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SXSW '15: From The Walking Dead to Nerd Court

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After a Maker Studios panel during last year's SXSW Interative that focused on business and revenue, news leaked that Maker Studios would be acquired by Disney. Rather than focusing on the business side this year, a panel today at SXSW called "Lights, Camera, Action: Maker Labs Live in Austin," offered a look into how the company works with talent and brands to create original content.

David Alpert and Robert Kirkman, partners at Skybound Entertainment, joined Maker chief content officer Erin McPherson to talk about their partnership. McPherson began by pointing out that, along with owner Disney, Maker is responsible for 12% of all content on YouTube. In fact, the session was heavy on the numbers, as the speakers emphasized how they leverage user data to both confirm their creative impulses and find out things they might not have anticipated.

Skybound is equally prominent in pop culture, having built its brand around Kirkman and his creation, The Walking Dead. "It’s why sometimes you’ll find yourself thinking 'Enough with the Walking Dead'," joked Kirkman.

Skybound is a founding partner in Maker Labs, which was introduced last year to "Makerize" content, as McPherson said, working collaboratively with content creators to develop web series.

That’s a switch from the "old way" McPherson helped create content when she was in charge of original video at Yahoo. She said Maker Labs looks closely at data to figure out what’s going to work and what’s not, rather than simply creating a series in a vacuum, shoving it out the front door, and hoping it works. "The web isn’t about a front door anymore, it's about a million side doors," she said. "It’s very iterative. We live in a fluid space, so let’s apply that fluidity to the process,"

Alpert said Skybound joined up with Maker to take what it had successfully done in comics and on television and bring it online. "The initial round was very much television made for the internet, with the idea that we’re going to make a TV show, but just cheaper," he said. There was then a movement to build content that didn’t obey the rules of TV, and that’s the wave Skybound is riding.

"The world of comics is very fast, very hands on, where you can take a lot of risks and have fun," Kirkman said. "TV is also very fun, but it’s slower. This is a mixture of what I’ve been doing in comics all along and what I’ve done with TV."

"The thing that’s exciting about Maker is that we say 'We have this idea and we’re going to go out and do this, and it comes out with some filtering, but it’s closer to our original vision'," said Alpert.

For Maker, data is key to how they help creators develop shows. "As I was developing a content strategy, I figured we could buy a lot of shows and push them with marketing, or we could look at what Maker does every day with our creators," she said. "We look at data and do what YouTubers do instinctively, which is taking input from fans. The comic book world is also very fan-driven. It's a new approach to how we pilot and launch content. It’s not about using data to twist or overly torture creative formats, but it’s additive and informs the process."

With Nerd Court, a show that McPherson called "The People’s Court for nerds," Maker Labs used data to confirm what Alpert already knew from his comic book store experience—like the fact that the "Batman vs. Superman" debate still rages among comics fans—as well as things that they didn’t already know, like the fact that "nerd" a more popular term than "geek." This data helped them decide on the name for the show, as well as the content of the first episode.

It’s an on-going learning process, said McPherson, adding that Maker processes more than 2 million lines of code a day, proprietary data from its CMS, which sits on top of YouTube, as wel as from other platforms. "We’ll lean in to what works with Nerd Court and Superfight, and lean back from what doesn’t," she said. "We’re able to produce and iterate in real-time, whereas in TV you don’t have that opportunity."

Of course, the conversation eventually turned to monetization, and McPherson said that the advertising support is finally shifting towards digital in a big way, while Kirkman emphasized the value of branded content.

"It’s all about making art, and if Pepsi is going to come and say 'we’ll pay you to make it,' you can’t really complain about it," said Kirkman. "You want to have integrity, but you want to be able to make something you might not otherwise be able to do. And you have to do it in the right way. If they stopped on the show and ate at a Kentucky Fried Chicken, that would take you out of the show."

In addition to Skybound, Maker Labs partners include James Franco’s Rabbit Bandini, will.i.am, and skateboarder Nyjah Huston.

Walking Dead creator and Skybound partner Robert Kirkman, Skybound partner David Alpert, Maker Studios chief content officer Erin McPherson, and Wall Street Journal columnist Mike Shields, who moderated the panel.

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