Every big actor in Hollywood has a producing partner. Often this partner is the business person–a development executive who knows how to navigate the industry and balance the star’s “creative nature.” But as the end of Friends approached, Lisa Kudrow realized that she didn’t want that kind of producing partner; she needed a true creative partner, one with whom she could do creative development and navigate the business. And finding that person was simple: her longtime friend, Dan Bucatinsky.
An actor and writer in his own right, Bucatinsky wrote and starred in the 2001 feature All Over the Guy. He has a recurring role on ABC’s Scandal and has just released a book, Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight?, a comic memoir about raising kids with his partner, Don Roos, writer and director of the indie films Happy Endings and The Opposite of Sex, both of which starred Kudrow. For nearly ten years, Bucatinsky and Kudrow have produced together through their company Is or Isn’t Entertainment, which Roos joined in 2007. Is or Isn’t is behind such shows as HBO’s The Comeback, NBC’s celebrity genealogy documentary series Who Do You Think You Are? and the web-to-TV comedy Web Therapy.
Here, Bucatinsky describes how they created Web Therapy, now in its second season on Showtime, and what they’ve learned about pan-platform creation.
“We never set out to trailblaze or innovate,” says Bucatinsky, who likens the collaborators’ accidental innovation to pioneers of undiscovered lands who had actually set out to find, say, a ring that they’d lost in the woods. “Lisa and I had been asked to do a web show a couple of times by our agent, and neither one of us was really [interested].”
And yet, they slowly became intrigued by the notion of cooking up something that was made expressly for the web. “That got Lisa thinking about the kinds of business people would do on the web,” recalls Bucatinsky. “When she gets a thing like that in her head, the scientist in her can’t let it go [Kudrow studied biology and did headache research before becoming an actress]. So she said, Wouldn’t it be crazy and stupid if people, like, on their lunch breaks from work, could get three-minute therapy online? And what would the person who would offer that service be like? Wouldn’t she be awful? And what would the people who would ask for that service be like? Wouldn’t that be crazy?”
They were called in to pitch a new broadband channel [LStudio.com] owned by Lexus. “They just wanted to work with Lisa,” concedes Bucatinsky. “She said, ‘Well, we don’t have a lot to pitch but I do have this one idea, Web Therapy. We don’t know much about it, just that it’s this horrible woman who’s not even accredited to be a therapist, and she’s conducting three-minute sessions online.’ And they bought the idea! We were given total creative control and Lisa and Don and I sat in a room and just started the game of what if, which is how everything starts. What if she this, and what would she sound like? And Lisa started to improvise who the character was.”
Bucatinsky explains that Roos was instrumental in making sure Web Therapy wasn’t just a series of one-off patients with a single problem who would show up only to never return. “Don comes from a place that’s rooted in character and story and interconnecting characters, so he was very much a cheerleader for finding ways to intricately involve people from Fiona’s past, people whom she meets that she then realizes could help her in some way. And that’s how she came to be somebody who [had been a] businesswoman, had gone to Wharton School of Business, and had been part of a financial firm that went under for horrible improprieties. She herself had left amid accusations of sexual harassment and then blamed others for it. So that’s how the show started to branch into a very intricate array of stories so that by the end of four web seasons we have met her mother [Lily Tomlin], her sister [Julia Louis-Dreyfus] and met her husband [Victor Garber].”
Web Therapy is shot on the weekends so that the guest actors can squeeze it in while doing longer-term gigs during the week. “We don’t want to get in the way of the other projects actors are on, so we’ve always made this work over a two- or three-day weekend,” Bucatinsky explains. Alan Cumming, who is on The Good Wife, would fly to L.A. on a Friday, shoot on Saturday and fly back to New York on Sunday. Same with Victor Garber, who lives in New York. Though in the case of Meryl Streep, they went to her. “We flew to New York to shoot on a Saturday in a hotel room.” In the course of a three-day weekend, they can work with six actors, two each day, and by the end of a weekend have shot 18 to 20 webisodes.”
And yet they’re not making actors crash on their couches or anything. “It’s not indie film. I mean, we spend money. Our budgets are not that low. We buy the best equipment, we use the best production designer [Lorin Flemming].”
…And they shoot the show according to entertainment industry union rules–which not all web series do, but was a must to get big names. Plus, they had to do it union if they ever wanted it to air on TV. They had to make sure that even if something was added later, as much of the content was for Showtime, everything had to air online first. “We absolutely believe in it,” Bucatinsky says of the union rules which he acknowledges can be burdensome (pension, health benefits, etc.) “It does make the budget for a three-day shoot higher than it would be for somebody doing a very, very low-budget independent movie.” But they knew it was the right thing to do.
“Our agent said to us, ‘You know, if you put three of these episodes together, you have half an hour of content.’ It turned out our agent hadn’t actually done the math because when you put three of these five-minute episodes together, that only adds up to 15 minutes, but Showtime liked the idea. Of course, we had to go back to them and say, ‘You know if you want it to be 10 half hours–we just did the math–that’s 300 minutes, but we actually only have 150 minutes of content. And we would love the opportunity to build these into half hours as though we had intended to do them that way, and find ways that connect the stories more and a device that can expand it.”
Licensing the pre-existing web series to Showtime turned out to be a no-brainer, perhaps in part because it stars Lisa Kudrow, but also because it would be inexpensive for Showtime. “The license fee is extraordinarily low because it’s acquired media,” says Bucatinsky, who retains ownership through his company. “Licensing the show from the web with web content allowed us the creative freedom to approach it differently.” And Bucatinsky and Co. have figured out how to make it worthwhile for themselves, licensing it to various platforms–mobile, DVD–in addition to TV. They’ve also recently launched their own platform. “For season two we’re using the new half-hours as a way of growing the website webtherapyshow.com. So we really are launching this new second season of half-hours on our own website first, and then those half-hours have been licensed by Showtime.”
Bucatinsky lays out how it works: “Here’s the thing, if we were able to make these very fast and we made a hundred of them the way Tyler Perry does, we could syndicate the show and be millionaires. But it’s not that kind of show. Each show takes an enormous amount of care to put together. It takes a lot of time to write and craft it, shoot it, and create the layers that you see on the screen — Fiona’s desktop — in post-production. Then we put it on the web and then we then license that to Showtime. And for the most part the license fees pay for the actual cost of outputting the season, and it’s in the ancillary platforms where we’re able to earn a little bit of our money back or a little bit of a cushion, which is what we use to make the next round.” The potential for significant payoff comes in international sales, which are already off to a strong start across Latin America and in parts of Europe.
“When we were first approached about pitching this to TV [after the web series already existed], we were told to use the web series as a pitch tool and when you pitch it open up the world so that you’ll see FIona in her life,” explains Bucatinsky, who came to the opposite conclusion. “We felt that what makes the show unique is that you never go outside the realm of the webcam. If we hadn’t been forced to stay within those confines we never would have learned that what you see on this show is only through the landscape of Fiona’s desktop. And then we found that unbelievably creatively fulfilling–to figure out ways to bring a laptop into someone’s walk-in closet, and to have someone on a laptop in a café, or someone holding an iPad with FaceTime and what would that let you see. What are the limitations of people’s devices? We all feel strongly that that’s where the show lives. Even if we were doing the show strictly for TV, it would still be from the point-of-view of the webcam.”
So although they found a way to expand within those confines, they also found the web to be limiting. Writing for the Internet was pretty new for these guys, who were used to the longer-form storytelling of movies and TV (did we mention that Roos used to write for The Colbys?!). “One of the things we learned is that our sensibility is very cable,” explains Bucatinsky. “Don and Lisa and I have a comedic sensibility that is a little slower. You have to be patient to get the payoff. It’s not fast and furious. The sensibility of our comedy, even in webisode form, tended to lend itself to a longer format–we were finding that our webisodes were starting to become eight, nine, 10, 11, 12 minutes long, because we all love to let these scenes play out, and the whole show is improvised. And when you get on a roll with Meryl [Streep] and she and Lisa are going off on these hilarious tangents, you don’t want to cut it, you want to see it play out.” But that’s not typical of web content. “The people who get their content online tend to be a younger audience looking for a faster hit, and by doing this we found a niche audience that’s older than the typical online viewer. Web content works best at three to four minutes, and if we had stuck with the original premise–one patient per episode, a quick joke and we never see them again–that might have been a really good model for Web Therapy that would have worked online but it would not have been as satisfying for us.” What they find more satisfying is crafting the half-hour version of the show, for Showtime. “We like to create arcs. If Lily Tomlin’s going to come on we want to work on it and let it progress. We’re long form writers at heart, so we took a long form approach to a very short format online. Doing so we have a smaller niche audience online but it lends itself to a longer form on TV,” says Bucatinsky.
And while it may seem like a revelation, in a way it’s not. “Of course we’re these guys,” Bucatinsky concludes. “Don’s a movie director and a writer. Lisa and I started in sketch comedy but we look for the long joke now: a character like Fiona, you want to watch her for a long time to see how the foot goes into the mouth, how the foot comes out of the mouth, how she covers it and how she forces you to put your feet in your mouth by the time the call is over, and that takes time. In a perfect world we would make this show directly for TV.”