Rogues of L.A., a web series launching today here on Popdose and at roguesofla.com, features a cadre of snarky-yet-idealistic young people stepping into sticky situations and solving problems for complete strangers. The show’s creator, the veteran character actor Markus Flanagan, says its principal theme — bettering a community on the sly, one person at a time — has been floating around in his head for years. But on another level, Rogues can be seen as the culmination of similar themes that Flanagan has been pursuing throughout his career.
Like many other actors and other industry pros, Flanagan — a familiar face from films such as Biloxi Blues and Life As We Know It, as well as guest spots on TV series ranging from Seinfeld and Friends to NCIS and Major Crimes — has eyed the internet as an outlet for pursuing passion projects, for experimenting with new roles (in front of and behind the camera), and for extending his career. Rogues of L.A., whose premiere episode debuts today, is allowing him to attempt all of these. He’s writing it, acting in it, and producing it on the fly — and on a shoestring, in part via an Indiegogo crowd-funding venture.
But the new series also is providing a platform for Flanagan to test his ideas about collaborative Best Practices — ideas he has developed over many years of auditions and roles, and more recently has begun imparting to young actors as a teacher and via the advice tome One Less Bitter Actor: The Actor’s Survival Guide. ”Building a community is the heart of it,” he says. ”For me, it’s the difference between approaching a project with a sense of entitlement, or a sense of gratitude. I have worked in many settings, with great actors and directors, and the hardest thing to get right is the quality of life on the set. It can’t just be about having a show to do — it’s about building a community of people who will make the project happen not as individuals, but together.
”Mike Nichols [who directed Flanagan in Biloxi Blues] taught me that if you take the magic and fun out of the creative process, then the product, whatever it is, is going to be crap. But if you treat the project — and treat one another — with the respect and thrill of being able to make something come alive … well, then, everyone’s work is going to be better, and everyone’s mood is going to be better. And ultimately, people will follow you right into doing a web series for free — because they know they will be working in an environment that respects their effort, and doesn’t see it as something to exploit and then discard.”
That’s the way Rogues of L.A. has turned out, so far at least. Flanagan pulled together a cast and crew by calling in favors, providing opportunities to student actors, and dialing old friends like director Stuart Alexander and director of photography Wes Greeson. Even Flanagan’s mother has a role in the pilot episode. ”My career has put me in contact with many talented people who, like I do, are always looking for a place to create,” he says. ”So as I was developing this idea, a big part of it was figuring out how I could get it shot, and who, what and where I could work with to get it done on what is thus far a micro-budget. So far, it’s been done out of favors, volunteers and blind love of the opportunity to make a show.
“I’ll write with actors in mind, I’ll call them up, and I’ll ask if they want to do the show. I haven’t had a single actor ask me what they’ll be paid, or when — not one. They know that if money does come, from the Indiegogo campaign or a web host once the show is up and running, they will be taken care of. I’m doing all the writing and producing for now, because that’s a lot to ask of someone who’s not getting paid. But the goal is to have a show where there’s some money coming in to pay people, and a lot of people will be comfortable coming in and contributing.”
For some of the show’s young actors who are just beginning their careers, working for the vague promise of future earnings — or just for the experience and the credit, and for the love of creating — has been reason enough to take a role in Rogues. For Flanagan, meanwhile, the shift from his recent career path — taking auditions and completing small TV and film parts between teaching classes at California Lutheran University and his own Westlake Acting Studio — to the multifaceted job of creating and running a web series has offered a different sort of education.
”The biggest shift has also been the one that’s most fun: organizing all these people, locations and equipment, but also figuring out how I wanted to do this type of show,” he says. ”I watched a few other web series, just to see what the quality standards are. Some have pretty high production values; most are simple. There really isn’t a model. I called a few friends who have done shows, and they all say, Everyone does it their own way, which is any way you can.’
”So I used that as a confidence builder. I’ve just had to proceed with my best guesses. A handbook certainly would have made it easier, but the lack of one has made it damned exciting.”
The palette of possibilities for web series seems simultaneously limitless and daunting at this point — from individual YouTubers of various stripes (and skill sets) to celebrity-spearheaded ventures hosted on high-profile sites like Hulu and Above Average. In between those extremes, Rogues of L.A. hopes to find its place among the dozens (hundreds?) of series that have debuted across YouTube, Vimeo and elsewhere. Some peter out after a couple episodes, others plug away through multiple seasons, their creators angling for eyeballs and dollars that might buy higher production values or better marketing.
The DIY nature of the beast requires creator/producers to use every possible resource. In Flanagan’s case, Cal Lutheran has become what he calls a valuable partner. ”They’re allowing me to use the campus and borrow equipment, and they’re planning to provide me a bit of financial help,” he says. ”A campus is a perfect place to shoot a show, because there are so many locations under one roof, so to speak. We can shoot 11 locations in three days, because we just roll the equipment down the hall for the next setup. Plus, there are so many opportunities for student actors and aspiring industry professionals to get involved. I would think that every good collegiate theater/acting department will have its own campus web series going within 5-7 years. It’s a no-brainer.”
Some of those series might even end up as part of a Rogues nation; Flanagan envisions ”franchising” the concept so that different writer/producers, in different cities, can set up their own variations. Even before Rogues of L.A. premiered, he says, Rogues of Dallas was already in the works. ”I won’t sell franchises, or make people pay to run with the idea. But my idea is that other filmmakers might shoot Rogues of Dallas or Rogues of Chicago and join my channel, so viewers can watch folks in different cities solve local problems. A viewer could go to our channel and see my 10 episodes, but also watch 20 or 30 from the other cities. If it works, I’ll have created a place to go to watch a variety of content, and all I will have done was shoot my 10, and give guidance on the rest.”
All of that, Flanagan acknowledges, will depend on how much time he can devote to getting the project off the ground, and how long he can keep attracting collaborators. Funding, therefore, becomes a key objective, whether it’s obtained via website sponsorship or his current crowd-funding effort. ”So far, crowd-funding has been great,” he says. ”Few creative people like to think of themselves as selling their work — we just want to create and move on to the next creation. But branding and pitching and selling are paramount to making this sort of project work. It’s something that haunts me, really, because it’s the opposite of creating.
”But the lovely thing about this, so far, is the enthusiasm we’ve gotten from everybody involved. Perhaps after a few episodes air and we get an audience, it will be easier to raise money and make sure people get paid. But you know what? I was talking with [director] Stuart Alexander recently, and I asked him, What if this Indiegogo thing doesn’t work? What if we never get a decent budget.’ And he said, We’ll just keep making the shows the way we made the first one, as long as we can.’
”So hopefully we’ll have some success with Indiegogo, and hopefully we’ll eventually get a sponsor to give us a budget. Until then, I will continue to shoot this thing whatever way I can shoot it. It’s a fulfilling endeavor, no matter the budget. It’s worth getting through all the insecurities that go with this sort of project, because watching people you love bring your efforts to life is really heady stuff.”