It’s a running joke in the web series community that none of us have money to make our shows, none of us make money off our shows, and none of us ever will. But what if I told you it didn’t have to be that way?
Alex LeMay studied theater at DePaul University in Chicago and the University of Windsor in Canada, but he’s always been a fan of using cameras to tell stories. In 2006 he discovered a video streaming site called iFilm, which was a precursor to YouTube, and realized that online video was the future of media. In his words, “I put all my eggs in that basket.”
Today, Alex is a showrunner, producer, and director for two of the major studios, a bunch of digital studios, and branded entertainment divisions of various advertising agencies. He also runs AlexLeMay.com, where he helps “ambitious filmmakers and video creators build [and] sell their web series.” How did he get there, and what can we all learn from his tremendous success? Read on.
Editor’s note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Stareable: What shows have you created or worked on that we might have heard of?
Alex LeMay: I just finished a travel food show with celebrity chef Fabio Viviani called DINNER IS SERVED for Endemol Beyond. I was a lead producer on a digital feature for YouTube Red called KEYS OF CHRISTMAS starring DJ Khaled, Mariah Carey, Ciara, Bebe Rexha, and YouTube star Rudy Mancuso. I was a producer on Nigel Lythgoe’s EVERY SINGLE STEP which was like the choreographer version of SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE. I was the showrunner/director on WORD OF MOUTH with YouTube star Josh Leyva for Shaun White’s Air+Style/Go90, I was the creator/show runner/director for ADVENTURE LAB for MSN. I was the show runner and co-creator of the online digital experience called BZRK which we ended up selling to Sony Pictures for Sam Raimi. I’ve been fortunate to create online content for companies like Starbucks, Johnson & Johnson, and Wilson Athletics as well. Right now I’m directing and producing the pilot episode of a web series by Jim Uhls, who wrote the movie FIGHT CLUB.
How did you end up producing and creating digital content?
In 2006 there was a video platform called iFilm which was the precursor to YouTube. When I saw that streaming video online was possible (which until then it would take you two days to download a two-minute video) I realized this is where media was going so I put all my eggs in that basket… Eventually, because I was one of the first producers creating digital video, I developed a reputation as someone who knew how to create for that space.
You’ve worked with some big digital production companies- how did you get in the room, let alone build long-lasting relationships, and what advice would you give to filmmakers, producers, and writers looking to follow in your footsteps?
I proved I could create content that builds an audience. I built an online series with a gaming component that Sony Pictures saw and they ended up buying it to turn into a movie. That allowed me to use that as a springboard into other work.
The reality is that it is a business like any other so as a creator and producer I had to show studios that I not only could deliver their series on time and on budget. I also had to show them I understood their business concerns, meaning that I understood how to deliver content that resonated with their particular audience… The advice I would give is that now it’s about creating social reach, so creators need to be proactive in building their own audience outside and separate from the traditional media system. That gets the industry’s attention more than anything else. Don’t think you need a distributor to make a living.
What is the most challenging part of working with larger production companies, and aside from funding, how does it compare to working on indie projects?
There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen. As a producer, director, and writer you have to fight, kindly, but fight nonetheless, to maintain your voice in a project. I never forget that it is my name on that piece of work so making sure I can be proud of it is essential. Also, most people in studios aren’t filmmakers in the traditional sense. They are executives whose aim is to make sure that the project is profitable. At the studio level, we as creators have to understand that helping studios profit is part of our job, but finding the balance between art and commerce can be challenging sometimes. The best way to avoid that conflict is to have a clear understanding of what the expectations are before making it. Sounds simple, but you’d be surprised.
Working on indie projects is a blast- there is a huge opportunity to break some rules, experiment, and try new things. Not having a budget means I get to play the game of “how can I solve this problem with no money?” That stretches my abilities and strengthens my creativity, which becomes hugely useful on bigger projects. I use all those little hacks I discovered on indie projects constantly on the bigger projects. Simply, indie projects are just freer.
What are some of the biggest mistakes you see smaller indie web productions make, and how can they course-correct?
There are a few common mistakes, but the biggest and most classic mistake is: “Build it and they will come.” This is the one where producers shoot 6 episodes of their series by racking up credit card debt. They then launch it by putting it out to their Facebook friends and in total they’re out $10k, 20k, 30k and only have 1500 views across all the episodes. I see this all the time. It’s sad, because so many of these projects are amazing.
Don’t make the series, make the proof of concept. When you make the entire series (or a major chunk of it) you don’t leave the distributor/buyer anywhere to go. Distributors only buy things that fit into the narrow parameter of what their audience wants based on their extensive audience data. Remember, this is the internet, not TV, so distributors have data on every view and click on their content and unless your series ticks all those boxes, chances are they won’t buy. Instead, bring them an idea that is 75% developed and let them fill in the other 25% with their knowledge of their audience.
What is something many indie creators overlook when making an indie project that you think they should remember that might make their project more appealing to wider audiences or larger production and distribution companies?
Many creators make their projects first and then find out who their audience is after. I think best practices show that successful series producers know exactly who their audience is before they make anything. In fact, before production begins, many creators have been building an audience by communicating with fans of their genre (the one they are creating in) long before that audience knows anything about their project. Once they have engaged the audience and built trust, they move ahead with production. This way, the project lands on an audience that already has a relationship with the creator.
Most creators/producers know how to make things but don’t know how to build an audience around their work and leverage that audience into a sale, which is why I founded alexlemay.com. My hope is to help serious but unknown filmmakers get paid for their work and get their projects seen.
What’s your advice for turning an expensive hobby like indie filmmaking into a sustainable career, specifically in regards to money?
The myth in our industry is that there are big media agencies with tons of money to throw around (they have money but they’re conservative with it).
So for me, selling a web series is really just a platform to be able to create new sources of income for myself. I consult on other films/series, I get hired to write, I get paid to speak, I do branded deals and now I’m teaching other filmmakers. I know people who have made a ton of money from selling an online course on Skillshare about how to do that badass visual effect they did in their last film. Many have made more money doing that then from selling their work.
Bottom line is: create multiple revenue streams for yourself so when you build your series you’re not forced to work at a job you hate. There’s an art and science to making that happen and the great thing is, is that you still get to create and build your value as a creator.
For a new creator with a completed or in-progress web series, where should they go to distribute their series to get as much attention as possible? Should they hold off releasing it, should they put it out wherever and hope their social media and press promotion is sufficient? What are the options?
Every platform is both buying content and creating their own, so now is a great time to be a filmmaker/creator.
The rule is 20% creating, 80% promoting. Document your process, do fun behind the scenes stuff, vlog about the genre you’re working in. it doesn’t have to be only your series that your posting. Audiences buy the filmmaker as much as they buy their content. Take YouTube filmmaker, Sawyer Hartman. 90% of his content is about him. He grew his audience around himself and his camera, snuck in some of his short films, which he now had a pre-built audience for. Then Ron Howard gives him a pile of money to make his own feature, which is distributed on Vimeo.
Be proactive about your brand and talk about what you make every day. Not the answer most are hoping for but it’s more about you than your films at the beginning. Sawyer gets to make movies because people know who Sawyer is.
For creators outside LA, how can they get in touch with larger companies to pitch their content or effectively network?
The good news is that Hollywood as a media center isn’t a place anymore, it’s an idea…. It doesn’t matter if you’re in North Carolina or Indiana or Los Angeles. It is the distributor’s job to find great content that they can put in front of their audience. Believe it or not, they need you more than you need them.
In terms of outreach/networking, one thing I do is cold email studio heads and executives. I do it all the time. I don’t have them in my contacts, I hunt constantly for ways to contact them. But, when I do reach them, I don’t talk about myself and don’t ask them for anything. I talk about them and their work. I build a relationship and then I can ask them to read my script or pitch material. Try it. Give yourself 7 days to contact and get a response from the most influential person you can think of and you’ll be surprised what happens.
In the end, if you’re not willing to build your own audience, which is your only currency in this game by today’s standards, and you’re not willing to be daring as hell, it’s going to be a tough road.
What are some of your favorite web series (that you weren’t directly involved with)?
JAY AND PLUTO, DAVID, UNDERWATER REALM, which I can’t decide if I love or absolutely despise. There’s one that I just saw some early cuts of called GALACTIC GALAXY which is a sci-fi comedy that looks like it going to be hilarious.
Want to pick Alex’s brain? Join us tomorrow in our creator community for a live AMA, at 11am PT or 2pm ET.