Making the Most of a Web Series
By nicole opper
I’ve been thinking a lot about what a unique, strange and unpredictable thing the web series space is, and how working in it after a decade of working in feature docs has been both illuminating and humbling. So I called up a friend I knew could relate: renowned DP and now full-time director Nadia Hallgren. We both recently made short-form documentary series for the web. Nadia’s series for Topic is She’s the Ticket. It’s about women running for office after the election of Donald Trump. My series The F Word is being released by SoulPancake, a division of Participant Media, and is available on Facebook and YouTube. It offers a comedic take on the adventures my wife and I go on to become foster parents. We’ve just released the second and final season, in which we adopt our foster son and take a closer look at the system’s flaws, interviewing former foster youth, adoptees, and parents who lost custody of their kids but ultimately reunified with them.
Nadia and I were both lucky enough to be nominated for a Gotham Award in the Short Form Series category. I spent most of that awards ceremony enjoying the open bar and trying to locate Sandra Oh in the crowd, whose series Killing Eve was nominated in the Long Form Series category. I never did find Sandra. Neither Nadia nor I won, but we both had a blast.
Here’s the conversation that followed.
NICOLE OPPER: We had really different paths to web series. I came up as a producer and directed two feature docs (Off and Running and Visitor’s Day) for PBS before moving into the web series space. You came up as a DP, and became a really successful doc DP, mentored by Kirsten Johnson and lensing acclaimed films like Motherland (Ramona Diaz), Trapped (Dawn Porter) and The Apollo (Roger Ross Williams), among others. Then you started directing but continued to DP for other filmmakers, and now you’ve moved into directing full time, with a Netflix Original that came out just last month (After Maria). How did you get to this point?
NADIA HALGREN: It’s hard to go back and forth between DP and director. The way I work really wore my body out. As a DP, you enter into a world and you’re in this meditative state for 10-12 hours a day, watching people. You’re almost functioning on this different plane than everyone else. You’re just paying attention, watching body language, and I love being in that place. That’s when you’re in the zone and doing the work. I existed in that space for such a long time and I loved every minute of it and I was happy to stay up late and work in the heat and carry the heavy bags. And now I’m on phone calls six to eight hours a day doing very different work, saying things like “I don’t like those notes, fuck those notes.” And I don’t like that place. It’s almost like I’m now playing the game and I’ve never played the game before; I didn’t even know what the game was. People wanna be like, “Oh my god, congratulations, you’ve made it!” but I don’t wake up in the morning feeling that way. I became very good at the job that I set out to do. And I’m very proud of that. I worked really hard to focus on trying to get good at something and I feel really proud of that. I don’t know if I’m good at directing yet. When I show up every day to work as a director, it feels like starting all over again.
For queer people, marginalized people, people of color: just because one day people decide the tide is changing and the world has shifted, it doesn’t mean that all those feelings of self-doubt go away. Trauma doesn’t go away just because now you have opportunities. Trauma stays with you.
NO: Thank you for talking about that. People don’t talk about it enough. Our son is black and Filipino, and as white parents, it was important to us that we that we speak explicitly in the series about our commitment to fighting for racial justice, and examine our own white privilege on camera. But as a queer non-binary person, there was always the question in the back of my mind: “Should I be talking about these other aspects of my identity as well?” Because there’s an erasure that happens otherwise that can be really damaging. I’m curious: Why did you make this a web series instead of a short or a feature? Did you pitch this to Topic or did someone pitch this to you?
NH: It was not my original idea; it was [EP] Mary Robertson’s idea, and she found a partner in Topic, and then through asking around they found me, and we developed the series together. I loved the idea, I love the political process. And I was like, “I’m down to do this, but I want to be involved every step of the way—the casting, all of it.”
NO: When I first pitched my series at IFP Independent Film Week, everyone tried to convince me to make it a feature instead. But I really wanted to try my hand at this short series thing. I was very stubborn about that. The problem is that unfortunately there are so few funders interested in episodic content made independently. ITVS funded us pretty generously for the first season, but most companies are just interested in acquisitions, and they’re offering amounts in the low thousands. It’s totally unsustainable. So what was different about working in the web series space? What surprised you?
NH: The idea of working in this space was very exciting for me. I love the short format and the continuation of that for me was to ask, “How do you create the feeling that all these short pieces are connected and that you should keep watching them?” So what we decided to do was, set up how all these women running at the time were connected. They were motivated by the election of Donald Trump, and knew if he could run, then they could. We set that up in the first episode and from there we were able to connect them.
NO: I love the creative challenges of episodic work. I felt really liberated from having to follow a three-act structure and able to pursue these little side stories. But it could be tricky to figure out how each episode would directly connect to the next one, narratively speaking, while also being able to stand alone. There’s a whole new emphasis on creating endings with a hook. What were some of the creative storytelling challenges you faced?
NH: We had a pretty tight budget and a lot of travel. We made one trip where we got to know the women, film them campaigning, filmed their back story, went back again, filmed them the day before the election, and then the night of the election. One reason I knew this would work well was because we had an election. One great thing about any election is you know you’re going to have this arc that you can sort of build your suspense around and get people really invested. That was one thing we knew we had for this particular series. If we were gonna follow all these women for a feature, we would have had to weave these stories together. But instead we got to have each woman’s story stand on its own.
NO: Did Topic share their analytics with you? Like how many viewers you had, where, etc?
NH: No, but I never asked for it. Netflix doesn’t release their numbers either. And that’s OK with me. You think you wanna know how many people are watching, but you don’t really wanna know. Well, maybe other people do, but I don’t. (Editor's Note: Nadia Hallgren informed me that, following her conversation with Nicole Opper, "Netflix actually did share some of the data on After Maria, we weren’t expecting them to do that and learned it has performed extremely well. That was of course exciting for us!" )
NO: Unfortunately our series is released on platforms that show the view count. Which sucks because I don’t want to have to obsess over numbers. It’s totally antithetical to the creative process. I’m not suggesting filmmakers aren’t responsible for marketing and doing impact work and connecting with audiences; we are. But it’s really hard to know what constitutes success on a platform where cat videos get a billion views. I try to measure success in terms of audience reactions, in the messages and comments and emails I receive from people who stumble onto the series and go to the trouble to tell me how much it’s meant to them.
NH: Yeah, I never asked and they never told me, but they did tell me it was one of the most successful series they’ve had. Numbers don’t mean anything. People can click on your movie and never actually watch it, or they can watch the whole thing and never say anything about it. The best thing that can happen is a stranger walks up to you and says, “I saw the thing you made and it really moved me.” But it’s crazy and confusing.
NO: I do think it’s worth asking these questions about how we’re determining what counts as successful storytelling.
NH: If we’re not asking questions about this storytelling space, that’s a problem.
NO: How about tapping social media influencers; did you do any of that?
NH: For After Maria, [my producer] Cioffi and I have celebrity Puerto Ricans that are gonna post about it. But when I made a short about Gavin Grimm for Field of Vision, I wanted celebrities who have supported trans people to back the film, and they didn’t initially, although Laverne Cox, who was in the film, did tweet about it. Still, it found its own footing and won a Webby. People find the work in their own way. But for the new film I do want to let it percolate a little bit before we go to those celebrities because I’m curious how the culture finds stuff on its own.
NO: Did you learn anything about online algorithms or ways people “optimize content for their platform?” My co-producer has a friend at Buzzfeed who told us that work in 4:3 performs better on Facebook than work in 16:9, for example. And that every episode must open with something really attention-grabbing; you can’t have slow opens on the internet. We’d already locked picture at that point so the tips weren’t terribly useful, but I was fascinated that this research existed and was informing a lot of the creative choices that “content creators” make.
NH: Even if I tried to pay attention to that, my head would just explode. My producers know that I can’t have these conversations. They protect me. They will tell a distributor, “You don’t need to put Nadia on that email.”
NO: Have you noticed that there’s a time warp with online content? Viewers consume the work instantaneously, and so they assume you've created it instantaneously. You can actually see my son grow from two months old to two years old in the series, but we still got comments like "I really wish you'd interview such and such type of person," and then, not realizing that production spanned multiple years and wrapped months ago, when the next episode releases the following week and features the interview they were hoping for, they would write again to say, "Thanks for taking my feedback!" It's bizarre and also delightful. What were some of your production challenges?
NH: The production schedule was five weeks. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I did the whole thing by myself. I shot it, I did my own sound. I carried my own bags around. I’m traumatized by having to get my own rental car. Sometimes your rental car is like 18 miles away from the airport. And you schlep all that gear, drive yourself to the airport at 3 a.m. to be somewhere at 8 a.m. to be at some campaign. But it paid off. I got so much work off of this web series. It was then that I started saying, “I’m a director.” It gave me the confidence to say, “I did a short and a web series and now I’m asking to be fully financed by you, Netflix, and they were like “OK.” And now I’m doing a big feature; I can’t talk about yet. It’s all tied together.
NO: That is pretty much the ultimate success story! Do you think web series is the new calling card for people who want to work in episodic, as a way to get a foot in the door for the “real” series work—Netflix, Amazon, etc).
NH: 100%. No doubt. If you wanna do anything, do web series. Plus if you wanna do anything, do anything. Don’t wait! Just do anything. But what a web series shows is that if you’ve already done something, you could do more. It diversifies what you’ve done. And there’s more money in [long-form] series than in features or shorts, so if you wanna pitch a full series, you can say you’ve done this. No one can say you haven’t. You’ve proven it.
NO: That makes so much sense. And at the same time, web series can be an end in itself. In my case I wasn’t looking to move into long-form episodic work for television. I just want more good people opening up their homes to kids in foster care, and really thinking about the ethics of fostering and adopting every step of the way. This was my whole mission with The F Word. But my hunch is that most web series makers have their eye on moving up to the Netflix’s of the world, so it’s inspiring to see you as an example of that plan working out, especially as a fiercely independent queer woman of color.
NH: I think the truth about me is that where I came from, I never dreamed big because I thought I’d be dead by the time I was 18. This is the story of a lot of people. There was no strategic plan, no “When I grow up…” But everything I do, I try to do the best possible way. I’m not gonna do something and not give it 100%. So I decided to become a cinematographer, and everything else that has happened is just “the stuff that keeps happening.” I may not be strategic enough in my moves, but I felt like I really contributed to the culture of documentary and the reputation of women and POC that you don’t see often enough, and all the other stuff that keeps coming in is a bonus. What about you? What’s your ultimate goal?
NO: Right now what inspires me more than anything is the opportunity to build the documentary field, and to help support other doc filmmakers through the national fellowship I run—the BAVC MediaMaker Fellowship. At this very moment there are a bunch of nonfiction fellowships and labs and residencies from around the country getting together to ask some important questions, like, What do we want to see for the future of the field? and, How we go about building it? Those questions excite me. I’m also newly a tenure-track film professor and I love being Professor Opper. So I would say my ultimate goal is to keep making work I can be proud of and to keep supporting other filmmakers. This is what brings me joy.
After Maria is available on Netflix.
You can watch Opper’s first feature Off and Running through the PBS player and app during the last week of June.
Nicole Opper is the creative director of the BAVC National MediaMaker Fellowship.