“Don’t worry, it isn’t porn”

BuzzFeed recently featured lonelygirl15 on a list as one of the Top 20 most important online videos of all time (wow!), and it got me thinking about how the show came to be. It actually almost didn’t. Many times.

I’ve learned over the years that taking the direct approach in business is always the best. Having an uncomfortable conversation is never easy, and everyone prefers to avoid conflict. This is why so many people are passive aggressive or simply avoid difficult situations. But, if you want to actually solve a problem and communicate effectively, you need to cut to the chase.

This was one of those times where the direct approach worked, even though it meant I had to explain to our top choice for the lead role why lonelygirl15 wasn’t porn.

We had spent weeks wading through hundreds of headshots and dozens of auditions searching for our star, and Jessica Rose was the only actress we liked for the part. Unfortunately when we revealed the idea for lonelygirl15 to her and Yousef at the famous Urth Cafe on Melrose, she didn’t seem impressed. In fact, she seemed confused. Mildly disturbed even.

Back in 2006, the concept of a web series was foreign territory for anyone but the most web-savvy video producers. There was a nascent video podcasting movement, with series like Rocketboom and Ask A Ninja, but no one was producing original web series for YouTube and there certainly wasn’t an industry built around online video (like there is now). At the time, the only mainstream videos online were movie trailers, sports clips, and porn. Lots and lots of porn.

Yousef, who we’d cast to play “Daniel” on the series, called me up after the meeting and told me Jessica was worried this was some “weird internet thing.” Beyond her MySpace page she wasn’t much of an internet person and definitely wasn’t that excited about starring in an online video series, particularly because she thought it sounded like porn (with a name like lonelygirl15, who could blame her). He said I needed to meet with Jessica if I wanted to convince her to take the role.

We met up at the Coffee Bean on La Cienega across from the Beverly Center. It was a critical meeting. If I couldn’t convince her to take the role, I didn’t know what we were going to do… we had searched for weeks and none of the other girls held a candle to Jess. She was perfect for the part.

I didn’t know where to begin, and fiinally, I just blurted it out.

“Don’t worry, it isn’t porn.”

Thankfully, the direct approach worked and she started venting about all the creepy producers who had tried to take advantage of her since she had moved to LA, including one guy who wanted her to buy him film stock with her student ID so he could get a discount (seriously?). I reassured her that not only was it not porn, but that her character was completely non-sexual. She was home schooled and from a religious family. In fact, we were going to steer as far away from her sexuality as we could because we didn’t want anyone to think this was just another “sexy girl dancing on YouTube” channel (a popular YouTube genre right up there with cat videos).

I explained that although we were playing with a new medium, we were actually using classic character archetypes and telling a very traditional story. It was “Dawson’s Creek” online. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” shot with webcams. She would be the star of the first online TV show.

The conversation flowed from big picture ideas to more detailed conversations about where I wanted to take lonelygirl15. The original idea was to use the online video series to propel her channel to the number one spot on YouTube, and end the series with a cliff-hanger that would serve as the kicking-off point for an independent feature film that we’d sell as a DVD online. (PA1)

The channel did make it to the number one spot, but the indie feature never came to be. Instead, we spent the next couple years building a digital studio and producing extensions of the story around the world, including KateModern in the UK, n1ckola in Poland, and licensing the lonelygirl15 format to companies in Italy and Japan.

Everything we learned producing these series ultimately informed our decision to create EQAL and build a platform for influencers to reach and monetize their audience online. And none of it would have been possible if I hadn’t taken the direct approach and addressed Jessica’s fears head-on.

Any ideas for future posts? I’m planning on posting more business advice, thoughts about the technology and media landscape, and occasionally random stories about lonelygirl15 and producing web series.

Hit me up on Twitter @mbeckett with your ideas!

Philosophical Asides

PA1: Interestingly, this model of using a popular web series or social media audience to drive DVD sales has since been used very effectively by Crackle and other studios, and comedians like Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari. I think we will see more to come.

 
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