advertisement
advertisement

Lessons From “High Maintenance” On How To Build A Cult Following

In short: make something amazing, then quit trying so hard.

Lessons From “High Maintenance” On How To Build A Cult Following

When High Maintenance first came out in 2012, the creators did almost zero promotion for the now-beloved web series about a weed-delivery guy and his New York City clients. Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair took the password off the first batch of Vimeo clips, sent an email to their contacts, and that was pretty much it. “It’s up. Watch it if you want to. Or don’t! We’ll never know,” Blichfeld explained to Fast Company.

advertisement
advertisement

It was a risky strategy (or lack of) in the world of social media and self-promotional hype, but two years later, the show has attracted a cult following, critical acclaim, and an investment from Vimeo, making it the platform’s first foray into original content. “It gets annoying after awhile to get squawked at all day,” said Blichfeld, a former casting director for 30 Rock. “I didn’t want to be one of those people.”

“It was like some old folksy wisdom in the midst of technological mumbo-jumbo,” added Sinclair, who also plays the weed-delivery guy. The two, who are married, figured that if the show was good, people would share it. They were right. Many fans meet The Guy, the series’ unnamed pot dealer, and the various characters he meets on his route through an emphatic recommendation. (That’s how it came into my life.)

Even getting the attention of the higher-ups at Vimeo, which threw an undisclosed amount of money at High Maintenance for its next six episodes, three of which premier today, was a slow build. The show had existed for about a year until executives noticed. Of course, drawing accolades from inside Vimeo, landing on the staff picks, didn’t hurt. By the time Vimeo announced it had $10 million for original series last spring, the pot procedural was an obvious choice.

The show does everything an Internet sensation shouldn’t, yet could not exist outside of the web. “It’s not television, it’s not film. it really does come from its own unique place,” Kerry Trainor, the CEO of Vimeo, told Fast Company. The creators don’t cater to the binging masses. Over the last two years, they have only put out 13 episodes, which each hover in the 6- to 15-minute range. The three out today are some of the longest and add up to less than an hour of content. Fans have to wait until January to see the next three.

Katja Blichfeld and Ben SinclairPhoto: Courtesy of Paul Kwiatkowski

The Guy is the only common thread among the episodes, and sometimes he only shows up to make a deal. Often the show focuses on those buying weed. To be clear, High Maintenance is not a stoner comedy, but portraits of New Yorkers who, for various reasons, smoke marijuana. “Most [episodes] are meditative, dreamy invasions into the lives of creative-class New Yorkers, with smart dialogue, seams of compassion, and an O. Henry air of surprise,” as the New Yorker‘s inimitable Emily Nussbaum explained it.

advertisement

Without much in the way of reoccurring characters or potential romantic entanglements, the show would never work on TV. “Often, all the best weird stuff gets cut–especially in network land,” said Blichfeld, who has spent much of her career in TV. In fact, Blichfeld and Sinclair had a deal with FX that fell through because the network “gravitated toward the more recognizable stock characters,” according to Vulture.

Vimeo, on the other hand, has had an unbelievably hands-off approach. Nobody at the company had even seen the new episodes until the night before the High Maintenance premiere party last week. That’s impressive restraint, considering that one of the segments features a man’s testicles and a bowl of milk.

The revenue-sharing model is also enviable; Blichfeld and Sinclair get a 90/10 split with Vimeo for every episode purchased. The show costs $1.99 per episode, or $7.99 to watch the season, including the three being released in January. Previously, the show streamed for free and was basically a bootstrapped passion project; the two relied on favors to secure actors and locations. Now, they can at least pay actors, but it’s “not a big payday,” says Sinclair. “People still came because they wanted to be there.”

Much to the disappointment of fans, after January’s batch Blichfeld and Sinclair plan to transfer their creative energy to new projects. That doesn’t mean the end of High Maintenance forever, but they don’t want the show to lose the underground allure that has made it successful. “lf we could bring back the old thing of: I don’t know when this is coming out,” said Sinclair, then he would do it. Blichfeld added, “almost like this is a special or something.”

advertisement
advertisement

About the author

Rebecca Greenfield is a former Fast Company staff writer. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire, where she focused on technology news

More