by Ananya Bhattacharya
Charlie Reeves had the script, cast and crew ready to shoot the first episode of his new web series, Peacekeepers. Excited to begin production the next day, Reeves faced one of the greatest challenges- the private investor funding the project decided to postpone the financing. With locations and schedules set, panic struck the Peacekeepers team because losing essential time was equivalent to losing money and potentially, shutting down the project.
At the age of 27, he may have been through his fair share of day jobs as an accountant in production firms, working 9 to 7 every day, but his goal is centered on TV writing and Peacekeepers is his step towards making his dream a reality. Reeves’ script for an entire season is ready and his plans for the next two seasons are too. He says, “I like a beginning, a middle and an end so I have three seasons planned out and that’s how long the show will be.” Focused and determined, he has 20-minute episodes mapped out and his cast is supportive, yet he continues to struggle with funding.
Just when Reeves thought his dream of materializing his story as writer and director was coming to an end, friends and family got together and managed to lend him around $7,000 so he could at least start producing the first episode. This amount was not close to the budget of $26,700 they had originally planned for but Reeves and his team worked hard with an undying fervor and the investor finally came through with the money in time.
The budget Reeves required may seem obscene for web series since they are usually very low budget. However, Maria Makenna, actor, co-creator and a close friend of Reeves’, says “We see a mound that goes into these projects and hours and hours and hours and you want be able to compensate people for their time and dedication. People do things for free in this industry all the time. Charlie wants to be able to pay people for the work that they do.”
Beyond paying people fairly, Reeves wanted to challenge the mainstream television that inspired him. When you watch the first episode of Peacekeepers, you can’t help but notice influences from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who and BBC Sherlock amongst other shows belonging to a similar sci-fi, thriller genre. Not only did Reeves want to compete with the content, but he also wanted to create quality of the same caliber. “Charlie, in the first episode especially, wanted to maximize the quality,” says Makenna. By releasing the episode with their Kickstarter campaign, Reeves and his team were hoping to gather funds through the crowd-funding platform to create the next two episodes.
Peacekeepers appeared to be a story of people receiving texts from “God” or another such omnipotent, omnipresent entity, informing them of untoward events that they had the responsibility of stopping within the time allocated to them. “Texting’s the way we exchange information without having any of the normal things that slow down that exchange. And it’s a good way to keep an identity hidden. Phone calls are messy. Skywriting’s too expensive. And who sends paper mail anymore?” Reeves’ response is in such a matter-of-face tone that you’ll be left wondering why you even asked, “why texts?”
With a goal of raising $60,000, and only having raised one-sixth of it with a week left for their campaign to expire, Reeves couldn’t help but get concerned. However, he did not give up. He released animated footage outlining the background of Peacekeepers to further engage his viewers. Here, we find out that is a story of people all around the world with a Peacekeeper virus who can only transfer it through blood-to-blood exchanges and must pass on the virus before they day. Peacekeepers are self-governed with a group of elders called ‘The Assembly’. “But something’s wrong with the New York Peacekeeper.”
Ending at a mysterious cliffhanger, the teaser surely garnered attention since funding was on the rise again with just three days to go. Unfortunately for Reeves, soon after crossing the halfway mark of $30,000, the campaign time frame expired. Because the goal wasn’t fulfilled, Reeves did not get access to any of the money raised- it was all remitted back to the donors.
Professor Gerard Bocaccio, Associate Arts Professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts who consults for Blumhouse Productions and the Discovery Channel amongst other career milestones, reacts to the financial struggle Reeves faces, “I would suggest that perhaps he should have made it for $2,500 an episode and made 10 of them for the $26,700. With one episode you’ve put yourself in a bit of a box since a single episode of television has no real value. Can it be a calling card? Can it be part of an effort to grow something? Sure, but it had better be a very good single episode!” He advises Charlie to, “Think about it as an example of an idea that could live on a more traditional television platform or the hybrid’s that have become Amazon, Hulu, Microsoft, etc. At the very least, contemplating that path to production creates a different and more dynamic discussion with an investor who might be interested in television, but not content for the web. Traditional exhibition has a more discernible formula for recouping their money.”
Reeves’ day job is working as an accountant at HBO, thus he has a business-centric mind. He appreciates the value of production and acknowledges that the decision to produce on a higher budget is his way of competing with mainstream television in the small way that he can. “I have been writing for as long as I can remember. I do write. You have to. It’s not like a bicycle, you have to keep practicing,” he said.
“I’ve been bouncing around production jobs in TV and film since graduation to pay rent and work off those horrible student loans and that’s helping me feel close to what I’ll eventually be running,” Reeves said with conviction laced with slight nervousness. He is not boxing himself in and letting himself grow in whichever direction life takes him.
Reeves is constantly looking forward, hoping to find a writer’s assistant job in a writer’s room on some show, or a script coordinator job.“But there are like five of those in this city, and even though I’ve been reaching out to every connection I’ve ever made pretty hard for about a year, I’m having zero luck makin’ the day job closer to the dream job. An LA move is probably on the horizon,” Reeves contemplates today, longing to get a better break into the television industry there since it hasn’t happened yet in New York.
Fresh out of college in 2008, Reeves he followed his heart, taking the childhood anime nerd in him to Japan. There, Reeves not only took the opportunity to explore a different career path and teach children English, he let his creativity flow without any professional pressure. Being in an unfamiliar place granted him time to watch “something like 500 films” and he cranked out a screenplay each month. A self-proclaimed vampire in the summer, Reeves spent most of his free time in Japan watching movies. In a place out of his comfort zone, he wrote endlessly and although he hasn’t tried to sell any of the work from that time, he views everything as practice to refine his skill.
Starting off with creative writing as his major at San Francisco State University, Reeves first abandoned his aspirations of being an actor because he didn’t like the idea of auditions. “They only restrain people from doing what they love doing,” Reeves said, shaking his head. On the way to SF State University, Reeves decided he felt most at home when he was writing. Blessed with his craft of storytelling, he focused his ambitions and transferred to NYU Tisch in the second year of his undergraduate course to study Dramatic Writing.
Although he was delving into movie writing, he didn’t know his true interests. “I’d talk to friends about my ideas for a movie, but then I’d think of them as series or trilogies, and my friends would be like that…sounds more like TV,” he said. Quick to play to his strengths, Reeves juggled his day job as an accountant at HBO with co-writing on the popular web series Whatever This Is, a queer-friendly, highly acclaimed web series about the lives of two male production assistants and one of their girlfriends in New York,before he engaged with his own venture in Peacekeepers.
Crowdsourcing on a huge platform like Kickstarter can do wonders for many, but Reeves did not manage to raise enough money. Yet, Peacekeepers is only temporarily on the backburner as Reeves attempts to find other sources of funding.
“It was Murphy’s Law all throughout the shooting,” he chuckled. From terrible weather conditions to legal restrictions on locations and tussles with the police for illegally shooting on midtown rooftops, Reeves scooted past every difficulty imaginable. He believes he can counter this financial hurdle too.
Makenna says, “we are seeing if we can shoot bits and pieces for cheaper. Our goal is to keep an audience interested and fundraise further.” This seems to be the advice Professor Bocaccio would give too.”The more episodes you can make, the better because you have options for repurposing the content. You can design elements for marketing and advertising; particularly in the social media world of twitter and tumblr where word-of-mouth can be everything.” He says, “Using what you have to create awareness can be an effective tool for creating web impressions which, when viewed in the aggregate can create the perception of success and therefore, potential monetization.”
The important aspect of creating awareness, and therefore having the opportunity to earn money in the long run, is the ability to create a something that an audience can be passionate about. Professor Bocaccaio explains, “We’re just like flavors of ice cream. I’m chocolate, you’re vanilla. Some people like chocolate and some like vanilla. You need to find people who love chocolate and give them the best tasting chocolate they’ve ever had. That’s your job.”
Reeves recognizes that Peacekeepers finds its niche within the dark sci-fi and thriller genres. Speaking of his inspiration, Reeves says, “You’ve got a little Doctor Who, a little Sherlock, a little Buffy. Some Battlestar Galactica. I watch a ton of TV. It’s hard to pick influences at this point, because we’re at a stage where excellent media is being produced so fast that I’m being influenced by stuff that’s influenced by other things that also influence me– it all sort of piles up and it’s hard to pick an origin point.” However, his script is original and the crafting appears innovative from the teasers and trailers. Featured in the NYU Tisch Dean’s List signifying that he stood in the top 5% of his class, Reeves is a powerhouse of talent.
Reeves strongly feels that Peacekeepers is important for content-driven television because of its strong female lead, played by the co-creator Maria Makenna, and its handling of issues of sexuality and religion. As Makenna races around the city to prevent tragedies at the behest of an unknown entity, the question of how (and why and who) looms even larger, even in the face of danger.
Unfortunately for the TV industry, if someone like Reeves is going to remain on the fringes of mainstream TV, we will inhibit the exploration of gender, sexuality and debates about a higher power, made to cater to intelligent audiences that are open-minded. Reeves passionately puts forth the same argument; “Peacekeepers takes place in a pretty solidly atheist universe, as we find out pretty quickly. I don’t think the people who take offense to the religious side of things will watch the show in the first place, honestly, and I think people who do believe in a God will be cool with Peacekeepers as a work of fiction.” By calling the universe atheist, Reeves asserts that the show is not for or against religion and God.
Besides, there’s a lot more to this story if you dig beneath the surface. It’s not just about saving lives and playing God (in the literal sense of the term at times), but at it’s core, “there’s an antitheism plotline, which takes a stab at evaluating religion as a cause of child abuse, but that comes a bit later in the series. We work up to that,” says Charlie, as something in his past unlocks within him. He slumps back into his chair a little. With his air of confidence intact, he speaks with a strong voice still, but a little softer now.
“I bring to it my own experience as a victim of abuse. Not religious-related abuse, mine was a little more mainstream than that, but it all sort of boils down to the same thing: A parent’s supposed to protect their child. Failing to do so is among the most unforgivable acts out there. And abuse happens every day, and it’s important that victims have voices.” This is testimony to the fact that Peacekeepers is not only about a 27-year-old trying to make it into mainstream TV- it’s about a young boy who wants his suffering to be known so he can protect others like him and give their story a face too.
For Reeves, magical realism was essential to him in his storytelling from a young age and apparent in his choice of television to such an extent that it still reflects in his work today. He doesn’t speak with a drop of remorse as he speaks of his childhood, “I didn’t have time to make friends, jumping from place to place like that, so I devoured books and I built cities out of Legos. I thought I was going to be a physicist until about 13 when I had to actually start getting serious with the math, which I was horrible at, and I think that love of theoretical science stuck with me and got translated into the sci-fi I write now.” He is imaginative, raw and energetic. “Worlds within worlds is one of my favorite things to play with,” he speaks of his plot, in his life and in his writing.
Reeves had a lot to say about television today. Drawing from his own life, Reeves explores the darker corners and exposes them with truthfulness that is hopefully raw enough to combat financial hindrances because for Reeves, “TV’s definitely the goal! I want to run my own show. Like a big show, not just one being made on a shoestring budget. The goal’s always been telling stories, and a story’s more effective the more people hear it, so I want to do something big enough that everybody can hear.”