May 24 Thru 27th
9am to 9pm at Cats and Dogs Coffee

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tom Pike Reveals the Secrets Behind Web Show Success

I sat down with screenwriter Tom Pike recently. Among other things, he writes, directs, and produces a local web show called Echo Chamber. He will be giving a workshop at Clowder & Pack on scriptwriting.

Enter Tom:
TOM: First, I should probably explain both what Echo Chamber is and why your readers should give a crap.

Echo Chamber is a webseries about a group of struggling but passionate filmmakers.

An insufferable director, a snarky producer, and a scatterbrained cameraman attempt to create a compelling vlog for Along the way, they must deal with psycho ex girlfriends, mysterious employers, and the sides of themselves they hate the most.
As for why you should give a crap?  Hey.  One out of two ain't bad.
CONNOR: A good introduction to the show is season one, episode three, "Terrible Interviewee Montage".

CONNOR: How did you get interested in doing a web show?

TOM: I read TV Tropes for years.  It's a wiki about plot devices, and the TV shows that use them.  The website is insanely addicting.  It's like a maze that you get lost in and never find your way out of again.  Only you don't want to get out again, cause the maze is made of CANDY.

When the admins of the site posted in their sidebar about wanting to start a "weekly video bit", I felt an obligation to try out.  This website which exclusively caters to people who cerate fiction, so I had no expectation that I would wind up with anything.  I didn't even really have the time to audition, let alone deliver a product.

Well, in the end, I got the nod, and I had to make the time.  And the product.

CONNOR: Did you have an overall plot or structure in mind, or has that changed over time?

TOM: I had no ideas sitting around waiting to become Echo Chamber.  Echo Chamber came out of my butt.  It was written on assignment, because I needed to start showing results. For my audition piece, I had no plan.  I was supposed to make a piece about Applied Phlebotinum.  I racked my brains and realized I had nothing funny to say about Applied Phlebotinum.  What was I supposed to do, read the trope page into a camera?  Show examples of it?  What could I do that the trope pages didn't already do? I'm not the guy who makes the vlog with a ha-ha moment every 5 seconds.  I'm just not.  So I took the easy way out.  Up against the deadline (actually, a day or so late), I sent in a video of me failing to explain what Applied Phlebotinum is.  I kept failing cause the camera kept getting screwed up due to techno-jargon reasons--thus demonstrating Applied Phlebotinum. Each week, we were supposed to do a video like that… themed around a particular trope. Once the show got the green light, Echo Chamber became a webshow about a guy named after me, trying to make a vlog about a trope of the week.  He fails in ways that demonstrate that trope.  The series has since gone completely out of control and simply become a webshow, rather than a descriptive "video bit" about a trope of the week.  Nominally, the episodes address the tropes, but at this point our viewership consists primarily of people drawn by the story.

CONNOR: What does the script process look like? How much makes it into the final cut?

TOM: For Season 1, the episodes were written by whoever was handy, as quickly as possible.  They were hastily revised as the shooting date approached.  After the rough cut was deemed unfunny and stupid, scenes would be rewritten and reshot. Season 2 was much more organized, lengthy, and backbreaking.  We did 12 episodes instead of 10, 8 minutes instead of 5. We had a lengthy spec script process that resulted in two scripts being accepted from writers outside our staff.  Two first drafts were written by our consulting producer, Yulin Kuang.  The rest were drafted by either Dana Shaw or me.  All of those scripts then went through at least two rewrites by Dana and I.  There was a table read with the actors.  The scripts went back into rewrites with notes from the actors and producers. There's been a little improvisation on set, and there will be cuts in the editing room, so it's impossible to say how much of the first drafts will ever actually wind up on the screen.  Probably very little. For season 2, we basically wrote a 90-minute film in a few months and called it a webshow.

CONNOR: Are there any ninja tricks that have really helped? Are thing big things you've learned to avoid?

TOM: The first rule of any business is to hire people smarter than you are.  I owe any success of Echo Chamber to the tireless work of Zack Wallnau, Dana Shaw, and countless others. Always remember: you are not an "auteur".  No one is. If everyone on your crew tells you an idea is crap, an audience will think it's crap too.  And if you're not making this for an audience, then it's masturbation.  You can do that in your room, and there's no need to post a video of it on the internet.  If you're making a webshow, your goal is to entertain others. So bring on board people whose opinions you respect.  Even, and especially, bring on rivals and people you are jealous of.  There is no higher form of respect than being jealous of others' talent.  So bring those people into your tent.  Invest them in your mutual success.  When they give advice, listen. No idea you came up with is sacred.  Anything can, and must, be sacrificed for the good of the show. That said, you must learn when to take a note and when to veto one.  People will give you conflicting advice.  The ship is yours to sail or sink.

CONNOR: How do you feel about web shows as a medium? Do the work for all kinds of stories?

TOM: The internet is really suited to short snippets.  30 seconds to 3 minutes is the ideal time length for a webshow episode.  Anything more and people get bored. But I don't really know how to write well in that length of time.  I prefer to make a kickass 8 minute episode than a shitty 3 minute one.  Like I said, I can't do laugh-a-minute, so I have to hook you with a long-running story.  Because of this, I think there are actually more things you can do with the medium than I am doing with it. Our target audience is Tropers--people who love fiction--so in general, we get away with our indulgences.

CONNOR: How has audience participation and interaction been?

TOM: Tropers, our audience, are selected for becoming obsessive about the media they consume.  That's what brought them to the TV Tropes website in the first place!  Therefore, even though our reach has been narrow, the passion the show has generated is surprisingly deep. Our "official" page is actually a page on the wiki itself.  That means that everything on it was written by fans.  My cast and crew is actually forbidden from editing the page's content. 
Tropers are also very vocal when they do not like something.  I've reached out to some of our critics in the Troper community, and some very interesting conversations have come out of that. Also, someone made fanart of Zack, the cameraman, filming while giving me a handjob.  So that was fun.

CONNOR: Is this kind of thing the future? Will there always be a place for traditional television?

TOM: I just read an article about Jimbo Wales saying Hollywood will die because young people will collaborate on the Internet and make awesome shit without much money. I dunno.  Most people in my position see the web as a starting point.  There's a lot of really cool stuff you can do with it, but I see the next step on the path being television or film.  There isn't currently a way of making a living by monetizing a webshow.  I'm already pushing my luck as far as money goes. The thing about advertising on the Internet is it's easier to quantify the value of an ad.  If you're an advertiser, you know exactly how many people click an ad and hit your site.  And you know how many hits to your site result in purchases of your product. It's actually easier to click an ad on the internet than pick up a phone and order a shamwow you saw advertised on TV.  So if an internet ad is easier to respond to, why do companies pay more (orders of magnitude more) to have ads served on TV shows? My guess is advertisers have, for decades, been overestimating the efficacy of ads.  "Brand recognition" aside, I'm not sure there actually is a cost-effective way to get the word out about a product. I think it's a tremendous risk to the entertainment industry if 1) I am right about this and 2) anyone ever realizes it.  Without commercial support of art, it'll die.  The best thing television does right now is continue to fool companies into thinking they can make money by supporting art. The Internet can't fool companies like that.  So TV continues to thrive. Full disclaimer: I got no business educations.  Just been on both sides of advertising on the Internet.

CONNOR: Is there something you think Echo Chamber does better than Hollywood?

TOM: I don't have yachtloads of money at stake, so I can afford to experiment--especially in Season 1.  Not all of those experiments are successful, though.  We experimented with shorter episodes, purely dramatic episodes, releasing on different days…  The balance of these experiments was not generally positive.  But it was a fun learning experience. There are times I wish I were not a showrunner on a webshow, but a staff writer on a bigger show.  I have a lot to learn, and I might rather learn it the easy way, from having someone experienced tell me about it.  Instead, I'm out there, making my own mistakes. That's a blessing in some ways, cause I now know the cost of failure.  On the other hand, well, I know the cost of failure.  Failure leaves my show with fewer viewers. But Echo Chamber is actually a story that couldn't really happen in Hollywood.  Not because Hollywood doesn't do original things.  That's not at all true.  "They don't understand art" is a lazy writer's gripe, an excuse blaming the system, for why the lazy writer is not successful. The reason Echo Chamber could only be a webshow is because it is about TV Tropes.  A website.  It's a webshow about webshows.  It would be silly to make a TV show about webshows.

CONNOR: Is there anything I've missed that you might add?
TOM: The Echo Chamber cast and crew loves bacon.
Tom will be giving a scriptwriting workshop at Clowder & Pack on Saturday, May 27th, at 3pm.

Look here for more interviews with local authors and artists, coming soon!

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