A Few Thoughts on Web Series Budgets

Web Series are not the same as television programs.

Sounds like a reasonable statement, right? Not everyone gets that.

A few times a year I review web series applications for different funds. Increasingly we see people with tv backgrounds producing web series. Web series can be a way to explore stories and topics that broadcasters won’t greenlight, companion series to broadcast, a way for both producer and broadcaster to incubate new talent or a new revenue stream for the tv producer.

Evaluators can always tell when the budget and production plan have been prepared by tv people rather than those who come out of web series production. Why does it matter? TV-based budgets are usually bigger and they will need more money to finance the budget. There are limited funds so funders will question whether that much should go to a tv-based production. There is the issue of recoupment as it will take longer for that production to recoup its budget and pay profits. Finally, does the budget need to be that big to meet the needs of the audience or is it big out of habit.

To help you avoid these questions (and potential loss of evaluation points), here are clues evaluators look for:

  • What are the rates? Even with union cast and crew there are usually discounts for web series. Frequently web series are non-union and give training opportunities to emerging talent.  Can you justify higher rates?
  • What is the size of the crew? Web series have smaller crews. The productions are smaller so the need isn’t there and often, because of budget size, crew fill multiple roles. The cast and crew are also usually smaller because of the size of the storytelling for a web series – smaller cast, fewer locations, little in the way of special effects or stunts.
  • With a smaller budget there is less room to allocate a share of admin costs that the production company is already spending such as computers, rent, photocopying etc.
  • Sadly, one of the ways I can tell the difference between web and tv producers is that the tv producer will always charge maximum allowable producer fees, corporate overhead and contingency to the budget but a web series producer will allocate what they think can they can finance and take the risk that they will be able to pay themselves from revenue. Web producers may be more optimistic (or naive) than tv producers.
  • Web producers have a better handle on the promotion that needs to be done to get their web series in front of their audience and will be allocating budget to paid social media ads, social media content creation, paid influencers etc. TV producers sometimes just replicate their standard tv promotion and allocate money to attend festivals, international markets and creating press kits. However, if there is the opportunity to look for funding of a discoverability budget or a marketing budget then these costs will not be in the production budget.

So, if you are a tv producer exploring the opportunities for web series I suggest that you take a second look at your budget with the above in mind. You might even want to bring an experienced web creator onto your team (and get credit in evaluation for that experience). If you are a web producer – allocate maximum producer fees and corporate overhead in your budget. Funders are ok with you paying yourself.  Really.

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Prime Time in Ottawa 2019

For an ‘in the moment’ feel for this year’s Prime Time in Ottawa conference hosted by the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA), look up my twitter feed for Jan 29 – Feb 1, 2019 and/or check out the hashtag #PTiO to get other perspectives as well.  I used to Storify my tweets but sadly that’s no longer an option.

I have to say that this was a pretty good conference.  Attendance felt up (I don’t know the actual numbers). The opening cocktail was packed and that means interest from local Ottawa media, politicians and bureaucrats as well as delegates.

I like to pick a theme for the conference after the fact, often an unintended theme that comes out of what people are thinking and talking about, regardless of what is actually programmed.  I have to say, I am pleasantly surprised to declare that this year’s theme was diversity. I need your help sharing my blog post on terminology widely as the misuse of the term diversity as a synonym for people of colour was pretty widespread but more and more people are getting it and talking about what needs to happen, how to improve it and why.  It came up in a variety of panels that technically were not about diversity. The fact that we’re still talking about why is a little depressing but at least more people accept the fact that better reflecting our own audience and reaching a global audience is a pretty good why. Netflix was pretty clear. They target a global audience so need a diversity of stories and storytellers. The panel on working with Netflix therefore veered off at one point to talking about how to improve the diversity of talent in Canadian production with producer Noreen Halpern calling for more training programs and showrunner Dennis Heaton telling the audience it was everyone’s responsibility to mentor emerging talent who aren’t otherwise getting opportunities.

I do object to a call from talent agent Glenn Cockburn (on the Scarcity of Talent panel) for more programs that target kids in high school since I know that many colleges and universities are already graduating pretty diverse classes but everyone who isn’t white and male are having a harder time getting hired.  I tweeted out the story of my daughter who graduated from Centennial’s Broadcasting and Film program, one of a very diverse class, and did her work placement where she was the only non-white face. How can you hire an all white crew in the city of Toronto?? Two of her female non-white friends are DGC trainees and they are getting great support from that union so it’s not all bad news.  I am in the camp of mentoring and financial support to give emerging talent work opportunities. Hold the door open everyone.

Now was the conference itself diverse?  Only if you measure gender balance. Conference producer Marguerite Pigott was pleased to announce that 50% of the speakers were male (I did enjoy the stat being flipped like that).  But by my rough calculation (and this is not scientific as ethnicity and identity are the choice of the speaker, not the person counting) only nine of 56 speakers were people of colour. Yeah, we’ve got some work to do.

The marketing pitch session (Prime Time Throwdown) was a glimpse into that future.  All three projects were pitched by women. One was an LGBTQ team and one was a half-POC team.  Two of the projects are web series that will likely earn good audiences but are the kinds of shows that are unlikely to find a home on traditional broadcast.  Barbelles is targeting ‘queer women 18-34’ and as we have seen with Carmilla that audience segment is very hungry for content. Tokens on Call won the pitch and I’m looking forward to its launch later in the spring as it takes a very funny look at attempts to subvert traditional casting to create more diversity (see that theme again).  In general though, it was an entertaining and informative session as the audience learned about the marketing strategies, and potential pitfalls, from producers who will be undertaking an aspect of marketing themselves.  Two out of the three had received Bell Fund funding for a Discoverability Plan so it was also interesting to see how that new program can impact producers.

What else went on?  The talk of the conference was the opening panel of broadcasters.  Every year Prime Time starts with this panel and it’s usually pretty tame as the broadcasters say the same thing year after year – the CRTC needs to deregulate as life is just so hard, they love producers, the broadcasters have great CanCon (that they’re doing because they love it, not because they have to) etc etc.  Well, not this year (and not just because of a controversial statement from the head of CBC – see here). There was a feisty dispute between Stéphane Cardin of Netflix Canada and Catherine Tait of CBC (which was a little strange since Netflix buys a lot of CBC comedy and dramas) and between Stéphane and Mike Cosentino of Bell Media (which made more sense since Bell is calling for Netflix to make a contribution to Canadian programming of 20% of their annual revenues).  Reynolds Mastin tried to squeeze Terms of Trade into the conversation by calling it Code of Practice – not sure that worked. Stéphane suggested that more people in the room wanted to work with Netflix than would likely admit it and judging by the packed room for the Working With Netflix panel later that morning and the very positive experiences of the panelists, I’d say he’s right.

There were a few panels on the latest info on a topic and they provided up to the minute insights and that was refreshing.  Too often we’re lucky to learn one thing new in a panel but I enjoyed the insights from the Kids panel (don’t think tv first automatically, might be better to build a game first to get their attention), the Distribution panel (distributors are increasingly getting involved at development because of increased competition) and the last minute (due to keynote cancellation – a conference producer’s worst nightmare) Future of Features panel (producers have to use digital platforms and interactivity to find audiences where they are and not leave it to distributors). 

While it is discouraging that we still have to have conversations about the need for diversity and exploiting digital platforms, it did feel like the dial had moved a bit in the right direction so there was cause for optimism.

 

Imperialism Explained

I was thinking about the British Empire and how, if you were there and you were the viceroy of India, you would feel that you were doing only good for the people of India. Or similar, if you were in French Africa, you would think, ‘I’m educating them, I’m bringing their resources to the world, and I’m helping them. There was a time when cultural imperialism was absolutely accepted.” Catherine Tait at Prime Time in Ottawa conference, January 31, 2019

By now most of you have read or heard Catherine Tait’s comment comparing Netflix to imperial Britain and France in their ‘cultural imperialism’.  I was immediately shocked but then surprised that there wasn’t much of a reaction in the room to the comment. Then I saw a growing reaction to it on my twitter feed and then in mainstream media.  It became a topic of conversation in the halls for the rest of Prime Time with some people admitting to having been speechless in shock while others, well, didn’t understand or think it was that bad. So for the benefit of the confused, this why her statement didn’t go over very well for some of us.

Imperialism in India and Africa killed a lot of people.  A lot. Here’s are a few examples. In 1943 approximately 3 million people died in Bengal from famine caused by British imperial policies and exacerbated by British war time policies that prioritized sending relief to Europe over India. From 500,000 to 1 million Algerians were killed or died from famine when France conquered Algeria from 1830s to 1860s. In 1898 the Voulet-Chanoine Mission was mandated to conquer the area now known as Chad to bring it under French control.  They did it by looting, raping, killing and burning entire villages as they marched.

These are just a few examples of the impact of imperialism in India and Africa. I did a bit of googling to make sure that I had the numbers right but it wasn’t hard to find this info.  Many, many books have been written about it. Imperialism’s goal was the economic success of the Empire in question, in disregard of the life and liberty of the local residents. Millions died as a result.  You can’t separate ‘cultural imperialism’ from actual imperialism as the Empires never did. The valuing of the Empire’s culture over that of the local culture was just one of the tools used to subjugate the local population and maintain control.  

So, in my mind, to compare policies that resulted in the deaths of millions to an OTT service that wants to offer Canadians another choice for the delivery of content and to provide Canadian content with a pathway to a global audience trivializes those deaths.  Yes there are (very good) arguments to be made for Netflix to contribute into the system that it participates in and to ensure that it is spending a portion of its money on Canadian production (and not just production in Canada) but is talk like this helpful or disturbing.  For me, it is disturbing.

I write this not to slam Ms. Tait but to try to use this as a teachable moment for anyone in a public position, those who advise those in public positions and well, everyone else who was confused by the reaction.  We can do better.

 

Diversity and Inclusion – Terminology

Lately I’ve been having a lot of talks with organizations and individuals about diversity and inclusion (as a reminder, last year I bolstered my interest in the topic with a certificate in Leadership and Inclusion from Centennial College so I’m having more consultant conversations) and I find that everyone is using different terminology and struggling to get on the same page.  It feels the same as when digital media was evolving and everyone was using different buzzwords (i.e. information superhighway!) until some of the crazier ones dropped off and now it is all pretty much digital media.

So, I thought I would help the conversation by exploring some of these terms.  These are not fixed definitions but more how I have come to understand them or other people have explained them to me.  It might help.

Diversity: First let’s talk about what diversity is not.  It is not synonymous with gender parity or people of colour.  Diversity means a range of perspectives, backgrounds, viewpoints and more. It should include everyone including straight white able-bodied men (also in some circles known as SWAM – there’s an acronym for everything). If you had a team completely made up of people of colour it would not be diverse because there would be no white people on the team.  And if they were all straight and able-bodied it would not be diverse.  In some cases you can have a team that looks diverse but if they all graduated from Ryerson’s RTA School of Media, for example, they would not be diverse.

[I recognize that I set up the Bell Media Diverse Screenwriters Workshop while I was at the WGC but that was before I understood the proper use of the word diverse. Sorry!]

Inclusion: Inclusion is about creating an environment where a diversity of people feel comfortable working.  You can hire a wide range of individuals but if your work environment does not make them feel welcome, they will not stay or they will not work to the best of their ability.  Inclusion is about creating an environment where they can do their best work. If an environment is inclusive, then there is little need to worry about harassment.  Rather than having to find solutions to respond to harassment, the conditions would not occur for it to exist. Inclusion is often harder for organizations than hiring for diversity as this is where they need to change work culture.

Consider this example. In your team meetings do the loudest voices dominate the conversation?  A young Chinese woman once told me that in situations like that she would never say anything as she had been raised to give deference to authority, so the team thought she agreed with everything and had nothing to add.   When she moved to another job where the leadership style was to make sure that everyone had the opportunity to be heard, she was able to contribute. In the second job she felt that she finally was able to do her best work.

Equity:  There is a school of thought that rather than focusing on diversity and inclusion, we should be looking at equity.  Equity refers to ensuring that everyone has what they need to succeed and takes into consideration the fact that some people may need more help to succeed than others.  The goal in equity is ensuring that everyone ends up in the same place – being the best that they can be.  Note that equity is often contrasted with equality, which is treating everyone the same.  You can treat two employees the same but is it fair if one is at a disadvantage.  For example, if one is dyslexic and the other is not, is it fair to give both a written test with a time limit and assess them the same? Equity would be giving the one with dyslexia a longer time limit.

Representation: In media we often talk about representation rather than diversity or inclusion.  Are stories from a variety of people being told? Can everyone see themselves on screen? Are the creators, funders and decision makers representative of the audience that they are trying to reach.  For me, representation is the end goal of diversity and inclusion strategies rather than another way of describing them.

Underserved: When trying to describe communities that are not being represented, people struggle to find an umbrella word. I have heard the word disadvantaged used but that has the connotation that unrepresented people or communities are low income and that is very much not the case. Non-mainstream is used but that assumes a definition of mainstream that we are in the middle of trying to change. Or people just list off a checklist of who they are trying to target: POC, indigenous, LGBTQ, women, disabled, newcomers, etc. Checklists unfortunately are essential if you are trying to measure progress, particularly if you are a government agency or government funded, but inevitably someone feels left out or given intersectionality unable to pick just one box to tick. I like to use the phrase ‘underserved communities’ as an umbrella term. It is easy to understand and doesn’t make judgments about the people in those communities or attempt to define who is in or not in the community.

Intersectionality: In the last definition I used the word intersectionality.  While it has been around for a while it seems to have been one of the buzzwords of 2018 as a lot of people clued in to it for the first time.  Intersectionality is the idea that people are not part of just one community but often multiples, with different experiences based on each one.  For example, a gay person of colour will have a different life experience than a straight person of colour or a white gay person. Inclusion strategies should keep in mind that people are rarely one thing. Any kind of measurement should take into account that people may want to tick off more than one box.

POC: In some circles POC, the acronym for People of Colour, is thought to be synonymous with black or African/Caribbean.  POC is an inclusive term that generally refers to all non-white people including Hispanic, Middle-Eastern, Asian and South Asian. This is a difficult concept for my mother who looks at skin tone and says ‘looks white to me’ (the irony being that my mother thinks of herself as white but her skin tone is brown since she is Anglo-Indian).  POC is about ethnicity and culture and not skin tone. And, as evidenced by my mother, self-identification.

BIPOC/IBPOC: I have seen this acronym spelled both ways but it means the same thing, Black, Indigenous and People of Colour.  It is usually an attempt to bring together different communities and reflect or encompass intersectionality.  In Canadian film and tv, BIPOC TV & Film is an example.

Racialized: Racialized or racialization is a term that is being used by some to mean non-white.  It started as a sociology phrase to identify racial groups but has become a replacement for racial minority or visible minority.  The Ontario Human Rights Commission says that race is a social construct to create differences based on people’s characteristics and the process of that social construction is racialization.  I struggle with this word but I understand why organizations would want to use racialized communities rather than visible minorities, particularly when the communities in question are not in the minority.

Privilege: Privilege has become a very loaded word. It should not be.  Privilege at its most basic means rights or advantages based upon being part of a group. There is a great exercise that asks people to stand in a row and then take steps backward and forward depending on whether they have had certain life experiences.  Do they have a post-secondary education? Are they white? Are they female? Do they have a student loan? Are they gay? It is a great visual representation of the different forms of privilege and reminds us all that some aspect of our life is privileged and gives us advantages that other people do not have.  For example, an updated version of the exercise would have to ask: Do you have access to high speed broadband at an affordable price?

So there are ten terms that I find myself dealing with on an almost daily basis.  Have I left anything out?  Do you agree or disagree with any of my explanations?

UPDATE:  At a conference on the weekend a speaker said that my fave word ‘underserved’ should be replaced by ‘excluded’.  It made me think about the two words.  Underserved means that a community is getting some service (i.e. opportunities) but not parity with other communities.  Excluded means that it is or they are completely excluded from any of those opportunities.  It’s not for me (or you) to decide if a community or a member of it feels excluded rather than underserved but I do think that parity is a continuum and not an in or out situation.  For me this is an example of how we need to continually think about the words that we use and check in with the audience to see if we are using words that they are comfortable with.

Creative Canada – Sounds Good So Far

You can see my summary of the relevant (to primarily tv) parts of the Creative Canada strategy at TV, Eh here.

For my interactive digital media people there are a couple of other interesting points to make.

If the s. 15 report from the CRTC triggers a public consultation, the terms of reference give producers the opportunity to explain how affiliated digital media are essential for discoverability of television programs.  That could potentially lead to changes in the Certified Independent Production Fund framework.  It’s a long shot but if the door is open you might as well try.  [more to follow in a future blog post about the new Bell Fund programs]

Heritage created a Creative Industries Council to be run jointly by Heritage and ISED, which will advise both departments on how to enhance collaboration between industries and allow the creative industries to grow.  IDM is all about collaboration and often straddles culture and innovation so there are opportunities there to influence policy to support IDM industries, depending on who is appointed to the Creative Industries Council and what it’s specific mandate is.

Creative Hubs will receive funding to support creative startups to help them create, collaborate and innovate.  There’s a lot of potential here for hubs that will support IDM startups.

As IDM could not access the old PromArts and Trade Routes programs, IDM producers should be eagerly waiting to see the details of the new Creative Export Strategy Fund to ensure that it covers IDM and the kinds of export activities that will enhance their success.

I guess we’ll just have to stay tuned.

P.S. Oh and a rant is required.  Phrases like ‘many of Canada’s federal cultural institutions and funding programs will have implemented concrete measures to make our creative industries more inclusive, by increasing opportunities for women’ drive me mental.  Diversity and inclusion is not synonymous with gender parity.  Could the government please get working on programs that encourage a wider diversity of talent, stories and decision makers so that our media is more reflective of our audience?

CRTC’s GLR Decision

I gave a fairly polite run down of the Group Licence Renewal decision over at TV, Eh!  Here I want to focus on one particularly wonky part of the decision – data reporting – and why it matters.

For their GLR submissions, the CMPA, ACTRA, DGC and WGC commissioned Mario Mota of Boon Dog Professional Services to review the annual reports of the broadcasters and the applications and assess how the broadcasters had met their CPE and PNI CPE obligations and what it would mean for Canadian programming in general and PNI in particular if the broadcasters were granted their requested changes.  Mario did the best that he could but was stymied by inconsistent and inaccurate reporting.  The CRTC requires the reports but doesn’t review them.

The GLR decision includes requirements for more detailed reporting on a number of categories including original programming, Indigenous programming, Official Language Minority Community programming and women in key creative roles.  There will also be information bulletins to help broadcasters fill out the forms correctly.  There was no mention of a review or compliance regime.

The question, and why this matters, is will these new reporting requirements make it easier for stakeholders to assess broadcasters performance in spending money on and broadcasting Canadian programming?  As long as there is no review process the answer is no.  It looks like broadcasters will still be able to fill out (or not fill out with sections left intentionally blank) the forms any way they want.  When it comes time to review broadcaster performance again in four years and compare it to their promises, the independent production sector may still be doing it with one hand tied behind their back.

That leads me to ask: does the current Commission appreciate the role of the independent production sector in public hearings?  This I wonder.

The independent production sector pointed out that the broadcasters proposals on PNI CPE would allow them to spend less money on PNI.  That was dismissed.  The independent production sector argued that the definition of independent production was being eroded by broadcaster behaviour and as the need for an independent production sector is enshrined in the Broadcasting Act it needed to be protected.  That was ignored.  It pointed out that exhibition requirements in prime time are still relevant as that is still when most people watch television.  That was ignored.  It argued for some kind of protection for children’s programming since Corus is the major children’s broadcaster in Canada but with the removal of genre protection it can walk away at any time.  It argued variously for protections for Canadian feature film, documentaries, development and ensuring that CPE is spent on original programming.

None of these issues were mentioned.  Not reviewed and dismissed.  Nothing.  It comes across as if the Commission thinks that it has all the necessary information and does not need to hear the perspectives of those who create the content that is broadcast.  If this was true, it would undermine the public hearing process where all stakeholders have the opportunity to present evidence.  It is the independent production sector’s job to provide a different perspective than the broadcasters, based on different priorities.  It is the Commission’s job to weigh those different priorities and make decisions based on the public interest as defined in the Broadcasting Act.

I know that the Commission understand what its job is, but by not ensuring that the independent production sector has the tools that they need to do their job well (i.e. the data) and ignoring many of their concerns, it appears as if the Commission has taken sides.  It feels like engaging with the Commission at a public hearing is as useful as hitting your head against a wall.  After a while it hurts too much and you just stop.

The CRTC’s Differential Pricing Practice Decision – for us content people

I posted the following over on TV, Eh!’s Wonk Report today:

Over here on the content side of things most of us are not familiar with phrases such as ‘zero rating’ and ‘differential pricing practices’ so might tune out of a CRTC decision titled “Framework for Assessing the Differential Pricing Practices of Internet Service Providers” but we shouldn’t.  Net neutrality is an increasingly important concept for content creators.

Let’s go through a few definitions first.

Net neutrality is the principle that all data on the Internet should be treated the same.  It costs the same to the user, it is regulated (or not) the same and it is delivered the same (i.e. no throttling of certain kinds of data).  So the video or the game that you create is not treated any differently from email or music or apps etc.

Differential pricing is the practice of offering the same content or services to consumers at different prices.  Examples are:

Zero rating:  the practice of not charging consumers for certain kinds of data.  That could be sports or all video or gaming.  That data would then not be counted towards the consumers data cap and would make that service more competitive.

Sponsored data:  an application provider arranges with an ISP to discount the data associated with its app.

The CRTC’s decision is to disallow these differential pricing practices (and any others that arise, based on a framework that has been developed to assess the practices) in order to maintain net neutrality.

In practical terms this means that immediately Vidéotron’s Unlimited Music Service, which excluded the data used by that music streaming service from certain mobile plans, was offside.  What it means for content creators is that ISPs cannot distinguish themselves on the basis of what content they have to offer – no exclusive access or zero-rated access to Netflix, or CraveTV or gaming.  No fast lane for CanCon (an idea that has been floated from time to time).   They can compete on price and speed and size of the data caps but not content.  Look at this quote from the decision:

“The Commission considers that any short-term benefits of differential pricing practices would be greatly outweighed by the negative long-term impacts on consumer choice if ISPs were to act as gatekeepers of content through their use of such practices.”

Gatekeepers.  Does that sound familiar?  This is why the decision should be of interest to content creators, particularly those who are moving away from broadcasters as gatekeepers to offer their content directly to consumers.  The Differential Pricing Practices decision means that you will not be moving from broadcaster to ISP as gatekeeper.  For digital content creators it means that the ISP cannot insert itself between you and your audience.