It all began January of this year, with an email chain in a Yahoo group dedicated to TV writing. The question was simple, “How long would you go on with your writing career before you gave up?” The question got over 300 responses and started a lot of conversations. One of those responses was from Sam Miller, a writers assistant for Desperate Housewives. He had an idea, what if a small, but dedicated team of writers and industry professionals from the Yahoo group worked together on their own Web series? What would the results be? Five months later, the results were in and On the Rocks, a new Web series from a crowd sourced creative team, The Grinders, was born.
So, how did this happen? How did a band of near total strangers come together to create and shot a full-length, multi-camera, comedy Web series pilot? Over the next few weeks, leading up to the taping of the second episode, I’ll take you behind the scenes and give you an in-depth look at the creation of On the Rocks.
In the spirit of full discloser, I’m part of the writing and media outreach team for On the Rocks. But, don’t worry, I’m not going to direct you to our crowd funding page, yet.
Building the Team One Email at a Time
The team behind On the Rocks, The Grinders, is not your traditional Web series creator. We’re not college roommates or old film school buddies. We’re not lifelong friends or co-workers. In fact, most of us had never met prior to our first production meeting.
Crowd sourcing the writers’ room was definitely risky. When there is no money and no guarantee of anything getting made you never know if the team is going to stick together. I’d been part of a writing team that didn’t even last a month and Miller had previously worked on a Web series that only produced one episode.
Aurora Clark, a writer and part of the media outreach team for On the Rocks, had her doubts, too.
“I wasn’t sure if it would work. The idea of random strangers meeting through a message board and sticking together long enough to finish a script was outlandish,” said Clark. “But, through some strange alchemy, not only have we finished a script, we shot a whole 22 minute episode. I’m grateful to have been a part of it.”
An interesting side effect of crowd sourcing the writers’ room is that we ended up with a very diverse staff. None of us went to the same college or grew up in the same state and only four of the ten staff members are white males.
Everyone had a different reason for wanting to be on the team. For executive producer and writer, Miller, it was partially out of frustration with the Hollywood system.
“I started the project because I was frustrated working as a writer’s assistant in a room where no one wanted to hear my opinion, but some of the things I suggested or thought of were going into the scripts,” said Miller. “I was tired of only writing pilot scripts and never getting to work with actors who would work on the lines to help me make my writing better.”
For Violet Ket, who is originally from Bulgaria, On the Rocks is about breaking in and breaking new ground.
“What attracted me to On the Rocks was the chance to work on something new and exciting with a group of talented people who are not afraid to break Hollywood conventions in order to achieve their dreams,” said Ket. “We need more people like that in the industry, full of enthusiasm and not taking ‘no’ for an answer.”
Johnny Kleinman, a writer and producer, was also drawn in by the passion of the group and the chance to be part of a team.
“Since I made the decision to be a writer and producer, I had only worked solo in studying the craft. By joining the group, I have been able to collaborate with other like minded writers, who have since become friends, who have taught me a great deal about writing sitcoms for television,” said Kleinman. “I thought the dynamic of the group was perfect for me since everyone had the same passion and determination as I do to write and produce comedies with a disregard to whether some exec is giving us the green light.”
As for me, I joined for three reasons. First, my career had stalled. I’d had some contest success but was never able to capitalize on it and that brief success was back in 2010. Three years is an eternity in Hollywood. Two, the idea sounded intriguing. I’d never been part of a writing team before and with Web series become more ubiquitous by the day, it seemed like a great opportunity. Even if the show never got made, it would still be a great experience to be part of a crowd sourced writing staff. Third, the production meetings fit into my schedule. We met on Tuesday nights and I had Tuesday nights off.
Slow Approach to the High Dive
Out of the initial email, a group of about 15 writers and industry professionals was formed.
Instead of jumping right into the process of creating a show with the crowd sourced team, The Grinders waited it out. It was important to see who would stick with the production and who would leave for various reasons. The last thing you want is to have a great idea, but no one to execute it.
We spent the next few weeks, emailing back-and-forth to hash out the initial details. When and where we were going to meet, everyone’s responsibilities and most importantly what the show was going to be about.
Everyone had their own idea of what we should do, all we knew is that it was going to be shot multicam, in front of a live audience. This limited what we could do since it confined us to one location, but we wanted to do it despite the challenges and because of them.
“There’s a certain excitement and immediate feedback you get with a live audience that you can’t get anywhere else,” said Miller. “Before, due to the cost, only large studios could make this kind of production. But now, anyone can, and we’re out to show we can do it as well as the pros.”
The top three ideas we considered were; bar on a space station, two brothers running a comic book shop (my idea) and a workplace sitcom set in the advertising department of a liquor distributor.
In the end, we went with the liquor distributor idea. By this point, the group was down to ten and it has stayed at that number since.
With the team in place and the idea set, it was time to begin work on the pilot.
Next week I will share a look into the writing of the pilot and the planning the first six episodes. Stay tuned!