Ruth Lawrence on "Buy the Boards"

by Eva Crocker

Ruth Lawrence directed and co-wrote “Buy the Boards”, a comedic webseries about a board shop. I talked to her about making her first webseries, writing with her son and filming “Buy the Boards” during Dark NL.

RL: When we started “Buy the Boards” I was wondering what else was out there in terms of webseries and what else had just launched. I found three great series that had also just launched, “Bleak”, “The Casuals” and “Winners”. I monitored how many views they were getting in comparison to us.

I was also researching how other series found their audiences. The first thing I looked at was where they were disseminating their content. I found them all on Youtube but they also had their own home pages.

We decided to have our own page but “Buy the Boards” was more of a development project so we didn’t have a lot of resources to put into promoting the project once it was done. We bought our own web domain and basically parked all the episodes there. You can watch all the episodes on the website but they are linked to Youtube so that we still get the Youtube view count. Lots of people suggest not going to Youtube because you’re basically providing Youtube with free content. We felt like we were getting something back because we didn’t have a lot of resources for advertising. Our plan was to rely on our social media contacts, which works to a certain extent but there is so much content is out there.If I was starting “Buy the Boards” now I would do it differently, I would budget for ads and send it out to be reviewed.

SJIWFF: Can you tell me a bit about the writing process? What was it like writing with your son?

RL: It was the first time Luke and I wrote together, since then we’ve written a theatre show that we perform together called, “Stable Home, Life with Two Horses”. There are stories in the show about when Luke was a kid and some of them I didn’t know before we started working on it.

We developed it with Lois Brown through my company. We performed it in Stephenville, Clarenville and one show at the LSPU Hall last fall. It’ll be up for a full run on the mainstage at The LSPU Hall this March.

All the stories in “Buy the Boards” were based around the kind of characters you meet and the relationships you develop when you work in a board shop. Luke told me stories that I thought would make great little videos.

The idea for “Buy the Boards” was percolating away when I met Matt. Luke and Matt were both doing stand up, they were just starting to become friends and they couldn’t be more different. Luke is a kind of skeet about town and Matt is a MUN Business School graduate. What brought them together was the love of a laugh. They make the Odd Couple kind of combination that’s so successful for comedy. A business where one is the boss and one is the employee is one of the few scenarios where you’d see these type of characters coming together.

I asked the guys if they’d be interested in developing a webseries. We got together for a few meetings and bashed stuff out. We fictionalized two experiences and then we made up a bunch of other ones. They did all of the story concepts. My main role in the writing was bringing the work of the two comics together and making sure we had a series arc.

With “Buy the Boards” we had a very formal writing structure. At that time lots of people were making webseries but they were just doing one episode or a pilot. A lot of webseries can work that way because they do one episode and then they crowd fund to make the rest. Those webseries generate money on the premise, “if you liked this, you’ll like everything else”. We wanted to make a completed series in one go. We had a goal of let’s do it, do it small, do it short and get it done. The same way you plan to make a short film, you plan to complete the film not make the first five minutes and figure the rest out later. Our strategy meant we had to go a lot shorter, the whole series is under fifteen minutes.

SJIWFF: What were the challenges of writing something that short?

RL: We were basically telling a beginning, middle and end in three minutes and we were trying not to rush anything, we wanted to set the stage. We definitely accomplished that in three of the five episodes, they have a beginning, middle and an end and they make you curious about what will happen next.

We had two episodes with very specific challenges. In one episode we cast a dog, we wrote a story that centred around a dog. We didn’t have a trained dog and that ate up a lot of our time. When we released the episode "Pup Fiction", I used to call it “Spot Lucy” because she showed up everywhere, she'd sneak in. I ended up posting for the audience, “take a drink when you see the dog” because she was in every scene. That episode is complete but it’s not as tight as it could have been.I learned why people say to be careful about working with dogs and babies. 

We shot the whole series over dark NL. We knew that some of the actors we wanted to work with would be home over Christmas. We didn’t want to pull them out of their Christmas holidays too much so we decided to shoot all the guest appearances in one night. That night happened to be the night the lights went out.

We got State of Mind, which is a skate shop up on Torbay Road, nice and out of the way. They said we could use their store from the time they closed until they opened the next day. We were only shooting fifteen minutes and we had two nights so it seemed doable.

When we arrived the first night heavy snow was already falling but we decided to shoot anyway because of people’s schedules. We shot the first two episodes that night and it went relatively well, except that by the time we left it was four in the morning. The plows were on the street, the power hadn’t gone yet but there was lots of snow down.

We drove some people home and checked in to make sure people in other cars made it home okay. It turned out that a car with two crew people in it couldn’t get home, they couldn’t make it out the CBS highway. I told them to come back to my house. By the time they got to our house the power was off and it stayed off the whole next day. We basically camped out in my house, we lost a day and the next day our actors were leaving. Luckily, the store decided not to open so we were able to use it for the whole day, we shot people out in the order they needed to get to the airport.

We had four episodes in the can and had started to shoot the fifth when the lights went out again. We had a generator and we were able to set up enough lights to light the closet, which we were using as an office. We were only able to shoot from one side because if we turned the camera around you could see that it was pitch black in the store. For two hours we shot on battery lights in the rolling blackouts. Then we learned that the station in Holyrood had blown up. We had to wrap the series without finishing the last of the episode. We ended up doing a shortened version of that episode with a squished beginning. We were disappointed that we had to lose so much material but we made it work.

SJIWFF: Do you think the webseries genre lends itself most easily to comedy?

RL: I think so. There are some dramas, but even shows like ‘Whatever Linda”, that have elements of drama also have lots of comedic moments. I did some research on dramatic series and the numbers on them were very broad. Some really worked and got an audience and some didn’t.

SJIWFF: Do you think the length is what makes the genre less adaptable to drama?

RL: The length really varies, “Whatever, Linda” isn’t really that short. “High Maintenance” has some longer episodes. One of the great things about webseries is that you’re not trapped in a twenty-two minute box, if you have money you can make the episode exactly as long as it takes to tell that story.

When we started doing ideas for the scripts I told the guys I didn’t want to see anything over four pages. When I’m looking at videos on the internet, even if it’s something someone sent me, I check to see how long it is before I commit to watching it.

I learned a lot about youtube by figuring out who our demographic was and what time of day they were watching. You could see when views were spiking, who was watching where and when.

SJIWFF: What did you find?

RL: If we posted a video at two in the day we got a lot more views than if we posted first thing in the morning. The best times to post were ten, two and eight. A lot of people were also watching really late at night. I expected it to be a male audience because we had two male stars but the audience was split completely down the middle in terms of gender. We had a pretty good spread across the country, it wasn’t just Newfoundland. Half the people were going directly to the website and then some people were finding it on Youtube. I think we would have had to pay to learn some other demographics that would have been helpful.

We didn’t have any success trying to break into online communities of snowboarders and skateboarders. Couldn’t get a crack in, I don’t know if you have to be part of a secret club or what. I’d write and ask them if they’d be interested in watching this webseries that takes place in a board shop and posting it if they liked it. I wouldn’t even get a response back. I realized people go to those sites to share and watch board videos, they don’t go there for commentary on the subculture. If I had money I probably could have paid someone to figure out how to tap into those communities.

The great thing is that it’s still out there floating around. Every now and then I check on it and see that twenty people have watched it that week. It’s still collecting views. Usually you don’t put a film up for free like that, so it doesn’t have quite as long a life. In the end I got everything I wanted out of the project, I got to write a short series and I was able to oversee making it.

After the Webseries Panel at SJIWFF’s Forum this year, I realized that everyone is having the same struggle on different scales with webseries. We’re all trying to figure out how to get the work seen. There’s all kinds of webseries out there so the way to hit the audience can be elusive. Hannah Cheesman said “Whatever, Linda” didn’t get an astronomical number of views but it got a great review and the review led to it being picked up for T.V. Everyone on the panel said there are lots of different types of success with this genre, sometimes it’s awards, sometimes it's a ton of views, sometimes it’s the project moving to a different medium, sometimes the series acts as a springboard to a completely different project.