Vimeo Charging $8 for Six Episodes of 'High Maintenance'

High Maintenance Vimeo Ben Sinclair Katja Blichfeld - H 2014
Cameron Marshad

High Maintenance Vimeo Ben Sinclair Katja Blichfeld - H 2014

The company is continuing to test the pay model with the project it picked up from FX

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In the two years since High Maintenance began streaming on Vimeo, the original web series about a marijuana dealer and his eclectic Brooklyn clientele has attracted a loyal audience and even some critical acclaim. But for the series' fifth season, which premiered Nov. 11, the video site known as "the upscale YouTube" tried something different: It invested in the project and began charging $2 an episode, or $8 for the entire six-episode season.

Vimeo isn't disclosing viewership numbers, but CEO Kerry Trainor says High Maintenance generated more money in the first two days since charging for episodes than it would have with YouTube ad sales over the past two years. And the 13 previously available episodes have seen a surge in traffic, with the most popular free episodes topping 500,000 views.

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Vimeo began testing the paid-video waters in May 2013 with the launch of its on-demand business — from which it takes a 10 percent cut of revenue — and has amassed a library of 14,000 titles, including Joss Whedon's In Your Eyes. And now the IAC-owned company is positioning itself to join YouTube in the growing subscription VOD business with an offering of its own. "We've been a subscription-based business for many years now," says Trainor, citing the company's program that offers creators premium video tools for a monthly fee. "I think the user behavior is already there and the precedent has already been set."

“Original content is the next logical step in the process,” says Vimeo GM Greg Clayman. According to Clayman, Vimeo was specifically looking for original content that would resonate with the company’s already sizable community of 170 million unique viewers per month.  

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Instead of seeking a new project as its first original, Vimeo set its sights on High Maintenance, which in its two years on the Vimeo platform had generated a dedicated following, including actor Dan Stevens and comedian Hannibal Buress, each of whom stars in their own episode. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum has also raved about the series, writing in June that “though its scripts are witty, High Maintenance is often at its best when it’s at its quietest: jumping from image to image with nothing but music playing, sniffing around corners like a nosy neighbor.”

Creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair — who also stars as weed dealer The Guy — had been adapting the project for FX after its first two years streaming on Vimeo. But after the duo was asked to reshoot popular episodes to fit a 30-minute format, the deal went south.

“These are our personal stories,” explains Blichfeld, “so it felt weird having someone tell us how our personal stories should go because we lived this, we know it.”

When the deal fell through, Vimeo swooped in with an offer: The husband-and-wife team owns the show and maintains artistic autonomy while Vimeo funds production — including paying a significantly larger cast and crew that previously worked for free. The result, says Sinclair, is a more sophisticated version of the same show they were already making.  

But are they worried about asking their dedicated fans to pay up for the first time?

"It's coffee money," says Sinclair. "We know that people don't like to pay for things, but we're asking for a simple thing: Give money to the people who are making the thing."