How to Pitch an Online Series
Avoid pricey action scenes. Find a big-name partner. Create something decidedly different than what's on conventional TV. These are some pointers from writers who have sold their web series.

(January 5, 2015)

Photo: Kat Contreras
Issa Rae

When writer/actress Issa Rae created The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl for YouTube, she knew it was a concept that probably wouldn't sell on broadcast television, or even cable. "When I pitched my first series, Dorm Diaries, I was told that no one wants to watch a show about black people in college,” say Rae, whose series Awkward Black Girl, introduced in 2011, has garnered more than 20 million hits and close to 200,000 new subscribers on YouTube, as well as winning the Shorty Award for Best Web Show in 2012. "So I just knew that networks would never go for a series called Awkward Black Girl. I went online, where I get to create and curate content that I love.”

The freewheeling frontier ethos of the web is increasingly attracting writers like Rae, many of whom pitch online series in addition to shows for broadcast and cable, oftentimes to tell edgier stories that typically don't find expression in mainstream media.

Photo: Maura P. McCarthy
Alfredo Barrios

"One of the things I found to be true is that digital networks are looking to provide viewers with experiences unlike conventional television," says Alfredo Barrios (Burn Notice), who just sold a one-hour comedy, with Brooke Shields attached, to Amazon (tentatively titled The Branch). “My advice for people pitching web series is to think what it is about your show that is unlike what's already on TV."

Other tips from writers who have sold an online series suggest that while the web is abundant in opportunities, the rules of the game are slightly different. Rae, who pitched three web series leading up to Awkward Black Girl, advises writers to create series that can be produced easily and inexpensively. In other words, steer clear of helicopter action scenes or elaborate settings like the White House. "Be mindful of what it costs because the budgets online are much cheaper," says Rae, who also has a series in development at HBO. "Do a lot of research and keep audience engagement and social media in mind. Anything that brings people together to talk about your series is important."

"J,” the lead character (played by Issa Rae) in Awkward Black Girl waits for a job interview in Season 2.

Zander Lehmann drew on his own personal experience to create Casual, his 10-episode series about a newly divorced woman with a teenage daughter who moves in with her depressed 35-year-old brother. With its adult themes and sexual content, Lehmann shopped his show primarily to the three big digital networks (Netflix, Amazon and Hulu). He went in prepared with a sketch of a season worth of episodes, and Hulu made a deal on the spot. "They were rebranding and very open to new writers," says Lehmann. "HBO and Showtime have such a backlog of material purchased with quality writers that it's hard to get anything made."

Zander Lehmann

But Lehmann had another powerful selling tool when he met with Hulu executives: writer/director Jason Reitman (Up In the Air, Juno) had signed on as executive producer. Reitman's name and reputation enhanced the saleability of Lehmann's idea. "If I didn't have Jason I would not have gotten a season order on this show," says Lehmann. "No one was going to let me run a show at 27 with only three months of TV experience if Jason hadn't said 'this guy can do it.''"

Having the star power of actress Brooke Shields also helped boost the profile of Barrios' web series about a 40ish-year-old spy who's fired by her intelligence agency and paired up with a 25-year-old replacement. According to Barrios, the digital network was eager for a Gary Sanchez Productions (Tammy, Funny or Die) show for its network. "We have more latitude online," says Barrios. . "Standards and practices are not as rigorous, and we can push the envelope in ways that basic cable or even pay TV may not be able to. We're much more raunchy. . . But we were cognizant going into Amazon that we needed to make it different than pitches to television."

That advice - create something original that doesn't exist already on television - is echoed by all the web creators. "Don't be afraid to take risks," suggests Barrios. "The online channels are looking for that."

Find out how to get your web series WGA-covered