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.”