Felicia Day: How a Girl Geek Made It Big on Her Own
Enterprising DIY actress Felicia Day reveals how she built her popular web series "The Guild" into a real business with corporate sponsorship -- all from her kitchen.
I've been acting for years and have created a good niche as the quirky girl who does laundry or works as a secretary. I realized that it might be the only role I play for the rest of my life, so I decided to write a show to feature me as a character you don't normally see in Hollywood: a plain, introverted girl with a horrible addiction to video games. It's a touch biographical, and I wrote it as a half-hour pilot that didn't garner much interest.
In 2007, the industry wasn't really aware of people playing video games online with each other, and there were some fundamentals about the community that weren't very mainstream yet. My co-producer Kim Evey read my script and suggested we start making it for the web since that's where the gamers were. The Guild's now been on for four years and five seasons, with 100 million views.
We shot two episodes on our own dime, borrowing cameras and filming in garages. The budget was a couple hundred dollars; I was essentially getting on Freecycle.org and driving to Irvine to get set dressings off a curb because I thought it would look good in the background. After a couple of episodes, we realized we couldn't self-fund anymore, and someone suggested adding a PayPal button on the website I created. Within three or four weeks, we had enough money to shoot another episode.
YouTube featured us on its front page, and we started reaching one million people and getting more funding through PayPal. It was enough to pay our expenses and complete my script, which we'd turned into a 10-episode first season. It was completely crowd-sourced and crowd-supported. About 550 people from all over the world donated; somebody gave us $500 once, and I e-mailed him to find out if he had misplaced the decimal! (He hadn't.)
After PayPal, the budgets increased moderately, and it helped to pay people who had been working for free. When we finished the first season, we decided that we needed full funding because we wanted to pay the actors and crew. So we went to studios and independent producers who were interested in the web space. For traditional companies, we weren't interesting enough, so Kim and I sat down and figured out how to self-publish a DVD. We sold several thousand copies through PayPal, packaging them in my kitchen. At one point, I remember weeping into a customs form to Israel because it was literally the 900th one I'd filled out and I couldn't do it anymore.
We interviewed a lot of studios and producers, and they all wanted the rights to The Guild but weren't willing to pay a lot of money for them. We opted to shoot the first episode of season two using the money we'd saved from the DVD. The DVD revenue paid all of our actors, crew, locations and expenses; we'd asked people to work for free, so the fact that we kept a whole crew together for 10 months working on almost no budget is a testament to what a great crew we have.
At Comic-Con in 2007, we started with a 200-person room. Now we have the Indigo Ballroom, which is one of the largest Comic-Con stages. It holds 3,000 people, and we share it with Community and Leverage. Conventions have been a huge part of our show.
We've also been on every social network because we didn't have any money to get the word out about our show. I was on Twitter before mainstream marketing jumped on, and whenever a new tool we could use for free came to the forefront -- Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Vevo -- it became the organic place where we pushed our show.
For season two, Microsoft came in and said they loved the show and were interested in doing original content. They had Sprint on board as an overall sponsor and offered to release The Guild on their platforms and allow me to own the show. The budget is nowhere near that of a TV show -- it's a standard web-series budget -- but we're now able to pay everyone up front. It's still just a fraction of what people would spend on a 30-second ad.
Xbox introduced us to millions of new viewers in a way that nobody else could have done at the time because their digital portals were so much more powerful than what we were even doing on YouTube. And I was able to retain the rights to my IP.
A viral music-video promo we released in 2009 for The Guild hit No. 1 on iTunes over other huge recording artists. The success we've had has been completely based on word-of-mouth and our fan base.
We came from a place where we had no resources. We're still two women who work out of our kitchens.
Watch episodes of The Guild at watchtheguild.com; follow actress/web producer Felicia Dayon Twitter at @FeliciaDay.
FELICIA'S TAKE ON: Which Comic-Con gifts are appropriate and which aren't, the future of TV on the web and her new series Dragon Age
Writing Samples (Good Version)
Last year, I had a guy give me a beautiful hand-printed, illustrated fairy-tale book and say, "My wife is too shy to come up and give this to you, but because of what you've been doing on the web -- making things without asking for permission first -- my wife has decided to make this book that she's waited decades to do." She dedicated it to me.
Writing Samples (Bad Version)
At a panel, I actually had somebody give me Bad Horse/Penny fan fiction [from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog]. Bad Horse is a horse, and it wasn't appropriate.
Electronic Arts reached out and said they wanted to work together on a project for Dragon Age, which is one of my favorite video games. I'm writing, producing and starring in that. We were able to create a fantasy world from scratch on a web-series budget because I was able to call in a lot of favors from fans of The Guild. It'll be out in late summer/early fall.
The Comic-Con Costume
If I could put all the makeup on, I would be a Klingon, just because I think that'd be really fun.
The Web Business Model
I've been on the forefront as a person of interest in the web-series world because in the long term, people see what happened to the music industry, and they know that's going to happen in TV and film; it's just a question of time and scale. I definitely could have gone into TV development much earlier than this, but I really do believe in the web space and the potential merger of the two.