How to Develop an Idea into a Web Series

“I have an idea!” many creators often exclaim. Great ― but how do you go about developing a story or concept into a ready-to-upload series? At the Avantage numérique forum in Rouyn-Noranda last March, Urbania producer Annie Bourdeau ran through the steps of a web series’ production. One piece of advice: be ready! “Such a production involves hundreds of text messages, thousands of emails and rollercoaster ride of good and bad news,” she warns.  

Content: The what and the how

It all begins with an idea, which you will need to turn into a concept. “Those are two different things, Bourdeau says. An idea can be explored in a hundred different ways; you must be able to sum a concept up in just a few lines.”

Is the goal to produce a scripted series? A documentary? A magazine program? A current affairs show? How many episodes are we talking about? While they may seem dated, these labels remain necessary, especially when seeking financing for your series, Bourdeau explains. “Unfortunately, we are still categorized within these formats even though they were decompartmentalized by digital [entertainment],” she adds.

Should the creator of the concept not produce the series, they will need to find a production company to take on the project.  

Research: Digging for gems 

“Once we have a concept, production begins,” Bourdeau writes in her presentation. First item on the agenda: research. This can take many forms, depending on the web series. For example, documentaries will involve press reviews, searching through Facebook, and interviews. In fact, research is at the very core of creation. Annie Bourdeau actually refers to research assistants as “detectives and investigators in service of the narrative”. This type of work often requires a lot of resilience. “It can be daunting and disheartening, she admits. One of our research assistants once presented about 50 stories, and we ended up selecting eight of them.”

Shooting and offline editing: A first glimpse

A test episode will allow the team and the eventual funders to have a good idea of what the web series will look like. “It’s a crucial step, insists Bourdeau, who has over 20 years of experience in the business. At the editing stage, it’s really make-or-break time.” At Urbania, almost every web series is shot in a studio. This type of environment is much easier to control than filming on location.But should the shoot turn into a disaster, an ace editor can always pick up the pieces, stitch them up together, and infuse the result with dynamism and emotion. “Rarely do we simply throw away all the footage,” Bourdeau says.

Planning, tasking, and scheduling

There is much work to be done before seeking funds, and a lot of it has to do with being organized. Indeed, any funding application will require a detailed budget. Thus, every future expense, from the production team to the equipment, the cast, the crew, the shooting locations, transportation, the costumes, and post-production must be outlined. Lucky for those new to the business, the 'Standard Budget Template', which can be found on Telefilm Canada’s website (toward the bottom of the page) outlines the various expenses to consider.

Another key step in the process is to seek a platform for the web series. “Usually, when a project has been greenlit by a broadcaster, we will find a way to fund it,” Bourdeau says. However, in order to access funding at the next step, the production team must meet the requirements of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in terms of what defines a Canadian production.

Financing: Show me the money!

And now, the big bucks. “There is no project without an idea, Bourdeau points out. However, there is no project without financing, either.” It helps if you are familiar with the various sources of funding and their specific requirements. “Automatic” funds (such as the CAVCO film and video tax credits, the provincial tax credits and the Canada Media Fund’s Performance Envelope Program) are allocated to any production that meets all the criteria. In other words, if you are eligible, you get the money. “Selective” funds such as the CRTC-Certified Independent Production Funds are sought after, as the amounts granted are more significant. However, getting a cheque isn’t as easy. “In this case, we need to defend our show, talk about discoverability, include everyone’s resumé and bio, etc.,” Bourdeau explains.  

That’s why it’s important to always keep abreast of any source of funding for web series that might not necessarily show up on the CRTC’s list of certified funds. An example would be the CMF’s Digital Linear Series Program.

Annie Bourdeau admits to spending two to three weeks working full-time on filling out and submitting a financing application. And yet, all this time and effort won’t necessarily guarantee a thumb’s up from a funder. At Urbania, only about 20 percent of projects get a green light. “You can’t let that discourage you!” she says.

Legal Aspects: Royalties and image rights

Is that a work of art in the background? Is the plan to add some existing music at the editing stage? Have people been filmed without their consent? Did a logo end up in the shot without anyone noticing? All these questions relate to image rights. That’s why it’s important for the production to make sure that it has been granted the authorization (either for free or at a cost) to use those images.

The authors, screenwriters, directors and composers get paid by the production. Thereafter, they will receive royalties, Bourdeau explains. “Broadcasters pay royalties to authors, who must register with copyright organizations such as the SACD, the SCAM or the SODRAC,” she says.

What about those based outside of urban areas?

Annie Bourdeau has some advice for creators who live outside of major urban centres: stop feeling like an impostor. “Just because you don’t live in a big city doesn’t mean your ideas are any less interesting or worthy of consideration, she insists. To me, a good story is a good story, whether you live in Northern Quebec, Rouyn-Noranda or Hemmingford. I’ve also known a lot of creators who had set up their own production company. That’s a sustainable model. It’s even easier to get certain grants if you live outside [major urban areas].”

Émélie Rivard-Boudreau
Like some kind of tree, Émélie Rivard-Boudreau has been rooted since her childhood in Val-d'Or, Abitibi. From there, she has been doing her work as an independent journalist since 2013. As a freelancer, she writes regularly for the newspaper La Terre de chez nous, Rando Quebec magazine and the and Ricochet websites. She also works as a radio and web journalist for Radio-Canada. Her texts have been published in many Quebec media including La Presse, Quebec Science, Journal de Montréal, as well as the magazines KMAG and Oxygène.
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