2017 transformed Open TV (beta) -- and 2018 will bring us a new name!
We are rebranding as OTV | Open Television and incorporating as our own non-profit.
OTV is a platform for intersectional television. I say “platform” because we’re a new type of arts organization. We function as a TV network like FX or Netflix in that we distribute series -- we pay artists for the right to release their shows for online and in Chicago. We also function like a theater, offering space for artists to develop new work and show in a city -- we do screening and offer assistance throughout the whole process artists make work, as needed and available. We are local and digital. Everything is organic, sourced and grown in Chicago, but available globally.
We develop artists and communities that larger institutions do not support consistently: those marginalized because their identities intersect with race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, citizenship status, disability, and/or class. This theory of “intersectionality” was developed by black feminist writers like Kimberle Crenshaw and Audre Lorde to describe the specific experiences and oppression of black women, marginalized in movements for racial justice because of their gender, in feminist movements because of their race, and in society because of both. It has been further developed to include a range of identities, especially queer people (see: Roderick Ferguson, Cathy Cohen, and Kara Keeling, whose “queer OS” was very influential for me). OTV prioritizes work by women/queer people of color, and we are wholly run by black queer, trans, gender non-conforming, cis-women and femme people.
OTV experiments with alternative ways to develop, produce, and exhibit video and television. Our programs center artistic expression, intersectionality, Chicago and digital networking.
We are not-for-profit but can serve the market by offering a space for artistic works in Chicago. Unlike with for-profit companies, all OTV artists keep their intellectual property and our distribution agreements are non-exclusive.
Our mission is research and development (R&D):
Artist Development: We prioritize helping artists develop their projects from production to release, as resources allow. Our primary function is support. We offer financing, consultation, and referrals in order to get projects through to completion. We also help artists establish a plan and trajectory for their careers and works. We only develop artists in Chicago.
Community Development: We provide a space for different communities to come together to experience culture, have critical conversations about identity, and meet other people across social networks. Chicago is our primary community, followed by national and global communities united by intersectionality.
Research: All activities provide data to help us understand how to develop intersectional art and TV. The principal investigator (myself), graduate and undergraduate students notate, transcribe, code, and tabulate development meetings and partnerships, financing negotiations, production contexts, distribution agreements, local exhibition data (experience, Q&A, surveys, etc.), along with qualitative and quantitative data from online exhibition. This data is published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals and books. More general findings are published in annual development reports for the public and industry.
This vision came into focus throughout 2017, which gave us new successes and challenges.
Here’s the tea.
We continue to release the most artistic and innovative indie programs on the internet! The second cycle saw the release of 6 new series and the second season of Two Queens in a Kitchen.
We launched the second cycle with three shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. First was BROWN GIRLS, co-created by Fatimah Asghar, who wrote it, and Sam Bailey (creator of YOU’RE SO TALENTED), who directed and produced it. A dramedy about Leila, a writer and queer South Asian woman, and her best friend Patricia, a singer and black woman, the series had one of the biggest launches I’ve seen in the indie TV market (and I wrote the book indie web TV). The series is a stunning collaboration among women of color and queer people, anchored by great performances from a diverse cast and a soundtrack led by Jamila Woods. Most people know the series for getting picked up by HBO, but the creators did a lot of work to make that happen, some of which I’ve written up in a blog.
Next was AFTERNOON SNATCH, a romantic comedy about how queer community fill the void left by a break-up, premiered after. Kayla Ginsburg and Ruby Western’s story frees rom-coms from the oppressive gender binary, showing how cisgender (those who identify with the gender assigned at birth) and gender nonconforming people both love and hurt one another. Featuring collaborations with Salonathon, a recently ended weekly performance open mic forever canonized in this series, and About Face Theater, the show has true heart, and both Bitch magazine and The Chicagoist agreed!
BRUJOS rounded out our first three series premieres. The 11-episode epic fantasy-action-comedy follows gay Latino witches trying to survive grad school and witchunt led by the descendants New World Colonizers. Created by Ricardo Gamboa and co-directed with Reshmi Hazra Rustebakke and Robert Stockwell, the series features everything from police violence, queer sex, and lectures on neoliberalism, sumptuously photographed and earnestly acted. Premiering on Remezcla and Vice and recommended by the New York Times, the series blows wide open the genre of supernatural TV with a clear critique of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy. It’s a blast!
We rounded out the second cycle with Puja Mohindra’s GEETA’S GUIDE TO MOVING ON, Aasia Bullock and Dewayne Perkins’ STARVING ARTISTS, and Kate Royal’s In Real Life. Geeta’s Guide is heartfelt, honest story of a dancer stuck in an office job and recently got dumped by her fiancé; her friends and family start her on a journey to recovery and independence. Unapologetically black and fabulous, Starving Artists is a hilarious situation comedy series satirizing race, gender and sexuality through the strange and mundane. Both 3-episode series are still developing. We’ll have more episodes of Geeta’s Guide in 2018 and the Starving Artists team won a development deal at the New York Television Festival last year! Meanwhile, the sincerely written ensemble, anthology drama series In Real Life is profiles a group of friends as they navigate bi and queer sexuality throughout Chicago.
The second cycle saw the release of 6 new pilots and works of video art. I was very moved by our 2017 offerings, which were wildly experimental and deeply engaged with culture, power and narrative experimentation.
Brandon Markell Holmes’ INERTIA is an abstract visual album exploring mental health and intergenerational joy and trauma within the black community. A vocalist and songwriter, Brandon created a challenging work that gives viewers moments of ecstasy and pain, mediated by old and new technologies. Both Ester Alegria’s AMBIVERT and Kai Green’s TRIGGERS similarly resist easy categorization. ambivert takes us into Ester’s mind and experiences navigating Chicago while also living through invisible disabilities. The result is a lush, layered tapestry of goPro-captured images and animated text ambitious in its scope and depth. Featuring an original improvised score and performances, Triggers is a visual letter to Marissa Alexander, a black woman imprisoned in Florida for defending herself from domestic violence even as the “Stand Your Ground” policy protected George Zimmerman from the murder of Trayvon Martin. Kai, a scholar and poet, narrated the letter and directed the video, featuring performers Anna Martine Whitehead, Julian Kevon Glover and Mlondi Zondi (the latter also Northwestern PhD students), probing how black girls and women survive and thrive amid state and other forms of violence.
Rashayla Marie Brown’s REALITY IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH is an experimental documentary narrative that critiques the reality TV market. Rashayla documented her family as they debated whether to do a reality show. She captures real moments of familial conflict but allowed the subjects to speak back to the camera and reflect sincerely, and at length, on the situations documented. My favorite part of the piece discuses inequalities in media production; Rashayla openly discusses her production issues and the difficulty finding black women available to produce video. By producing for herself, Rashayla produces art while revaluing labor and capital.
THE FURIES directed by Jessica King of King Is A Fink (FULL OUT, F*CK YES and QUARE LIFE) and Fawzia Mirza’s YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS BY NOW are both propositions for different series and narratives. The Furies explores female rage; the dance films were designed to precede a scripted series with those performers, which you can read about on their Open TV site. You Should Know This By Now is a series of PSAs on Asian American identities; it came together when Fawzia organized a group of artists, including broadcast TV stars Parvesh Cheena and Vincent Rodriguez, who had all visited the White House. The funny spots served as wonderful commercials at our screening of Geeta’s Guide and Starving Artists.
To date OTV and our artists have combined raised over $250,000 toward platform operations and series production. This is my best estimate for everything from paying for documentation of our events, contractor fees for the core team, and large chunks of money raised by artists through their own means. Not all of this is spent (see the next money section below). Much of it comes from grants through Northwestern University and local Chicago arts organizations (Chicago Filmmakers, Propeller Fund, the city of Chicago), with the remainder from crowdfunding campaigns wholly run and executed by the lead artists or investors with whom they have relationships. OTV Originals budgets range from $10,000 to $70,000, whereas pilots generally run under $10,000. These budgets do not include in-kind services or collaborators taking rate cuts to help make a project happen, both of which are very common.
That may sound like a lot of money to some, but to put it in perspective as I have before, the average 22-minute episode of a comedy on corporate television can easily come in at $1 million. A season of TV often exceeds $10 million. The major networks spend $200-300 million on pilots every year, whereas Netflix has committed to spend $8 billion on programming this year, and even companies newer to original programming like Apple, Facebook, and YouTube are committing upwards of $1 billion annually to develop new shows.
For pennies from the industry’s perspective, we have released well over 25 hours of quality original programming that rivals mainstream fare in its sincerity, experimentation and diversity.
And still, we have a long way to go before we reach equality in this industry.
To date, OTV programs have screened on at least 87 different occasions around the world. Programs screened in 51 exhibits during in 2017: 40 during the second cycle (January through July), of which 15 were official OTV events in Chicago, and 11 after.
Brown Girls is a clear standout in exhibition with at least 22 screenings in 2017, a whopping 17 of those occurring with 24 hours of its release on February 15th. Fatimah Asghar and Sam Bailey’s network of friends and supporters internationally mobilized to host screenings in their cities, where more than 80 people showed up in Seattle, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago -- the latter two attracted an estimated 400 and 300, respectively. Screenings in NYC and Chicago showcased artistry by women of color, including live music, stand-up, dance, poetry, and body painting, along with independent vendors selling jewelry, clothing, and other wares. The series later screened at the Brooklyn Museum, Frameline Film Festival, Reeling Film Festival and Midwest Independent Film Festival, selling out theaters weeks and months after its release.
OTV streamlined our Chicago screenings this year after we lost funding for a grad student to manage screenings across the city. We premiered the cycle at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, selling out the 200-seat theater for the debut of Brown Girls, Brujos and Afternoon Snatch. We then moved into the Chicago Cultural Center down the street, where the premieres of those series packed the theater of the same size. In addition to more intimate screenings at community-based galleries like Comfort Station and Reunion, our screenings during the second cycle averaged 100 people in attendance.
Festivals have been newly interested in showing OTV programming. In addition to Brown Girls screenings listed above, Brujos debuted at Outfest in LA soon after its Chicago premiere whereas our forthcoming series The T and Quare Life premiered in New York at Newfest the same weekend Starving Artists screened at the New York Television Festival. Museums also continue to show interest; in addition to MCA and the Brooklyn Museum, Brown Girls screened at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Brujos screened the rest of its first season at the National Museum of Mexican Art, and Quare Life premiered in Chicago at the DuSable Museum of African American History.
As part of our residency at the Chicago Cultural Center we inaugurated a new program: the Open TV Writers Group! I invited a few dozen writers who had pitched me scripts or expressed an interest in writing one to do a 6-week workshop to develop a plan for their series. We had an incredible range of stories in different genres and from different cultural perspectives. So I asked members of the group to join a new series, Serial Dreamer, I was developing for characters living in a co-op. We shot the pilot, “Hair Story,” in December and it will come out during cycle 3!
RECEPTION AND RECOGNITION
OTV has hosted hundreds of people in Chicago, and our online audience is growing exponentially. To date, our videos have been played over 850,000 times, a near fourfold increase of our play counts since the start of 2017. On Vimeo our videos have almost 2,000 likes, a fourfold increase, and 93 comments, a near threefold increase. On Facebook we have over 1,900 likes, almost double the year prior.
Our programs continue to garner awards. In addition to Brown Girls’ Emmy nomination for Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama, the series won Best Indie Series at the Streamy Awards and scored three nominations at the International Academy of Web Television Awards. Starving Artists won best independent pilot and a development deal with Red Arrow Entertainment at the New York Television Festival, the premiere festival for indie TV.
AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT
Capacity and Communication
I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of artists and film workers interested in indie TV. As I’ve written in previous reports, it’s been a struggle to keep up with the demand. My email response rate is highly variable -- when I’m grading midterms, traveling for a talk or conference, serving on a university committee or film/TV jury, I can go dark. On any given day there are about twice as many things I have to do than I have time to do.
I am trying to be more transparent about my limits with artists (see below). The most important thing I tell artists is: at OTV’s current level of funding, they will be doing most of the work to produce and market their shows. OTV offers support, consultation and advice. We are not a production company. On rare occasion I or Stephanie Jeter can actually produce a show, but generally our artists drive financial and creative decisions. Ultimately, I find it’s better for artists to drive their own projects. Every show is different and it’s best to be working with people you know and respect, and vice versa. The marketing side poses additional challenges (see below).
Still, we’ve made some strides in building capacity. We’ve been able to retain the core team, Elijah McKinnon and Stephanie Jeter as heads of marketing and production, with Chris Walker under Elijah, and Mark Diaz running data collection. In addition, this year I took on a part-time personal assistant to help me with the basics of platform management.
We are getting better at putting everyone we meet into database to keep track of potential hires for crew, along with music, venues for exhibition, and development partners. We are also streamlining the release process with surveys and forms behind the scenes. The development slate (an Excel spreadsheet) is growing in sophistication.
Money and Transparency
Our budgets have been growing slowly, but money continues to be an issue. 2017 opened with “Open TV (beta)” in a rough spot. My start-up at Northwestern was near depleted, and I had to cut licensing fees for nearly all shows except one, Brujos, because that had been promised and in development in late 2015. At the same time I secured a job offer from a competing university. This initiated a bidding war as Northwestern saw the value and innovation of the project and my tenure prospects became secure due to the publication of my book. By April, I’d secured funding for 2018 and 2019 and signed a retention contract with Northwestern.
The rough transition period with funding stoked resentment among some of our artists, who understandably felt slighted for not getting paid what they felt their series were worth. From my perspective, while Open TV rarely pays for a majority of production budgets -- meaning artists have to raise their own funds through grants and crowdfunding -- we are also one of very few distributors who do not take intellectual property and exclusive distribution. Through OTV artists more freedom to move to better-resourced platforms. This is not the norm and thus explains our low licensing fees compared to market players, almost all of whom take a cut of artists’ intellectual property, and often all of it. Nevertheless, I am committed to working out a way to increase licensing funds, and there are several possible pathways to that goal.
The biggest lesson I learned is the need for transparency. Indeed, I was not open and clear enough with our artists about where money comes from and the limits of my resources. Throughout the entire process of running the project, I have spent thousands of my own dollars to help support production and licensing without telling anyone; I secure these funds by teaching an extra class at Northwestern during the winter, meaning those funds are not always available when most needed. I was shocked to learn that some artists thought I was swimming in money! In the non-profit world, budgets rarely go up steadily, and it’s incumbent upon me to let artists know that our rates will be variable until we can secure a larger funder or set of funders.
In the interest of transparency, here are the licensing ranges for OTV programs:
OTV Presents: $250-$1,000
OTV Originals: $500-$2,000
OTV Re-Presents: $250-$2,000
OTV Community: No licensing fee
In addition, I can occasionally secure $2,000-$4,000 through special grants to fund the licensing of a pilot or pilot concept, which can be used to raise funds for series.
Licensing fees are determined by the following factors, in order of importance:
1) Time spent in development (date of first meeting about that pilot or series): the longer in development, the greater the priority for funding
2) Funding Need and Project Scale: series with higher budgets or longer narratives may receive more funding, series with funding secured may receive less
3) Platform Need: series representing communities un-represented or under-represented on the platform may receive more funding
4) Resource availability: All else being equal, funding may shift as platform expenses are incurred.
I have already sent my apologies and explanations to the artists who have felt some type of way about the funding they received and hope they accept those in the spirit in which they were given. It is my understanding they have. As head of development and someone who has performed nearly all roles related to production and distribution, I value the work of our artists more than anyone else, because I know the incredible amount of work it takes to get things done. As OTV has been in development, so have I. I never planned for the project grow this quickly and achieve so much success so early. When I arrived in Chicago the city was not on the industry’s radar as a hub for production. Production is escalating quickly, and I’ve just been trying to keep up! I’m proud of the strides we made toward sustainability in 2017.
Accessibility and Gender Equity
We continue to work to make OTV accessible online and in Chicago, and we’ve made great strides. For the longest time we struggled to get over the lowest bars for accessibility, captioning our programs for the hearing impaired and telegraphing the accessibility of our screenings clearly.
Today, all OTV pilots and series from the first and second cycles are captioned! In addition, we started to add detailed information on accessibility for our screenings at the Chicago Cultural Center. We still have some un-captioned videos (trailers and event recaps) and some of our screenings did not have accessibility information (mostly the ones we were not hosting). We will continue to caption programs after the cycle is completed and publish accessibility information.
I’m proud to announce we have our first project made more accessible to the visually impaired, a re-release of Ester Alegria’s ambivert with audio descriptions! Audio description is a new strategy to make video more accessible, and the practice is still quite rare in media generally and has likely never been used for an experimental black feminist film. I must thank Kevin Gotkin for integrating this project into his disability studies class at The New School and Ester for trusting her incredibly personal, complex artwork to these young people. You can watch the new version right here:
In terms of making our screenings more accessible, I am currently writing grants to hire a manager/head of exhibition who can coordinate screenings on the South and West Sides of Chicago, areas that post-screenings surveys tell me are under-represented in our audiences (this could be a sampling issue as our response rates are never 100% and folks who are used to giving their information away in the non-profit industrial complex might not want to fill out our in-person surveys). Even though the Chicago Cultural Center is centrally located and close to many trains, not everyone in the city feels comfortable visiting these institutions, so we must take programming to them. We have done this but need to do it more. We are currently planning two screenings on the south side and I am actively fundraising to fund more.
Gender equity also continues to present challenges. The Chicago Cultural Center barred us from re-labeling the bathrooms by Claudia Cassidy theater as gender-neutral. We will try again this year, but we also request anyone with connections to city government to petition on our behalf.
Fans of OTV might have noticed that our social media presence is far lower than our reach or the reach of our shows. Much of this is deliberate. OTV exists to support artists, not ourselves, so I encourage anyone who is releasing a series with us to start their own social media presence because in the end it’s better for their long-term growth. So the social media sites of both Brown Girls, Brujos and the upcoming Code-Switched all have more likes and followers than we do. I think this is a good thing. Consider that 7 years after its premiere, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl still updates its social media even though Issa Rae has moved on. Yet another factor is that we only market our series during the cycle, for about six months; after that the marketing team takes a break and I personally update our social media with developments as they come in.
Social media is presenting a challenge for every single content distributor, regardless of size. Facebook and Google command the vast majority of traffic in our increasingly competitive media ecosystem, prompting companies with way more money and staff than we do like Funny Or Die to dramatically cut staff as they struggle to build audiences. Algorithms are always shifting, making it difficult to develop year-to-year strategies. Facebook, our most engaging platform, recently announced its algorithm would de-prioritize public pages and videos and instead boost posts among friends, a potential blow to our reach.
We are slowly integrating some of the lessons we learned last year, including advising artists to have a dedicated social media content producer the night of release (someone who is known with the communities they are representing) while encouraging them to cut trailers and host screenings outside of Chicago the night of release. We are also spending more money on advertising this year to help build our own audience.
Meanwhile publicity and press relations are mixed. On the one hand, we have innovated a new model of collaborating with press for exclusive premieres of our works; so far Elle, Vice, Remezcla, Out, and Billboard have all exclusively premiered our programs. On the other hand, most of the stories written about our programs come from relationships the artists have with writers. We are not able to assist much. OTV has no press rep, and as a result, there aren't many stories about us and we can't guide writers to shows worthy of recognition. Without name recognition, we lack the ability to attract new fans for programs.
As a result this year we have hired our first freelance press rep on a limited contract to cover some of our biggest events.
The quality of our press coverage also varies widely, and our lacking a full-time press rep might have some influence. A number of articles have used the wrong name for our platform, incorrectly crediting the creators on our shows, or written headlines and used images that do not accurately reflect the program or credits. This has caused some friction behind the scenes from artists who justifiably feel their work is not properly credited. Because OTV exists to help artists get credits so they can advance in their careers, I take these issues seriously. Journalism as an industry is under pressure; finding quality writers who respect and reflect our communities is extremely difficult.
Behind the scenes I spend much of my time working to secure backers for the project so we can build an infrastructure to mitigate all these issues. This will take time, and issues will still arise. As always, we are in development as much as our artists and communities, so I encourage our collaborators and fans to let us know when and how we're falling short and how we can do better!