Nerd Court Is Now in Session: The Walking Dead's Robert Kirkman Teams with Maker Studios to Guarantee (Zombie Fingers Crossed) a Hit Web Series

By Castillo, Michelle | ADWEEK, March 9, 2015 | Go to article overview

Nerd Court Is Now in Session: The Walking Dead's Robert Kirkman Teams with Maker Studios to Guarantee (Zombie Fingers Crossed) a Hit Web Series


Castillo, Michelle, ADWEEK


In a heated exchange before a judge, YouTuber Commander Holly (real name: Holly Conrad) faces off against actress Tina Huang. The issue at hand is one that has divided many a Trekkie: William Riker, yay or nay?

Welcome to Nerd Court, where arguments that one might normally witness at a comic book store instead are heard in a "court of law," a la The People's Court or Judge Judy. (Other raging debates include Star Wars vs. Star Trek, and which film series features better magic, The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.)

The six-episode Web series, which premiered March 4, is a passion project of Maker Labs, a division of Disney-owned multichannel network Maker Studios, and Skybound Entertainment, the media company owned by Robert Kirkman, executive producer of AMC's hit zombie thriller The Walking Dead and creator of the comic book series on which the show is based. "It's a whole tongue-in-cheek show, but it's a lot of fun," says Kirkman.

The combination of Kirkman, the creative force behind one of television's top series, and Maker Studios--which, with more than 11 billion monthly views, is the largest content distributor on YouTube--pretty much ensures Nerd Court will attract a degree of viewership. And yet neither side wants to leave that to chance. The Maker Labs model will give Skybound, on whose YouTube channel the show runs, an expansive layer of data based on social media insights to inform its creative decisions. Maker believes that formula will enable Kirkman's company to experiment with digital media while doing the formerly impossible: guaranteeing a hit.

"If you know that your audience likes this kind of content, why the hell do I want to make 19 shows that may be successful?" says Michael Kassan, CEO of the strategic advisory firm MediaLink, which has helped broker several Maker Studios deals. "I want to make the one that people will watch."

Maker Studios first announced the creation of Maker Labs last May at its Digital Content NewFronts presentation in New York, underscoring the central challenge both content producers and advertisers in the digital space face finding relevant content for specific audiences and, especially in the case of brands, being able to prove, with hard stats, that programming resonates. Now, Maker Labs is rewriting the script for producing hits, by letting its partners use its creative team, digital experience and, most importantly, the real-time feedback on audience behavior it gathers through digital analysis.

Maker Labs also advises on distribution strategy, production, management, optimization and marketing, all based on online data. Talent labs (which in the future will include media partners and publishers) focus more on working with creators to help bring series to life, while brand labs can be activated using Maker's roster of 55,000 creators. Besides Skybound, others working with Maker include James Franco and Vince Jolivette's Rabbit Bandini Productions, professional skateboarder Nyjah Huston, singer will.i.am and PepsiCo.

"Think of it as taking the best of what digital does--which is really distributing content at scale and delivering real-time data and insights--and merging that with what traditional media does, which is storytelling," explains Maker Studios chief content officer Erin McPherson. "With both of those combined, we're able to produce content that is really responsive to audience demand." McPherson notes that Maker Labs was born out of inefficiencies in the market, considering the bulk of content available on so many devices. In her previous position as head of video at Yahoo, she realized that unless programming was supported by serious marketing, it would never be discovered. While Yahoo had the benefit of its front page to seed materials, she points out, consumers today--especially millennials--are less likely to turn to such portals to find what to watch.

Even with promotional budgets, it remains difficult to capture the attention of today's fragmented audience--which is why having social media stats built into one's content can help ensure a receptive audience. …

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