How do you define success for a Canadian web drama?

Jason Leaver, creator and producer of Out With Dad, tells Playback Daily about the challenge of turning a passion project about a young teenage girl coming out to her father into a business.
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This story is part of an occasional series from Playback on Canadian web dramas.

The coming-of-age Out With Dad web drama has a loyal international following, and around 400,000 online views each month.

That makes it a hit online episodic series, right?

Well, not quite, even as Jason Leaver, the creator of the quirky and award-winning drama about Rose, a young girl, and her single father dealing with a teenager coming out of the closet, is close to lining up a major sponsor.

After all, measuring Canadian web series success is not about deciding whether Out With Dad is popular.

It certainly is, as subtitled versions of the homegrown web drama now stream internationally in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, German, Dutch and the Czech languages.

And Out With Dad has 3,500 Facebook followers.

That must count for something, right?

Well, maybe.

The trouble for Leaver is figuring out how to make money streaming Out With Dad to stay in production as his passion project becomes a business.

“The luxury of having money means we get to have a schedule,” he tells Playback Daily about an upcoming third season of the episodic drama.

“We can have commitments to ourselves. You do need that, as evidenced by season two. Not only am I doing post production and the social networking, I’ve had a couple of big corporate gigs. Those big assignments come along,” Leaver says of needing to keep your day job when doing web dramas.

So the challenge is keeping a web drama in production and in front of its loyal audience, before its main creative and cast get more lucrative gigs, or Out With Dad turns into a TV show or movie.

That has Leaver confronting the rock/hard place coordinates of needing to raise hard cash to pay the cast and crew on Out With Dad for a third season of work after they generously agreed to volunteer for the first two seasons.

“The web works better for the bloggers. They can put out four episodes a week. I put out eight episodes a year. And their stuff is bite-sized,” Leaver explains about the economics of web series production, versus podcasting or blogging.

That’s all a long way from April 2009, when Leaver was sitting on a Toronto subway on his way to his day job in corporate video and needing a creative challenge. Suddenly, the idea of a narrative drama about a teenage girl coming out to her father popped into his head.

“The idea felt serial to me. It wasn’t a movie. It could have been a TV show. But I didn’t have a narrative in mind so much as slices of life,” Leaver recalls.

Besides, he didn’t have any experience in TV drama production.

So Leaver settled on a web series, turning to friends he’d made producing short films for support.

“I thought, how is [a web series] so different from a bunch of short films, other than they’re connected through a narrative?” he recalls.

Leaver and his creative partners also revelled in the indie spirit of web dramas, with no network execs to answer to, the ability to secure instant distribution via the web, and the freedom to break rules.

“If I want my teenage characters to swear, because they do swear, I do it. I just put it online,” he says.

Of course, before penning scripts for Out With Dad, Leaver had to do his research.

“I’m not a teenage lesbian or a father,” he explains, stating the obvious.

Then Leaver got down to writing Out With Dad, while pulling in people he needed for production, including camera operators, art directors and casting expertise.

Kate Conway, then a recent theatre graduate from Sheridan College and the University of Toronto, was the first to be cast in the lead role of Rose.

Conway hit it out of the park with her first audition, so her callback was to a coffee shop.

Out With Dad was Conway’s first on-screen gig, and Leaver needed to be certain he could work with her for the duration of the web series’ life, whatever that was.

“I didn’t know how big a commitment it would be,” the director says of Conway playing Rose.

After Conway joked over coffee that she was a diva on set, Leaver knew he had his gutsy lead and gave her the position.

Before long, newcomer Will Conlon was cast to play Rose’s father, while Lindsey Middleton was tapped to play Vanessa, who becomes progressively confused as her romantic feelings towards Rose grow.

Finally, after the first episode of Out With Dad streamed, Leaver recalls the luxury of instant audience feedback.

“It’s not TV. It’s way more direct with the audience,” he says, likening web dramas to writing for live theatre.

There’s positive and negative feedback from YouTube and other web video sites, there’s Facebook likes and thumbs up. There’s referrals on Twitter.

All of which helped Leaver tweak Out With Dad from its earliest incarnations, like making Vanessa’s emotional attraction to Rose more obvious to the online audience out of the gate.

“After the first couple episodes, I noticed no one liked Vanessa. So why would Rose be in love with Vanessa if no one liked her?” the series creator and writer remembers questioning.

So Leaver wrote a fourth episode that expanded on how much Rose liked Vanessa.

“They hadn’t seen that side of Vanessa. I won them over. Some people said, ‘now I see why she [Rose] likes her,’” he explains.

Away from the screen, there were also discoveries on how to build a loyal and international following for Out With Dad.

Take Spanish subtitles to reach the one-third of web series viewers who are Hispanic. Leaver credits piracy for that discovery.

“I had noticed some girl in Buenos Aires who had illegally downloaded Out With Dad, added Spanish subtitles and uploaded the series to her own YouTube channel, where she had more viewers than we had on our YouTube channel,” he recalls.

So Leaver sent the Argentinian teenager a letter that, while criticizing her for uploading the web series without compensating its creators, recommended that she view an early episode and subtitle it in Spanish.

In return, Leaver promised to cut a trailer to stream on the young woman’s YouTube channel out of Argentina.

She agreed, and the day an Out With Dad episode with Spanish subtitles went out, the worldwide audience did more than spike.

“The audience jumped, because it didn’t come down again,” Leaver says.

“They really like the show and very often the comments and feedback is in Spanish, or in poor English,” he adds.

Today, the Argentinian teenager is part of the Out With Dad production team, as are translators in six other languages.

But as an idea steadily becomes a business, there’s the current challenges of crowdfunding and securing sponsorship coin for a third season.

“Now I have a fan base. So it’s working. We’ve raised money,” Leaver reports, without specifying how much.

He adds Out With Dad will need around $100,000 to produce a third season where everyone on the project gets paid.

It won’t be scale, likely minimum wage, or around $100 a day.

But that should get Leaver a schedule for his third season that he didn’t have on the second.

With short web drama episodes, and scenes typically requiring two or three actors and a small crew, he estimates Out With Dad is near to completing financing for a third season.

“I think we have raised enough for five days of shooting. We’re off to a good start,” Leaver says as he continues to feed the international beast that is his international web drama audience.