Emmy-winning TV Producer Makes Web Series, Makes Money Back

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After writing and producing television for 20 years, Michael Ajakwe decided to make a web series and had the audacity to charge his audience for the privilege to watch it. Two years later, he's recouped his investment and is now adapting his web series into a television series.

"Who..." web series created by Emmy-winning producer Michael Ajakwe Jr.

“I have never believed that to have a successful web series you have to give it away for free,” said the Emmy and NAACP Award-winning producer. “I come from the world of theater. In theater, if you do a play in a telephone booth, you charge for it."

Michael Ajakwe Jr. has written for public relations departments, newspapers, magazines, tv dramas, tv comedies, tv news shows, tv variety shows, awards shows, documentary programs, the stage and the movies. Two years ago, he added "web series" to his vast resume. “Making my web series allowed me to get my voice out," said the L.A. native who won an Emmy as one of the producers of E!'s first original hit show "Talk Soup". "It's like a play that never closes," he added.

"Who...", a politically-incorrect comedy about two Black beauties who meet every day to dine and dish about the rich, famous and infamous, was made for about half of what it would cost to mount a four-weekend run of an Equity-waiver theater production. Or $10,000. Ajakwe created, wrote, directed and produced his 12 episode web series with a small crew over nine months, and used his former home in Sherman Oaks as the location. Not unusual for an indie-financed web series. What is unusual is that the NAACP Award-winning playwright and producer has managed to recoup his investment through micro payments that start at one dollar and end at four on his own web channel. “I have never believed that to have a successful web series you have to give it away for free,” he said. “I come from the world of theater. In theater, if you do a play in a telephone booth, you charge for it,” he stressed. He credits the theater fan base he’s built over 18 years writing and directing 10 plays and producing 16-- and includes a mailing list 6000 strong—- as the key to making his money back, clarifying that the amount does not include marketing costs which he puts at a third of what he spent on his series. “I’m not saying I’ve found the secret to making money on your web series, I just tried a different approach that's worked for me.”

Ajakwe is used to being different. The eldest son of a Nigerian aeronautics engineer and a registered nurse who immigrated to the U.S. in the early 60s, he grew up in a family that didn’t have a clue about show business. “My parents thought actors on TV and in the movies made up their own dialogue,” he chuckled. At 17, he sold his first freelance story to a college magazine for ten dollars then spent three years writing press releases for the University of Redlands and exposes for Redlands Magazine. That led to regular freelance writing gigs at local newspapers like the Redlands Daily Facts and Riverside Press Enterprise-- all while still an undergrad. After graduation, he landed a job as a gofer at "Entertainment Tonight" and, within two years, was writing and producing segments for the iconic show at just 24. "I thought I was old," he mused. "I had no idea how lucky I was to be a producer at the top entertainment news program in the world at such a young age." When E! Entertainment Television launched in 1990, he and several other impatient 20-somethings from "E.T." jumped ship. He spent four years as one of the producers of the comedic talk show review series "Talk Soup" hosted by a then-unknown Greg Kinear.

"Even though I was working on a hot show at E!, I wanted more," he said. Ajakwe began writing plays in his spare time and, in 1993, got his parents and a few close friends to back his first production “Reasons”-- a romantic comedy starring then-unknown actors Gary Sturgis, Niecy Nash and Hill Harper. The play helped him land an agent and, two years later, he was writing for the classic sitcom “Martin” which led to more comedy and drama writing work, four years writing the NAACP Theater Awards, a producing job on a Steve Harvey-hosted tv variety show, and a film assignment with Artisan Pictures.

He launched “Who…” in the summer of 2009. In January 2010 he founded the Los Angeles Web Series Festival—the first of its kind-- showcasing web series from around the globe on a big screen in front of live audiences. “I started LAWEBFEST to force geeks like me out of our homes to come together and share our babies with each other and the public,” said the University of Redlands English and Political Science double-major voted Most Outstanding Senior by his graduating class.

In October 2011, Ajakwe traveled to the south of France for four days where “Who…” and 12 other web series from LAWEBFEST II were selected to screen before an international audience at the Marseille Webfest. Ajakwe was also honored by festival founder Jean-Michel Albert and Marseille Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin for his role in helping to start Europe's first web series festival.

Despite the success he’s enjoyed with his web series and web series festival, Ajakwe hasn’t given up his day job in traditional media. He’s a freelance writer on the Tatyana Ali cable sitcom “Love That Girl” and a producer on the award-winning music bio-doc series “Unsung”. He's also adapting his web series, "Who...", into a half-hour comedy that he hopes to bring to a television network near you in 2012.

Web series makers have to realize that our content is valuable because it's malleable, capable of being monetized by cross-platforming into other media just like newspaper and magazine articles, books, games, songs, plays, films and tv shows have always done,” he stressed. “We can't forget that."                                                            

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Shoneji Loraine (left), Charles Reese (center) and Nafeesa Monroe (right) round out the cast of "Who..."Shoneji Loraine (left), Charles Reese (center) and Nafeesa Monroe (right) round out the cast of "Who..."Tina, Jalil and Tina all grew up together and are best friends who live and work together through a series of unusual circumstances called LifeWorlds First Web Series Festival Is Back for Round 3Worlds First Web Series Festival Is Back for Round 3Los Angeles Web Series Festival Expands to Four Days, Offers Free Trip To France for Chosen Few"WHO..." creater,-writer-director-producer Michael Ajakwe, Jr."WHO..." creater,-writer-director-producer Michael Ajakwe, Jr.Along with being the series creator of the 12-episode micro comedy series "Who...", which he is adapting into a television series, Mike is the founder and executive director of LAWEBFEST- - world's first web series festival-- and helped launch Europe's first web series festival, the Marseille Webfest.Emmy-winning producer Michael Ajakwe and Marseille Mayor Jean-Claude GaudinEmmy-winning producer Michael Ajakwe and Marseille Mayor Jean-Claude GaudinTV and web series producer and web series festival pioneer Michael Ajakwe Jr. receives a medal for the city of Marseille from its Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin. Ajakwe, who started the world's first web series festival (LAWEBFEST) was honored for his role in"Who..." series logo"Who..." series logo"Who..." is a web series created by veteran tv writer/producer Michael Ajakwe Jr.Jean-Michel Albert, founder of Marseille Webfest, and Michael Ajakwe Jr., founder of LAWEBFEST.Jean-Michel Albert, founder of Marseille Webfest, and Michael Ajakwe Jr., founder of LAWEBFEST.Between them, Jean-Michel Albert and Michael Ajakwe Jr. control the only web series festivals on the planet-- one in the United States (Los Angeles Web Series Festival a.k.a. LAWEBFEST) and one in Europe (Marseille Webfest in the south of France)Shoneji Loraine (left) and Nafeesa Monroe (right) are the stars of the web series comedy "WHO..." created by Michael Ajakwe Jr.Shoneji Loraine (left) and Nafeesa Monroe (right) are the stars of the web series comedy "WHO..." created by Michael Ajakwe Jr.These two best friends grew up together and meeet every day for lunch to talk about people. Black gossip or "bossip" at its bestCharles Reese (left) and Nafeesa Monroe (right) compete for the attention of their mutual best friend Shoneji Loraine (not pictures) in the web series "Who..."Charles Reese (left) and Nafeesa Monroe (right) compete for the attention of their mutual best friend Shoneji Loraine (not pictures) in the web series "Who..."