Can Data Help Maker Studios Guarantee a Hit for The Walking Dead’s Robert Kirkman?

Nerd Court is now in session

In a heated exchange before a judge, YouTuber Commander Holly (real name: Holly Conrad) faces off against actress Tina Huang. The issue at hand is one that has divided many a Trekkie: William Riker, yay or nay?

Welcome to Nerd Court, where arguments that one might normally witness at a comic book store instead are heard in a "court of law," à la The People's Court or Judge Judy. (Other raging debates include Star Wars vs. Star Trek, and which film series features better magic, The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.)

The six-episode Web series, which premiered March 4, is a passion project of Maker Labs, a division of Disney-owned multichannel network Maker Studios, and Skybound Entertainment, the media company owned by Robert Kirkman, executive producer of AMC's hit zombie thriller The Walking Dead and creator of the comic book series on which the show is based. "It's a whole tongue-in-cheek show, but it's a lot of fun," says Kirkman.

The combination of Kirkman, the creative force behind one of television's top series, and Maker Studios—which, with more than 11 billion monthly views, is the largest content distributor on YouTube—pretty much ensures Nerd Court will attract a degree of viewership. And yet neither side wants to leave that to chance. The Maker Labs model will give Skybound, on whose YouTube channel the show runs, an expansive layer of data based on social media insights to inform its creative decisions. Maker believes that formula will enable Kirkman's company to experiment with digital media while doing the formerly impossible: guaranteeing a hit.

"If you know that your audience likes this kind of content, why the hell do I want to make 19 shows that may be successful?" says Michael Kassan, CEO of the strategic advisory firm MediaLink, which has helped broker several Maker Studios deals. "I want to make the one that people will watch."

Robert Kirkman | Photo: Rainer Hosch

Maker Studios first announced the creation of Maker Labs last May at its Digital Content NewFronts presentation in New York. It underscored the central challenges content producers and advertisers in the digital space face: finding relevant content for specific audiences and, especially in the case of brands, being able to prove with hard stats that programming resonates. Now, Maker Labs is rewriting the script for producing hits by letting its partners use its creative team, digital experience and, most importantly, the real-time feedback on audience behavior it gathers through digital analysis.

Maker Labs also advises on distribution strategy, production, management, optimization and marketing, all based on online data. Talent labs (which in the future will include media partners and publishers) focus more on working with creators to help bring series to life, while brand labs can be activated using Maker's roster of 55,000 creators. Besides Skybound, others working with Maker include James Franco and Vince Jolivette's Rabbit Bandini Productions, professional skateboarder Nyjah Huston, singer and PepsiCo.

"Think of it as taking the best of what digital does—which is really distributing content at scale and delivering real-time data and insights—and merging that with what traditional media does, which is storytelling," explains Maker Studios chief content officer Erin McPherson. "With both of those combined, we're able to produce content that is really responsive to audience demand."

McPherson notes that Maker Labs was born out of inefficiencies in the market, considering the bulk of content available on so many devices. In her previous position as head of video at Yahoo, she realized that unless programming was supported by serious marketing, it would never be discovered. While Yahoo had the benefit of its front page to seed materials, she points out, consumers today—especially millennials—are less likely to turn to such portals to find what to watch.

Even with promotional budgets, it remains difficult to capture the attention of today's fragmented audience—which is why having social media stats built into one's content can help ensure a receptive audience. "The Internet is moving to a destinationless Web," she says. "It's really about finding content on your social platform through search and through your subscribed channels on YouTube. Social is really the connective tissue."

Maker Labs may be producing more than new forms of storytelling. Its methodology could even open doors for traditional TV programmers to craft new series based on social media insights as opposed to gut instincts and test screenings. According to The Hollywood Reporter, this year the Big Five broadcast networks will order more than 80 projects to pilot, only a fraction of which will actually make it to series. "If the networks had this data, they would use all the tools in the package to get the right show on the air," says Kassan. "It would be absolutely foolish for someone not to."

In fact, the networks, as well as streaming sites, have already started factoring social media insights into their programming strategies. Netflix famously greenlit House of Cards based on its users' affinity for star Kevin Spacey, producer and director David Fincher (whose fans are more likely to watch his content to completion), and the British version of the series. 

Back when Brave Ventures co-founder Jesse Redniss was head of digital at NBCUniversal's USA Network, the network noticed that a line of dialogue from its series Suits—"You just got Litt up!" (referring to a character in the show)—was trending online. So the net created a marketing campaign and produced merchandise around the hashtag #LittUp, and worked with the show's creative team to get the phrase incorporated into more episodes.

Redniss expects Hollywood to embrace the practice even more. "We are moving into an era between the balance of data science and the actual art form of storytelling," he says. "Data can be a fail-safe and a foolproof way for smart creators and marketers to help inform how they can move forward." 

Kirkman and Erin McPherson, chief content officer at Maker Studios, are rewriting the rules for how to make more successful video content. | Photo: Rainer Hosch

For James Franco, working with the folks at Maker Labs was a no-brainer. His company, Rabbit Bandini, makes many different types of videos, and he found Maker receptive to the variety of projects he wanted to pursue.

"It was interstellar in the support they would provide to inchoate projects," Franco says. "I got so sick of having to pitch ideas to executives before getting to make anything. Maker is a place where we can just try things."

Franco's partner Jolivette adds that getting information right away on content that doesn't resonate lets them make changes to a series immediately, to better appeal to a target audience. "With regular TV, you can't do that," Jolivette says. "You have to go through a yearlong development process. Hopefully you get a pilot and hopefully you get a series; hopefully you get to do something that is really meaningful. For us, this is an opportunity to get feedback and introduce us to a different audience we wouldn't have on television."

The process of working with Maker Labs is a simple one. Partners get reports that take a deep dive into online behavior concerning a star, a product or a brand. For example, in the first report prepared for Rabbit Bandini, Franco and Jolivette's team was alerted to the fact that Franco's collaborations with celebrities including Dave Franco (his brother), Iggy Azalea, Nicki Minaj and Seth Rogen led to a spike in online conversation, and that Twitter is where most chatter about the star takes place. (See the infographic below for more details.)

Grading James Franco

Maker Labs' first report for the star's production company offers a glimpse into his social media clout.

Infographic: Carlos Monteiro

Based on its research, Maker was able to offer the creators suggestions—ranging from the potential for Franco doing videos for Vine to his relying less on auto-generated posts from Instagram for his Twitter account, instead creating new tweets or reposting Instagram content natively. Rabbit Bandini also met with Maker's creative team to brainstorm ideas. According to Jolivette, those discussions are working toward a short-form episodic series—as opposed to Franco's previous comedic parodies—with a launch sometime this year. Once the content is released, Maker will be able to glean more insights to aid Rabbit Bandini in better tailoring content for its target consumers.

"You have the opportunity to incubate an idea and let it naturally grow," Jolivette says. "With all the money spent in network television, they cancel it right away and don't give it an opportunity to find an audience. We're able to find the right audience and develop the content in a way that is natural to the show."

Meanwhile, Kirkman's Maker conversations and his own creative preferences led to Skybound pursuing a more nerd-centric slate. Kirkman had previously gone through the process with Maker on a show called Superfight, based on a Skybound card game of the same name. The writer says he really appreciated the speed with which it went to series.

Working with digital platforms also lets Skybound cut out most of the middlemen, Kirkman explains. "It's like taking my experience with comics, where there are few stumbling blocks along the way, and advancing that to the television space," he says. "I think Maker is a very apt title because we are making stuff very quickly."

To date, Superfight has achieved 110,000 total views, with its top episode garnering 33,000. By comparison, the Season 5 premiere of The Walking Dead attracted 17.3 million viewers. Kirkman understands well that all the data insights in the world may never replicate on a digital platform the kind of television success he has enjoyed. Then again, the money involved in creating an hourlong television drama and a game show based on a niche game are a completely different exercise altogether.

"If you want to do some kind of massive, big-budget show like The Walking Dead, at this point in history you go to television to produce that kind of content," Kirkman admits. "I think that game shows and news outlets are translating to digital media a lot quicker because it's easier to produce. I don't think traditional media is a dinosaur the world doesn't need anymore. There's still a lot to be done there. "

Then there is the issue of data ruling over creative. MediaLink's Kassan fears that relying too much on numbers could stifle creativity and make programming that's too stiff—a death knell for branded content.

Barry Lowenthal, president of media agency The Media Kitchen, notes that factors beyond an audience profile—the chemistry of the actors, the costumes and so on—can also factor into a show's success. But he adds that while data may not guarantee a hit, "it might prevent a flop."

Skybound partner David Alpert says that while Maker's insights are valuable, the company doesn't change course based on that information. "We sort of go through our library of creators and find things that fit into their metrics, as opposed to reverse engineering based off of what they say would work," he explains. "From our perspective, the important thing is the creator."

Kirkman adds that when it comes to creating stories and characters, no amount of data will ever change his mind.

And while he admits he would love to have the No. 1 digital series and television series at the same time, he's not that hung up on the idea. "The beauty of digital media," he notes, "is that if you have the No. 1 show, you have it for about eight minutes."