Brown Nation is a 10-episode series that debuted on Netflix in November. It’s a situation comedy about south Indian immigrants working in the US tech business. It was self-financed, and independently shot and produced in and around New York City.
We took the opportunity to chat with writer and director Abi Varghese about how an independent without industry connections sells a series to Netflix, and what a Netflix deal looks like. The show is another unique example how Frame.io used for more than just collaboration in post-production. Abi and his team discovered that test screenings can be virtualized and treated like social media using the software.
Tell us about the show.
Brown Nation is basically a sitcom, around 22 minutes each episode, and it’s about this main character called Hasmukh. And he runs a failing IT company. He’s got a mixed bag of dysfunctional workers that work for him in his Queens office.
He services a software called Citrus 2.0, but it’s a dying software, and he’s waiting for Citrus 3.0 to come to take leadership in the market. But we all know that it’s never coming. He’s very hopeful that it’ll come.
At home, he’s got to deal with the family life. He’s got a wife who is a wannabe artist and struggles through being an artist and trying to find herself. And he also lives with his father-in-law, and a dog called Bobby, who is almost like a child to them.
How was the pitch process handled?
We got funding from many individual investors, but we also had a couple of bigger production companies, like Silicon Media, who put in a big portion of the funding.
We had the pilot episode, a Bible, all 10 written episodes for the investors to look at, and a a sizzle reel. We were looking at investors out in the Silicon Valley, plus a lot of people in the IT sector in Bangalore.We thought that they would be interested in this type of a show.
And did that work out?
They were able to relate to the humor. They also saw that a lot of people in India were doing films (not series) at that time. This was one of the first series in India to not go that film route and not be a soap opera.
We felt that having that two-minute sizzle reel really helped out a lot, because when you’re dealing with investors, they see a lot of numbers and presentations. But having something solid that they could see, they know where the show is going to go, and it only takes up about two minutes of their time.
Did you work with your own network, or was there a viral quality with the trailer?
We didn’t want it out too long, so we only showed it to people that we thought could take us somewhere. The material gets old too if you have it out too early. So we avoided that and honed in on people that had genuine interest.
Let’s talk about the Netflix deal. Did you have a connection? Can you describe a little bit about how you initially started talking with them?
We had shot the 10 episodes really fast. It was about 250 pages, script pages, that we did in 30 days with a two camera set-up.
What took a lot of time was the sales aspect. We got a rough cut together, and then we started pitching it out to a lot of networks: NBC, CBS, all those people. But they all turned it down because it was a niche type of a product for them, too independent.
Then we we’re like maybe it’s India, maybe that’s where it works. So we went to the main people in India, and Star TV, the biggest player, said “No, I think it’s a little too American and too English for us.”
We were right in the middle thinking, “Man, I think we got it all wrong.” It’s like nowhere land.
That’s when we saw the potential of Netflix. In January 2016, they opened the doors in India. We went back to them with our manager, and they said, “I think we saw this once before but now we’re looking at it, it really fits our model. We’re expanding the South Asian market. And I think this will do well.” I think it was a little bit of luck and being there at the right time. They saw five or six episodes through Frame.io, really liked it, and so they took a chance with us.
How did your trailer reach them? Is there a way to pitch directly?
I think you definitely need someone in between. There’s so many times that me and friends were, “we’ll just get into Netflix by just going to LinkedIn and finding that right person and kind of emailing them.” None of that stuff works I don’t think, unless you’re really lucky. The proper way to do it (and the way we did it) is having a manager or field agent in between to showcase your product.
I don’t think it has to be a big sales agent. If they have that connection to somebody to at least get your product in front of them, that’s all you need, for someone to see the product. If your content is good I think there’s a good chance that they will want to look at other episodes. A lot of it is just the timing—does it meet the content requirements that they’re looking for at the time?
So tell me a little bit about how you used Frame.io on this project.
We’re a small group of people. Our editor was in Canada, I was out in Jersey. Our producers were out in Chicago and then in India. And then the entire music team was out in India, and our colorist was out in New York. So just coordinating this, I don’t know how it would have been possible without Frame.io. You don’t even feel like you’re working so remote.
And from our first cut, we got feedback from the producers, from other creators. They would all mark it up saying that, “Oh no, I think the scenes are a little too lagging,” or, “This needs a little bit more work.” Then the colorist, music designer, the composer each would upload work saying “do you agree or not?” Everyone got to see it, and they could put in their input.
The best thing about this was it’s almost like social media. You can see the likes in the comments section. Sometimes you have those comments that are just one-off, you realize, “Oh no, I think it’s just that person’s perspective. It’s not the entire team.” It’s almost like putting it on Facebook and seeing a comment is popular, meaning that it might be a problem. Maybe it is lagging because a lot of people are liking it, so we should do something about it.
So you were pretty brave, just letting everyone on the production throw in?
Yeah. I think it was 10 people, our first real audience, so I wanted to get as much feedback as we can before we put it out in the market. A lot of the stuff is personal, but that’s what I liked. You put up,”Oh, this joke is not funny.” If you see Likes, you realize, “Oh, okay. It’s not one person’s side comment. There’s an issue.”
Did you ever do test screenings with an actual audience?
After we got if off of Frame.io and we finalized it, we sent it out to multiple people with the password. But no, we never sat people in an audience and watched it together.
I’ve worked on independent films and those test screenings are a big deal. If the director’s in the room, he can feel it if people are bored, or things seem a little tense, and so on.
I always felt like I’ve done those in the past where you’re sitting with a lot of people and you’re testing it and I always felt people are a little too nice, you know? Especially since the director is there, the producer is there, they don’t want to offend.
But the way that I really looked at it was give it out to 20 or 50 people on Frame.io and get their feedback. I always felt that worked even though you’re not actually having 20 people sit in at once watching it. And if they’re not quick on their comments getting back to you, I know that there’s an issue. If they don’t get you a comment, you know that they haven’t watched it, which is not a good thing either.
So you let friends and family and people in your network watch it and see each other’s comments, is that right?
It was almost like sharing it on YouTube, but privately, you know?
We all know about YouTube comments and where that tends to go. Using Frame.io, you were forcing people to be specific.
People are critical but some of the comments you have to ignore because it’s very personal. As a director and a writer, you have to figure out what to ignore and what to really take to heart. Because if it’s something you thought about, and you see other comments, you know there’s an issue. I would feel like “okay maybe the ending isn’t working,” and if I see a comment like that I know it is the truth. You can’t hide that anymore.
Was there any sensitivity about having comments visible somebody who might actually be a decision maker or distributor?
We just picked out five or six people in groups. That’s one thing I like about Frame.io because you could add your collaborators and take them out the way that you want. It’s not like Vimeo where you get a password and anyone can take out that password. You could limit the way that you want people to see it.
My producer friends always told me about this, when you are using platforms such as Vimeo, there’s always a tendency to think,”Man, what if it gets leaked?” And with Frame.io we felt that there was a lot more privacy. It just felt like more of a secure platform, so everyone was a little bit more at ease about sharing comments.
So you would set up a new project for each new set of people you wanted to screen it for?
Correct. And what would happen was that every time that we did the first cut we would delete the entire thing and then post it up again because I don’t want people going back to their old comments. You can see it fresh as well.
“Overnight success” after years of work
So this was in development for a couple years, and there was some independent financing before there was any agreement signed with your eventual distributor, Netflix?
We used to do a regional Indian TV series called Akkara Kazhchakal back in 2009 and 2010. That was when I had a full-time job in the marketing realm (working for Unilever in the New York area). We used to do that on the weekend, but once it was out on TV, it got really popular on YouTube.
We wanted to do something similar, dealing with Indians in the US, but for a broader audience. So that’s why we came up with the idea for Brown Nation, where it’s a mix of all these unique individuals that live in Queens, but also very intercultural. There’s the all-American white guy, the Lebanese guy, the south Indian, the North Indian. It’s these mixed cultures that you only see in areas like New York.
I wrote it with two of my friends, George (Kanatt) and Matt (Grubb). We made sure that the lead character was somewhat quirky because I think we tend to like that. We got our self-funding together, did a pilot and we pitched it out to a couple investors. They liked it, and they greenlit it to a 10 episode before we even got distribution.
Netflix is probably not producing so many original series for India yet. I bet they’re doing what they did in the US for a while, getting ahold of documentaries that haven’t had wide distribution.
Right, right. Absolutely. I think that’s their plan right now.
Did you make changes to the series for Netflix?
I think the best part about having it on Netflix was that we didn’t have to change any of the timing because when we wrote the episodes, some were like 25 pages, some of them were like 30 pages. We thought that if it does get on TV, we’ll limit to 22 minutes, but since it’s on Netflix, we didn’t have to do much cutting.
What does the revenue model look like with them?
I have a lot of friends who have done feature films into Netflix, and they don’t pay much because it’s just a year of exclusivity. But in terms of exclusive TV series, producers are much more happy with their returns, because it’s ongoing. So I feel that they tend to pay better for an exclusive series just for them than a one-off film. They do the payments every quarter, and our contract is about four years.
Your series is done and they’re essentially marketing it for you. Is there more work to do?
Since we are still independent, we are trying to market ourselves as well, figuring our Facebook page and our Instagram account. We have a variety of activities going out, like a music video that’s coming out, small things to push the product as well.
So the goal is to get good numbers with Netflix so that they want to purchase another season?
Right. I don’t know how in-depth Netflix gives out the numbers in terms of viewership for your particular shows. We’re just trying to get as maximum eyeballs out there for the show.
With the Netflix model, that that wouldn’t even necessarily be any particular period of time out. Like it could be in a year, but it could be in three months.
Wow, that’s really interesting. And yours has really only been live for a couple of weeks now.
Yeah. It’s been two weeks.
Okay. Riding on the rocket. Exciting.
A lot of people tell me, “Oh, man, this is a good thing for us,” the South Asian population having their own voice on Netflix. I like that sort of thing, but I think what’s more important is that a platform like Netflix is trying to experiment with independent series. For me, that’s a little bit bigger win. It opens up a lot more doors for writers and production that I’m excited for.