One week ago we were inside the Claridge Theater in Montclair New Jersey celebrating incredible indie web series, films, and fiction podcasts. The New Jersey Web Festival had kicked off, and a collection of inspiring and passionate creators had assembled to start a weekend of positive affirmation and the celebration of talent and creativity. As reactions rippled through the crowd caused by whatever we were watching at that moment on the big screen, I couldn’t help but marvel at the path that led me here, as an Executive Board Member and the founder of the Fiction Podcast/Actual Play wing of the festival.
Getting Started with NJWF
I first heard about the New Jersey Web Festival too late to submit. It was 2018 and the second season of my web series The Hunted: Encore was making its way through the WebFest circuit. Our show had been to festivals all over the world but somehow I missed the submissions for a festival just across the Hudson River from me. Creators I respected from all over the world started posting about this festival in Montclair New Jersey, and what they were writing blew me away.
Here are some excerpts from 2018 FilmFreeway reviews:
An unforgettable Jersey experience! From the moment we were selected, through the detailed planning and promotion, to our very first group photo op in front of the theater, we felt like all-stars.
I know this was their first year, but honestly: NJ Web Fest did everything right. From the communication pre-fest to the warm welcome to the panel discussions to the venues to the screenings — everything was perfect. The official selection was strong across the board, everything ran on time, the people running things were always handy if you needed anything and the attitude of everyone involved was always friendly, helpful and excited. I seriously have zero constructive feedback to give — as long as the NJ Web Fest maintains this level of excellence, it’ll be a Must Attend fest every year. Thanks for having us and congratulations on establishing a great new festival!
I reached out to Neem Basha, festival director, immediately to introduce myself, apologize for missing his submission deadline, and ask if The Hunted: Encore would be eligible in 2019 despite being part of the 2018 circuit. In a truly gracious response, Neem introduced himself, asked about me, and welcomed me to submit for the following year.
The more festivals I went to in 2018, the more I heard about the experience in New Jersey. While enjoying local wine in Bilbao, Spain I was regaled with stories about this epic festival by creators FROM Spain who had attended the NJ WebFest live. During an awards ceremony at a festival in Minnesota, I watched creators from all over the world greet themselves like long-lost family members who had met for the first time just weeks prior in Montclair. I’d never seen anything like it.
An Idea is Born
As my festival run finished, I started floating an idea to creators I had come close to. Hey, I don’t just make Web Series, I also have a Fiction Podcast. The podcast community doesn’t have ANYTHING like web series have in the WebFest circuit, do you think these festivals would welcome podcast creators? The more people I talked to the more a consensus began to emerge. The head of a major Web Festival actually put it best. Look, this is a New York City idea. The premier New York City WebFest is actually across the river in New Jersey. You need to talk to Neem Basha.
So on a sunny day in May 2019, I sat down with Neem at a Starbucks in Battery Park to pitch him the idea of expanding the New Jersey Web Festival to include Fiction Podcasts. I had come prepared. I had statistics, I had quotes, I had profiles of podcast creators who I’d talked to and gave me pull quotes to give Neem. I was ready. I started the same way I usually pitch this, the Venn diagram of Web Series creators and Fiction Podcast creators is a circle. It is a very indie market full of creators who are making some of the most creative and interesting art on the market, who often were turned away by the industry establishment. It’s a place where historically marginalized and underrepresented communities are thriving together, and it’s a supportive and uplifting space that values the heart of its fellow creators.
I got maybe halfway through my pitch, Neem leaned back in his chair and said, okay stop. I get it. I’m in. Let’s do it. How do we do it for 2020? And that was it. Neem heard that a group of passionate creators were missing an opportunity that he could offer, and he said yes barely 5 minutes into the conversation.
I came out of that conversation energized, and excited, and I started planning everything I could think of to launch the first WebFest for Fiction Podcasts. It was the second time a Web Festival founder had changed my life.
To explain the first time, we have to go back a little bit to my tale of woe.
From 2012 until 2015 I made the vast majority of my living as a theatre actor performing around the country. In the summer of 2015, I moved back to New York City after an acting gig in Fort Atkinson Wisconsin having just earned my Actors’ Equity Association card and was starting my career as a union actor. Things were trending up. I was getting bigger and better opportunities, I had great connections, it was a really great time in my life.
On New Year’s Day of 2016, my father checked himself into the hospital because he wasn’t feeling well, and with his cancer he was worried. 3 weeks later I sat in a room with his doctor while she explained to me that they’d done all they could, but the humane thing to do would be to take my father off life support and make him comfortable for his next transition. I had gone to his hospital in Philadelphia with only a backpack and no change of clothes. That morning I had given one of the best auditions of my life for the Pioneer Theater Company and hopped on a bus, expecting to come back that night. What I couldn’t have known is that I was moving to Pennsylvania that day.
I moved into my father’s house and lived alone, handling his estate, emptying his work office, and selling the house. My whole life ground to a halt. In April of that year, after 4 months of living in Pennsylvania, and desperately clinging to any positive notes that I could, I was halfway through a bottle of bourbon, sitting on the couch in a home that felt entirely foreign, and I had never felt lower. I needed to feel like an artist again, I needed to create. I pulled out my computer, fired up Celtx, and wrote the first draft of Season 1 of The Hunted: Encore.
That June I found out I needed throat surgery and would have to delay my return to Musical Theatre by another 6 months. In July we shot the first season of my Action Comedy Rock Musical Mockumentary Web Series about New York City Vampire Slayers. I had surgery in August, and my entire existence was put into editing and releasing this show. We got a really nice write-up in the New York Times in advance of our launch. On Halloween we premiered. I began submitting the show to 2017 film festivals.
Rejection and Isolation
We were rejected by just about every festival that we applied to. As rejection after rejection came in, I was doing okay because I was getting ready to be fully recovered from throat surgery and I could finally return to my career one year after it was taken away from me. My doctor cleared me to sing professionally again on a Monday in January of 2017. That Thursday my mom called me to let me know that her cancer had been declared terminal, they were giving her 6 months to live, and would I please move home to be with her for as long as I could.
I packed up everything into my car and I drove North. On that drive, I received an offer for what would have been the biggest opportunity in my career. I had to turn it down to go take care of Mom. As I crossed the Piscataqua Bridge at the Maine border I wept into my steering wheel, feeling like my whole life had been taken from me.
Not only could I not resume my life as an actor, but my hail mary plea to the universe to resuscitate it on my own terms was being universally rejected by festival after festival after festival. My mother was blind and so someone needed to stay up at night when she was sick in case she needed anything. One night in March, just before sunrise, I sat with my computer open, having just been rejected by another festival, and I truly had never felt lower. It was at that exact moment that an email entered my inbox from Michael Ajakwe Jr.
Michael was the founder of the Los Angeles Web Festival, one of the only festivals worldwide to accept the first season of The Hunted: Encore. I’m going to keep our conversation private, however here’s a paraphrase of what I received:
Hey Ned, I just wanted to say how excited I am to have The Hunted: Encore in the LA WebFest. I think you’ve created one of the most original and exciting pieces I’ve seen, and I hope you make more of it. This first season is okay, it needs a lot of work, but the potential is outstanding. I’m sure you can point to things you wish you’d done differently. I hope you make a second season and focus on improving this work with everything you’ve learned. Congratulations on making something new that’s not like anything I’ve ever seen. Have a great night, Michael.
As my mother slept, I started weeping in an armchair across the room. This man, who had never met me, reached out and gave me the only thing I was craving after 14 months of the universe kicking me while I was down. He gave me recognition, compassion, and — more than anything — he saw me.
Mom died in May of 2017, one week later I opened my computer and wrote the first draft of season two of The Hunted: Encore. The rest, as they say, is history. We launched the second season on Halloween of 2017. By the time 2018 was over we had been accepted to more than 50 festivals and won over 70 awards worldwide. We ended up ranked #4 USA, #27 Worldwide in the 2018 Web Series World Cup. Those awards and that ranking got me interviews with major studios as a writer, producer, and actor. My career was restarted because of that second season, and it would not have existed with a WebFest festival founder reaching out to me.
The Legacy of Michael Ajakwe Jr.
Michael Ajakwe Jr. died in May of 2018 after battling cancer. I never got to meet him in person, and I never got to tell him what he did for me that day in March of 2017. I hope to pay it forward a million times through the New Jersey Web Festival, alongside another founder who would do anything for the alums of his festival, Mr. Neem Basha. The Michael Ajakwe Jr. “Don’t Wait, Create” award is given to a creator who exemplifies this ethos (this year it went to the incredible Joshua Pangborn of Sidekick Productions). While the award celebrates art, for me it’s about who carries Michael’s heart into the space.
No one carries the torch of Michael the way Neem does. It’s a joy to watch Neem in his element, celebrating every individual who walks through the doors of the New Jersey Web Festival. If your show is accepted to the festival but you can’t make it? Neem will gush about your piece to anyone who will listen. Neem created a space of judgement-free celebration for all attendees. A space where collaborations are fostered, friendships are forged, and art is sacred.
Neem has welcomed Actual Play Projects and Fiction Podcasts to his festival with open arms. The fellow filmmakers have opened their community to merge into one New Jersey Web Festival family. That is all I ever wanted for my podcast and actual play communities. Seeing now festival after festival on the WebFest circuit start to also expand and include this content has blown me away. Talking to festival directors who are thoughtfully and excitedly celebrating the work of new creators gives me an indescribable feeling. But more than anything what makes my heart sing is the magic of the New Jersey Web Festival.
The Magic of the New Jersey Web Festival
It’s anxiously reloading the search “njwebfest” on Twitter and clicking “latest” and liking every single post. It’s getting phone calls in the days after the event from creators talking about how excited they are for next year. It’s 3 creators taking me aside during intermission of the awards gala to say, Ned, we need to make sure more creators can come to this event and experience this for themselves. How can we help?
If you talk to those creators now, you know that we’re working on it. In the next few weeks, some initiatives will be announced that are direct results of those conversations only 5 days ago. I can’t wait to flesh them out and share them with you all. Submissions are open for the 2023 New Jersey Web Festival, and our Super Earlybird Deadline is just over a month away, on October 31, 2022. If you have content you would like our judges to consider, submit now to take advantage of our lowest submission price. Plus, if you use code FEELTHEMAGIC at checkout, you can save an additional 10% off that already low price! That code is only good through October 31 so get your materials submitted today!
If you have any questions, comments, concerns, or epiphanies, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at email@example.com or on Twitter.