Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair are the creators of High Maintenance, which has become a pretty big hit for online video platform Vimeo. The series, which follows a Brooklyn-based weed delivery man around the city, peers into the lives of his customers as they deal with all the stress, anxiety and health issues his product is there to alleviate.
Sinclair plays the delivery man, known only as “the guy,” and he’s more or less a passive observer to the rest of the characters. High Maintenance focuses on a different customer each episode, which was a creative decision prompted by budget constraints than anything else. Originally just a passion project for the couple, Blichfeld and Sinclair asked friends to take part and work for free on day-long shoots when available.
While they never expected to get famous from High Maintenance, the show has found a devoted following. That in turn led Vimeo to invest in more episodes of the show to appear as part of its paid Vimeo On Demand service. With that funding, the creators got some budget to be a little bit more creative and get out of just following the guy’s customers at home.
And today, it was announced that High Maintenance was picked up by HBO, which will bring the series to even more homes and could enable them to be even more ambitious with their storylines.
We spoke with Blichfeld and Sinclair at SXSW about how they got started, what new things are in store for “the guy,” and how the nation’s changing attitude about marijuana couldn’t have come at a better time for High Maintenance.
TechCrunch: How did you get started? Why did you start doing this online video thing? What’s the story behind it?
Sinclair: This is a question we answer a lot, but I’m happy to do it one more time. I was an actor — still am — and an editor and I had been working on short comedy videos and spec commercials. Katja has 10 years of experience in casting… She worked on 30 Rock and a bunch of other shows.
A lot of people are surprised to learn that this was not some masterminded thing that we sat down and labored over. Katja Blichfeld
When we got together, we knew we wanted to work on something, but we weren’t sure what it was. We had done a couple of spec commercials together, this-and-that, branded content on a very small, low-budget scale. Then we came up with this idea… We don’t remember the specific time of when it happened, but we just figured that telling the story of a weed dealer is something that could take place in five minutes or less.
Since we had no budget, we couldn’t use actors for a long period of time… so we wanted to figure out a concept where we could rotate this pool of actors that we had come to know. That anthology style grew out of the constraints of not having any money to pay people to come more than one day.
That’s where the idea came from, not some specific genesis.
Blichfeld: I think a lot of people are surprised to learn that this was not some masterminded thing that we sat down and labored over, like, “Oh, how do we create something that can make us famous, or get a writing deal or something like that.” We didn’t have those sorts of aspirations.
This was something that, as Ben said, grew out of us wanting to work together because we liked each other and we were inspired by each other creatively. It was really just for the love of it, and then it just really has evolved over time into something that had an audience and people asking for more episodes. That’s not something we thought would happen.
TechCrunch: So you didn’t have characters or a list of episodes?
Blichfeld: Not at all.
Sinclair: It was us wanting to work together, and also wanting to work with other people. We have a creative community of people who work together — not a commune, but basically an artist commune.
Blichfeld: A floating artist commune…
Sinclair: A floating artist commune, like a repertory feeling.
TechCrunch: How did you develop the storylines and characters around the people you’re working with?
Blichfeld: We knew some actors that we wanted to work with and who we thought were talented and so we tailored our writing to suit the resources we had. We thought about what kind of roles they would play.
For example, our first episode is called Stevie and it’s the one about the assistant who has a very demanding boss. The woman who plays that assistant, her name is Bridget Maloney-Sinclair, and she is our sister-in-law. When we originally started, she was someone we both were fans of professionally, as well as personally, so we wrote that part for her, because we knew her voice so well.
For the subsequent four or five episodes, we thought, “Who do we have? Who do they sound like? What do they do best? How do we use that to our advantage and to their advantage?”
Then as the series grew, as we began to create more stories than we had actors in our immediate life, then we started looking toward casting people who we didn’t know as well… But never having a casting process, just always taking stock of what resources were available and then building from there.
That’s pretty much been our approach from top to bottom, even just looking at locations and then the kinds of stories we tell… We really just look at what’s here immediately in our lives and what things do we care about right now, what are we talking about, what are our friends talking about, and let’s portray that with the resources we have.
If a friend has an apartment that’s great, we ask “Who would live here? What kind of person would live here? Okay, let’s write that person because we have access to this space.” That’s really how the first 13 episodes were shaped.
Sinclair: As an actor I always felt like the audition process is one of the worst ways to find someone, but there’s no better way to do it, it seems. There’s never been a better way to do it besides just offering a part to somebody who you knew what they did.
The audition process — especially when people do monologues — no one does that except theater schools these days. But growing up in that in college and before college, where they were teaching actors to learn a monologue and do it well… That has nothing to do with acting. That has to do with memorizing, and yeah, great, you know how to do that three paragraphs except I need you to say these three paragraphs, so how does that help me?
Blichfeld: But casting and being a casting director and being able to hold auditions and all of that requires a substantial budget.
Sinclair: It’s very inefficient.
Blichfeld: It isn’t if you have the means to have a casting director take several weeks to sift through thousands of people, but if you’re operating on a shoestring or literally no budget as we were, that’s the way we had to do things.
TechCrunch: After putting these up on the web for free, you recently moved to a paid model. Why did you decide to do that, and what’s the reaction been?
Sinclair: Well, the episodes were free because we didn’t pay anybody.
Blichfeld: So it just felt morally strange to charge people…
Sinclair: Then Vimeo extended us the offer to give us some finances in exchange for very little, except to be on Vimeo On Demand. We were already living on Vimeo, so it made sense for us to change as little creatively as we could for the show and as little IP-address-wise. We wanted to change as little as possible while still being able to get some money to produce bigger, longer and ambitious episodes…
TechCrunch: And actually pay people…
Sinclair: And actually pay people, not their full rates. We haven’t really had any complaints about people on set but we understand that this is a job — it’s a fun job, but it’s a job — and it certainly has become for us as much of an art project as it is our career now.
Blichfeld: Reaction from viewers has been mostly positive with this paywall situation, because we’re fortunate enough that a lot of our fan base is also clued into the story behind the making of our show, and they’re invested not only in what they’re watching but also in the story that’s behind it. And Vimeo being what it is — as you know it’s really a community of filmmakers at its heart and creators.
There was an overwhelmingly positive response to this, people saying, “I’d like to support you, I already did want to support you, and here’s an actual monetary way to do that, that’s great.”
Sinclair: We’ve gotten that a lot. People wish they could give us more money.
Blichfeld: Exactly. There have been a few people who have tweeted at us or posted on our Vimeo channel page to complain about our paywall, but it’s been very few people, not enough to make us strongly reconsider our choice.
TechCrunch: Other than the fact that Vimeo extended this offer, did you ever think about doing something branded, or having a sponsor, or something like that?
Sinclair: It doesn’t really make that much sense, because part of the fun of this is that it’s not trying to sell you something except itself. And we don’t think our audience likes to be sold to. That’s why they’re on Vimeo and not on YouTube, where everything is driven by ad sales.
The cool part about Vimeo is that it’s paid for by filmmakers’ interest in being creative and buying Pro and Plus accounts. That’s the bread and butter of the website, and I do think that part of our success is we’re not thinking about huge numbers. We’re thinking about the type of people that we want to be fans of the show.
Blichfeld: We’re not trying to take over every eyeball in the world. We’re not interested in having all those fans. We’re only interested in…
Sinclair: The people that we respect and the people that we feel like we could have a dinner party with. The marker of success for us is that people that we find to be the successes in their field like what we’re doing. That’s our success.
TechCrunch: When you talk about having bigger ambitions, what does that look like? Does it mean longer episodes, or a bigger cast, or what?
Sinclair: All of those things, yes, that’s what it has come to mean. But also, our universe has begun to fold in on itself and characters are starting to come back and there’s starting to become more of a web-like overlap between characters and stories, which is harder to do when you’re doing them one-by-one-by-one.
Blichfeld: If you are setting up your story arcs ahead of time and you’re able to zoom out and know that we’re going to shoot six episodes all at once, it’s easier to fit all the pieces together and plan even for the future, as opposed to when we were doing this piecemeal initially and it was very spontaneous.
The decisions we made were very spontaneous and not planned. We basically said, “Oh we’d like to see this person again,” versus “how does their story arc affect other peoples’ story arcs?” That’s a major difference.
It was just pure luck that we released the first three episodes the week after weed was legalized in Washington and Colorado. Ben Sinclair
Also, there’s the difference of being able to just get out of the four walls of an apartment. You’ll notice that the first many episodes, the majority of those episodes, take place within four walls. That was again the result of a constraint that we had budget-wise.
Vimeo giving us a budget means that we now have a locations budget. Now we can go to the workplace of that customer and see what they’re doing outside of their apartment, and that was a big change for us.
Sinclair: Part of the charm of the show is what people act like alone in their apartments and they’re unwinding. But it was helpful to see the contrast of how those people are outside of their apartment. So it just deepens the character.
TechCrunch: Obviously this is all about marijuana consumption; is this just the right time for people to be comfortable with a show like this?
Sinclair: There was a lot of luck. I feel like we hit the middle of the Venn diagram between the way people were changing their attitudes about how they watch their content and also changing attitudes about smoking weed. That was very much a time and a place consideration.
I would say that when we started, considering this on-demand thing and blowing it out. I think we were actually probably a year behind in the way people were totally willing to view content in a different way. I think when we release the next batch of episodes, more people will be ready to make that commitment.
But with smoking weed, it was just pure luck that we released the first three episodes the week after weed was legalized in Washington and Colorado, and that was by happenstance. It will be legalized [nationwide] one day, but we are very lucky that we hit at this time when it’s about to be legalized.