9 Ways to “Make It” – with Byrne Owens

Meet Bryne Owens

Byrne Owens is one of the Producers, Actors, and often times Director of the popular YouTube series "My Roommate The..." I suggest you meet him for coffee some day and really get to know him. Byrne always has excellent advice and has been an inspiration to me and others.Byrne and I were talking at a gig a while back and his depth of insight into the Hollywood mindset had me intrigued. I kept asking questions and he kept giving more. I thought I'd let Byrne share some of his insights with you.

Enter Byrne Owens...

What was your background before you started working on Roommate? Did you act full time, work retail?  Are you still working other jobs besides Roommate?

Before “my roommate the” I was serving tables at Bubba Gump Shrimp Company at Universal City Walk, working front desk for the W Westwood, and operating the mechanical bull at Saddle Ranch Sunset.  Currently I PA on various productions, I do stand-in and extra work, and work occasional event photography jobs for the company LA Photo Party.  I do get paid to direct and edit for “my roommate the” but not nearly enough to pay the bills.  But it is a full time job.  So the jobs I take on the side are on par with slave labor but are incredibly flexible, which is necessary when being as involved we are with these productions.

What brought you to Los Angeles?

Acting, actually.  I moved up almost immediately after I graduated University San Diego and my goal was to get an agent, join the Screen Actors Guild, and book a supporting role on a notable TV show by the end of  my first year.  Well, I achieved the first 2 but have yet to achieve the 3rd.
 

How did you get involved with Roommate?

I wasn’t getting the auditions I wanted and Lu found one of my impromptu characters entertaining enough to shoot a sketch around it.  So I sat in the corner dressed in all black with nail polish and eye-liner and we did the sketch called “my roommate the Emo”.  It was a lot of fun and it garnered a lot positive feedback from friends and fellow industry associates.  So we just kept coming up with ideas and shooting them!

What made you decide to “go for it” and use Roommate as your claim to fame?

There came a point where we were all doing multiple things and not really devoting our time 100% to just one endeavor.  Which, if you look at any young industry professional, they are living, breathing, sleeping their career.  We made a decision that if we were going to “go for it” then we shouldn’t have one foot out the door.  So we took a risk.  We took time off our more demanding jobs and devoted ourselves to the show as if it were a fully paid, full-time job.  And it worked!  The quality improved and our next season got contracted and paid for. 

Tell me about Roommate.  How is it different from other web series and TV shows?

It’s doesn’t have a through-line narrative like most shows.  Even procedural shows (Sitcoms and Cop Dramas) have an underlying thread that develops characters and relationships toward an eventual end.  But the with “my roommate the” you really don’t see a beginning or end to Lu’s story.  Like Southpark or Simpsons, it’s a simple formula that allows us the audience to experience a new universe every episode.  And the show could technically go on forever (or as long as Lu is alive) because we really haven’t specified when it began, when it will end, or how freaking weird it is for someone to have this many roommates and not question it (unless that’s the premise of the episode – which we have one coming up that attempts to answer that question).  But yeah, it’s just a free for all and it’s nice to have that as a writer and not feel the pressure to “wrap it up” or “pull out” so to speak…  Network TV is so safe, you know? 

What do the viewers  get out of Roommate?

They get a Neapolitan bowl of comedic flavors!  Maybe you’re a low brow poop joke kinda guy and just want to see someone get sh*t on.  Or maybe you’re in college and need a break from reading Sartre but don’t want to swing too far from your intellectual cleverness trip.  Or maybe you’re the most sarcastic person on the planet and just need things to not make any damn sense for a change.  This show paints targets on all those people and more, and I think that’s a pretty universal thing to get behind. 

What do you get out of Roommate?

I get to express my frustrations with society while also providing a joke threaded book report on my archetypal research of human bahavior.  Like, if I’m doing an episode called ‘my roommate the Corporate Yuppy’, I get to unleash my fury on all the elitists who define themselves by their 401k without it just sounding like some baseless angry rant on tumblr, all the while providing educational facts that slip into your subconscious because you were too busy laughing to notice you were actually learning something about a cliche subculture. 

What did you do to start Roommate?

I wrote the scripts and Lu financed them.  Originally we were just throwing our own cash at the episode without really evaluating how much it would ultimately cost or how big of dent it would be putting on our balances.  But as the episodes got longer and we started to see a structure in our following, Lu took it upon himself to utilize his amazing credit score and invest in the show properly.  Honestly beyond that it was about being diligent with paperwork and scheduling.

Is Roommate profitable?

No.  Not if you’re defining profit as making a living with actual dollars and cents.  The show has had a very slow growth, and although the fans are loyal and care to see us continue, the amount of views necessary to make a profit on Youtube has to be in the millions.  Only one of our episodes broke a million (now it’s at 5 million) and that was “my roommate the Pornstar” which you can imagine, has it’s own reasons for obtaining so many views.  We never set out to make a living off this show, it was always meant to be a demonstration of out abilities for future opportunities, and of course a artistic vehicle for self expression.

How do you promote the show?

Marketing is definitely an aspect that could always use more attention.  Although we have a kick-ass website with a user friendly interface, and Lu and I are constantly updating on both our personal feeds and “my roommate the” through the various social networks, we’ve always felt that alternative marketing was the key to internet exposure.  For instance, a lot of companies will sponsor parties and events for a specific demographic.  And in our case, it would be college kids and young adults.  To throw a concert or party with a non-profit organization and sponsorship is our goal once we’re in a position to do so.  Even live improv performances from the cast to various college theatre and film programs would be amazing.  At the moment however, we’re really gearing every last ounce of financing toward making the show as quality and polished as possible as they will likely serve as a bridge for funding future content.

Did you partner with anyone to grow the show?

We did.  We aligned ourselves with Bunim Murray Productions for our 3rd season.  They agreed to finance 15 episodes in exchange for a share in the copyright.  The pros to that deal was that we got to produce the show with very little to no overhead on our end.  AND they didn’t interfere with the creative process, which is quite unheard of when it comes to investors.  All investors want to make their money back so if they feel they can change something to ensure that they will.  These guys thought we were perfect just the way we are and we’re thankful of that.  The cons to the deal, and I suppose this happens with any deal you make at this stage in the game, is that they are attached to us for the next 5 years whether they choose to continue financing us or not.  That means if we decide to continue the show after our contract is up, they will still be collecting their half of whatever money we earn in the future – whether it be through ad revenue, another company picking us up, or a movie deal going through.  And like I said before, I our aim was never to make a profit on this, and I think Bunim Murray understood that as well, but the concept is always open to negotiations with TV networks, and that’s where they see themselves making a return on their investment.  I love this show like a child but at the end of the day someone was going to stake claim on it if it was going to continue. 

When you started, did you have the vision in mind of where you are now? 

Absolutely not.  On one hand I’ve become a better writer and producer than I ever thought possible.  Namely because I didn’t think that would wind up being my career.  I thought for sure I was going to be an actor by profession.  I haven’t quit acting but in order to get anything done I’ve had to put auditions at the bottom of the priority list.  A lot of actors we work with are limited in terms of changing their look.  Once I knew that acting wasn’t going to be what got me through the door (and that’s still not a certainty either), I was able to take on characters that required a change in appearance that most actors would require compensation for.  Example, in “my roommate the Time Traveler” I had grown a beard from the previous episode “my roommate the Hippie” then utilized my shaving it to sell a scene where my character had gone into the future for a length of time without shaving.  Little things like that are important when doing short comedies like ours but any actor who’s paid 5-600 bucks on their recent headshots is looking at me thinking “that nutcase just shot himself in the foot!”  But it sold the story and that is ultimately what’s more important to me now.  But the struggle is still alive and the uncertainty is just as daunting.  Just when you think you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, something happens to make that tunnel even longer.  Right now I can’t honestly say what the future of the show or future of my career holds, but I continue casting out my fishing line and planning for the next project, whether I get the funding conventionally or not.  
 

How much does social media play in your business?

Some will argue it’s EVERYTHING.  I’ve seen internet success based strictly off of their ability to reach a wide array of viewers.  The content could be total crap but they’ve found a way to viral market every minute of it, and that prestige goes a long way with the masses.  I’m seeing big corporate studios utilize social media in a way that no one else can because studios can afford to pay for the privilege of being seen.Sometimes I’ll see a tweet or Facebook post on behalf of a product or show that I had never opted to follow, but they paid hand over fist to make sure my eyeballs saw the ad.  And that’s what viewers are to most media moguls – eyeballs.  I don’t see it that way.  At least not yet.  Lu has described me as boutique creator, in that my content is specific and can’t be easily defined or boxed for commercial distribution.  Surely someday a niche will naturally make it’s groove in modern pop culture but to what extent, I can’t say.I look at my viewers as people, and more importantly, extensions of me.  And right now, I have the luxury of making a personal and more intimate connection to my viewers.  “What would I want to see?” is the question I ask myself.  And I can’t promise that will work for everybody.  Because let’s face it, some people are freaking weird and what they want to see if too specific.  I’m a fan of cinema and I trust that my taste is universal enough but also honest enough for a big company to question it’s marketability to a mass audience.  And that’s really where the home-runs are.Until a big hitter is paying Google to shuffle us to the front of the line, one could waste their schedule and budget just trying to get people to see their one project when they could be developing the next great idea.  There’s definitely balance but  If/when I can afford to “boost”  my posts or even work out deals with likened websites and products, I will certainly take that step.  But until then, the focus needs to be on making what’s true and entertaining.

How will you continue to grow the show?

I’m going to answer this in terms of actual dollars and cents, since that really is the clincher between a project happening and not happening. 
 
If for whatever reason Bunim Murray does not renew the show, we won’t have the money at our disposal to continue.  So, my answer to the question: How will I continue to grow the show?  By continuing to write future episodes, pure and simple.  A lot of film makers don’t take steps forward because they think it’ll be a waste of time if there isn’t a certainty of funds.  Or worse, they aren’t already getting paid to do it!  I know my worth, and I look forward to being compensated for it.  But until that day comes I’m not going to sit still or only do as much as I’m being paid, otherwise I’m selling myself short.
 
In terms of crowd sourcing, since the Zach Braff and Veronica Mars campaigns, it’s tough to say how far a kickstarter or indie-a-go-go could really take you if you’re not a celebrity or in cahoots with a celebrity when making your pitch.  It’s also tough to say if a production team can do more than one in any given length of time and expect the same enthusiasm from fans the second time through.But our plan as of now, is to kickstart for an epic finale to this season, then use that to promote the feature.  I’ve written a feature length episode that will blow your minds.  But even with our 60-odd episodes completed, we want to prove to our audience (and potential financiers) that we can utilize a set budget to it’s maximum potential and bring home a really solid piece of cinema.  We want our work to speak for us!

What’s your best advice for anyone who is pursuing their dreams? 

Remember them!  It’s silly but life will get you sidetracked, especially when things aren’t going your way.  As your friends grow older and people come into your life with their own life plans and goals, you find yourself making compromises and still trying to keep that dream alive though motivational conversations with other dream chasers.  But just talking about it, after awhile, will actually hinder you because it will serve as a reminder that you haven’t completed shit.  So remember what you set out for and FINISH IT.  Finish what you started.  None of the Tony Robbins stuff is any good to you if you can’t at the very least see your goals through from start to finish.

What is the very best advice you would give anyone who wants to “make it”?

Depending on what it is you’re “making”, there’s a difference between regret and finding ways to improve on it.  If you honestly believe that you were meant for something more in this life than just a job and a family, if you’re willing to sacrifice the comfort of normalcy to fulfill that purpose, you have to let go of regret.  There are so many talented people who hold themselves back because they’re hovering outside of themselves, judging, comparing, weighing the odds against themselves because not enough people are patting them on the back.Stop looking at that person over there who gets things easy, they’ve got their own bag of shit to carry and you may never get to know the weight of it.  You wake up with yourself in the morning, you alone.  And you’re either thinking about the next step forward or you’re wondering what the fuck happened.  Believe me, the second one doesn’t accomplish anything but a bad caffeine addiction (or worse).  So learn from your mistakes and make decisions.  That’s what “making it” really means.
 

If you were to start again, with all of the experience you have now, what would you do differently and why?  What would be “The Steps”.

Well first off, let me re-iterate my previous advice.  Get rid of regret.  Experience is crucial so my answer to this is less of what I would have done differently and more of what I still want to do and what I think young professionals should be thinking about when getting ready to dive in.
 
  1. Keep a hobby

    An instrument, a sport, a dance, a martial art, painting, cooking, whittling, WHATEVER!  And it’s okay to suck at it.  As long as it’s separate enough from what you’re pursuing so that your brain can have some privacy.  By privacy I mean like, a place to go where you won’t be bothered with your problems.  What you have is a relationship with your goals and dreams.  And even though you love your significant other, there needs to be another room you can go to where your brain can breathe and be itself apart from what normally gives it its identity.

  2. Find a community

    It’s not easy.  It takes time and patience.  You’ll meet some amazing people, but not all will jive with you organically.  And that’s okay!  Not every ally has to be in your community.  But once you have a team of people, a Justice League so to speak, whose goals, interests and abilities are interwoven seamlessly, you’ll find that through shared experience, your art will flow through you like clockwork.

    You’ll be a well oiled machine that’s nearly unstoppable amidst adversity.  Your confidence will be at an all time high because even if it feels like the rest of the world is against you, you’ll have your team to back you up as keep you moving through the fray.  My advice, move into a big house with lots of artists, or a complex where there’s like-minded people in your area for you bounce ideas off of and think tank.  I’d still like to someday live in an artist mecca but as I grow older I see that window slowly begin to shrink.

    That isn’t to say there’s an age limit but I feel when you’re young you have a much higher tolerance for communal living than when you get older and more set in your ways.  But don’t rush, you’ll find your community organically.  You just have to be willing to go through the motions of meeting people, LISTENING, and sifting through the bullshit.  You’ll have to deal with some real slimy douchebags.  That’s just life.  And big cities in particular.  Which brings me to my next point:

  3. Trust no one!

    And I think a lot of people confuse this notion with keeping people at a distance.  That’s no way to network or market yourself.  You have to collaborate with people and you have to give people a chance.  But that doesn’t mean you should get all gitty and jump to conclusions about this fantasy of success simply because “so-in-so” made you a promise.  LOTS of people are going to make you promises.  And you’ll do well to smile and nod, hear them out, keep an open mind about the possibilities.  But the second you start to depend on your expectations (or expectations of others), you’ll fall…hard.

    You’ll take meetings, you’ll go on dates, and you’ll hear it all, “I’m going to do this for you..”  “This is going to happen this way..”  “Trust me!”  And things might be so shitty in your life that you’ll want to believe them.  But there isn’t a more crippling blow than believing in a false promise.

    You are alone.  Even in your community.  You are ultimately alone and you will die alone.  You must face your challenges alone and as soon as you can accept this, you can accept others for who they are and not fear the possibility that they might be all talk.  Most of them are, even if they don’t want to be.  You don’t need to burn bridges or be an asshole to protect yourself, just watch your ass and don’t fall asleep at the wheel.

     

  4. Make friends with a law student.

    If you’re going into this game as broke as I did, I’m pretty certain you can’t afford a lawyer unless it’s a friend doing you a favor.  Don’t just buddy up with any law student, some of them are idiots.  But you’re more likely to make a friend who actually gives a shit about your disposition if they are rising to their potential the same as you.  Hell, even THEY might have a friend who is actually a lawyer that can help you.  “For what?” you ask?  For

    contracts.  If we’re talking about the entertainment industry (and I’m assuming we are) and you’re a creative person, there will come a point when you are presented with an opportunity where contracts are involved.  If the person tries to get you to sign it right off the bat, that’s a huge red flag.  Take it home, and have someone who reads this shit for a living go over it with you.

    There’s language and terminology intentionally put in there to screw you.  Don’t worry, that’s just the twisted nature of law and they’d be dumb to not put fine print booby traps in there to rob you of your well deserved money.  I’ve seen, heard, and experienced many cases where artists were gipped out of a lot of money over a stupid contract technicality.

     

  5. Don’t waste your money on luxuries.

    Everyone deserves nice things.  And you’ll have moments where you tell yourself, “Life is short, I’m young, I should definitely live it up.”  But what you don’t realize is that you’ve chosen to pursue something that very few people succeed in, and that makes it glamorous and rewarding.

    Scarcity equals profit.  So you might be in this for the long haul.  And taking a chance that you’ll book some huge gig within the next two years so you can pay off that new car, or your credit card bill from that vacation to Tahoe is a gamble not worth losing.  Go out, mingle, find cheap tickets and deals, scavenge and figure out a way.  Learn the barter system.

    There’s ways around dumping your money to experience your young adulthood, because you should get that experience without a doubt, just not if it leaves you asking your parents and friends for money when the chips are down.  Save that for a REALLY rainy day.

  6. Don’t let your side jobs consume you.

    There’s a lot of people out here trying to do exactly what you’re doing.  So with that in mind, consider the type of people who take on managerial or supervisor positions for actor-friendly companies (food service, hospitality, extra work, events).  Most of them are pretty fucking miserable.  They may have started out like you, and then their mid 30’s happened.  Life happened.  The tetris blocks piled up and their choices “forced” them into a full time job babysitting a majority of misguided young actors flocking to the city in search of an identity.

    You’re not that person, I’m sure, but they won’t know that or care to find out.  Like a soldier who’s survived countless battles and lost all their friends, they won’t look kindly on a new recruit because odds are, that recruit will probably get picked off, or worse, get everyone else killed.  It’s a drastic metaphor but sometimes I really do see the caged tiger in these people’s eyes.  And all they have to live for is their power over you.  ESPECIALLY if they see promise.

    Nothing would help them sleep better than to crush your dreams, and rob you of your spirit the way they were robbed of theirs.  It’s just human nature.  Crabs in a barrel clawing to keep each other from escaping.  So when you go to work, put your emotion shield up and keep your head down.  You have real work to do when you get home later (and when you wake up

    tomorrow morning).  The mean people have made their choice.  And you’re welcome to try and cheer them up but that will only paint a bigger target on your forehead.  So don’t tire yourself out over trivial bullshit.  Your youthful ambition is a powerful thing and you’ll need it down the line.

     

  7. Be independent.

    Don’t rely too much on your parents, if at all.  Let them help you with your college fees at most.  But if you keep one foot in the nest it will come back to haunt you.  Odds are they won’t want you to stop accepting their help.  It’s a parental nature to want to give your kids everything but it’s also in their nature to want to correct their mistakes through you, even if unconsciously.

    That means they’ll have an opinion on everything you do.  And because you’re accepting their help, you’ll naturally be inclined to consider it.  Odds are you’ve chosen this path because it defers from that of your parents and the world that raised you.  That means what they think works may not work for you.  There will be guilt, there will anxiety, resentment, regret, passive aggression, all of the things that come with sharing decisions.  And if you don’t have to share your decisions then don’t!

    Just like investors, anyone who puts stake into what you’re doing is going to expect things in return.  And it may be counter-intuitive for you to be juggling those obligations.  Parents, girlfriends, boyfriends, friends, roommates, investors, fans, anyone who gives you help is going to feel entitled to your decisions whether they want to admit it or not.  Keep that in mind when accepting their generosity.

  8. Keep an active journal.

    And don’t write like people are going to read it someday.  Maybe they will, but by then you’ll be a different person (or dead) and it won’t matter.  Write it all.  Reveal it all.  Whatever your thoughts.  Arguably (and philosophically) those thoughts and ideas may not even be yours.  But you need to express them.  And sometimes, most times, it’s best to express them in private.  THEN filter through the self loathing and doubt and find the things worth shouting out to the world.  Meditation works in the same way but I’ve found meditation works best when you focus on your sensations.  Journal writing on the other hand, gives you a chance to shed your skin and see your thoughts actuated in front of you.  You’ll be surprised how much lighter your thoughts are once they’ve been let loose from the crockpot of your mind.

  9. Set deadlines!

     You’ve made up your mind.  This what you’re here to do, it’s what makes you happy, and there’s no way you’re going to quit.  Because quitting is the only true failure.  So, how to proceed?  Make a date and stick to it.  Understandably, shit happens and if you’re not getting paid for this yet you’re going to be juggling a lot of stuff.  But that deadline is a microcosm of your dreams, your goals, your purpose.

    You can’t see far enough into the future to know for certain if this will pan out the way you intended, but you can be damn sure that you’ll meet that deadline.  No one else will care as much you, and no one will be as sorry as you if you let that deadline slip.  You are your own boss for now, so bust out a calendar, pin it to your wall over your desk and work towards that day like it’s the last project you’ll ever do.  Then, once it’s met, go out and buy yourself a smoothie or whatever the hell you do to treat yourself, and then set the next one.  Before you know it you’ll have a library of completed works, a legacy that someday your kids or your students or your fans will look to for guidance as they walk into the fray.

    There is a light at the end of the tunnel my friends.  It’s the deadline(s) you set for yourself. 

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