Black20's Jonathan Crowley on Producing Viral Web Content and Partnering with 15 Gigs


socialnerdia_jcrowley_black20_interviewJonathan Crowley is the co-founder of Black20, a multi-platform digital studio that operates out of Long Island City, Queens. There's a good chance that you've seen or at least heard of one of their viral videos or award-winning web series, which have been viewed by over 60 million people. A recent partnership with 15 Gigs means their entertaining content is going to reach even more people. Prior to co-founding Black20 in 2007, J. Crowley was a part of NBC Digital Studios developing comedy programming for the network's digital initiatives. You can check out more of their programming at Hulu and Black20.com.

1. Black20 recently partnered with Fox TV Studios' 15 Gigs to produce Web-based pilots like "Heart Felt." What kind of relationship do you have with FTVS and how has it been working with them?

We partnered up with FTVS to create innovative and cheap-to-produce content for the web, and always with an eye towards its extension to other platforms like television.  We view it as both an opportunity to develop stories and formats that can really speak to a Web-video-consuming audience and also as a chance to play around with a much more cost-efficient development model.

socialnerdia_heartfelt_black20_15gigsHeart Felt” is merely one example of a digital pilot we produced to gauge our audience's appetite.  In this case we wanted to test whether people wanted to watch a comedy about relationships between people and puppets. The viewership and feedback were very strong, so we now look at how to shape this series for both online and television platforms.

2. Black20 seems to focus on the content instead of spending money on marketing. What are some of things you need to do when creating content that is meant to be spread by the online masses?

We've never paid a single cent for marketing or promotion. We've relied on our content to virally spread itself. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. It's tricky predicting what videos will go viral, but we've realized content focused on nostalgia or topical events tend to spread much faster. Oh yeah, or anything related to Star Wars.

3. The web gives you the benefit of gauging audience responses to better develop your characters and stories. Can you give some examples of how you've adapted or improved a show after listening to feedback online?

socialnerdia_net_workWe had some strange characters on the series “net_work,” that the audience wasn't really taking to. For example, there was a werewolf named Dean who worked in the office. He wasn't getting the reaction we wanted from people. Probably because he just growled. We eventually wrote him out of episodes and started to focus on the main characters Michael Torpey and Mike O'Gorman.

4. How are you using social media to spread the word and how do you personally use sites like Twitter and Facebook?

Some of our biggest fans have a massive Twitter following. When they retweet links to our videos, it can spread pretty quickly. Recently, Kevin Smith tweeted about our "Transforminators" video we created for IGN.com. He has 1.5 million followers. Traffic to that one video was explosive.

5. The name "Black20" came from a lucky break in Atlantic City where you and the other founders doubled your money on a roulette wheel. Please tell us what happened and describe your philosophy on risk-taking.



We were working for a big network at the time, and when our production budgets got cut, we did what any other cash-strapped producer would do. We grabbed our cameras, drove down to Atlantic City, and threw what was left of our budget on a single roulette spin. If we won - awesome, we had great footage. If we lost, disappointing, but still a pretty compelling episode. Luckily we won.

We've never been afraid to take risks - from that drive to AC, to the content we create. There's a lot of content online, too much in fact. If you want to stand out - you have to take a different approach to storytelling. We have an episode of “net_work” where anthropomorphic skyscrapers sing about the racism. I'm sure there are some people who watch that video wonder what the hell we're doing - but a lot of viewers will never forget that episode, and keep them coming back for more.

6. Does producing video for the web sometimes feel limiting from a creative standpoint? For example, do you sometimes feel constrained to a certain look or a certain audience?

We have more more creative freedom on the Web - there's no limitation to the stories we can tell. The only limiting factor is Web budgets. I have the unpopular job of telling the writers we can't buy this amazing costume called "Dressed to Kill" - it's a sweet King Cobra wearing a tuxedo. Maybe we'll hold a charity car wash or something.

7. You produce a lot of content and you actually created videos on a daily basis for the first couple of years. What has changed since you started producing less frequently?

When we first launched the company in 2007, our strategy was focused on becoming a destination. We quickly learned how difficult it was to start a destination in an already crowded space. More importantly, running a destination is fighting the way online video is meant to be viewed and shared. 60 million viewers have seen our content - all on other sites. Instead of fighting upstream, we became a digital studio that produces content for brands and larger destinations that already have millions of viewers.

8. You got started at NBC, where you got to run NBC’s digital studios department after pitching a show called "Out of Context." What happened and how did you get through it?

“Out of Context” was our first Web series we produced in 2003.  We sold it to NBC, and were hired into their Digital Studios department. We produced a ton of content, but the department struggled with an undefined business strategy - largely due to being a small team that had to play by big corporate rules in a very nascent space. One day we got the crazy idea of running a start-up, and before you know it, we were working out of some nasty apartments in Brooklyn.

9. The Webby-nominated "The Easter Bunny Hates You" is still getting views on YouTube. Is there a sequel, and if not, is that just to make a point about sequels (ie Hollywood sequels)?

We were asked to make a sequel, but we thought it would be super lame. I mean, how many different ways can an Easter Bunny punch a dude in the face. But we ended up releasing a prequel called "Easter Begins" - it reveals the Easter Bunny's battered childhood and how he became so violent and angry.

10. Have you ever tried to pitch some of your shows to get them produced on cable or network television? I can imagine a show like "The Middle Show" on G4. Or maybe as a Late Late Late Show.

socialnerdia_themiddleshow_black20We're currently talking to a few networks about developing these shows for television. When you've proven that you can create multiple episodes of a series, and get over ten million viewers to watch it - there's definitely potential to bring it to television. Our team has a knack for writing irreverent late night style comedy - so a late night variety show like "The Middle Show" is something that's right in our wheelhouse.

11. Video online really took off with YouTube. How important is YouTube as a video platform today?

YouTube is certainly not the only player in the space, but they are the biggest name in town. If you want your videos to become viral - leveraging YouTube and Twitter are the key components.

12. Hulu is flirting with the idea of paid-for, subscription-based business models. Do you think that would be a mistake or a natural business move for itself and/or its partners?

I think having a partial-subscription based model is the next natural step for sites like Hulu - although not at the expense of alienating casual viewers. I would imagine Hulu would offer a certain level of free ad-supported content, along with a premium subscription service for watching movies or exceeding a certain threshold of consuming content. Even though they're not online video, I think Flickr does a nice job of balancing free and subscription-based service.

13. There's an episode in "net_work" called "Internet's full" where Mike and Michel are brainstorming for video ideas. Have you ever made a video that ends up looking a lot like some other existing video?

socialnerdia_jcrowley_black20With so much content out there, it's bound to happen on occasion. We take the time to research other videos and make sure we're not tackling something that's been done a hundred times before. In fact, we often find videos that are pretty similar after we have released ours. We had some viewers accuse of us of stealing jokes from Jim Carrey in "Yes Man" - specifically the scene where Carrey plays the song "Jumper" by 3rd Eye Blind. It closely resembles a scene from our series "net_work" where Mike O'Gorman plays the same song, to talk a suicide jumper off the ledge. We released our “net_work” episode well over a year before that movie came out.

14. Black20's web site mentions "organic product integration" opportunities for advertisers. How is product placement on a viral video or online series different from one on a movie theater in terms of how viewers respond to it?

The nature of online video gives the audience an opportunity to be either active or passive viewers. Online video has potential to be a much more enriched, interactive experience. If brands are associated with viral content, their message can travel to a variety of social networks and platforms as it is shared and discussed among communities. Whereas in a movie theater, there's brand integration - the message is delivered, and the experience is over. The viewer is still passively sitting back in a dark theatre. I doubt they're talking about the product integration when the exit the theatre. And let's not forget, the price to integrate into a Web series on viral video is a much cheaper alternative to Hollywood movie or television.

Copyright © Esteban Contreras. All rights reserved.