Web Series CREATOR Crush-o-the-Week: Yuri Baranovsky January 25, 2011Posted by therealgirlsguide in Blog, interviews, new media, news, social media, Uncategorized, Web Series.
Tags: Break a Leg, Dashiell Reinhardt, Felicia Day, Felicia Williams, filmmaker, Fox, gawker, interview, Justin Morrison, Marie Drennan, Mark Gantt, new media, The Bannan Way, The Burg, The Guild, Vlad Baranovsky, webseries, Yuri Baranovsky
When I first encountered Yuri Baranovsky –creator of one of the first viral hit web series, Break a Leg– he was “giving away free babies” on Twitter in an effort to increase his followers. I was in the market for some babies anyway (I thought they would make me look more respectable in holiday mailers) and he was psyched to be followed by a whole passel of Real Girls (rather than “the usual fake ones”) and one thing led to another…and TADA: this interview!
Way back in 2006 (which is like a millennium in web series years…), even before Felicia Day hit the scene with The Guild, even before there really was a “scene,” Yuri and his brother Vlad Baranovsky launched their series about a writer whose sitcom has been green-lit, but who, we discover, is destined to die mysteriously by the end of the first season. Originally created as a five-minute pilot for a MySpace contest, Break a Leg evolved over the next two years into a critically acclaimed 17 episode-series. With over five million hits and fantastic press everywhere from The Wall Street Journal to the SF Chronicle, BAL was finally picked up for distribution by Fox Italia in February 2010.
Deliciously twisted and darkly hilarious, BAL is guerrilla film-making at its best. Go watch it now! I mean… go watch it right after you read this interview…
RGG: Okay, so let’s go all the way back to 2006 when the web-series genre was still in its nascent stage. Did you feel like you were pioneering a new form of entertainment?
YB: Well, we did get a flag and a banner that said, “We Are The Future,” so we had an inkling.
We had no idea what was going to happen, honestly. I was shooting a feature film that has yet to see the light of day – it was my first feature – and my brother was working on novel-writing (which is his forte) and being a programmer (which is still his full-time job). Break a Leg wasn’t meant to be groundbreaking, if you told us we’d be getting the press and views we got, we’d politely tell you to shut your mouth. It just wasn’t something we even fathomed.
The thing is – there was no such thing as a web-series genre at the time. There was no genre at all. There were cats. There was The Burg. There was us, and there was a few other people doing sketch comedy with hopes that someone on TV would spot them. But it was about as much of a genre as standing on the street and yelling out show ideas.
RGG: You and Vlad originally conceived Break a Leg as a TV pilot, correct? Did you try and pitch it to TV before your launch? Did you have any interest at that time?
YB: Yes, originally the idea was for a TV show, though when we shot it, it was a 5-minute teaser for an online contest (called: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia MySpace Contest). There was a community kind of built around the contest, and our little mini-Break a Leg was a big hit among them, so we decided we should roll with it, make a full Pilot, and maybe try and pitch that. The Pilot got more attention, so we thought – okay, let’s make three episodes and be able to deliver a good amount of content to a studio to really show them our worth.
Ironically, we never quite ended up pitching Break a Leg. But as it got popular, a lot of people started calling us. We had meetings with NBC TV and NBC Film, with HBO, with ABC, with CBS – you name em’, we had em’. No one knew what to do with us. It was always, “Great, what else do you have?” – “Well,” we’d say, “What are you looking for?” – “We’ll know when we see it.” They’d respond. But they never did. Nor do I think they really do now. They’re definitely figuring it out more, but it still kind of feels like the guys with the money are blind men groping for the teat of success. Nothing ever worked out with any of them, except, of course, FOX Italy, who bought the distribution rights (www.floptv.tv – no, I don’t know what it’s called FlopTV, but you can see Break a Leg with Italian subtitles on it!)
RGG: What was the first really awesome web-series you saw? Were you inspired by it?
YB: You know, I honestly, honestly don’t watch a lot of web-series. I wish I did. But I just never had time and, as the problem with most people, I’ll sit down to watch one, kind of hate it, get disillusioned, and don’t watch anymore. There is no centralized place for people to find high quality series, so it’s hard to separate the good ones from the overwhelming amount of not-so-good ones.
That said, I think The Burg was probably the first really awesome web series I saw. I love the actors, the writing is solid, it’s just a fun show to follow. Those guys pushed us to raise our game too – they were great.
The Bannen Way really impressed me as well – here was a show that did exactly what I had been preaching for years, which is, take the web series genre seriously and create a piece of content that rivaled film and television.
RGG: You shot BAL episodically (rather than continuously). Can you tell us why you decided to go that route?
YB: I’d love to say it was a carefully orchestrated plan, but it’s because we didn’t know what we were doing. I wish we did shoot it continuously. We were that blind man I referenced earlier, and we only got managed to swipe that teat a few times (I’m really in love with this metaphor, sorry) a few times during Break a Leg’s run.
That said, there’s a part of me that’s glad we didn’t shoot it continuously. It evolved naturally, with time, we got better, with time, and we also invented the idea of mini-episodes in-between longer episodes (what we called “conversations”) which I think were really fun and helped evolve the show a lot. Also, we got to put inside jokes in for fans and that’s always a blast.
So, let’s say it was a carefully orchestrated mistake.
RGG: Was there any funding for BAL initially?
YB: Nope! We begged and borrowed and didn’t pay anyone a dime. The two other Producers, Justin Morrison and Dashiell Reinhardt, worked at a place that I still can’t name, but we managed to borrow a lot of film gear from it without them being exactly privy to it. I always joked that it was the manifestation of God, because it somehow yielded everything we needed: locations, lights, cameras, even that laugh track machine in the first episode.
We ended up getting the last episode sponsored by Holiday Inn Express – which I later heard was one of the first sponsorship deals. We also made a bit of money from YouTube’s Partner Program when that actually meant something. We got a lot of help on YouTube from their entertainment editor at the time, Felicia Williams (who is with Rev3 now I think), she was very, very kind to us and featured the show a lot. That helped it get views and a bit of money.
We also got the FOX Italy deal a year after the show was done, but we’re still waiting for our Euros. I’d say we probably ended up breaking even on actual cash spent, so, you know, it wasn’t all that bad.
One of the characters in Break a Leg says that art is borne out of restriction – and I very much believe that BAL is a good example of that.
RGG: You wrote an article published in Gawker.com in 2008 about online monetizing (or the lack thereof) called “I’m a Web Celebrity. Am I rich yet?” Have your views changed since then?
YB: Well, my views have changed because times have changed. There is money on the web now. We’ve, knock on wood, sustained and flourished with HLG Films solely from money we earned creating content for this genre. But, back then, it was this weird thing where people kept saying how TV was going extinct and how amazing and lucrative this space was.
Was it amazing? Sure. It still is. Was there potential for it to be lucrative? Definitely. Was it at the time? Absolutely not. Most of the content was very amateurish and no one was really making money. We just kept talking big like we knew a secret no one else did. It started to bother me because there was this perceived success when all these creators were struggling to make something good, not making money, working themselves to the bone and no one was helping because all the articles said that we were DAYS away from toppling network television. It was all very silly.
RGG: BAL and The Guild are kind of in the same “generation” of web shows. Can you tell me about your relationship with/awareness of The Guild while you were working on BAL?
YB: Well, Felicia and I are – and I’m announcing this for the first time – engaged to be wed. So, we’re pretty close. Once she finds out about the engagement, I feel like we’ll be even closer.
The Guild popped up around Episode 3 and spread like wildfire. It was the first mega-hit and it was really good for the genre, it showed that that can happen, that the views were there, that even the money was there. Did it bother me that Break a Leg was getting, “This is a great show, why is no one giving it money?” write-ups while The Guild was getting, “All Hail The New Queen of Internets!” sure. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. But it’s not because The Guild wasn’t good or that Felicia isn’t talented – it’s because I’m very competitive and my brain said, we came first, we deserve to be written up as the “first successful web show” – because dammit, we were.
But you know what? Felicia is fantastically talented and a great person. We’ve talked periodically throughout the years and she deserves the praise that she gets. The things that we’re doing now wouldn’t be possible without Felicia and The Guild blazing that path, so, I’m thankful for it and, I say, in my best, good sport voice, I’m very happy for her.
RGG: What’s your opinion of going with multiple distribution outlets as opposed to just one?
YB: Depends on the show, who is making it and how much money you’ve got to market it. If it’s a series that has solid backing, that you can really get a lot of press and advertising for – then I’d say go for one distribution outlet. Get everyone to watch it on your website, build the community – people like Zadi Diaz and Felicia have made a living by successfully creating a powerful community at their backs.
If, however, you’re going at it alone – put it everywhere. The more people see it, the more it spreads, the better. It may not be a hit on YouTube but maybe the Blip.tv version hits it big.
It all just depends on what you’ve got to work with.
RGG: Did you do a lot to publicize BAL and get your videos to go viral, or did that just happen?
YB: In the beginning, I just blindly wrote to every newspaper and blog whose email I could find. Most of them ignored us, but then we got a few bigger bloggers to write about us and then it started coming in waves. We worked with For Your Imagination starting with Episode 3, and they helped with marketing as well. They made us a nice website, art, etc. and that really, really went a long way. I’m not sure where the big articles were coming from, but they were coming, and it was overwhelming – Wall Street Journal, LA Times, SF Chronicle, The Times in England – it was incredible.
As I said before, YouTube was a huge help because they kept featuring us. It was a different time for YouTube – people on there were still fighting the good fight, still trying to make good content shine over the Nerdy Guy With Lightsaber-type stuff that filled up most of it. Sadly, those people lost that fight in the end.
RGG: What other career opportunities did BAL’s success create for you and Vlad?
YB: All of them, honestly. I was the head writer for a series called The Circuit on MOJO HD, which was like a Daily Show for tech news – that was my first network gig and I got that partly because of Break a Leg and partly because of some of the writing I did for Gizmodo at the time.
Break a Leg has been the most amazing thing that’s happened to our careers. It changed our lives completely and it helped launch our careers. My dream is to return to it some day, with a real budget, revisit the series – either start anew or continue with a second season, but… who knows? I have a lot of dreams. Still, if anyone with money is reading this – if you’ve got the cash, we’re always in for more Break a Leg. I love that universe.
RGG: How do you see the web-series world changing in the last few years? What’s different about starting a web series now? Where do you see the genre going?
YB: Oh, it’s a completely different ballgame. For one thing, there’s money now. We’ve managed to pay people money and that, in itself, is a huge difference. The quality is completely different too – while there’s still a lot of junk out there, there’s also some real art coming out, great scripts and great shows that are telling great stories — I think that’s fantastic.
Most importantly, advertisers and networks are spending money in the space and it’s yielding dividends. That’s going to drive creators to really up their game to get the money they need, and that’s just going to make the entire genre better and better.
I’m not sure where the genre is going. I think the next big step is that we need a big hit – Felicia’s was Big Hit – Phase 1. I think now we need Big Hit – Phase 2, which is a show that regular people watch too. We need a Sex and the City, or a West Wing, or a Friends that comes from the Internet. We need a series that isn’t famous in our community, or to a niche audience, but has worldwide acclaim. I think once we have that, we’re in the next stage of web show-making – that’s when we’ll really see where this thing is headed.
That said, I don’t think it’ll replace TV. I think there’s going to be a lot of interesting interplay between the two, I think someone just has to figure out how to do it correctly.
I’m hoping that someone is going to be us.
RGG: You’ve written the first text book about Web series-es (what the hell is the plural when one is referring to multiple web series anyway?=)) Can you tell me a little about that?
YB: Web Seriesi. I actually hate the term web series. And Internet Sitcom. Something about it sounds cheap to me, for some reason.
The book we’re writing is tentatively, and very creatively, titled: Writing for New Media. It’s being published by Holcomb Hathaway and is, as far as we know, the first textbook geared for this subject.
It’s being written by me, Vlad, and a teacher at San Francisco State University named Marie Drennan. I met Marie at a NewTeeVee conference (like the first NewTeeVee conference) many years ago – Break a Leg had just started taking off, and Marie was the only teacher I ever met who was interested in the web space. Marie also happened to be one of Vlad’s teachers at SFSU. She’s a fan of the genre, and one of the only teachers teaching it. She realized that there were no books that guided her students so she asked if we’d be interested in putting together a proposal with her to get this book made.
We did, and we got a contract offer surprisingly fast. So now, we’re writing a textbook – which is the bizarre cherry on my bizarre vaguely-berry-tasting career thus far!
RGG: What advice do you have for first-time series creators?
YB: Be brave, be smart, try not to say, “We can’t do that” – just figure out how to do it, and most importantly, know you’re going to have to suffer if you want to get anywhere.
Wait, wait, I’ve got more. Get a close knit crew that isn’t just a crew but a team, people who are as passionate about the project as you are, who will work day and night to make sure it’s made.
Study the genre, see how things work – there’s a million web shows out there now, so know your audience, know your hook, know your battle plan when the series comes out because it ain’t going to be easy getting viewers.
Write for what you have. If you’ve got a handy-cam, write a series where that kind of quality makes sense. If you’ve got a great writer, great actors, and a great script, you can turn that handy-cam into something magic.
Finally, stop sleeping. It’s wasteful.
RGG: You have a new series, Lovemakers, coming out. What’s it about and when is it launching?
YB: Lovemakers is a dramedy series about four people running a matchmaking company. It stars Mark Gantt (of Bannen Way fame), Alexis Boozer (of Break a Leg fame), Daniela DiIorio (of Break a Leg fame), and me (of this interview fame). The style is very – and I hate to do this – Ally McBeal-ish if Ally McBeal was written by Aaron Sorkin. That said, it still very much has our style in it, so, expect a certain amount of silliness, like Opera-singing orgies.
The idea is that it’s a very honest, blunt study of love and sex. I think it’s a very relate-able show and I’m extremely excited about it, if we can get the budget to make it!
Right now, we have a promo made that we’re pitching to a variety of places. We’ve had an amazing response to the promo and I’m hoping we’ll release it online to the general public soon enough. I’m hoping that we get a deal by early next year so we can start shooting this thing, but, we’ll see. It’s a very big project – I want it to have 30-minute episodes and a variety of interactive elements that I think people will really dig, but that need real money and time to pull off correctly.
It’s the biggest thing we’ve done to date, so we’re taking our time to make sure we can do it before officially embarking on it. But so far, it’s feeling really good. I hope. Who knows? There have been so many projects that we’ve tried to get off the ground and… I think the way to survive this career is being able to accept failure, take a breath, and move on to the next scheme, tirelessly, endlessly. Otherwise, you go a little crazy.
RGG: Any other cool projects you’re working on that we should know about?
YB: We just shot a satire of the Old Spice commercial for MTV using Vinny from the Jersey Shore, which was fun. We’re also doing another series – our first scripted series since Break a Leg – that’s going into production in late February or so. I’ll have more details on it soon, but we’re very excited about having another show to work on and that’s what we’ll be getting busy with starting first thing next year!
RGG: When can we pick up the babies? And are you going to throw in a free nanny or do we have to provide our own?
YB: The babies have been outside my apartment for weeks now. I really should have told you that… I threw in those timed feeders that they make for cats, you know? My brother has one – it makes it so he has to put as little effort into taking care of his cat as possible. I got you those for the babies. Also, there are so many babies, I figure they can probably take care of one another.
By the way, I love what you girls are doing – keep it up, it’s fantastic! Thanks for the interview!
Thanks for reading! xo- Carmen