David Harris Katz
The Incredible Story of An Independent TV Show
Wow, I Never Knew That! is a television series with a thirteen episode season one and is the brainchild of David Harris Katz.
Wow, I Never Knew That! Promises that you will “Learn The History and Origin of Everyday Stuff”
From their press release:
This series delivers a fun concentrated dose of unique information that is sure to delight and amaze its viewers. We spend our whole lives being exposed to products, phrases and pop culture, but where did it all come from? WOW, I NEVER KNEW THAT is like unearthing lost treasure. There is a magical appeal to unearthing something new about something very old to you,” says executive producer David Harris Katz.
In 2008, David Katz produced a pilot episode and went through the standard practice at the time for getting a show into production. Basically, it involved going to trade shows and conventions for television marketing and distribution and having a dvd of the show for producers and distributors to watch. Based on your presentation these outlets who needed content could decide if they’d like to get behind a particular show and produce it. Wow, I Never Knew That! got a lot of interest from many production companies, but in the end, no one committed to getting the show produced.
Encouraged by the positive response but frustrated by the lack of commitment, David decided to produce the first season of the show on spec. Producing an entire season on spec is something that is rarely attempted and definitely carried a lot of risk with the potential of a high reward.
How I got involved with Wow, I Never Knew That!
Sometime around November of 2010, a producer that I had worked with, who also had a working relationship with David, put the two of us in contact with each other. David had come to him with the show and the need for a collaborator to assist on the motion graphics and 3D elements that would ultimately be a big part of the final product. Our mutual contact was not in a position to take on more work, but knowing that David also needed a good editor, he gave David my contact information.
Being a freelancer is filled with spikes of work to the extent that you often have to turn down gigs, balanced out by periods of inactivity where you are glad you put some money into savings to live off of.
At the time David contacted me, I was in one of the most brutal periods of lack of available work that I had experienced since becoming a freelance editor in 1999. There were a couple of big reasons why work was so hard to come by. The first being that between 2006 and 2010, I had moved from Brooklyn, to Atlanta, to Connecticut and then to upstate New York. It’s really difficult to maintain one’s contacts with so much change and being perceived as unavailable by production companies. The truth is, no matter where I am, I have the ability to either work remotely or make working in a different city work for short periods of time.
The second major factor was the downturn in the economy in 2008. Besides the obvious financial downturn felt by most Americans, the scare had created a huge shift in how companies dealt with freelancers. Many companies were expecting more work for less money, and with the addition of digital filmmaking becoming so economical, many employers were also willing to take chances on unproven talent.
I lay out this look of the landscape of things to illustrate that while I previously wouldn’t take on such a large gig on spec, with the only hope of being paid coming if and when the project has success, I felt that because I was working a day job that wasn’t even related to the film industry, I had little to lose, except time. My entire edit system was just sitting collecting dust, so at the very least, with the completion of the project I’d have a pretty sizeable element to add to my reel.
Places you can watch “Wow, I Never Knew That!”
The Production Process for Wow, I Never Knew That!
As with most new projects, especially when working with a new collaborator, there was a little bit of a feeling out period. On the first edit of episode one, I delivered a cut that was a fairly conceptual version of the script. Basically, I was over complicating things and misinterpreting the goals that David had for the show, but that’s why it’s called a rough cut.
In editing, the most important thing for that first rough cut is to get some semblance of the script translated to the cut and don’t be afraid to take chances, because this gives the editor and the person they’re working with something to talk about that’s not just conceptual anymore. This is definitely a tricky area where you have to show confidence as an editor. The editor certainly needs to be making choices with thought behind those choices and the ability to verbalize why they made those choices, but at the same time, be humble enough to be flexible if the edit is not serving the project.
Once we got through that first edit, the episodes started cranking along. Like most edits, we were buried in paperwork [I think people underestimate how much paperwork is involved with editing]. Each episode had something like 18 facts, 1 cold open, 4 stand ups, 3 coming up next bumps, and 3 billboard graphic only facts that comprised each of the 13 half hour episodes.
Besides the almost daily teleconferencing production meetings with David, I was coordinating with animators and other editors to build out each fact segment in preparation to build out the shows themselves.
Because much of our footage was coming from public domain and stock footage sites, I was downloading somewhere in the neighborhood of 10GB a day in video footage. One tip I’ll share with anyone dealing with a high volume of footage is that too many hard drives is never enough and always back up. Always.
After about seven months of getting everything ready, revising, re-editing, swapping out shots, and all the other tedious and boring parts of editing, we started assembling the shows. To do this we had a spreadsheet with each segment and it’s time, then on paper built out what facts would be in each episode.
During the production process, David was able to secure our first distribution deal and it was with a European company that would broadcast the show for one year all across Europe, Africa and South East Asia. The deadline for that was September 1st, 2011.
We incorrectly thought that we would easily make that deadline, but as seems to happen, we started having computer issues as the deadline approached. I swear that the computers know you’re in a rush and some intelligence in there is messing with you, but it’s more likely that the months of pushing our iMacs to put out such a massive project started to take its toll on the machines.
The Final Stretch
Regardless, we found ourselves at a point where we had 13 episodes of a TV show that we had fully edited, but now needed to be color corrected, sound mixed and quality checked with only three days to go before we needed to ship out the master tapes [yes tapes, companies generally weren’t taking digital files as masters at that point in time, which was only five years ago].
So, bunkered down in David’s apartment, we onlined the show around the clock in a tag team fashion. One of us would sleep for two or three hours while the other person would work on color, sound and any other last minute tweaking, then woke up the other person for their turn. The show run in it’s entirety is about five hours of footage, but it was such a blur of activity that I have no idea how many times I watched each episode.
It was a grueling three days, but we made our goal and delivered the hard drives to Broadway Video so they could transfer all the shows to PAL digi-beta tapes and ship them off to the broadcaster in Europe.
The Real Work Begins
Many independent filmmakers will put so much focus and energy on producing a show [or film, for that matter], and they mistakenly believe that once they finish the production, they can simply send it out into the world and watch the audience discover it.
Unless you have a network deal or large online platform distribution deal in place before you finish, getting your project in front of viewers might be the most difficult part of independent production. On top of trying to get people to watch your show, even if you do get attention for your project, the deals are so heavily weighted towards the content providers that it’s difficult to make back the investment money it took to produce the show.
Wow, I Never Knew That! has enjoyed being broadcast on Hulu, Roku, Apple TV, Local and National Broadcast stations in many countries, IndieFlix, Amazon Prime and a handful of other outlets. The thirteen episodes of the show have garnered somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 million views as of this writing, yet the monetary return isn’t enough to fund a second season.
A big reason for why Wow, I Never Knew That! has enjoyed critical success but it hasn’t performed the way we had hoped it would is that the show was produced at a time when the distribution models that had been in place for decades were being eroded by self distribution and digital distribution. Coupled with a sagging national economy, these new models were disruptive to how executives had been doing business, and many distributors were unable to take the chances necessary for a new show to thrive.
That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be exploring the methods of distribution, but if you’re going to self distribute, it’s in the productions best interest to have a plan for that before you start shooting.
If you want some more information on working with a producer who sees the big picture and has a well thought out distribution plan before you start shooting, I encourage you to listen to my interview with Jenna Edwards of Indie Movie Mastery. You can find the episode at indiefilmnyc.com/ifnyc012
How “Wow, I Never Knew That!” would approach distribution today
The first step of our plan would be to target the larger content providers, which would likely include getting the project in front of broadcast networks, cable outlets like HBO & Showtime, online platforms like Hulu & Netflix, maybe big festivals like Sundance & Tribeca Film Festival, but we would also have a self distribution plan that will work to recoup the investment in the event that it’s not picked up by a major source or the money being offered doesn’t favor our project.
The self distribution plan would need to include layers and multiple viewing outlets. If we put all our faith in one source, we are limiting our viewers to the number and type of viewers on that platform. The self distribution model would need to include a way to get as much coverage as possible to maximize a world wide audience. In practice, that distribution would probably start it’s targeting with VOD on iTunes or even somewhere like dotStudieoPro.com or Vimeo. Anywhere we could charge for a per view option would be the key.
Then, after VOD was given time to garner attention and views, we would move to a platform that allows free access to viewers with served ad content. Sometimes that’s just a pre-roll ad, but it could have mid-roll commercial breaks as well. The real key to this step is that it’s a numbers game, so we would put the show simultaneously on multiple platforms.
One service that allows you to put up content and serve it up in a flexible manner is dotStudioPro. Their service puts the producer in complete control of the content and allows the producer to easily switch between VOD and ad served content, but it also provides multiple platforms where the content can be seen, which includes Apple TV, Roku, iOS, Android and a growing network of digital content distributors.
For episode 10 of the Indie Film NYC Podcast, I spoke with Selena Paskalidis of dotStudioPro and she explained in depth how the platform works. Please, go to indiefilmnyc.com/ifnyc10/ if you would like to hear our conversation.
How is self distribution different?
The main difference between getting your project on broadcast television, a major content platform or a cable channel like HBO and distributing it yourself is the marketing. When someone like HBO buys the show, they are a big brand that will include marketing your show with all the other shows that they’re pushing that season. Higher profile shows will certainly get more priority in the marketing, but you can be assured that there will be a level of marketing that the independent producer couldn’t generally afford.
With self distribution, the platforms are giving you access to an audience, but they leave the marketing to the filmmakers. The filmmakers have to take it upon themselves to get the word out about the project and drive the audience to the different distribution portals. This is the reason you want to put the project in multiple places, because many people have loyalty to where they watch their content, mostly due to what’s familiar to them. So, if someone likes to watch a show on Amazon Prime, and you only have it available on Roku, not only do you have to get them to take a chance on watching your show that they may or may not like, you also have to get them to try watching in a place that’s unfamiliar to them. That kind of duel uncertainty will certainly cut down on the viewers to your show.
Another thing that is in the best interest of the project is for the team to make a presence on social media. A Facebook page, a Twitter account, Instagram, Pinterest and any of the other social media platforms are potential marketing opportunities, but you can waste a lot of time if you spread yourself too thin. It’s been said to me that it’s better to pick one or two platforms to focus your energy on over spreading yourself too thin on many platforms with a weak marketing campaign.
The first move is to do some research on your audience and find what platform will give you the largest concentration of potential viewers. Do your best to exploit every aspect of your project. Is there a niche audience that would be interested in the subject matter? If there are a large number of people interested in that niche, put a lot of effort into connecting with them, because specialized interest groups are often rabid about consuming the content that speaks to them directly.
The main thing to take away from this is that big companies can get away with doing very broad marketing campaigns that appeal to a diverse demographic simply because they have the resources to blanket cover many marketing outlets with the result being that the message will reach niche audiences almost like collateral damage. The independent needs to be much more specialized and calculating in how they get their message out.
Why our story is special but it isn’t unique
As you can see through my story, producing something independently is a long term endeavor. There will be many peaks and valleys as you wind your way from the idea phase, through producing and hopefully finishing up with a nice revenue stream at the end of your journey. One thing you can be assured of is that each production will have its own rewards and setbacks, so you can use other people’s stories to guide you through the trials and tribulations, but you have got to be aware that you will have to craft a unique marketing strategy for each production.
The best thing you can do for yourself is to create a strong team that will support each other, brainstorm to envision the entire project from the beginning and problem solvers who will help each other through those times when everything gets overwhelming.