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New Media Case Study - Kim Evey and Felicia Day

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Producers of the online hit, 'The Guild', Kim Evey and Felicia DayFor the better part of a decade, producers and audiences alike wondered how and when (and even if) the World Wide Web would prove to be a viable platform for storytelling. Would it look like TV? Like a movie, or a game? No one knew.

Kim Evey and Felicia Day will be the first to tell you: They didn’t know, either. So they guessed. Fortunately for everyone, they guessed right.

The result of that guess was The Guild, the first episode of which was posted on YouTube July 27, 2007. A shoestring-budget story about an offbeat group of online video gamers whose dysfunctional personal lives stand in striking contrast to the heroic adventures of their digital alter egos, The Guild evolved from those humble roots into the flagship digital series of its time, gaining a passionate following that sought out the show on Netflix, Xbox Live and on DVD. With the sixth and final season of The Guild wrapping this year, there’s no better time to reflect on the show’s achievements, and on the model it’s created for serial storytelling online.

Prior to their exploits as producers, both Day and Evey were more likely to be found onstage or onscreen. Day had gained a small following from her guest roles on television shows such as Undeclared, Maybe It’s Me and most notably, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whose avid fans became a key target for The Guild’s marketing outreach. Evey, a veteran of the Main Company at ACME Comedy Theater in Los Angeles, became an early Web pioneer and evangelist after the viral success of her short film Gorgeous Tiny Chicken Machine Show. That expertise proved the ideal counterpart for Day’s sensibilities; while both women served as producers throughout the show’s run, the creative vision behind the show originates with Day, who wrote every episode and serves as the linchpin for the series’ ensemble cast.

This is the 61st in Produced by’s ongoing series of Case Studies of successful producers and their work. Editor Chris Green joined Felicia Day and Kim Evey at Day’s home office in Los Angeles for a frank and lively conversation about the creative demands of online video, changes in the digital space since the premiere of The Guild six years ago, and the dangers of getting very, very, very deeply absorbed in your favorite online role- playing game.

Relatively few people start out with a plan of becoming producers, let alone Web producers. Where did it start for you?

Day and Evey (back; right of center) with (from left to right, back row) gaffer Jeremy Kerr, director of photography Dallas Bloom, director/production designer Greg Aronowitz, 1st AD Tory Mell and (left to right; front) actors Sam Cohen and Sophie Reichl on the set of 'The Guild Sells Out Christmas Special.'Kim Evey: We were both actors, originally. I had created a show with my husband based on a sketch I had written called Gorgeous Tiny Chicken Machine Show, and we ended up selling it to Sony. So that was my entry and at the time, it was just a way to have fun and do this character that nobody would ever let me do.

Felicia Day: And I met Kim because she taught the only writing class I’ve ever taken! A year later, I decided to write a pilot, which was about gamers. People I showed the script to didn’t really understand the subject matter, but I had kept in touch with Kim. We actually had a weekly meet-up, a creative group that we belonged to. She read the script and she suggested making it for the Web, because she was familiar with that Web video world. I wasn’t really a part of it. But she was the one who recognized that the people I was trying to reach were on the Web. And that’s how it happened!

Okay, based on the title alone, I now absolutely have to go watch Gorgeous Tiny Chicken Machine Show. Was that originally developed with the digital world in mind?

Kim: It was. At the time, YouTube was still mostly known for videos of cats on skateboards and cute babies. But I had an instinct that anything short and sharable was going to do well. My husband and I ended up shooting Gorgeous Tiny in my backyard office which is about nine feet long, and uploaded it to YouTube and Myspace. That was back in the day when everything on YouTube was actually being curated by the editors. So if they found something interesting, they’d put it on the front page and you would be on there for up to a week.

Felicia: That’s what happened to The Guild, as well, for episode three. We were featured on the front page of YouTube, and that really was a big stepping stone for the show because of the power of that platform.

Kim: At the time, there wasn’t really much narrative con- tent on YouTube. Gorgeous Tiny was a sketch, a concise, little, funny beginning/middle/end piece. But The Guild was the first narrative Web series or at least one of the first...

Felicia: There were a couple of others... The Burg and lonelygirl15, which wasn’t really a narrative in the tradi- tional sense.

It was almost more of a stunt... and I mean that in the best way.

Felicia: Yeah! Exactly. So there were a couple of others, but people didn’t understand what we were doing for years! "Web video? What’s a Web series?” Lots of people still don’t know what it is, but now they think it’s hip so they want to know more. [laughs]

Where did the idea for The Guild start for you? And how did the creative process of developing it unfold?

Felicia: I was addicted to a game called World of Warcraft, which is even now one of the biggest games in existence. I was acting full time, which still paid my bills, but I was really bored in between commercials and guest-star roles, so I got very addicted to this video game. After a while, everybody was like, "What are you doing? You’re doing nothing with your time except playing this video game!” So, with the help of my friends, I stopped playing, I wanted to replace it with something a little more creatively fulfilling. My personality is very focused. Being hyper-focused on one thing is when I do my best work. And basically, I was doing my best work in that video game! [laughs] But I was able to faithfully transfer that energy over to The Guild. And a lot of good advice that I got was to "write something you know.” So that’s how I wrote the half-hour version of The Guild. Then Kim worked with me to shape the first 10 pages into two or three Web series episodes, which we could self-finance and release online.

So the first webisodes were completely self-financed?

Kim: Just the two of us and the director. That was it! It was originally supposed to be two episodes but we decided to break the first episode into two so that the first one would come in under five minutes.

Was your sketch background helpful in breaking this thing into episodes? Because there wasn’t a model for Web series at this point, and you’re effectively making it up as you go. What fundamentally constitutes an episode?

Felicia: You feel like you have a complete journey. You’ve taken a step forward with the characters, and you leave on an emotional note where you’re invested in what’s going to happen next. I think it’s just instinct. What feels like a natural place to end, but still leaves you hanging? It’s like the old serials in the ’20s and ’30s, you know? People’s attention spans are so short online, and there’s so much being thrown at them, unless they’re emotionally invested in the characters, the audience is not gonna remember to come back. We’re creating it for the characters, ultimately.

For a small-scale production, even the first season of The Guild is unusually ambitious, if for no other reason than needing to create separate environments for each of the characters, who are usually not in the same room together, since they primarily relate to each other online.

Kim: It didn’t seem ambitious at the time. I think in part because the characters that Felilica created were very specific on the page, so it was easy and fun to build settings that further defined who they were.

Felicia: When we set out to make the show, we were also very deliberate in setting ourselves apart from typical Web video at the time. The sound quality had to be excellent. We had to have a makeup artist so that people didn’t look sweaty, and every frame needed to look compelling and fun, not dirty, grainy and home video-ish. Those backgrounds were some- thing we did with no money, just thinking from an audience point of view. "Hey, let’s use bright things so that the audience has more to look at, and it looks more polished and friendly to watch.”

Kim: We released the first season, 10 episodes, over a year’s time, and after episode three, we started crowdfunding. We went to a meeting to try to sell the show and someone suggested having the audience pay for it. We were confused by that because we thought, "We’re here for you to give us money!” [both laugh]

Felicia: We took a leap and put a PayPal button on our web- site and fans started supporting us in a huge way. This was before Kickstarter. We got through the whole first season that way, shooting an episode a month. Seeing what the audience was reacting to allowed us to get excited about the things they got excited about, and then incorporate them in the videos as we moved along.

What were some of the little things that got you excited in those early days?

Felicia: Well, everybody loved Vork’s bacon cooker, so we knew we needed more of that character cooking with strange things.

Kim: And they loved Clara being a really bad mom to her kids, to the point where we actually had them in a cage.

Felicia: We got a few outraged reactions, but they were fine!

Kim: They were... fine-ish. [both laugh]

Felicia: But just seeing that people responded to the characters well and their delight in certain aspects of the show certainly made us bring out more of those things as we went along and shot, basically, on their dollar.

So you were shooting an episode a month. Would you post it out right after you shot it? Or was there a more strategic plan to space things out?

Felicia: It’s interesting. In that day and age, there was less inventory online, so I think the space between episodes allowed people to find it in a way that worked better than just putting everything out there quickly. A lot of people think that you shouldn’t wait that long between, but I think it actually helped the show.

Kim: The anticipation it built was incredible. People were beg- ging, "Where is the next episode!?” They were just really, really excited to see the next one, so it worked to our advantage.

Kim, in terms of becoming a full-time producer, was that a difficult transition?

Kim: I came to L.A. as an actor and then I also started writing so making the decision to focus solely on producing was a big deal. But once I did, I discovered that all of the acting, writing, and directing work I’d done over the years made me a better producer because I understand the creative process from the inside. Now I’m able to exercise my creativity by supporting somebody else’s vision and making sure the project stays on track when the process becomes overwhelming. When I started, I didn’t understand that this was a skill that not everybody has. During the first season, whether I was giving input on the script, or dressing the set or ordering lunch, it was all part of producing to me.

Felicia: We had to do everybody’s job at one point or another. As the crews got bigger and bigger, our ability to empathize with a grip’s problem, or a craft service problem, or an actor’s problem became a huge asset because we could understand where they were coming from. We had done their job on some rudimentary level, because we truly started with the bare minimum. As we got more budget, every person on our crews was invested just as much as we were in the show. We were all adding our expertise to each other’s to make the best thing possible on the budget. It was just amazing, amazing to get a group like that together.

In assembling that crew, what was the litmus test for put- ting together the team?

Kim: Web video is such a down-and-dirty business... I know that in any production, you never have enough money. But with the Web, not only do you not have enough money, you have to make every option you have at your disposal work. You have to be very resourceful. You have to be working with people who thrive on challenge, who can adapt at the drop of a hat and who are willing to go above and beyond because they are excited by the creative process itself.

Felicia: It’s a narrower pool of people to be able to draw upon at those budget levels. You don’t have a lot of options; you just have to make it work. Mostly you base someone’s qualifications on enthusiam rather than experience. You don’t have the luxury of hiring somebody to fix that later or tomorrow, it has to be done with the resources at hand, or you do it yourself. It’s hard to get out of that mindset, of doing every- thing ourselves. Kim figured out how to make a DVD from scratch on no money so we could pay back the crew for the first season of shooting. We packaged a thousand DVDs on my kitchen floor by hand. We could have hired some people to help us, but we were just so self-trained to do it ourselves, it didn’t occur to us until later.

So in terms of Microsoft coming on board to fund the series, it’s obviously a major vote of confidence. How did that deal come together?

Felicia: We did Seasons 2–5 with Microsoft and Season 6 was done with YouTube. But we had actually shopped the show all around that summer after Season 1. We had talks with some networks and big producers, but they all wanted the rights to the show. There was a question in our minds as to whether selling the show and all the rights to it for very little money — even though the buyer may have had a great name — was the smart thing to do. Because at the time, nobody else on the Web was really doing better than we were.

Kim: The studios have such a different mindset of how to produce something. Early on, I remember a conversation with one of the potential producing partners, who said, "We could probably give you $30,000 for you to build your website.”

And I thought, "$30,000 to build the website? That’s insane, we could have shot the entire first season with that!” That, for me, was really the big disconnect. They didn’t understand what we were doing, so it didn’t make sense to put ourselves in a position where we might have to make compromises that would ruin what we had worked so hard to build.

Producer/actress/writer Felicia Day shoots a scene for Season 4 of 'The Guild.'Felicia: So we decided to do another season on our own using another PayPal fund. And just as we were about to start shoot- ing for Season 2, Microsoft came in and offered us this amazing deal where they had a sponsor on board, Sprint, to pay for the production costs. And they were going to give us this amazing platform to introduce us to millions of new people.

Kim: This was right when Xbox was looking for content.

Felicia: The first wave. For five years, we were one of the only indie-funded shows on Xbox. It was a great deal, and we still retained the rights to the show. And it’s not as if I was a particularly savvy business person, it was just the principle of the thing for me. Because we saw what we could do on our own, we needed to see different kinds of value, as opposed to money or reputation, in order to give up control of the show.

That idea of Web video offering "different kinds of value” for the work you do might get to the heart of what this medium can represent as a career choice. Because we’re talking about a very different model than what’s existed to this point.

Felicia: There are thousands and thousands of people who are making great livings on YouTube right now, doing various small-scale productions, as well as other people doing slightly bigger productions like we do. We’re seeing entertainment fragment more and more. After all, there aren’t going to be more people watching network TV in the future, right? It’s all being diversified in a big way. The metrics might be smaller, but you can make a great living online just doing a cooking show or just a small scripted show or just being a vlogger. Those are legitimate jobs. You can pay your bills and live a great life; what is wrong with that? To this point, Hollywood has been the only beacon to represent success in entertainment, and a lot of people on the traditional side, don’t understand why people might be okay with not being in their club, so to speak. Not to say that it isn’t awesome to work with people who do bigger and very celebrated things. It’s certainly a different world. But now there’s a choice. If you want to succeed in entertainment, there’s an alternative emerging.

Kim: I think the great thing about YouTube is that you’re really getting people’s unfiltered creativity coming through. I think that’s why The Guild was successful as well, because it’s not a show that had to go through 10 meetings to decide what a character was going to wear. As cleanly as we could, we tried to execute what Felicia wanted, and what she wrote got onto the screen.

Felicia: And it was not suited to becoming a TV show the way we wanted to do it. I’ve explored that avenue, and it’s just not. It’s been very interesting to me, being from the digital world and going into television meetings where you really do see how the parameters of creativity are so strictly defined that even the creative people have a hard time think- ing outside those parameters. You’ll pitch them something very outside-the-box, and they have a million reasons why it’s not even worth pursuing, and they’re all business reasons that have nothing to do with whether it would be cool or not. It’s because person X might not buy this, or person Y only does that, or the demographic is wrong for this channel and they’ll have endless reasons why they don’t want to make something.

What was the moment when you realized, "This is not a TV show. This is not a stepping stone to a different plat- form. The Guild is a Web series, period”?

Felicia: The minute I saw comments, I think that was it. The fact that I made something with people I really love and seeing individual people react to it in real time is so much more fulfilling than knowing that you got however many thousands of viewers that make up an extra half-point in the Nielsen ratings. When we started getting those comments, we got excited about making the next one, no matter what. We didn’t have to wait for anybody. We could’ve just kept saving up and shooting, and that freedom was kind of amazing.

Kim: The audience was crazy for the show. When we started going to conventions, that was when I realized, "Oh my God. This is real. People are dressing as the cast! People are sending fan art.”

Felicia: It really makes a difference. Aside from awards and innovation and all that, people have met their spouses through the show. People have made their own Web series because of the show. And that’s more important to me than anything, knowing that it impacts people’s lives.

So what’s changed about producing for the Web since that time? It’s weird to say, but 2007 feels like a long time ago.

Kim: Right now, there’s a whole second wave of studio and "Hollywood” coming in. I like to think that something like The Guild could still happen today, but... when the studios come in, they want things that advertisers can understand and advertisers understand celebrity.

Felicia: The focus today is on what people are going to short-term click on, rather than providing the infrastructure for more long lasting narratives or shows. I think that’s where everything is teetering a little bit. People are expecting much lower budgets than even we were dealing with a couple of years ago, which is very surprising. It’s gone backward a lot. The expectation is that you make stuff for less, and that you have to have a celebrity involved. I mean, there are plenty of people making fantastic things now; I’m not casting aspersions on anyone. But chasing numbers often just leads to short-term entertainment. The Guild never got 10 million views per episode. But it became a cultural phenomenon and became the first Web series on Netflix and was sold on DVDs in stores after being shot in our garages... those are things that have long-term value and those are the things that I think are getting a little lost in the shuffle.

Kim: If you’re an advertiser, you’ll be looking at YouTube and see "Oh, here’s a guy who’s vlogging in his apartment. He gets a million hits every time there’s a new video, so that’s what I want to invest in.” Like Felicia said, they’re not thinking long- term. They’re not thinking about a property that’s going to create a loyal audience who will come back again and again, and trust you to be a tastemaker, and invest in your DVDs or stand in line to see you at Comic-Con or contribute their own money because they care about the quality of the show. I think when you get to the executive level, that doesn’t even enter into it. They’re not aware of how personal the interaction is.

Felicia: They’re still thinking in the terms of success in the traditional manner, which is ratings. But really, online is about audience, and the audience’s passion. The audience is looking for things that they can’t find elsewhere; that’s why they’re online. So, I think it’s about being brave, and investing in things that break the rules, and knowing that you’re target- ing a specific audience that you can reach online better than with traditional media. That’s where the next wave of success will happen.

I think a lot of would-be Web producers are daunted by that prospect, of having to search out the audience online. How did you guys manage to build your following?

Kim: Well, it was six years ago, and the landscape was completely different. But Felicia spent something like 48 hours sitting at her computer and going to websites and forums that were either fans of Joss Whedon, because she had been on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or World of Warcraft forums and just typing, "Hi, I’m Felicia and I did a show you might like!” But it worked because it was true and so genuine.

Felicia: It was literally grass-roots work, going to every blog entry about the show and thanking them for watching. And it accumulates! That genuine quality of knowing that there’s a person behind the keyboard goes a long way, because people are so savvy to marketing. And online, personality rules. I did my homework to know that all those blogs seem to like things that are of this ilk, so, "If you can give me five minutes, please look at it! And if you don’t, it’s cool.” That was the approach. Very polite. Today, it’s a bit harder to reach an audience, but it’s not any producer’s fault. It’s the fault of the platforms themselves for not curating, not narrowing it down, not allowing the audience member to really connect with a producer or creator or personality in a way that’s valuable for both of them. They haven’t scaled to accommodate a much larger audience, but I definitely think that will be the next wave in platform evolution.

It seems worth noting that you’re both women producing this content. The Guild has great roles for actresses, and those characters drive the stories probably more than the men do. And yet you’re operating in a pair of worlds — entertainment and technology — that are often perceived to be boys’ clubs. To what degree has that been an obstacle for you?

Felicia: It’s funny, I’ve had such little exposure to the business side of Hollywood until the last couple of months. There are lines drawn in the traditional world, and those lines are very firmly drawn for creators, for business people, for everything. The cool thing about working on the Web is that we work closely with tech people, and I’ve found that tech people are actually very flexible in terms of working with us as creators, regardless of gender. When we had an idea for marketing or going to a convention or making a cool piece of content, they would embrace us. It didn’t matter that we were women, because we were bringing new ideas that used their platforms in innovative ways. I don’t mean to be naïve about it, but I’ve encountered way more prejudice in terms of an institutionalized dichotomy between men and women in my experience with Hollywood. I fear that regardless of gender, this big shift of Hollywood to digital will define this new space in a traditional way that comes to restrict what people have been able to do. I would love it if that doesn’t happen. So many interesting voices work outside of that system, and they shouldn’t be silenced because they don’t fit the mainstream entertainment mold. They should be looked at as opportunities to work with new forms of content.

So, for the last season, what led to the shift from Microsoft to YouTube as the primary sponsor of the show?

Felicia: Well, Microsoft decided to stop doing that kind of content, and there was an opportunity to create a new YouTube channel that we called "Geek and Sundry.” We brought in another producer, Sheri Bryant, to help us with this new venture. I felt like there was one last story to tell within the world of The Guild as a Web series.

Kim: It was interesting... definitely a different place to come back to five years later. It was us learning, again, that you can never take your audience for granted and you can never take your platform for granted.

Felicia: You have to think about your audience and how they want to consume content. Instinctively on YouTube, people don’t seem to want to consume more than one show on a channel. They consider "channels” to be shows or people so it’s an educational process to change how they perceive something like "Geek and Sundry,” but one that I think will pay off in the long-run. It certainly creates an umbrella where we can create really cool things like TableTop or Written by a Kid or any of those great shows that I think could have anchored their own channels individually in the past. Maybe each show would have been more successful on its own, but we’re investing in the long-term. So who knows?

Kim: The architecture of YouTube is difficult for multi- show channels because asking somebody to subscribe if they like one of the offerings on your channel is in effect, the equivalent of setting your DVR to record Mad Men, but then having it record the entire AMC schedule.

Felicia: And you have to dig through that later to find the things you want. It’s difficult. But the way smart TVs are evolving, it could all change overnight.

There are still a lot of people trying to figure out what a Web channel is... and it sounds like that extends to the Web developers and tech guys themselves.

Evey (left) has a candid moment with line producer M. Elizabeth Hughes (center) and director Sean Becker on the set of 'The Guild.'Kim: There’s definitely a lot of experimentation going on right now in an effort to standardize and legitimize Web content. The native advantage of online video, especially the YouTube platform, is the potential for a relationship with the audience. You can really cultivate your show, and get people excited about it because they have a connection to you. But if you’re not a content creator using the tools every day, it’s impossible to understand the nuance of that relationship because it’s very fluid and very personal. And at the end of the day, developers arn’t necessarily concerned with that relationship, at least not in the same way creators are.

Felicia: You’re either investing in your infrastructure, or you’re investing in your content. It’s two different worlds, and you can’t do both at the same time. That really is the biggest key that I’ve learned. I don’t know how you do both of those well, especially on the budgets they expect. And long term, who knows? Both models could collapse.

We’ve seen that happen before in the online world. It might all disappear tomorrow. I was at Myspace’s office this morning for an interview with IGN for The Guild book. And I remember when Myspace was huge, and now, it’s a shell of what it was.

That’s sort of a grim note to be winding down on, so I’d like to close by asking you both, for producers looking to create content in the digital space, either as a "native” platform or crossing over from film or TV, what should be in the front of their minds? What should their priorities be?

Felicia: I think it’s a commitment to your audience. It’s not something like a film or TV show where you go on a hiatus, or the film wraps, so you’ve got six months off. People expect an active connection to you and your show on an ongoing basis. Your Twitter profile can’t go dark. You can’t disappear for months and expect people to have been hanging around. You’re committing to people. That is the challenge of the Web, you’re committing to wanting them to have you in their lives. And it requires you to maintain that connection. That’s really what most of the work is, just maintaining that connection with the audience.

Kim: It’s definitely an exciting time. My husband and I were talking about the fact that we came from sketch comedy. Three years before we started online, we would have been thinking, "Okay, now we have to try to get an audition for Saturday Night Live or Mad TV.” And that would have been it. That was the end point. But being part of a time where technology allows you to take your creativity, whatever it is, and put it out into the world and find your own audience... that’s amazing.

Felicia: From now on, everybody will come from the Web. That’s where talent will be. So there’s no excuse not to be there.

-Originally from Produced By Magazine Aug/Sept 2013
Photos courtesy of Michael Q. Martin as well as Knights of Good Productions

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