When Guidestones was first developed as an interactive web series in 2012, finding a home for it was about as easy as uncovering an international conspiracy using encrypted stone carvings for clues.
“Everybody who looked at it said, ‘This is amazing, we want to get involved, we’re gonna sell this thing,’ and it never really happened. It was interesting to watch,” says creator/producer/director/writer Jay Ferguson, abut the show’s rough-and-tumble debut. “Nobody could do anything with it, us included, and it wasn’t for lack of people trying.”
At the time, there were no digital platforms in Canada — and few international ones — that could distribute the series within their current paradigm, adds Jonas Diamond, who executive produced the series, in an interview ahead of the launch of Guidestones: Sunflower Noir.
But the online production and distribution landscape has changed a lot since then — as has the show. Produced by iThentic and 3o’clock.tv in association with Bell Media, Guidestones’ second season has morphed from a bite-size transmedia experiment into a multi-format mystery thriller with the look of a high-budget film.
The entire 18-episode season will be uploaded on CTV Extend on July 15, and the 10-minute episodes will also be compiled and packaged into 6 half-hour TV formats, as well as a 3-hour feature, screening for the first time on Thursday at The Royal cinema in Toronto. Based on viewer feedback and current content consumption trends, the producers thought the episodes could be longer with more of a focus on narrative elements, rather than mostly on the gaming components (which will still be part of the show).
“We knew that if we just go out and make another web series it would be hard to monetize. We needed secondary revenue sources,” Ferguson says about the decision to more than double the number of minutes created for season 2 so that it could be turned into a traditional TV series.
The cash budget for the second season was slightly higher than the first — approximately $400,000, about 70% of which is funded by the IPF, the Ontario Media Development Corporation and tax credits. The rest was raised through sponsorships and licence fees, plus additional “sweat equity,” which puts the cost of the show closer to a million dollars, says Ferguson. “I change my shirt about 3 or 4 times a day,” Ferguson jokes while discussing the personal investment by him and all those involved in turning the show into a success.
That commitment is likely why the show punches well above its weight, attracting more than a million views, 25 award nominations, and last year winning an International Emmy for best digital series.
Initially, Guidestones debuted on a website where viewers would subscribe to have episodes emailed to them. It later got picked up by Hulu in the U.S. and CTV in Canada, but the subscription option was still there for people who liked receiving the clips to their inbox. This allowed the creators to track additional information — such as how long people would watch for, how long would they explore for clues — and use the data (as well figures supplied by Hulu and CTV) to rework the second season.
Product integration helped finance both seasons, with Pizza Pizza and Coke returning as lead sponsors. Other brands on board this year include Hilton Hotels, equipment maker William F. White, and BlackBerry, which replaced Samsung.
Because they waited until they had a commitment from CTV Extend to begin production, Sunflower Noir came together very quickly. It took about 45 days of shooting, and was in post from February until this month. While the first season was shot on a 70D Canon camera and edited on a laptop, the second was shot using a bigger production camera and cut on better computers.
“We had to up our game because of the expectations,” says Diamond. “We really want to prove its worth and prove the model. Whether or not we’re able to do that, at least we’re going to put our best foot forward.”
Check out the trailer for Guidestones: Sunflower Noir: