Web Series Wisdom: An Interview with Anne Flournoy
Written by Susan Kouguell | Posted by: NewEnglandFilm.com
Many movie industry folks, instructors, writers and filmmakers are now suggesting that making a web series is a great way to break into the film business. Anne Flournoy is a New York City-based, award-winning writer and filmmaker, as well as an established figure in the independent filmmaking world. For her, making the transition from indie shorts and a feature to a web series has been an interesting and compelling journey.
Anne Flournoy’s first film Louise Smells A Rat premiered at the New York Film Festival and was picked up for distribution by Kino International. Her third film, Nadja Yet, co-starred Jenny Wright (Near Dark), Stephen Payne (Compliance) and a live-action housefly. Variety called it a ‘nine-minute showstopper’. How To Be Louise, Flournoy’s feature, screened in competition at the Sundance Film Festival and in the Panorama at the Berlin International Film Festival. After rave reviews in the Italian press, How To Be Louise returned to New York and played for a month at Jonas Mekas’ Anthology Film Archives. The Sundance Institute is planning to launch it online through multiple venues, including Netflix and Hulu. Anne has received numerous film festival awards and grants, and she is a Guggenheim Fellow.
“My life’s work. Louise is an older version of the main character in my shoestring-budgeted first feature How To Be Louise, which was in competition at Sundance. For better or for worse, neither of the Louises nor I are what you’d call ‘people persons:’ we all put on a front to hide our self-doubt. Historically, working in media has demanded a degree of boldness, of social ease. Pitching, lunches and being good at small talk are required for making the necessary deals. Or I should say, they were before digital technology revolutionized the world. When you don’t need huge sums of money to do your work, when you can write, direct, shoot, edit and distribute videos from a studio apartment, suddenly a different breed of artist is able to arise. That the very flaw in my character which blocked me from working in this business serves as the heart of The Louise Log is a delicious irony.
Susan Kouguell: What is The Louise Log series about?
Anne Flournoy: It’s a comedy Web series about a New York City wife and mother who’s riddled with self-doubt. Because feeding, clothing and raising a family is only half of what you’re supposed to do these days, Louise is searching. She’s got energy. She’s got ideas! But she can’t make up her mind or keep track of the time. Louise’s deadpan inner voice is our constant companion, giving us the low-down on what Louise is really thinking. Living with a live feedback loop in Louise’s head ramps up the complication. And the fun!
SK: What made you decide to transition from making short films and features to writing, producing, and directing a Web series?
Flournoy: In the fall of 1989, just after hearing that my first feature had been invited to be in competition at Sundance, I started writing the script for the sequel. Everybody knows that writing is rewriting, so I wrote and rewrote that script. Occasionally I’d send it to a producer or to writer friends for notes. My fear of pitching it to people was right up there with my fear of a firing squad so, with the notable exception of IFFCON 2000, my ‘pitches’ were never live.
Seventeen years later, I finally hit the wall. I just couldn’t do another rewrite. YouTube was around and my Finnish friend, Hanna Hemila, a film producer, mentioned that short videos on cell phones were taking off in Europe. Well, I thought, I’ll show Hollywood! I’ll make viral videos, one a month, and Hollywood will come crawling to me for this feature script.
After a miserable summer of trying to shoot something, anything to make one viral video, Hannah suggested, ‘It’s easier with a script…’ Beaten to a pulp, I wrote a script. But unfortunately, we couldn’t use my script. It was about a hapless and timid housewife in the busiest supermarket in Manhattan on a Sunday night. That is the moment when the most aggressive and entitled people anywhere, weekenders, are trying to shop for the week after returning from their country houses. Friends pointed out that we’d be escorted to the door by security before we got the first shot. So, okay, we moved the shoot to the farmers market where, suddenly, it’d be a totally different story. In fact, suddenly there was no story. There was no conflict. We took a break in a café to warm up. Over the next month I edited the tape down to 80 seconds, called it The Louise Log and uploaded it to YouTube. Realizing that to make a second one, it’d be a whole lot easier to stick with this beautiful and talented actor, Christine Cook, and stick with her character Louise. So from this first (not at all) ‘viral video’ The Louise Log was born. Suddenly I was making a web series.
SK: How do you raise the financing for this series?
Flournoy: After my seventeen years of looking for someone to produce my script, I had less than no interest in looking for financing for anything. One of the appeals, for me, of video was the user-friendly camcorder and the three-dollar tapes. More than anything, I just wanted to be making something. And because my confidence was at an all-time low, I wanted the atmosphere to be closer to a home crafts project than to a professional set. I needed a stress-free, pressure-free environment and that meant just fooling around. That meant no financing.
The first seventeen episodes were shot a little at a time between November of 2007 and June of 2008. We didn’t have professional sound and I did almost all of the jobs except to act. Occasionally my kids would help and twice we had a second camera but it was a very relaxed ‘garage band’ feeling of friends collaborating. For season two, I’d gotten so much flack for bad sound, I hired a professional sound mixer. This was out of pocket and a big expense, which dented my hopes of being able to continue to make this series independently.
Between then (2010) and now, our audience has doubled or tripled and crowdfunding has become commonplace. We’re wrapping up our first crowdfunder tomorrow on the very elegant and cool crowdfund plus distribution platform Seed&Spark which, to my mind, is the only place any filmmaker should crowdfund. I’m imagining that a combination of sponsors, crowdfunding and product placement might be an ideal way to finance my work from now on.
SK: How has the Louise character changed and evolved since she debuted in the 2007 Web series? And, in turn, how has ‘living with Louise’ all these years changed you?
Flournoy: Hmm. I don’t know that the Louise character has changed as much as her circumstances have changed and brought out different aspects of her character. In the early episodes, she never even talked to anyone. The whole drama was played out in her head by her inner voice. By the end of season two, she’s pulled out into the world by all these extreme characters with their very strong boundaries and unreasonable demands. It’s as if they’re all gas-lighting her and meanwhile acting like they’re as normal as pie. For Louise to have to fight for herself out loud is new, but I don’t know that it’s any more active than in the earliest episodes where she never says a word to anyone.
Living with this series, has changed me radically. Having deadlines has made it possible for me to figure out how to have a family life and a work life. Before The Louise Log, I never put my work first. Maternal instinct is strong and, in my case, always won out. Or maybe it’s that I’m such a procrastinator and perfectionist and working at home offers this unending supply of justifiable distractions.
Another huge shift for me has been facing the reality of how a series finds its audience on the Internet. I went to art school and before that studied art history. The whole artist in the garret, working in solitude is so seductive. I love to be alone. But success on the Internet is, as someone put it, in groups. And groups mean lots of people, which means you’d better have a level of emotional maturity I’ve had to develop. Getting over grudges and paranoia and learning to be one among many has not been easy.
And then there’s the passion thing. I used to need a minimum of eight hours of sleep. Minimum! For the past couple of months I think I’ve averaged four and a half. I love this work. And once we’ve shot a season, I have everything I need right here in my little 6′ X 8′ office; I hardly ever leave.
SK: Your blog offers insightful and helpful advice for getting online films seen, including Emily Best’s alternative distribution/crowdsourcing site Seed&Spark. You are currently using this method to fund season three of The Louise Log. (On May 30, 2013 Flournoy successfully raised the funds needed for Season 3, using Seed&Spark). On your blog you comment about this platform:
“Whereas some crowdsourcing sites welcome everyone from inventors to musicians to backpackers-needing-a-plane-ticket, Seed&Spark is only for people making film and video. An overly simplified explanation of what Seed&Spark offers is: it’s a platform to ask for what you need to make the work and it’s a pay-per-view distribution system.”
Flournoy: The principals of Seed&Spark made a razor sharp, hands-down brilliant four-minute video which explains better than I ever could the details of their elegant platform, which is actually more than a platform — it’s a new paradigm for content distribution in the digital age. And it’s one that has figured out how filmmakers can get paid.
In going with Seed&Spark, I imagined that I’d be dealing with intelligent, passionate and accessible visionaries and that’s exactly what I got. The fact that Seed&Spark is small, compared with the other popular crowdfunding sites, appealed to me because I’ve heard stories of peoples’ projects being buried. I feared I knew just how the discussion about The Louise Log would go: ‘A comedy web series about a housewife pushing 40? Really?’
Finally, the fact that Seed&Spark projects are getting funded at a rate of 65% when I’ve heard the older crowdfunders have a success rate closer to 30% made the decision a no-brainer. Yes, I’d be passing up the Sundance page on Kickstarter but look at what I’d be getting. I can’t say enough good things about Seed&Spark.
SK: Also on your blog, you mention, actually, praise, the Alexa toolbar to help promote films on the web.
Flournoy: Ryan Stansky, a smart and generous young marketing executive, told me about the Alexa Toolbar, which you can Google and download onto a Firefox browser. With the toolbar, you can figure out the Google rank of almost any web site on the Internet, as well as a detailed description of who makes up that web site’s audience and more, what the loading time is for a web site, and what the names of comparable web sites are. If you suspect that your film would appeal to women over 40, and then you find web sites like the Whoa! Channel Network or the blog GenerationFabulous, both of which appeal to women over 40, then you can start connecting with them, seeing about getting your videos embedded there, etc. It’s a lot of detective work made incredibly much easier with the Alexa Toolbar.
SK: What are some of the challenges you face getting your series seen? Social media is certainly a great way to promote one’s work, but what are the downsides to this?
Flournoy: This has been and continues to be a huge challenge. First of all, I have no training in marketing. Second of all, I had no interest in learning about marketing; I was operating under the delusion that if you put good work out there, ‘the cream will rise.’ Third of all, the skill necessary to write and make videos may be helpful to a social media campaign but it’s not the core skill necessary to organize a successful social media strategy. And lastly, my audience is not walking around with a Smart phone and time on their hands and waiting to click ‘share this video!’ with their 2,000 Facebook friends.
It took me five years of growing frustration and bitterness to wake up and realize that the most successful web series are those that most successfully find and connect with their audiences. Period. Some of those are five star, first-rate series and some of them are not. As I remember from art history, this was also true for 19th century portrait painters. It’s probably always been true. Artists may be channeling and creating extraordinary work, but if they don’t figure out a way to get it in front of the people who want it, they may as well leave it under a rock.
Here’s a little example from The Louise Log. On the Internet, keywords are a big deal. They also require a particular mindset, which I don’t seem to have (though the Google Keyword Tool helps). I was noticing that some of my episodes were getting a lot more hits than others and it didn’t seem to be because of the thumbnails. I figured it had to be the titles and I started going for the gold and Googled ‘ten hottest keywords’: one of them was MILF. I’d never heard of it and figured it had to do with GMO milk. Wasn’t I surprised to discover its true meaning. But not wanting to go too far, I checked with my most trusted and savvy mother blogger friends who found it hilarious and so episode #27 became How To Be A MILF.
Here’s where the story gets more complicated because it shows that even if you kill at keywords, there are no easy solutions. If you’re posting videos on YouTube, you have to take into account the YouTube algorithm. This sifts all kinds of information, including how many videos, views and subscribers you have to determine how often and where your video shows up as a related video either at the end of someone else’s video or on the right side of a YouTube page in a column. The identical video of my episode #27: How To Be A Milf with the identical title is uploaded twice to YouTube — once on each of my channels. On one channel it has 153 views. On the other, almost 16,000.
It took months of fumbling with two left feet, trying to figure out how I was going to understand and overcome so many stumbling blocks. The beauty of the potential power of social media is balanced by the horror of the amount of time it takes — first to figure out what to do and then to do it. If I didn’t have a Web series I wanted to be producing, I could see social media promotion as a fascinating and fun challenge. But frankly, just trying to crank out one four-minute episode a month and do an inadequate job with social media is a full-time job. It’s a daunting project without a team, at least the way I make videos.
The Sundance Institute advised me that the single best way to bring attention to a film or a Web series is a crowdfunder. When they suggested this a year ago my reaction was total confusion. You mean you don’t do a crowdfunder for the money? Having just today finished my first crowdfunder, I can say with the voice of experience that yes, it is about the money but it’s almost as much about focusing people’s attention on you and your story. With a crowdfunder you have real-life stakes: total public failure and humiliation versus gathering up a fixed amount of money by a certain date — it becomes the 2013 version of the gladiator pit of former times, entertainment for the masses. And all the numbers are right there on the Internet.
The simplest explanation I can give for what I’ve learned about getting the series seen is this: groups. Find groups online which want what you have. They may be connected to Facebook groups, they may be on someone else’s YouTube channel, they may be reading a blog or an online magazine. It’s not a strategy to try and gather up your audience one by one or to rely on your friends and family to share what you’re doing.
SK: Many filmmakers, whether working in Hollywood or independently, chant the words: “If I only knew then what I know now.” How would you complete this ‘chant’ about your experiences making a web series?
Flournoy: I’d actually say, thank God I didn’t know then what I know now or I might not have begun. It’s hard work; there’s tech involved and there’s a steep and ongoing learning curve. But to have my hair on fire, all day every day? What’s not to like??
I have two bits of advice: do what you love and do it as cheaply as possible. Most people are not making money with this line of work so if you want to keep doing it, don’t go into debt for it. Do what you love so that you’ll want to stick with it and it’ll feed your soul at your day job and through the tough times. I still disagree with those who insist that you think first about who your audience is: you couldn’t pay me enough to do this if I wasn’t madly passionate about it. And if I had started off trying to do something to appeal to the 18-24 year olds (I’ve heard audience-building with them is a breeze) I might have burned out years ago.
To learn more about Anne Flournoy and The Louise Log go to: anneflournoy.com
And check out a clip of one of Flournoy’s fundraising videos: How To Wreck Your Life With Crowdfunding.
Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting and film at Tufts University, and is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a motion picture consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and film executives worldwide ( www.su-city-pictures.com; su-city-pictures.blogspot.com). Susan wrote The Savvy Screenwriter: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself) Without Selling Out! (St. Martin’s Griffin) and SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises, which is available at $1.00 off by clicking on www.createspace.com/3558862 and using DISCOUNT CODE: G22GAZPD. To order the Kindle version: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009SB8Z7M (discount code does not apply). To read an excerpt go to: https://www.createspace.com/Preview/1089452. Follow Susan at Su-City Pictures, LLC Facebook fan page and SKouguell Twitter page to receive more Savvy Tips.
To learn more about Anne Flournoy and The Louise Log go to: anneflournoy.com And check out a clip of one of Flournoy’s fundraising videos: How To Wreck Your Life With Crowdfunding. Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting and film at Tufts University, and is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a motion picture consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and film executives worldwide ( www.su-city-pictures.com; su-city-pictures.blogspot.com). Susan wrote The Savvy Screenwriter: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself) Without Selling Out! (St. Martin’s Griffin) and SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises, which is available at $1.00 off by clicking on www.createspace.com/3558862 and using DISCOUNT CODE: G22GAZPD. To order the Kindle version: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009SB8Z7M (discount code does not apply). To read an excerpt go to: https://www.createspace.com/Preview/1089452. Follow Susan at Su-City Pictures, LLC Facebook fan page and SKouguell Twitter page to receive more Savvy Tips.