Success In The Age Of Digital Media with Kelly Hayes

digital media

Success In The Age Of Digital Media

An expert producer’s look at the past, present, and future of serial programming


Last week, I had the pleasure of talking with Kelly Hayes, a current Hollywood producer and Voyage team member, about what it’s like to work in all corners of the industry, and how the classic forms of development for network, cable, and film compare to the emerging market of digital streaming. This is the first of an ongoing series that asks our producers about their work in the entertainment industry so that YOU can learn from their wealth of experience!

Hayes’ many credits have ranged from formats in scripted and reality television, film, and digital streaming series. Today, he has a lot of plates spinning in every market you can think of, with ongoing projects in half-hour comedy, hour-long drama, reality, and feature film. To say he’s got a bit of experience is an understatement.

Although Hayes started his career in film, an economic downturn coupled with the WGA strike of 2008 served to destabilize the film industry, and prompted Hayes to look into other options. Television was his next best choice to keep following his passion—and it took some relearning to make it work.


Looking Ahead

The biggest change to the process of development in film and television was the notion of planning much further ahead into the future of the project. “It’s ’where do I see this show at episode 100?’” says Hayes of the development process for the life of a series, “versus, ‘I have 90 minutes to tell my story and then it’s done.’”

The core of making a great and lasting show lies in its planning. Although there’s no guarantee at the pitch or even the pilot stage that a TV show will be picked up for one or more seasons, it’s important to know early on what lies in the future of the series—what is it going to be like at episode 100? When Hayes works on a pitch for a television series, he always includes a roadmap of where the show is headed:

“In the development stage, always look ahead and have an idea of what’s gonna happen in season 1 and season 2 […] and all the way up to season 5: if you’re lucky enough to make it that far, you know you’re doing something right.” This way of thinking is a far cry from the one-and-done mentality of many commercial features. Although popular movies can spawn sequels, series by necessity must create a story engine that will keep the show moving for years to come.

Of course, just because a plan is made doesn’t mean that it becomes law. It’s just as important to leave wiggle room for the writers—with new ideas coming to light, changes in development, and current events changing audience viewpoints every day, even the best-laid plans for a series can change. Hayes’ advice to any writers in the process of planning their own series is to remember that “once you get in the writer’s room, everything’s gonna change.” It’s very important to have a solid plan, but equally important to be able to adapt to changes in that plan.

As mutable as scripted television can be, it doesn’t even hold a candle to the quickly-shifting world of reality TV—another arena that Hayes is quite familiar with.


Real TV

“Reality,” says Hayes, “is a very different beast.” Although there is one glaring difference between scripted and unscripted television—that is, the task of editing a coherent story out of the daily lives of real people rather than falling back on a script–there can also be other more unexpected challenges to overcome.

The first is getting a great idea to perform in a way that’s compelling to audiences. What can start out as a great idea for a reality show can fall apart if every aspect isn’t perfectly in place. Because of the true-life nature of reality shows, this can depend on luck just as much as it does on planning.

Hayes related to me the story of his attempt to get a reality show based on the lives and work of samba dancers to air. Nothing was fundamentally wrong with the idea—it was exciting, flashy, unique, and a little bit sexy. And with the World Cup approaching, the customs and cultures of Brazil were on everyone’s mind. But as fate would have it, the show was never able to make it to air. And since the industry moves as quickly as does audience taste, the idea was indefinitely shelved.

Another challenge is adapting the development process to facilitate real-life stories. For a scripted show, Hayes will generally find a writer, work on a pitch, and plan the show out over the possibility of a couple seasons. But with unscripted TV, the pitch lies in the discovery of talent—finding a cast of weird and wonderful characters that already exist somewhere out there in the world.

There’s no doubt that bizarre personalities capable of being the engine for a show are out there. But how they come to Hayes usually happens in one of two ways: either he’ll come up with an idea and try to find a community or person that fits that profile, or someone will find him through an agent.

There’s always a risk in trying to search out talent willing and capable to participate in a TV show. Sometimes it doesn’t pay off, as happened with the proposed samba series, but risk can also reap rewards when serendipity and hard work come together to make a show a success.

While Hayes was coming up with an idea for a new reality show based on community service parolees, a scripted show came across his desk for nearly the exact same idea. That show became Bad Samaritans, a comedy show Hayes produced for Netflix. The show went on to be a hit, garnering a 3.5 star rating on Netflix based on 25,000 reviews and moving Hayes into success in the digital sphere.


Rise of the Digital Titans

Netflix has become a production powerhouse in its own right. Having just passed its 50 million subscribers mark, digital streaming is beginning to have serious reach in the film and TV industry.

With digital cable dominating the industry, bringing in younger and more tech-savvy viewers, and muscling out the old paradigms of network television, how different is producing a digital series compared to producing a show for a traditional network?

According to Hayes, not as different as you might think. “In terms of developing for broadcast cable versus the digital space, there really isn’t a difference. You need the same things: you need a great story, you need a showrunner, and a piece of talent that everybody wants to work with.”

If anything, the advent of digital television gives producers more options than ever through which to create a show. Hayes warns writers and producers alike not to try and pigeonhole their story ideas into just one format: if a story is good, it should be given the best chance possible to get made. And sometimes, digital media can be the answer to a show that’s having trouble fitting into a bigger network’s brand. “The digital world opens up a little bit because they’re not so stringent on what their brand is. They’re more: ‘how many people can I get watching these shows?’””

However, the profitability of digital media is so new that creators often overlook it. But for those looking to increase the possibility of a studio picking up their project, digital streaming is still an open world hungry for new work that will build their brand and visibility. It’s up to you to take advantage of that need!


Make Some Noise

According to Hayes, the buzzword in the industry right now is “noisy.” There are a lot of producers, Hayes included, that are always on the lookout for something new, something edgy, something that hasn’t been done better somewhere else. A writer’s best chance at getting noticed lies in their ability to create the most original premise for their market.

But Hayes also warns to stay away from “gimmick.” Your story should stand out from the crowd, but also have the heart, emotion, and care to bring your audience back again and again to your work. It can be a fine line to navigate, but one that will pay off immensely to both an audience and a producer. So don’t be afraid to make some noise!

Still think you’ve got more to learn from the real industry professionals? Don’t worry: more interviews with working producers like Hayes are coming soon! Stay tuned to the blog for new insights and interviews with more of Voyage’s own producing team members–and, if you haven’t already, sign up below for more email updates!



Kelly Hayes is a producer and development executive working in feature film, scripted and unscripted television, and digital series. He has spent the past four years working for The Walt Becker Company as the Director of Development and Production as well as working as an independent producer. On the feature side, Kelly was instrumental in the development and sale of BOYS ARE STUPID THROW ROCKS AT THEM at Universal. He also attached the director Nzingha Stewart to the 2012 Blacklist script DOPPELGANGERS, written by Evan and Shea Mirzai. Kelly’s other feature script OFFICE FIGHT! has John Scott attached to direct and Clark Duke attached to star. Leading up to his time at The Walt Becker Company, Kelly was an Associate Producer on the Walt Disney Studios film OLD DOGS starring John Travolta and Robin Williams. In television, Kelly has led the sale of numerous projects such as THUNDERBALLS at Spike, BLACK GIRLS ARE EASY at VH1, SWEAT at ABC Family, GLORY DAZE at TBS and HEAVEN at Starz. In the unscripted space Kelly produced and directed the sizzle reel for Jesus Freaks which is awaiting a pilot order at E!, and developed other pilots for TBS and VH1. Kelly has sold digital series to Fox Digital Studios that include the animated comedy THRILLA and the live action show BETTER OFF DAD. He produced the Fox Digital series BAD SAMARITANS, which is streaming on Netflix and has received 3.5 stars on over 25,000 reviews.

Kelly Hayes on IMDb


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