Guidestones’ Jay Ferguson on brand integration to fund web series

"I want to create a genuine business model that creates a profit. There isn't enough (fund) money to make it sustainable," the Toronto filmmaker tells Playback about lining up sponsors for next-generation storytelling.
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As you talk to 3 o’clock.TV’s Jay Ferguson about his interactive web series Guidestones, you immediately notice a lack of digital lingo.

If anything, you have to prompt this straight-talking Toronto filmmaker to use the word transmedia, even though Guidestones employs many cross-platform tools like interactivity and alternate reality gaming.

“I did that without thinking I was creating a transmedia project. Then we launched it (Guidestones) and people said ‘you’ve created a great transmedia project,’” Ferguson recalls.

But what looks to others like transmedia is to Ferguson a curious experiment in how to captivate audiences with an online mystery/thriller about two journalism students uncovering a global conspiracy centered around a Georgia landmark.

“I’m so proud of this little project, that I’ve always called it an experiment, and always done it for reasons of passion and exploring a new model,” he explains.

“The model isn’t there yet, but we’re getting closer. We have a great and engaged audience,” Ferguson adds.

Guidestones and its 50 episodes is also to Ferguson and co-producer Jonas Diamond of iThentic Canada very much traditional storytelling that embraces brand partners and ancillary revenue streams to create a sustainable business model.

“How do we build a model that is monetizable and self-sustainable – that’s been the goal from the beginning,” he insists.

Implicit in that equation is whether it is desirable – or possible – to create web series by depending entirely on subsidy pools like the Independent Production Fund and the OMDC that served Guidestones well with initial seed financing.

“Why not exist in that world? I want to create a genuine business model that creates a profit. There isn’t enough (fund) money to make it sustainable,” he argues.

Here Guidestones faces a challenge common to next-generation Canadian web series.

Public and industry funding can get projects off the ground.

But eventually patient actors, technical crews and other key creative look to get paid as a web series possibly moves into a second or third season.

What’s more, Ferguson, as a veteran commercial director and cinematographer, takes to brand sponsorship for his web series like a duck to water.

“It’s a totally natural fit. I work with brands. Through directing, producing and shooting commercials over the last number of many years, I get brands and I like working with them and I know they have needs,” he explains.

The result is Guidestones has made full use of brand integration from sponsors like Samsung, Karbon Clothing, the Toronto Blue Jays and Major League Baseball and Pizza Pizza.

Some sponsors are easier to seamlessly accommodate than others.

The two main protagonists, exchange student Sandy Rai, played by Supinder Wraich, and fellow student Trevor Shale (Dan Fox), both wear Karbon clothing, and both use Samsung Galaxy smartphones to search for clues and a way into an unfolding conspiratorial world to solve the murder mystery.

And Fox’s character in the second episode declares he’s a big Blue Jays fan, which later becomes significant as both characters go to Atlanta, where the Toronto baseball club beat the Braves to win the World Series.

Then there’s Pizza Pizza, an early and major sponsor of Guidestones.

Here Ferguson reminds that his web series is not a commercial.

“It’s not a call to action, it’s not look at our new cheese pizza with churrasco chicken. It’s not that,” he smiles.

Instead, Pizza Pizza is looking in Guidestones for brand integration to get its product in front of and recognized by a young and hip web series audience.

Besides an online contest for Guidestones fans to receive free pizza for a year, Ferguson and his team hid Pizza Pizza branded posters in certain web series episodes that contain serial numbers key to audience interactivity.

“You’re looking for the Pizza Pizza posters, but it’s all hidden and comes out with bits and pieces,” he explained.

Ferguson added he looks forward to a time when one brand sponsor will underwrite the cost of a web series he produces.

“They’re (brands) looking for ways to reach audiences. As more brands get more comfortable in the space, our budgets may rise,” he explained.

That’s further down the road. For now, iThentic and 3 o’clock.tv are prepping for a second season of Guidestones, now at the script stage.

Production on the second cycle is set to take place in summer 2013, in Toronto and Europe, including France, the U.K. and the Ukraine, with new episodes going to market in early 2014.

The second season episodes will be longer, at between six and seven minutes, compared to three minutes for the first season.

And Ferguson promises action scenes to take the drama and interactivity to a new level.

He’ll be Cannes next week as Guidestones is entered in the International Emmys competition, and Ferguson will be attending MIPTV to drum up distribution support for his web series.

Guidestones is up against stiff competition at the International Emmys.

But Ferguson and his team did score a trifecta by winning a Banff Rockie, Digi and Canadian Screen Award for best web series.

“We won all three awards. It’s never been done before,” Ferguson said proudly.