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How “Con Man” Rallied Geek Fans And Defied Hollywood Convention

This is how a record-breaking crowdfunding and a landmark San Diego Comic-Con appearance got Alan Tudyk and Nathan Fillion’s show on Vimeo.

A glorious anomaly took place at San Diego Comic-Con, on the hallowed grounds of Hall H, as 6,000 fans packed an auditorium usually reserved for top Hollywood productions.

“This is the first time a web series has presented in Hall H!” shouted moderator Chris Hardwick. It gets huge applause from the audience, which is expected. After all, this is the show they made happen.

This tear in the fabric of the universe came courtesy of Con Man, which premieres September 30 on Vimeo On Demand—a whirlwind six months after its record-breaking crowdfunding campaign. The show is executive-produced by and stars Alan Tudyk and Nathan Fillion, who played a spaceship pilot and captain on Firefly, a 2002-2003 Fox series from Joss Whedon with a rabid following that contends its untimely cancelation ranks as one of science fiction’s great tragedies.

The art-spoofing-life series chronicles the misadventures of Wray Nerely (Tudyk) as an actor who played a spaceship pilot on Spectrum, a cult sci-fi series cancelled before its time, and now grapples with fans on the Con circuit while hoping for his next big break. Meanwhile, his Spectrum costar, ship captain Jack Moore (played by Fillion, who is currently helming ABC’s Castle), has soared to fame and fortune.

The idea for Spectrum, the sci-fi show within Con Man, comes from the Softwire series of young-adult novels written by fellow executive producer PJ Haarsma, who crafted the Con Man crowdfunding campaign and managed the production. It’s also packed with such geek culture luminaries as Sean Astin, Milo Ventimiglia, James Gunn, Wil Wheaton, Seth Green, and Felicia Day. “There’s a lot of `meta’ in this project,” laughs Haarsma.

The Con Man panelists backstage at San Diego Comic-Con. Photo courtesy of PJ Haarsma

Their March/April Indiegogo campaign broke a slew of crowdfunding records, raising $3.2 million—the highest-funded web series, the fastest to get to $1 million, and the third most raised across all crowdfunding platforms—behind Veronica Mars ($5.7 million) and Super Troopers 2 ($4.4 million), both movies. Nearly 47,000 fans from 123 countries contributed.

Con Man also brashly defied conventional Hollywood behavior by spurning the cyber Holy Grail. Usually web series creators hope their idea might one day migrate to TV. These guys had TV interest, but opted for the creative freedom of a self-produced web series.

The 13-episode series will stream in four 10-minute episodes the first week, followed by three a week for the next three weeks. It’s free for its crowdfunding sponsors and $14.99 for others to stream for three months.

Next year, the team will release Con Man The Game, a mobile game where players get to build their own comic convention and defend it from aliens, and four issues of Spectrum comic books cowritten by Tudyk, Haarsma, and bestselling fantasy author Tracy Hickman, with art by Kenneth Rocafort. Meanwhile, Tudyk and Haarsma are publisher-shopping for their cowritten series of Spectrum novels. And there’s talk of a season two, which has again drawn the attention of TV, although, says Haarsma, “We’re having so much fun on our own, we might do it again by ourselves.”

Episode 1 teaser

Why A Web Series When TV Is Interested?

It wasn’t as though Tudyk and Haarsma set out to be rebels. They did try the traditional rounds of meetings with various independent producers. Their first was, amusingly, Gail Berman, the executive who had cancelled Firefly and has since returned to Fox. Over time, they just found suits giving more lip service to geek culture buzzwords than really understanding how to embrace it.

“Traditional business thinking was muddying this story up,” says Haarsma. “And despite the giant fan base, a lot of people still have trouble understanding science fiction, comic conventions, their feverish fans, and they underestimated it again and again.”

“Alan and I were driving to a meeting where we were about to just bend over just so we could get this going after doing it for a while, and I looked at him and said, ‘Nobody knows this fan base. Let’s do this ourselves,’ ” adds Haarsma. “There’s a stigma to crowdfunding, especially with actors, and he was hesitant. So I said, ‘I will create a world where you can take this vision and make it unencumbered.’ And we basically turned the car around, told them we weren’t coming—they were very mad at us—and the next day, I started putting the crowdfunding for Con Man together.”

PJ Haarsma on the Con Man setPhoto by Zach Bainter

Haarsma’s preferred platforms were Vimeo and Indiegogo for their onscreen presentation, commitment, and marketing support.

“I like partners who are as excited and engaged as I am in a project, with a little skin in the game,” says Haarsma. “Prior to contacting Indiegogo, I asked Vimeo how they’d help bring the audience to us. They put money into marketing so more crowdfunding dollars could go into the production. Indiegogo helped us shape the messages and get some press, which saved some upfront costs. If we had a problem, I could call the person who could fix it.”

Engaging Community

Haarsma then set about crafting a plan to create, engage, and build community, and excite them about their idea.

“Having Alan and Nathan made my job a lot easier, but I had to figure out a way to keep people engaged for 30 days for the campaign,” he says. “First you find the community that wants your product, then find the shared emotional trigger to engage that community on a deeper level. For our fan base, it was that their favorite show (Firefly) got cancelled and one of their favorite characters [Tudyk’s Hoban “Wash” Washburne] got killed. So we kept nodding to that. We used the hashtag ‘#toosoon’ a lot.”

Another example of that strategy involved a video thanking supporters for reaching another goal that had Tudyk drawing a play-by-play illustration that nearly ended in an obscene gesture to Fox before Fillion intervened.

“It was insane how many people watched and shared that video,” says Haarsma. “It was a complete emotional trigger for the community that had nothing to do with Con Man or the money we were raising. It just drew more people.”

Other tactics were designed to expand the community and create a more intimate connection with funders. They involved gamification—ways to earn digital prizes on the Indiegogo campaign page; answering every question on their Indiegogo page, Twitter feed, and Facebook page; and a live event through Hang With that created more transparency by enabling Tudyk and Fillion to answer questions in real time. Then there were the weekly Ask Alan videos which had Tudyk comically answering fan questions and requests.

“Those got really bizarre,” laughs Haarsma. “But people told us they’d never had so much access to the people behind the crowdfunding. One person even sent us money just because we had such good customer service.”

“When it comes down to it, yes, it’s selling,” says Haarsma. “But it’s all about engagement. How do you talk with that customer? That you’ll hear them and create for them, since they’re the ones that are going to do the purchasing. Social media is all about giving. Just tell your story, don’t push message, let them decide to buy. That can be scary for a lot of businesses, but its more genuine and what people want nowadays. “

A Full-Time Effort

Most of that effort involved Haarsma, Tudyk, an assistant, video editor, and campaign manager to help meet and track stretch goals and fulfillment. They enlisted a company, Amplifier, to package and mail incentives to funders.

Prepping funder incentives for autographs and mailings.Photo by Susan Karlin

They kept costs down by working from home as opposed to renting an office and offering a lot of digital incentives that didn’t require postage. Still, all the posters and T-shirts took up $300,000 in printing and shipping costs.

“It was a beast, especially when you have 50,000 people to fulfill,” says Haarsma. “It was a full-time crazy job for the month.”

Creating For The Web

The Con Man cast and crew are still smiling on the penultimate day of a 23-day shoot in June at Laurel Canyon Stages in Arleta, California. As a 30-year production veteran, Haarsma sees little difference producing a web series over films, TV, or advertising. This series operated under SAG New Media and IATSE contracts, and crew members came from projects like Interstellar, Lord of the Rings, and TV’s Agents of SHIELD.

“The deliverables are the only thing that’s different. Every other aspect is the same—getting the story, keeping the budget in line, creating a fun set, and keeping people from getting crazy,” says Haarsma. “For a producer, the biggest thing is knowing everyone else’s job to make sure everything’s moving properly, anticipate what could go wrong, and having a tool chest to be able to solve it. ”

(L-R) Nathan Fillion, PJ Haarsma, and Alan Tudyk on the Con Man setPhoto by Susan Karlin

Tudyk, who also served as writer and director, had a steeper learning curve. Penning the script required arcs within single episodes, three episodes stitched together, and as a whole. The approach was to allow for potential resale options for other platforms as half-hours or single feature length.

“Alan is wearing a lot of hats in this production, and it’s very interesting to watch him,” says Fillion. “The kind of man Alan was 13 years ago would not have handled this position as gracefully as present-day Alan.” He looks at Tudyk. “You would have fallen apart.”

Tudyk nods and pouts. “Yeah.”

Adds Fillion, “You would have pulled your hair out by the roots.”

An alien readies for his close-up.Photo by Susan Karlin

It’s their first significant project together since Firefly, and the pair is like a vaudeville team, with Tudyk’s madcap to Fillion’s deadpan.

“The benefit of a network is they have it all in place,” says Tudyk. “It’s a machine, you plug yourself in, and press `start,’ ” says Tudyk. “The drawback is the infrastructure you have to go through to approve certain things, and it can negatively impact the creative side. We haven’t had to deal with any of that. No one can tell me, `You can’t do that.’ So we can have changes and ideas on the spur of the moment. That’s the benefit of being the writer, director, actor, and—

“You are the hierarchy,” says Fillion.

Adds Tudyk, “I guess the drawback is, if it sucks—”

“It’s all on you,” says Fillion.

“Yeah,” says Tudyk. “I can’t blame anybody.”

“Well, we can push a lot of it on PJ,” says Fillion.

Adds Tudyk, “Yeah, let’s put it on PJ.”

Con Man’s Hall H panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Since you’ve gotten this far, at least read the rest of the story before you watch this. It’s 90 minutes, okay?

Honoring The Fans

Although Con Man lives in the convention circuit, it doesn’t poke fun at the fans, but at Hollywood—from the people running the conventions, to what’s happened to the rest of the Spectrum cast, to the schizophrenic existence of a struggling actor from a cult show who’s a superstar at conventions, then comes back to a one-bedroom apartment and stagnant career.

“When you go to comic-cons or sci-fi conventions, you get a lot of artistic people in extreme circumstances,” says Tudyk. “Some of the cons are very new, and haven’t figured out how to do it, and sometimes they’re really interesting places, especially if you’re a new guest. For years, I’ve been hearing different artists, and myself, say, `God, somebody has to make a show about it.’ ”

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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