
Tondorf had shot enough episodes during the last official Elevator shoot, though, to keep the series active on YouTube. (The most recent episode, Hot Chick Zone Defense, was uploaded on Feb. 18). And so he’s been stretching them out over the past few months to keep the show alive, per an agreement he and Break struck allowing him to continue the show.
“I pointed out that Break clearly wasn’t going to be using Elevator anymore and I asked to keep working on the series for free,” Tondorf said. “They let me keep access to the YouTube channel. I can’t really talk about the finer terms of it, but I do want to say that Break didn’t have to do that. They could have easily said, ‘It’s our property, go away,’ but they didn’t. I appreciate that.” Break continues to receive the ad revenue Elevator earns as a YouTube partner, though according to Tondorf, that amount isn’t significant: “It probably wouldn’t pay my rent.”
So since leaving Break, Tondorf has stretched out the remaining leftover episodes while putting together plans for one last epic round of production. “I’m going through our stable of talented folks and saying if you’ve ever thought of writing an Elevator episode, write it, we’ll make it,” he said. “I’m going to beg, borrow, and steal production equipment and we’re going to stage a massive three-day shoot in my apartment. If we make 300 golden episodes, it’ll be the best 2010 ever. If we make 20, that’ll be it, too. I, and the cast, will be working on this last season for free. We owe it to the fans who have followed us for three years.”
Tondorf is also currently working hard to promote the show for Streamy Awards consideration, as well as looking for companies or studios who would be interested in buying the rights to Elevator from Break. The reason he’s never tried to buy it on his own, he said, was that “I simply don’t have that kind of cash on hand.” Both Tondorf and Break declined to estimate how much the Elevator rights would cost, though a Break representative confirmed that Break would welcome the discussion of such a deal.
To date, there is no official site for Elevator — all the additional links listed on its YouTube page lead to Tondorf’s personal social networking accounts and blog. Its page on Break is extremely bare bones. Without Tondorf, there is no Elevator, but he remains appreciative of what he owes to the companies without whom he could never have created and kept the show going. “Both HBO and Break let me develop Elevator my way,” he said. “They let me handle Elevator‘s look, the characters, and what kinds of absolutely surreal situations I could cram in there. I had enough time to let the voice of the show speak to our fans. For that I’m eternally grateful.”
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