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Part 1: Charlotte Seymour and Other People’s Problems

Producer Charlotte Seymour dove into the world of web series for the first time with Other People’s Problems.

Charlotte Seymour, of Seymour Films and Film Art Media, has years of experience in the industry – as an executive producer at the ABC, as Screen Australia’s Administration and Program Operations Manager, and producing documentaries and drama shorts. But she couldn’t ignore that this particular idea seemed a perfect fit for online.

Other People’s Problems is based on a website called Clothing for Correspondence, where letters are written in exchange for hand-me-down clothing. Seymour and producer Sue Maslin saw its potential and optioned it.

“Because it was a website originally, going online always seemed the most logical thing to me,” Seymour says.

“What we have is like a perfect format. A problem of the week walks through the door, you see the girls’ friendship, they discuss the dilemma and the letter, the letter gets written, payment is received – an item of clothing – and transaction complete!”

It received development funding from Screen Australia and then was one of the projects selected for the Screen Australia/ABC iview initiative Long Story Short. It aired on ABC iview in December 2017 and will screen on ABC Comedy in 2018.

But Seymour is always thinking about the long game, and if she can give any advice to other producers it would be to do the same. Even though launch date can feel like the pinnacle, the negotiations before that, and after that are crucial.

“You've always got to think about what rights you can carve out for yourself and think of those rights as having a long tail.”

“I've done docos in the past where 15 years later we've been getting some nice revenue because I've held onto the educational rights.

“ABC initially wanted to have this for YouTube worldwide, not geoblocked, but because I'd done my deal with the ZDF Enterprises I said ‘you can't’.”

Seymour had gotten in touch with Sarah Eichenlaub from ZDF Enterprises (a German public-service television broadcaster and sales agent) through Series Mania, a French television festival that opened a local edition in Melbourne in July last year. Other People’s Problems made its world premiere there.

“Yes I did one of those stalk-them-down-got-to-meet-you numbers,” she said of meeting Eichenlaub for the first time. “We had a sold out session, so I'm glad Sarah got into it. I didn't know she was in the audience. And then I just followed up with her… she didn't tell me until we were meeting that she saw it and really liked it.

“She's the one who called it ‘like chicken soup for the soul’.”

ZDF Enterprises became the sales agent for Other People’s Problems, and took it to Content 21 in London, where she said they already had five territories interested.

“That means they're five separate sales Sarah’s making,” she says. And that’s five separate sales they wouldn’t have had if Other People’s Problems had not been geoblocked to Australia.

“If I'd let the ABC have those rights for instance I wouldn't have had that opportunity and then without that opportunity I wouldn't have had any potential avenues for revenue. Which I now do with ZDF. So new producers in this space should get the advice of an EP or mentor producer and talk to your lawyer.

“I think people just go, ‘oh thank god, someone is going to support what I'm doing’. You often do work these things up and have a level of desperation, so people sometimes take what they're given rather than critically thinking about it or getting advice about it.”

But she says if you want to create a sustainable business, this way of thinking will pay off in the long run. Instead of getting a one-off lump sum, you’ll be able to create multiple streams of revenue through different overseas sales.

“Until there is more transparency with online audience numbers and online revenue potential I am not convinced a one-off total buyout is necessarily a fair payment – you have to try and negotiate from the position that you have a hit program.”

On top of that, Seymour still holds the format rights for Other People’s Problems, if someone wanted to translate the idea to their own territory.

“It is only a license agreement with the ABC. They don't have any equity in it and Screen Australia's money is a grant, so yes they would be unencumbered to me.”

In Australia, ABC does get unlimited exclusive runs until 2018 on iview under the license agreement, and can have it until 2020. So Seymour is thinking ahead even to then.

<h6><em>Other People's Problems</em></h6>
Other People's Problems

“So we've got interest from an airline to take it and we've had to say do you mind an 18-month holdback,” she says.

It was a point she tried to argue during negotiations, so they could have these little sales and bits of revenue, but ultimately couldn’t get it over the line.

“I think that's where Screen Australia could help more and exert investor muscle with the broadcaster. Screen Australia is in a position to influence and lobby for terms of trade to assist producers and creative teams more.”

There can also be a catch-22, Seymour says, when you look at something like YouTube.

“YouTube can totally expand your audiences and build up your audience potential. There's no doubt about that. But it does cut down on your sales,” she says.

“There's been phenomenal successes of people going on YouTube and getting hundreds of thousands, even millions, of views and then they get advertising revenue because of that. So that is absolutely a business model. But what's the likelihood of going viral?”

On the reverse side, web series such as Starting From Now wouldn’t have been able to go viral like they did if they were geoblocked to Australia. And the audience that series built has enabled its creators to make more projects. Meanwhile, people like Australia’s Mighty Car Mods have created a mini-empire from their online videos (including magazines, merchandise and even a Discovery Channel series), but they arguably wouldn’t have had the audience to do that if it was geoblocked to Australia.

But for Seymour, if you’re launching in Australia, geoblocking is a must if you want to take it to the overseas market.

“Geoblocking is essential, until there are better sorts of revenue streams or licensing rights down the track for the online world,” she says.

She thinks it's also necessary if you want a business that can afford to make online content capable of competing  with productions from Studio+ and other platforms – some of which have budgets of up to a million dollars.

“There's a myth that online is cheap and cheerful, and it can be,” Seymour says.

“There's a range of material and stories you get online and there can be some that are just shot on an iPhone and whacked up online. But really the script requirement and process we went through with the ABC and with Screen Australia, and I think all of the series in Long Story Short were going for strong stories and good production values, and that's not cheap as chips.”

She says it is similarly difficult to raise finance online, as it is in other mediums.

“It was professionally paid and you don't always do that online. But I had a lot people saying no to me because I was literally just offering award minimum,” she says, adding that she had to call in favours with a lot of crew she’s known from over the years.

“I also had to get private finance, because I did have a gap.”

But as she learned, there are also unique advantages to online.

“I love the fact in online that you've got freedom of duration, that you've got to think about stories and whether people view them in sequence, or binge, or [watch them] separately…

“That you could have one episode four minutes, one episode six and one episode 10 if you wanted to. That is generally a very prescriptive thing whether it's in television or features – your duration you're locked into. So that was one thing and then thinking do we do standalone eps or do we have a character arc? And if we have a character arc across the episodes is that going to compromise people watching [out of order]. So thinking of those story challenges.”

It’s a space Seymour has no doubt is growing.

“ZDF has a catch-up platform and there’s Studio+, and then BBC iPlayer – they are all absolutely getting hungry for content and know that it's a flourishing area. But I think if it's really, really going to flourish there does have to be more realistic budgets for licensing rights and potential avenues for revenue streams. And I don't know what they all are,” she says.

“Fundamentally I think at the moment I'm glad I got ZDF and didn't give away the world for Other People’s Problems. Because she's also a sales agent and we're also in discussion about maybe partnering for a second series. If I'd given that away I don't think she would have trawled the internet and found Other People’s Problems and then contacted me.”

Other People’s Problems is on ABC iview now.