Keep It Short
Short-form series and shedding their stepping-stone status in favour of big-time credibility, but how can creators cut through the noise to build an audience for their show?
In August 2018, heavyweight American producer Jeffrey Katzenberg (of Disney and DreamWorks fame) announced the impending launch of yet another new streaming service. This one, however, would be devoted exclusively to bringing series with episodes 10 minutes or less to smartphones all over North America. The service, called Quibi (short for “quick bites”), is set to launch in April. With former eBay CEO Meg Whitman at the helm, Quibi has signed a blush-making roster of talent: creators include Steven Spielberg, Sam Raimi and Catherine Hardwicke; series stars include Idris Elba, Chrissy Teigen and Zac Efron, among many others. The celebrity-laden service is launching with over 7,000 pieces of content, from news to drama to comedy.
The buzz around the new streamer-with-a-twist has made one thing crystal clear: short form is, most definitely, having a moment.
But another thing should also be made clear: Quibi is hardly inventing a genre.
“They’re not really doing anything different than what we’ve been doing for a long time,” muses Gave Lindo, executive director of OTT programming at CBC. CBC has been ramping up its short-form strategy in recent years, releasing a raft of bite-sized programming on Gem, its streaming service. Shows range from comedies like Save Me to dramas like The 410 to factual shows like Jensplaining. Again: short form, meet your moment.
Since streaming services like Netflix have freed creators and audiences from the 22- or 47-minute straitjacket, the short-form format has been allowed to flourish. Why not take only the time you need to tell a story? Why bother with multiple storylines just to fill a now-arbitrary running time?
But as the battle for audience’s eyeballs rages on, short-form series without network homes or massive marketing budgets have to work extra hard to keep from becoming the proverbial tumbleweed in a crowded field. Canadian producers, as ever, have been rising to the challenge.
Just getting started
Over two seasons, Karen Knox and Gwenlyn Cumyn’s series Barbelle follows the professional and personal ups and downs of a suddenly famous, Toronto-based, on-again, off-again lesbian pop duo (also played by Knox and Cumyn). It’s available to watch on KindaTV (YouTube), Amazon Prime, and Revry, an LGBTQ streaming service. To date, the show has captured well over 4 million views.
“I think it’s fair to say that Barbelle’s success has exceeded our expectations,” says Knox. She underscores the importance of finding the right home for a short-form series, noting that if they hadn’t landed at KindaTV—a channel whose flagship series is the lesbian vampire cult favourite Carmilla—they would probably have been “lost in the shuffle.” Finding a platform that fit—and betting that fans of Carmilla just might like what Barbelle was serving up—laid the foundation for future viewership.
“It’s been said over and over again: you have to find your niche audience. Niche, niche, niche. It’s the buzzword du jour,” says Knox. “And, sure, your niche audience is out there. But that niche audience needs to know how to find you.”
The pair also intuitively understood that Instagram and Twitter would need to be key tools in their marketing strategy—they’re millennials, after all. “This particular audience is very engaged, so it’s pretty important for them to have a place to communicate with the stars and creators of the series,” says Cumyn. Adds Knox: “Online audiences are, I think, hyper-aware of and allergic to fakery and any voice that’s not in line with the show itself. If you want to find an audience, you really have to work hard at crafting that tone. You have to fail at it, too—we learned as we went what people were responding to or not.”
On social, they also benefit from the strong visuals of their show, including their highly stylized pop-star personas.
“Gwen and I rented a lot of outfits from Fairview Mall, returning them the next day after we got our photographer friends to take photos of us,” laughs Knox.
As Barbelle is its creators’ first series, their DIY sensibility is a charming necessity; given the smaller budgets usually associated with shortform projects, creators need to wear many hats. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“If you’re showrunning and you’re also the face of the show, you have an ability to shape the identity of it,” says Knox. “You’re making the marketing campaign, you’re writing the show, and you’re posting it on your own socials. Its identity becomes this kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, in that you get to craft a singular voice. I think that you need to spend a lot of money and time and energy to find that kind of cohesive vision for premium television.”
Tokens, a web series that skewers diversity quotas through the perspective of people of colour working for an on-call acting agency, is also a first for creator Winnifred Jong. It’s viewable on YouTube and Facebook, and soon will be available on UrbanFlix, a US streamer with a focus on multicultural content. According to Jong, short form is “freeing”—not having to adhere to time constraints to tell a story. It’s also a crash course in engaging audiences, a sentiment that Cumyn and Knox would certainly agree with. (According to Knox, “Making a web series is probably the best, cheapest, hardest film school you will ever go to.”)
Jong and producer Trinni Franke won the 2019 CMPA Prime Time Throwdown for innovation in audience building, winning $10,000 in marketing support from Toronto firm Innovate By Day. That support, according to Jong and Franke, came at just the right time—after the digital marketing expert they had hired was no longer available.
“Having someone who understands the marketplace and knows where to find audience really was successful in helping us launch Tokens,” says Franke. “They knew that while we wanted to push Tokens as a digital series in self-release, we wanted it to feel equal to television shows and broadcasters’ digital content.”
The firm took the series launch to the next level with a red-carpet event, complete with a panel on representation, which, says Jong, helped establish the series as not only comedy, but also commentary on diversity. As well, a second wave of marketing provided an additional bump in viewership after the initial launch. This wave featured short, ancillary content—or minisodes— posted on social networks, which link back to full episodes.
“Most web series tend to not be able to generate attention after the first launch, so it was great to be able to get a second swell of interest,” says Jong. The Prime Time prize, as well as funding from the Bell Fund and IPF, provided the resources necessary for this push.
Knox and Cumyn are also employing the one-minute minisode tactic for their next series, Slo Pitch, which centres on a queer women’s beer-league slo-pitch team (described by the creators as a cross between a Christopher Guest mockumentary and The Office). But the pair, like Jong and Franke, still have their eye on the ideal prize: a conventional television series.
Given short form’s rising star, what can long form offer that short form can’t?
“Money,” laughs Cumyn.
“There is that,” says Knox. “But one isn’t better than the other. They’re just different formats. Some stories require 10 minutes, and some require 30 hours. We’d love the chance to play more with characters and storylines in a longer format.”
CBC’s Gave Lindo admits that longer formats still hold a certain cachet for creators. Short form’s reputation as a low-stakes way for film-school grads or emerging creators to get their foot in the door is not a bad one, per se. But that reputation can unnecessarily pigeonhole the form, and it can be hard to shake.
“There is this stereotype that the goal is to do a long-form series, and once you’ve done that, you’ve made it,” says Lindo. “And obviously the budgets are quite different. If someone’s going to give you millions of dollars to do something versus thousands of dollars, who wouldn’t take the millions? That’s the creator’s perspective. But it looks a little different from the audience’s perspective. Because Gem has original short-form series that have outperformed our long-form series.”
One of CBC’s emerging short-form darlings is producer Lauren Corber (LoCo Motion Pictures). Corber was practising law until 2008, at which point she switched to producing full-time. And while producing short-form content was never her intention (“When I started, they weren’t a thing”), that’s where she finds herself, with a growing list of original titles for CBC: My 90-Year-Old Roommate, How to Buy a Baby, Detention Adventure and The Communist’s Daughter. For her, audience is the first thing she thinks about when deciding to take on a project.
Take, for example, the International Emmy–nominated How to Buy a Baby. “The subject seems narrow—it’s a comedy about infertility,” Corber says. “But one in six Canadians struggle with infertility, which is actually quite a few people. I’ve been pitched lots of amazing shows, but I only go ahead if I can think of a proper home for them.”
The specific audience also determines Corber’s audience-building strategies. She’s used tactics from traditional radio contests and PR to social media buys to casting an influential YouTuber in her series—all depending on how she thinks these strategies will play with the people she’s trying to reach.
Lindo also takes a flexible approach to marketing his Gem series. His moves include piggybacking on current trends or phenomena to promote a show. One example: picking up suburban drama The 410, whose creator, Supinder Wraich, started an Instagram account for her Indo-Canadian main character—an aspiring Instagram influencer—two years prior to launch, in order to engage with potential audiences. Another example: holding off on releasing straight-talking gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter’s docuseries, Jensplaining, to coincide with her book tour and its built-in PR machine.
“It’s just so noisy out there,” says Lindo. “There’s never been a greater abundance of content, so you do really need to be strategic to cut through that.”
But, when done well, short-form series can quickly turn viewers into fans. Corber feels that short form is a perfect match for comedy, since it lets you get your punches in quickly: “You’ve got to get right in there, get your audience on your side. It’s like stand-up in that way.”
With three comedic series and a tween series now etched on her short-form resumé, it’s easy to imagine that Corber has set herself up for sure success—now that short form’s hot, will she find out she’s been in the right place at the right time all along?
“That would be amazing,” she replies brightly.
Into the future
Meanwhile, in Vancouver, short form is showing off its glamorous side. Jonathan Schwartz is deep into production on The Now, the short-form black comedy he’s executive producing for Quibi. The Anonymous Content show is directed by Peter Farrelly (director of, most recently, the Oscar-winning Green Book) and features such luminaries as Dave Franco and Bill Murray. He’s already wrapped Paramount’s When the Street Lights Go On, a murder mystery starring Queen Latifah. It will also air on Quibi in April.
“I think it’s about time that A-list directors and creators were given the opportunity to embrace the seven- to 10-minute episode,” says Schwartz. “What we’re going to see, come April, is some unbelievable content. And the more we start seeing these come to Vancouver, the more normalized it’s going to get. I think it’s great for everybody.”
Great for emerging creators, too? (Winnifred Jong quips, “I was excited about Quibi until I found out that you have to be Martin Scorsese to direct for it.”)
Schwartz is optimistic that Quibi will eventually need to diversify its budgets, in order to satisfy audiences’ seemingly insatiable appetites. “You can’t just have 27 shows, or it’s going to fail miserably,” he argues. “You have to be constantly producing product, and the turnaround time for a show like The Now is about a year. That’s too long. So I think there’s going to be opportunity for students and low-budget series and genre filmmaking, because the viewer needs unlimited things to choose from. And these things will just enrich the entire platform.”
Whether Quibi is paving the way for short form’s equal-access future—or simply erecting new barriers to what was traditionally a lower-barriers pursuit—remains to be seen. For now, audiences are certainly warming up to the idea that good things come in small packages.
Whether you’re marketing a short-form series or a conventional series, having a strong social media game can help you cut through the noise, swerve around algorithms, and create a devoted following for your project. Dani Gagnon of BAE Communications has done digital marketing for a host of beloved series, from Property Brothers to American Gods. She shares some of her best tips for putting your show’s best foot forward on social.
THINK OF SOCIAL MEDIA AS A TARGETED DIGITAL BILLBOARD.
Don’t rely on organic reach, especially in the first season or two of a project. Use social’s promotional tools, even within small budgets, to push your trailer or videos in front of potential fans.
CONSIDER YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE’S INTERESTS.
When targeting fans in a promotion, think about what their true interests are: other shows, movies, books, celebrities or brands. Boost your content to the people who will most want to watch it. Find a way to tie in your content with what you know they already love.
START CREATING SOCIAL MEDIA CONTENT FOR A SHOW RIGHT AWAY, AND BANK IT.
Shoot content, vertically and horizontally, while on set, so that when the show is launched, your social media coordinator has lots of behind-the-scenes content to work with. You don’t want them pulling from “official” behind-the-scenes photos and footage—that’s no fun.
ALGORITHMS ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN FOLLOWERS.
Remember, having followers or fans doesn’t mean people will organically see your content—algorithms may prevent your content from ever making it into their feeds. Get to know the algorithm rules of each platform in order to create great content for fans.
Know the difference between reach (how many people saw your content) and impressions (how many times they saw your content).