Interview: Filmmaker Adam Goldman on "Whatever This Is," "The Outs," and Making Crowd-Funded Series
Writer/director/producer Adam Goldman already has one successful series under his belt, and he’s just embarked on his second one. That both series were produced for internet streaming and both funded with crowd-sourced Kickstarter campaigns doesn’t set Goldman apart from the pack the way it might have done years ago.
Rather, it’s the quality of the product and the enthusiasm of the fanbase that has distinguished first The Outs (which debuted in March of 2012 and concluded this past April) and now Whatever This Is (which released its first episode on July 31st and follows up with its second on September 10th). With a successful Kickstarter that raised over $170k to fund a full season of Whatever This Is, Goldman is hard at work putting his second web series into the universe ... even if “web series” may not be the optimal terminology. We spoke with Goldman about his projects, Kickstarter, and the freedoms and constrictions that come with making TV that’s not specifically on TV.
Tribeca: So first of all, congratulations on the Kickstarter success.
Adam Goldman: Thank you, thanks a lot.
Tribeca: That’s fantastic. I was following it as it went down to the wire on that last day -- it was like entertainment and sports at the same time.
"People said 'Nobody is going to want to watch something that is 12 minutes long online.' And I had to say you know I bet they will if it’s good."
Tribeca: So can you explain the idea behind the escalation of the Kickstarter goal from I think it was ultimately $24,000 that you got for The Outs to the goal of $165,000 for Whatever This Is.
AG: Absolutely. I mean with The Outs you know we had our first episode in 48 hours for about $500, and we went to Kickstarter and we asked for $1,000 and we made $1600, and then for the second Kickstarter for The Outs we asked for $8,000 to finish up the show, which was low and we knew that we were kind of low-balling it, and we were hoping to exceed that because even though we weren’t really going to be able to pay anybody, you know, just equipment rental and paying people to shoot at places that weren’t just their apartments costs money, so we would have be able to finish the show in some form with $8,000, but it would not be what it is right now. And because people like the show and because of the way Kickstarter works, we raised $22,000, which was well over our goal, obviously, which was hugely encouraging.
People are now going, “Yeah, if it’s produced and it’s written and it’s acted like it’s television, then it is television, and I will watch it on my laptop.”
AG: And that allowed us to finish up the show. But with Whatever This Is, you know I talk about this a lot. We don’t purport to take any responsibility for this but if you look for the release schedule for The Outs, it turns pretty clearly with the way that people have evolved the way that they watch television online. And when we started The Outs the first episode is 12 minutes and people said “fuck you, nobody is going to want to watch something that is 12 minutes long online.” And I had to sort of say you know I bet they will if it’s good. And then by our last episode they sort of grew and grew and the last one is 43 minutes and by the time out last episode was out, House of Cards was out and Netflix has been so huge in that arena.
So it really does chart pretty clearly with the way that people are now going, “Yeah, if it’s produced and it’s written and it’s acted like it’s television, then it is television, and I will watch it on my laptop.” And anyway, people are watching TV on Hulu and all that stuff. The point is that with Whatever This Is, we said look we are going to make six episodes of 25-minute television. And if you are in the UK, that’s a whole season of television.
AG: And so we said look we are going to be doing this work, and we are proud of the work I really believe that we are doing it better than almost anyone out there on an indie level. There is no reason the people should be doing this for free in their off time. And so we said we want to be able to pay our DP and we want to be able to pay our PAs, we want to be able to down the line say the people that make this show happen are artists. They are doing work. They are not doing this for kicks, although of course we do enjoy it.
AG: So we said we can’t do that for $22,000 and we can’t do that for $50,000. If the 30 to 40 people who are breaking their backs to make this show are going to work on it for the first season, they are going to need to pay their rent, and it really is not about… nobody is getting rich on Whatever This Is. It’s just about making sure people can pay their rent, and they can eat dinner, and that’s kind of the beginning and the end of it. On Kickstarter, $165,000 dollars is a lot of money, and in a pile, 165,000 dollars is a lot of money. But if you look at television, a sitcom costs on average $1.7 million per episode, so this is small fries compared to industry budget. That’s how we got there. People don’t really know, with Kickstarter, Kickstarter takes 5% of what you get, and Amazon takes 5% of what you get for processing the transaction, so [out of] $165 we make $150. There’s a big difference there once you get up into the bigger numbers.
It wasn’t like I was a complete idiot about it, but I had never produced anything on this level of sophistication.
Tribeca: So before, sort of backtracking a bit, what was your experience filmmaking before The Outs? Was this sort of like jumping in with both feet, or was this something you had built up to?
AG: It was sort of like jumping in with both feet. I have been an armchair film guy for a long time.
Tribeca: It’s fun right?
AG: It’s fun! And you know our DP Jay Gillespie is pretty much a total genius. We went to school together at Bard upstate, and we made these sort of short comedy videos just like everybody else did in college, and they were very surreal and sort of bullshitty but a lot of fun. And then when we were in New York a few years later, I said “Look, I have this script [and] we’re looking for a DP,” and Jay had done a lot of documentary work and was looking to get into something more narrative. In that sense, I had made stuff with him before but never on this scale. So I knew my stuff, and in high school, I took film class. So you know, it wasn’t like I was a complete idiot about it, but I had never produced anything on this level of sophistication. And I think the production quality of the show goes by order of magnitude with every episode of The Outs, they get better and better.
Tribeca: What’s the timetable on which you made the episodes of The Outs?
AG: It was basically we would try and release them every 6 or 7 weeks, and that was as fast as we could do it because everybody had a day job. Or, for example, Hunter Canning, who plays Jack, was in War Horse on Broadway, so he only had Mondays off. So people would go, “Where are they? Where are they? Where are they?” and we would say “I promise you, we are making them as fast as we can.” But actually, it helped because over the course of the year that the show came out with our seven episodes, other shows came and went that went on weekly schedules, and we were still there gathering fans and generating steam and that sort of thing, so it actually was pretty nice for us ultimately.
Tribeca: Beyond just the idea of compensating yourself and your crew, which is not inconsiderable, were there things that you want to accomplish on Whatever This Is that maybe you feel like you weren’t able to accomplish with The Outs? In terms of the product?
AG: Yeah, I mean there is the discussion of scale, and The Outs I think by design and also sort of by necessity is a lot of people talking in apartments, which is of course part and parcel of living in New York, but the scale of The Outs is small, and I think that’s the strength of it, that it’s really focused. And with Whatever This Is, the story allows for them -- you know, with every episode they are on a different set. So we get to go to these more exotic locations like Westchester, New York! But, you know, we get to blow it out a little bit and sort of explore that and the concept for the show.
You know, I couldn’t make my Sci-fi epic -- it was going to be [set] in Brooklyn because that’s where I live and that’s where the actors who I love to work with live, and it was going to be about people in their 20s and 30s because those are the people that I know and the people who have the time to work with me right now. So while keeping it reasonable and within our limitations, we did want to sort of blow it out and make it a bigger production.
We find a lot of stuff on Airbnb and people are really cooperative there.
Tribeca: How do you go about finding the locations? I noticed in episode 1 [of Whatever This Is] that rooftop set was really well chosen, I think, and I would love to find out how you pick those.
AG: “How we pick them,” that’s such a charming way to say it. Well, you know, it’s so funny because I wrote in the script -- it’s like “Interior: Donna’s opulent apartment.” That apartment was way crazier than I had even intended, and even the art on the wall is insane. I mean, I think there is a Klimt in the bathroom, it’s crazy. That location was the most difficult part of production for that episode, and it took us right really until the last minute, and it all just sort of fell into place. We find a lot of stuff on Airbnb and people are really cooperative there.
As with all filmmaking, I think the secret currency is favors and friends.
Tribeca: That’s a hot thing, Airbnb.
AG: It is. Or we shoot at friends’ apartments and that sort of thing. But yeah, it’s Airbnb, and then you have a friend who has a friend who has a mom who writes for a magazine who knows a guy who has an apartment that you can shoot at. So as with all filmmaking, I think the secret currency is favors and friends. We are no strangers to that obviously.
Good stories have endings, and so it is really important to have that in mind from the get-go.
Tribeca: How far did you get in plotting out the Whatever This Is story before you started the Kickstarter?
AG: I pretty much knew where we were going to end up, and the arc has been pretty clear to me since a few months ago when I was writing the whole show. So now I know how the first season ends pretty specifically, but I am still writing our 5th and 6th scripts, which we start shooting this week, and for me as a storyteller it is really important to know where you are going. [Game of Thrones author] George R.R Martin -- I am big nerd, nerd-alert -- talks about how it’s important to know where you start and where you are going to end and how you get there can change and be fluid, but I think that -- as I said with The Outs and our decision to stop making that show -- good stories have endings, and so it is really important to have that in mind from the get-go. I think that a lot of shows can get lost if they don’t know.
Unless Netflix comes out of the woodwork and says “We want to put that on Netflix!” then no, the plan is to keep making it this way for as long as we possibly can.
Tribeca: It sounds like with Whatever This Is, there is an open ended plan for further seasons and further story.
AG: I mean, oh yeah, we would really like to do a second and probably a third season as well. And we don’t know exactly how that will shake down. But yeah, it’s not like House of Cards where the story just doesn’t end but sort of just continues after the first season, but I would say by the end of the sixth episode, it’s not going to be a complete project - you’re going to wonder what’s happening next.
Tribeca: So is the goal to ultimately grow this so that subsequent seasons or maybe even your next project gets picked up by some kind of -- if not network, maybe Netflix, maybe a parent company, maybe something bigger? Or is the freedom that comes with doing a project this way an end in itself?
AG: That’s a really good question. With The Outs, we ended up having that conversation about if somebody wanted to pick this up, do we want to develop this, or how does this go. With Whatever This Is, from the ground up it is an independent project that we sort of want to keep that way and that doesn’t mean that if there is advertising money -- you know, if we can still keep making the show the way we want to make it but we find an advertising partner who loves what we do and wants to be associated with it and will pay for it, that’s great. But I think that with Whatever This Is, unless Netflix comes out of the woodwork and says “We want to put that on Netflix!” then no, the plan is to keep making it this way for as long as we possibly can, and that independence is something that we really value. Being able as a writer to sort of write whatever I want and in whatever length, we could have an episode that is 3 minutes long -- we’re not going to but there is nothing stopping us, so that’s something that we really value creatively and on a production level. Although more money would be lovely.
We’re trying to create something that really rewards an engaged viewer.
Tribeca: Yeah, of course. Do the successes on Netflix of shows like House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black -- is that encouraging, or does that seem sort of more like a universe that’s closer to TV than what you’re doing? Does it seem like an intermediary that is opening doors to people on the level of what you’re doing?
AG: I think that it’s really encouraging, and I think that it is opening doors. I think that the thing that we’re trying to do, the step in the process that we’re trying to provide, is the thing that’s not a 3 minute comedy video and also the thing that’s not Netflix -- it’s somewhere more in between. People hear that it’s a web series and they go, “Oh, I will watch it on my lunch break while I’m checking Twitter and eating a sandwich.” And the thing with Whatever This Is and the work we are doing is that it’s made -- you know, it’s not accidental. There’s a lot of work and a lot of craft that goes into doing what we are doing. It’s not perfect, and we’re not The Sopranos, and I hope nobody is hearing me say that, but we’re trying to create something that really rewards an engaged viewer, and watching The Outs a second time through you pick up on stuff that’s there from the beginning that you couldn’t possibly have noticed the first time. So I do think that it’s encouraging.
The way that I like to think about it is that House of Cards is a web series, and Orange Is The New Black is a web series.
I think that we’ve come up with this issue of coverage -- of saying to TheVerge. com or the Onion Av Club (who I haven’t spoken to yet), people like this don’t know where to categorize [our shows] and if it’s not a show from Netflix, then they say “Oh, well what’s your pedigree? Why do I give a fuck?” And it’s up to us to say “You know what, watch the thing and you tell us. If you see the work that we’re doing, then you should be telling people about it”. So it’s a paradox -- on the one hand, [Netflix] does feel more like a traditional network and that has confines, but at the same time, Netflix has completely destroyed the barrier between traditional television and television online, and that’s huge, and I think history is going to show that.
Tribeca: I was reading an interview yesterday with Jane Espenson and the people behind Husbands, and they sort of bristled at the term “web series,” and just the idea of categorizing something as a web series. Is that something you find is a stigma that you would like to get rid of?
AG: Well it’s really fluid, and if you watch the Kickstarter videos for The Outs, we bristled at it a lot too, and we called it a web show, and I still call it a web show. But some people go, “Well what are you talking about?” Not that those people are stupid. The way that I like to think about it is that House of Cards is a web series, and Orange Is The New Black is. These are things that are not broadcast on traditional TV (but also I understand that internationally they are). These barriers are breaking down, so I don’t know what you call us.
Tribeca: Is that important to you, what they call you?
AG: Well I think it’s important just in terms of mindshare. We noticed before, and I think this is still true, largely people’s brains shut off when you say “web series” because people think of these very short comedy videos, and that’s not bad, and I am really not casting aspersions at any of that content. It is made, too.
Tribeca: But it’s different.
AG: Yeah, it’s different, and the goals are completely different. If I call what we are doing a web series and that means people click away immediately, then yeah, I have a problem with it. But if people can open up their minds and realize a web series was nominated for 9 Emmys this year, thae we are making progress. So I think it becomes -- do you include web series or do you exclude that term? Do you try to redefine it or do you shut it down? And I don’t know what that answer is.
Tribeca: So I promise I am not trying to start beef here with you and anybody but...
AG: Oh, I can’t wait to hear where this is going.
Tribeca: No, it’s what do you think of the Kickstarters by established brands like the Veronica Mars thing, the Spike Lee thing -- I am sure you have been asked about this before?
AG: Oh my God, you can get so much beefier here don’t even worry about it.
Tribeca: But do you think there is this idea of a finite pool of donatable money for entertainment and that established brands are -- does their success take away from a project that has to work a little harder to get attention?
AG: I think there is just no answer to that. That’s not me copping out. I think that there probably is. I think people browsing Kickstarter don’t have infinite money, and if they have $25 and they give it to Spike Lee and Veronica Mars, they don’t have another $25 to give to independent artists. At the same time, those people [weren’t] on Kickstarter before Spike Lee or Veronica Mars, and when they get their next paycheck, they are going to have another $25. Or they’re going to find another project that they are equally passionate about. So I don’t think there’s an answer. I think people say, “Does it do more harm than good?” and I just don’t believe that that’s quantifiable. Furthermore, it’s like a free speech thing. I will defend Zach Braff, Spike Lee, and Veronica Mars’s ability to -- I’m talking about Veronica Mars like she is a real person...
Tribeca: In many ways she is...
AG: Yeah, she’s got more money than I do. I will defend their right to use Kickstarter because Kickstarter is for artists. I think there may come a tipping point where Warner Bros. does Kickstarter pretty unabashedly and says, “Hey, we are holding your Firefly movie hostage unless you raise $5 million, and they will do it instantaneously. But I think at the moment, it’s a tool for everyone. I think it helps and it doesn’t hurt, but you know, Kevin Smith has this great quote about how he was going to do Clerks 3 on Kickstarter, but then he remembered how he made Clerks 1, and he thought maybe there is another artist out there who needs to make his or her first feature and maybe that’s where that money should be going instead of making Clerks 3.
Tribeca: Was there a project before you did The Outs that succeeded via Kickstarter, via crowd-funding, that made you think, “Wow, I can do this; this is the path that I want to take”?
AG: No? Well, I mean, I had done a successful Kickstarter before -- I had done a radio documentary called Going Hollywood, and it’s about I went to 10 different towns called “Hollywood” all across the U.S., and I raised $5,000 for that.
I think unless you’re specifically Zach Braff, Kickstarter is where you go because you need to.
Tribeca: Oh, fun.
AG: Yeah, it was cool; it was a great summer. But I think Kickstarter is a necessity. I think unless you’re specifically Zach Braff, Kickstarter is where you go because you need to. It’s not anyone’s choice, because Kickstarter takes some money and because of all of this stuff. I think Zach Braff was in a situation where everybody knew he could get that movie made and he was pretty upfront about that he could get it made, but he would have to compromise on some things, and he didn’t want to compromise. So no, I think there was never a moment where I said, “You know what, let’s do that.” It’s really like a tool to get things done, and it’s really valuable, I don’t mean to diminish that. But if there was another way for us to make $200,000 maybe we would do it. But it also helps us engage our fans and create a community around our work is actually really important to me personally.
Tribeca: Well this is all very exciting good luck going into production -- you said on the last two episodes?
Tribeca: Very Exciting. And then the second episode which is called...
Tribeca: And that debuts on...
AG: September 10th.