The rise of Sydney web series: Starting From Now
Amassing a global audience of 20 million views across its first three seasons, Starting From Now is returning for its 4th season in a special premiere at Mardi Gras Film Festival. We catch up with its creator Julie Kalceff and actor/producer Rosie Lourde to talk about the series production, marketing and to learn about their creative process.
Can you tell us a little bit about Starting From Now?
RL: Starting From Now (SFN) is the brainchild of writer/director/producer Julie Kalceff. It follows the intertwined lives of four inner-Sydney lesbians as they search for happiness. Seasons 1-3 were released on YouTube in 2014 and amassed 10 million views in the first year. Julie and I spent most of 2015 financing and preparing to shoot Seasons 4 & 5 in a single block. Views have recently surpassed 20 million and we’re about to world premiere Season 4 at the Mardi Gras Film Festival in a single one-hour viewing on March 1.
Web series have to find their audience in a highly competitive space. While there are platforms or aggregators emerging, the biggest challenge for web series creators is reaching audiences. Can you tell us how you’ve reached 20 million hits?
JK: There is a great deal of competition in regards to reaching an audience on the internet. What is it, over 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube per minute? I think a number of web serie's creators fall into the trap of thinking that if they put their content out there, people will find it. That’s not the case. I was conscious of needing to cut through the noise and reach an audience so I built relationships with the major hubs for lesbian online content. One More Lesbian, Kitsch Mix TV, Planet London, PNT Tv and Univers-L were vital to SFN finding its audience and building word of mouth throughout the global community. Having said that, the content you’re putting out there needs to appeal to an audience. I think one of the main reasons we’ve been able to reach 20 million hits is the quality of the people we have working on the show, particularly the cast and the depth and insight our actors bring to their roles.
Web series require a different story construct, than say a TV series. How have you approached the timeframe you have to hook viewers in, and how do you get them to click through to the next episode?
JK: As a writer you do need to approach the structure of each episode and each season slightly differently than you would a longer form series. The episodes in our first three seasons ranged from 7 to 10 minutes (they’re slightly longer in Seasons 4 and 5). This means you have to hit the ground running and tell quite a bit of story in a very short period of time. You also need to end each episode and each season at a point where viewers will want to return to find out what happens next. At the same time, you need to keep each character’s story arc progressing across the episode and the season in a way that’s true to both the character and the series as a whole.
You filmed the 4th and 5th seasons back-to-back. Can you tell us about the process of filming the two series together?
RL: The funding we received from Screen Australia and Screen NSW was vital in allowing us to shoot both seasons simultaneously. It also allowed us to expand the story world, increase the size of our cast and crew, and utilise more locations than we had previously. Logistically this required more preparation and greater planning.
JK: Rosie and I spent a lot of time with both cast and crew making sure we were all as prepared as possible going into the shoot. Filmmaking is an inexact science. The more work you’ve done before you set foot on set and the more prepared you are, the easier it is to cope when things go wrong. What may seem like a setback can actually become a happy accident and you’re able to find a little bit of magic that may have otherwise escaped you.
Starting from Now has teamed up with Mardi Gras Film Festival to premiere the entire 4th season in one screening. This is a unique publicity and marketing strategy. Can you tell us a bit about it?
RL: Julie and I have wanted to World Premiere an SFN season at the Mardi Gras Film Festival (MGFF) but the timing had never quite worked. We always had Mardi Gras firmly in our sights for the Season 4 release and thankfully the MGFF team saw the opportunity to support local makers for their first ever web series screening. We’re excited we get to share this event with a home audience before the rest of the world gets their eyes on it.
JK: This opportunity came about as a result of the work Rosie has done over the past 12 – 18 months in facilitating relationships with Queer Screen and a number of other community organisations. It takes a great deal of time and effort to build these relationships. A lot of work goes into this and I think it’s often overlooked in the larger scheme of things. We’re really excited to have this opportunity as a result and can’t wait to see Season 4 on a cinema screen with a local audience. When we released Season 1 Episode 1 almost two years ago, there’s no way I would have thought this was possible.
The series has attracted a few excellent sponsors in its fourth series. How valuable have these been to the series production and have you had to compromise on the characters, themes or storylines to deliver to the funder's market?
JK: We’ve been extremely lucky to partner with some incredible organisations. Again, this is the result of a lot of hard work both in developing these relationships and the series itself. For Seasons 4 and 5 we’ve partnered with IVF Australia. We’re really excited about working with them for these next two seasons, but also into the future. They’re extremely respectful of the creative process and have allowed us to subtly rework one or two story beats across the two seasons in a way that doesn’t jeopardise the integrity of the scripts or the characters. We’re also very excited about partnering with ACON who, again, have been extremely supportive of us and of SFN without imposing on the creative process.
The production has also formed partnerships with locations. Can you touch on this?
RL: The community support we’ve received across the whole project has been extraordinary. The opportunity to shoot at the Beresford through our partnership with Merivale was wonderful. Not only have they done a fabulous job refurbishing but the new look let us shoot it as multiple locations. The Shift nightclub is one of the few venues still standing on Oxford St and we knew we wanted to shoot our key dance floor and nightclub scenes there. The managerial staff were really lovely to work with and we’re pleased to be able to support them with publicity across the Mardi Gras season in this time of venue after venue closing down. Another great location to help us out was Dragoncello, a fine dining restaurant on Cleveland Street. The team there was wonderful and the partnership really allowed us to open the SFN world up.
For series 4 and 5 you had Amanda Higgs (Secret Life of Us, Time of Our Lives, Barracuda) come on board as a consultant. Can you tell us how that came about?
RL: I met Amanda Higgs in early 2015 when I visited Melbourne for a festival screening of Skin Deep, the first feature I produced. Helen Bowden generously arranged the introduction so I could ask Amanda’s advice about her experience producing online content with Lost With the Boys. Amanda had such a strong sense of guidance and understanding that when I was selected for the SPAA Ones to Watch program I knew I wanted to ask her to be my mentor. Thankfully she said yes, despite being busy with Barracuda. Then, when Julie and I were in discussions with Screen Australia about Multiplatform funding the opportunity arose to engage Amanda as a consultant, so we asked, and again, despite being incredibly busy, she said yes.
JK: Again, if you had told me two years ago when we were releasing the first episode of Season 1 that I’d have the opportunity to work with Amanda Higgs on this series, I wouldn’t have believed you. Amanda is incredibly respected in the industry and, rightly so. The insight she has into story and character is incredible. As a writer, I’ve received a great deal of feedback over the years but very few people have the ability to not only cut through and ask the pertinent questions that make you see your scripts in a new light, but to do it in such a way that makes you feel both supported and emboldened.
Your first three seasons were produced with minimal budgets. You’ve now been successful in securing sponsors and funding. What advice do you have for other practitioners who want to get their web series off the ground?
JK: Make something you believe in and you’re passionate about. Filmmaking isn’t easy. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, it makes it so much easier to give up when things get tough.
RL: Have a clear idea of why your series will stand out, who your audience is and how you’ll target them.
Get tickets to Starting From Now's screening at Mardi Gras Film Festival: tix.queerscreen.org.au/
Catch up on the first 3 series: www.youtube.com/startingfromnowtv1
Julie Kalceff and Rosie Lourde watching playback on set. Credit Ella Mackenzie Taylor
Promo image credit Tim Thatcher