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Shangri-LA Chases Streaming Video Success in Paradise: A Q&A

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Online video has helped plenty of new creators get discovered and grow an audience, but it takes talent, dedication, and a little bit of money to produce a show people want to spend time with. To learn the basics of streaming on a small budget, we called up Drew Rosas, director and co-creator of the new series Shangri-LA. An ensemble comedy, Shangri-LA looks at people far outside the Los Angeles mainstream who dream of Hollywood success. It’s available for purchase or rental from Amazon Video and Vimeo. Take a look; we highly recommend it.

Shangri-LA is a snackable series, offering 13 episodes with an average length of 10 minutes. But creating those 13 episodes took more than 2 years. Here’s Rosas on the business and economics of producing online entertainment.

How did Shangri-LA start?

I had a little production editing studio in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights, and it’s sort of East L.A., a little bit rundown, kind of an industrial neighborhood. I started encountering all these people that were sort of like transient people. I wouldn’t necessarily say homeless, but semi-homeless people that are sort of making their own way. And I was just really surprised that most of the people that I had met over there had at some point or another been somehow involved in the entertainment industry. People that had their photography studio or had moved to Los Angeles to be a screenwriter and lived in their car, which is a classic story. That’s when the idea came to take it back down to the street level and capture that Los Angeles phenomenon of people surviving on the streets while trying to make their way in Los Angeles and Hollywood.

You have a lot of really talented people on Shangri-LA. How did you assemble your cast and crew?

The main casting element that we do is pretty much everyone, all the main characters in this show, are friends or colleagues that we’ve worked with before, and people that love our projects and know what they’re getting into, and they’re there to have fun with the production. Our strategy is to find either friends that can be actors, and some of them are actually non-actors, or people that have been in other roles in the industry that we threw into a performance role in this project because we wanted to take people’s real-life personalities and build the character around that. I find that that really works very well when you’re dealing with a lower-budget project. You can’t necessarily spend a year casting it and hire casting directors and do all kinds of auditions and pay money for Academy Award-winning actors that have that skill to embody any character. When you’re dealing with our level of production, it’s really, really valuable to have actors that are already halfway to their character. Pretty much everyone in the show was a variation of themselves, in a sense, where we structure the scenes and we tell them the direction that every scene goes, but we also give them a lot of freedom to be that character and live that character in the moment. It’s probably 50/50 improvised and scripted.

How long did shooting and editing take?

Because it was a low-budget thing and a lot of people were helping out with donated time, we didn’t do a block shoot. I’ve done films where we have blocked off 40 days and just shot the entire project. What we did for this is we shot maybe 2 or 3 days a week over a course of about 5 months. So we’re balancing out our shoots when people are off and available from their normal jobs, and so it really stretched out. I think it was probably about a year total in editing, and then a little bit more for finishing as far as color correction and final sound mixing. I also did 90% of the music myself. That was another 3-month period where I was just making music and doing the compositions.

Are there advantages to creating episodic content rather than a feature film?

Part of the idea for this project was how do we write a story that is connected and has that larger story arc of a feature film—because we really love writing in that format—but then take it and dissect it into chapters so that we have 13 10-minute bite-sized chapters that are way more digestible for audiences today. Our plan right now is to release—what we call unlocking—a new episode every other week. So every other week, we’re able to have a new piece of content for free to build our audience in a way that it’s fresh. It’s something new; it’s not what we were pushing last week, it’s a new piece of content. We really need to approach this like a grassroots campaign and have more of a slow build.

Drew Rosas, center, called in favors to assemble the cast and crew of Shangri-LA, a low-budget 13-part online series about marginal talents living on the margins of Los Angeles.

Do you shoot differently knowing that your work is likely to be viewed on a phone?

No, I actually didn’t shoot any different. We do screen this in theaters a lot, and so I wanted it to be a cinematic experience. That’s actually been one of our stronger marketing tools, playing festivals, and now we’re in the process of setting up one-off screenings around the country. I will say that the thing that is so strange nowadays is that a lot of providers are trying to get vertical content, and we obviously shot landscape, which I think is a much-preferred way to watch something. We see the world in landscape, but there is this big push for people to have vertical content now. We’re trying to get on a couple phone-exclusive streaming platforms, and one of them is actually going through our entire show right now and converting it to a vertical version. So it’s an interesting process, but I personally prefer landscape.

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