How the Creators of “The North Pole” Built Audiences Online and In Theaters for Their Oakland Web Series

by Liz Manshil

Sundance Institute
Nov 21, 2017 · 7 min read
Photo credit: Danny Telles

For most of its seven-year tenure the Creative Distribution Initiative has focused on supporting feature-length fiction and nonfiction content. We’ve been consulting with Sundance Institute alumni on how to grow audiences, maximize revenue, and better navigate the distribution landscape.

However, we’re really trying to branch out and amplify the success stories of artists of all mediums. With this first piece, we’re starting a very informal interview series with content creators who are kicking ass.

First up, the artists behind the web series The North Pole, Josh Healey and Yvan Iturriaga.

Check out the first episode here.

In your own words — no stuffy formalities, no name dropping — tell everyone how you got to where you are today.

Josh: I’m a writer, producer, and performer. I’m a regular storyteller on NPR’s “Snap Judgment,” and most my background is actually in live performance. Yvan and I met through our socialist soccer club here in Oakland (shout out to Left Wing Futbol Club), and around 5 years ago we decided to start collaborating on some online videos that were our first attempts at political comedy. Those first videos were god awful, and thankfully, almost unfindable on Youtube.

Yvan: I grew up border crossing throughout Latin America with my revolutionary parents and landed in Oakland as a teenager. I studied film at Occidental College in Los Angeles and stayed for a couple of years working in TV and indie films, but eventually journeyed on a backwards pilgrimage to the Bay Area in search of more substance. Since then I have produced and directed several PBS documentaries, music videos, and a handful of shorts. The North Pole is the culmination of my interests combining social justice and media, representation of marginalized voices, and the desire to share stories about this place I call home.

Why The North Pole? Did you have to tell this story, or did you have to tell a story and this felt like a good one?

Josh: We wanted to do something that hit on the gentrification of Oakland, and the changing climate globally, and still be some funny ass shit that you want to smoke weed and watch on a Friday night. Easy, right? It was our good friend (who later became associate producer) Dania Cabello who brought it all together, one day schooling me about how in the ’90s and 2000s, young folks in North Oakland were calling the neighborhood “The North Pole,” even referring to themselves as polar bears. That metaphor hit me hard. And it was real, we didn’t have to make it up! That’s when we knew this was a story we had to tell — and that we could tell — with accuracy and humor, about our friends, neighbors, and ourselves all dealing with a changing urban and environmental world. While still talking trash and clowning Drake along the way.

Yvan: The topics we address in The North Pole are urgent. Climate change and social inequality are not just hot topics or interesting plot points. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re a filmmaker and you’re not telling stories or creating content that pushes our humanity forward, then you’re part of the problem. We can no longer just entertain. The North Pole is our attempt to create art that supports movements around us and to inspire others to act. I had to tell this story in particular because the universe of my neighborhood is something I wanted to bring to light. I believe in my community and in the power of seeing those who look and sound like us as beautiful and active protagonists, not mere bystanders.

Photo credit: Danny Telles

How did you get the money?

Josh: We’re fortunate that The North Pole was incubated and executive produced by Movement Generation, an amazing non-profit organization that I work with here in Oakland. Through MG, we were able to write and secure grants outside the normal filmmaking funding streams — social justice and environmental foundations, Bay Area community foundations, etc. These funders support the issues that we’re addressing in the show, and we’re excited to see a more creative approach to raising awareness. And of course we did a Kickstarter campaign that successfully raised $25,000 from 300+ individual donors. (And yes, we just finished mailing out all our rewards last week.)

How did you build your audience?

Josh: Our Kickstarter campaign and video was our first big community push. We used that video almost as our proof-of-concept, to get people excited about the project and get some good local press. The biggest thing, though, was the trailer. When the trailer came out, that’s when the buzz really started building in the Bay Area and beyond. More national press called, and people started paying more attention. The final thing was that even though this was a web series, we wanted to have a live premiere in Oakland. So we rented the biggest theater in town, the historic Grand Lake Theater, hoping that at least our friends and family would come out. Instead, it turned into a huge event, with 1,000 people coming on opening night over two sold-out shows. Honestly, that shit blew our minds. We thought everyone would just watch it online, but hey, I guess the big screen and that $7 popcorn is still too good to pass up.

How did you build up your facebook page? Do you have an email list? How did you grow that?

Yvan: The trailer. Honestly, that was the key. We did other things, of course, like post photos and videos during production, share content about Oakland and the political issues in the show, hype up the actors and musicians who contributed — but really, it was the trailer that made all our social media pages start to pop. We built an email list off our Kickstarter, the premiere, and our community partners. Social media is flashier, but email still gets the job done in the end.

What are the inherent challenges of episodic versus feature-length releases?

Yvan: Grabbing people’s attention and holding on to it is the ultimate challenge when thinking about episodic content as opposed to feature-length projects. With a feature, once an audience is watching, they are prepared for the long haul, whereas for us we have to create interest seven different times. This means that for a web series you have to think about engagement and promotion strategies in the writers room. The writing and storytelling has to have the specific audience in mind a lot more than in features.

How did you come to the decision to release season one the way you did?

Josh: The show is seven episodes, 8–10 minutes each. We went back and forth between releasing it all at once (Netflix style), or dropping one episode per week like traditional television. In the end, we decided to launch it all at once because we thought more people would watch it that way, and honestly, the show gets better the more you watch. That’s how people watch shows these days, especially our generation. Binge or be binged.

Photo credit: Danny Telles

Can you talk about some of the grassroots marketing/audience building you did?

Josh: We gave free VIP tickets to the Oakland premiere to 50 community organizations (many of whom are sister groups to our producer Movement Generation), and asked that in return they help publicize the show. Having cameos like W. Kamau Bell (who just won an Emmy) and title music from Fantastic Negrito (who just won a Grammy) didn’t hurt either.

Did you do any traditional marketing? Hire a publicist? Paid ads?

Josh: We had a part-time PR team that was helpful in the early stages. We had a very small budget for Facebook ads. But honestly, most our reach was through organic networking and online word of mouth.

What kind of response have you received to your show?

Yvan: Amazing. People are watching and sharing and posting ridiculous comments on the show’s page online. We’ve done standing-room-only screenings in New York, D.C., Boston, Chicago and Detroit — hundreds of people coming out to watch the show despite this being a web series that is available for free online! Really though, the response from local people here in the Bay is what has been most gratifying to me. Hearing how real Oakland folks identify with the show, what scene made them laugh, what scene made them want to fight somebody…that’s the heart right there.

Plans for season two?

Josh: We’re writing right now! Sorry, no spoilers!

What’s on your to-do list for the show?

Yvan: Get Marshawn Lynch in season two.

Josh: Agreed. Oh, and Too Short.

What’s the pipe dream for the show? Conversely, what would you be happy/content with?

Josh: We’d love to work with people who really believe in it — take it to the next level. We’re having some conversations now, and we’ll see how those go. But even if that doesn’t happen, we’re going to keep making it happen ourselves. That’s just what we do.

Finally, how can people see it and contact you?

Yvan: The entire first season is available online at TheNorthPoleShow.com. People can hit us up on Twitter, Instagram, or email at thenorthpoleshow@gmail.com.

Holler! For more information about our department or the Creative Distribution Fellowship, please contact: creativedistribution@sundance.org.

Sundance Institute

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We find, love and share the best independent culture in the world. www.sundance.org

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