You meet the most interesting folks at film festivals - Sundance, Tribeca, Cinquest, etc. – and sometimes, a casual filmmaker introduction turns into something really special.
At Sundance, for example, Cirina Catania, founder/creative director of The Catania Group, dragged me over to meet two of her new close, personal friends…Nicole and Chris Sobchack, of Wraptastic Productions.
Nicole and Chris were on cloud nine because they had just placed their episodic comedy series with Amazon’s Prime content service.
The series, “Please Tell Me I’m Adopted!” is tears-in-your-eyes funny because we all know someone like Tiffany (Nicole, who created and co-wrote the series) … a loveable walking disaster.
Getting the series produced is a testimony to Indie filmmakers’ grit, determination.
But I was just as interested in their getting the series “on the air” when your work falls between the tentpole Netflix shows and YouTube’s dog/cat/dumb tricks and Vblog stuff.
Nicole explained that “Please Tell Me I’m Adopted!” really happened because of the late, great writer/producer Garry Marshall (who produced such greats as Pretty Woman, Princess Diaries, Happy Days and passed away last year).
“Garry was my acting, writing and production spiritual guide,” she continued. “He encouraged me to go to Second City rather than one of the other improv schools. He was amazing at straight talk, saying ‘If you want it done, don’t wait, do it yourself!’ Chris and I believe it.”
Filling – With people increasingly using their smartphones for catching their entertainment when they can, episodic series like “Please Tell Me I’m Adopted!” are ideal for getting a content fix on the run. It even works for hotdog contests. Shown L-R: Bob (Ben Kacsandi), Tiffany (Nicole Sobchack), Mom (The Legendary Marion Ross of Happy Days) and Emma (Andie Karvelis). “Please Tell Me I’m Adopted!” Episode 4, “Truth, Dare, Or, Obamacare” 2017
“Please Tell Me I’m Adopted!” follows free-spirited, wide-eyed, disaster-magnet Tiffany.
Tiffany loses her boyfriend, her job and her home all in one day and is forced to move in with her newly married sister, Emma (Andie Karvelis); and Emma’s husband, Bob (Ben Kacsandi). When she tries to regroup, she ropes Emma and Bob into her crazy, often culturally-current escapades with outrageous and hilarious consequences involving a parade of quirky characters such as a guru (Grant Linden), a cultist (Matthew Peter Murphy), and even a Luciferian (Scott Connors) to name a few.
Initially, a single unused Second City sketch was going to be a one-off YouTube video but the morning after the first production meeting, Nicole awoke with the vision that the project had to be a shortform episodic series.
“When it came down to it, we just wanted to make the series,” Chris added, “which meant crowd funding support by friends, family and strangers … the support was amazing.”
While it was a DIY, Indie project to keep costs down, Chris noted that both of them followed Garry’s advice of creating a long-term team in front and behind the camera. “The right chemistry and talent make for a much more harmonious, artistic environment,” he emphasized. PTMIA producers Heather Hall and Suzanne Rydz are also collaborating with Wraptastic on other projects including a paranormal thriller, “Lore Harbour” (written by Nicole & Suzanne), and the recently optioned Biopic drama “Fallout” about the first woman who questioned the effects of above ground nuclear testing in Nevada.
The seven segments were shot on Red Epic in 5K with Panavision cinema, Primes and Optima 28-76 zoom lenses. All of the DIT (digital imaging technician) work from ingest through the post production process was done on Chris’ mid-2012 MacBook Pro using ShotPut Pro 6 by Imagine Products, Blackmagic Design UltraStudio Express and Davinci Resolve Studio.
The streamlined workflow allowed him to bring footage into the media page where he could move through edit, color correction and delivery. In addition, there were times he and Nicole would find shots in the trash folder and realize they were just what they needed for the segment, so they would quickly stabilize it and cut out anything that wasn’t needed and save valuable post time.
Edit in Flight – When creating an Indie film, you often work on the project as you can, squeezing post work in between paying gigs. Chris takes a little break from editing content from his OWC 2TB Mercury Elite Pro dual mini during his flight to Brazil for the South American leg of the Elton John tour.
Because Chris is also the Drum and Percussion Technician for Elton John, much of the post production was done while on tour.
“I was editing and grading in hotel rooms, on tour buses and even on the plane,” Chris noted. “Speed and dependability were extremely important, so devices like the OWC 2TB Mercury Elite Pro dual mini is vital. It has the performance and flexibility I need because I can use it as RAID 0 or 1 powered by my Mac. You do the work when/where you can, so transferring data at up to 738MB/s helps me stay on schedule.”
When he had breaks in the tour, Chris would return home where, as the creator, Nicole had final cut approval on the footage. “With us both in the same room instead of shooting test clips back and forth, Nicole would provide direction in the post suite (our living room) and I would immediately access the content on the dual mini, move and finesse the edit and we’d finalize the segments,” he explained.
“Reliable storage is important in this business,” Chris added. “Life is too short for ‘do overs,’”
The project took roughly two years to complete with all of the post work -- CGI, sound design, foley, dialogue, the score, VFX, color, editing, titles, output and mastering – fit in between paying gigs.
Coming Out – Members of the cast and crew of “Please Tell Me I’m Adopted!” gather in front of the Amazon Prime logo at the recent Los Angeles premier. Shown (l-R back row) Jeff Garrido, Scott Connors, Nicole Sobchack, Ben Kacsandi, Andie Karvelis, Larry Soileau, Emily Moss Wilson, Shannon Noelle, Matthew Peter Murphy, and Suzanne Rydz. Front row - Stacy Rosas, Marion Ross, Chris Sobchack.
The next major hurdle was getting visibility for the series.
After a lot of research, and again seeking the advice of all of their professional team, they chose to go with Kinonation, an aggregator, rather than a traditional distribution firm.
“Sure, we might have liked to have Amazon buy the rights and sit back and relax,” Chris said, “but you need X million of followers or a proven big budget track record. We didn’t have the luxury of either. Simply putting it up on YouTube Red and hoping it somehow rose to the top of their lists just wasn’t the image we wanted.”
For a one-off film, a flat fee might be the right move, but Wraptastic wanted to retain the content license and have an organization that had a vested interest in them achieving their goals.
“As Garry had constantly told us, build a team,” Chris emphasized, “and we wanted Kinonation to grow with us so the percentage-based approach was best. Both firms are happy with the decision.”
OTT (over the top) and streaming services are the new Wild Wild West regarding programming, new licensing models, new distribution deals and; most importantly, knowing how new audiences consume their content of choice, according to industry analyst Allan McLennan, president of PADEM Media Group.
“The challenge has each channel/OTT platform interacting with every producer or service, which is very difficult--maybe even impossible,” he said. “In some situations, you have to understand that they need things like marketing support for their content just to get in the door to start a discussion.”
Amazon Prime has very ambitious plans to expand its service in 10 to 200 countries by the end of the year. Amazon Prime has 70 million subscribers and the global expansion goal for more than 300 million by 2018.
Serious Players – Amazon might be a little late in entering the video entertainment arena, but it is already a serious competitor with a growing library of content of all types and aggressive plans to circle the globe.
“They have become very serious and competitive content sources,” McLennan said. “Initially, they built their audience as an add-on to their Amazon Prime delivery service, providing free access to M&E (media and entertainment). As they expand around the globe, they are saying sign up for Amazon Prime Video and get free product delivery from Amazon.
“They see entertainment is more important to people and has real value,” he added. “It’s a subtle but an important shift.”
Amazon is also very interested in expanding its relationships with established OTT and cable providers with large subscriber bases like Rogers, Sky, Cox, Century Link, Liberty Global and others. In addition, these organizations also have established strong license and content ID programs to protect the material from piracy (lost filmmaker income).
With the dramatic increase in content being viewed on smartphones and multiple new screens, McLennan thought the episodic series was a good approach for Wraptastic’s first OTT release.
My Way – The TV set continues to be the leading screen for enjoying streaming entertainment; but increasingly, people are less concerned about the screen and more about what they’re viewing. With teens growing up with smartphones, there’s a strong move to any screen, any time.
“Globally, viewers are starting to become accustomed to viewing longer content on their devices,” he explained. “A 10-minute show that can provide an engaging experience has a lot of viewer appeal. It’s surprising what a good filmmaker can now do in this new environment when they focus on telling a story in 10 minutes, rather than working to fill 30-60 minutes. One of the compelling aspects of this new model is that if viewers want to binge, it’s available for them to view on any device, any TV screen.”
“There’s room for a wide range of content types and lengths as people’s viewing habits evolve and news/entertainment needs constantly change,” McLennan added.
While legacy linear TV viewing schedules will continue to survive, McLennan observed cord-shaving or cutting the new subscription, transactional, advertising VoDs (video on demand) will start to expand and play an important role in consumer video consumption while providing significant opportunities for independent filmmakers to have their content seen and enjoyed by new audiences potentially in the millions.
The new potential airing opportunities may sound enticing to Indies; but as Chris explained, the filmmaker can’t simply create the content, place it and move on to the next project while the money rolls in.
“Viewing is revenue based,” he commented. “One hour of viewing means X dollars to the content delivery service and Y dollars to the content producer.
“When Amazon, Netflix or any studio has actually paid for the creation, they have a financial interest in getting eyeballs,” Chris continued. “But when your work is just available for revenue-share viewing, capturing interest and viewership is your responsibility.”
For fully-motivated producers like Nicole and Chris, marketing, self-promotion and word of mouth become increasingly important to get people to watch one or two segments so they watch the complete series, pass along recommendations to others.
“It’s a skill set they really should teach at film schools,” said Chris. “And yes, it sometimes feels like work; but when viewers write Wraptastic and say they enjoyed the series, told a bunch of their friends and ask when we’re going to release the next season … it’s all worthwhile.”
And for the younger generations, choosing what you want to watch, rather than what some network executive scheduled for you, is increasingly important.
All you have to do is think like Tiffany (Nicole Sobchack), if that’s possible; and you’ll probably tell folks what she told Bob (Ben Kacsandi), “Oh my gosh, we just had a synchronicity, and I can't tell you how much I need it right now. Because I have decided to find myself just like Daddy.”