From humble beginnings: how Justin Harwood’s High Road web series became more than just a hobby

“It was a bit of an accident”, Justin Harwood says when explaining the global success that High Road has found and the demand for it to return for a third season.

The series follows the life of a washed-up rock star from England who moves to the other side of the world and starts a local community radio station out of his caravan at the local campground. Unfortunately for him, the locals aren’t fans.

It started back in 2013 when Harwood pulled out a script he’d written a few years earlier and decided to test some scenes with a few friends, two of them being creatives from his agency, Tomorrowland. Those few scenes soon turned into six episodes, which turned into a second season thanks to $100,000 from NZ On Air. And that second season soon found its way around the world to win awards in Berlin, Montreal, New York and New Zealand. It was also selected to show in festivals in Rio, Miami, Brooklyn, Seattle and Melbourne.

“It was never really our intention to do that, it was more a case of wanting to do stuff for a bit of a laugh,” Harwood says, adding it was a nice surprise when it was recognised with international awards.

And now, with another $100,000 from New Zealand on air, season three of High Road launched this week.

Though it’s directed and produced by Harwood and crewed by some of Tomorrowland’s talent, High Road is unlike the work they make for clients. However, that hasn’t stopped Harwood from using it to show off the agency’s potential. A preview of it lives on the agency’s website and Harwood says it’s been a good way to show clients the creativity that is at Tomorrowland’s core.

He’s also been using it as talking point in the last few months when raising the idea of making more content that companies can get behind in a ‘brought to you by…’ style.

Over the next few years, he would like to see companies with money move away from creating an ad and instead fund people to make their own series or a short film. The idea being that audiences will appreciate the access to free content, creatives with ideas will receive funding, and brands will earn likeability for delivering it.

He gives the example of BMW’s short- films, the most recent of which, The Escape, features Clive Owen. While a BMW Sedan is included in the action, it’s a film about a mysterious driver outrunning the FBI with an illegal clone, not the car.

Harwood hopes companies will start to realise people want to watch stuff on the internet, and there is a place where the two could intersect. However, he warns if brands tried to turn the work into adverts, it would be “the biggest disaster”.

In New Zealand, he says clients are beginning to entertain the idea, though they are a while off committing the sort of money needed, because in the small market, ad spend is careful business and the focus remains on showing and selling products.

If companies were to back the production of a series or short film, Harwood says it would bring commerce closer to art, which is never a bad thing, and will take the pressure off NZ On Air.

“The burden on New Zealand On Air is horrific,” he says, while pointing out that High Road went up against around 120 applications for funding. Only four were chosen.

He says there are too many ideas that need to be made that can’t get any funding and “it would be really cool if people with money started to step up a bit”.

And while he adds the changes to NZ On Air’s funding next year will be fantastic, he doesn’t see it solving the problem of hundreds of creatives trying to get funding.

For those who are willing to make their project their main focus, Harwood suggests thinking international if they want to find the number of eyes required to make it not only successful, but also a source of income.

While New Zealand TV is full of local content, he says the minute audiences open their browsers, they are entering a world that isn’t confined by boundaries.

“No one on the Internet is looking thinking ‘I like New Zealand so I’m going to watch that,’” he says. Instead, they are trawling through thousands of videos that all come from different places and compete against each other.

“You’ve got to imagine the Internet as an international collective. New Zealand was always traditionally very, very hard on the arts because we don’t have the population, there are more people in Brooklyn New York than there are in New Zealand, so it is really hard to make a living….

“It’s a difficult thing to talk about because the minute you look for financial security in the same breath as art, people get a little funny about it because they say you shouldn’t be doing it for the money, but the reality in the world is you have to eat.”

He gives the example of when he was a musician in a band, saying while they would play in New Zealand, it was their shows to bigger audiences overseas where they would find their financial support.

“You don’t necessarily have to have approval from home to get approval,” he says.

It was a similar situation with High Road, which picked up international awards and was included in festivals around the world.

However, Harwood warns no one is going to vote for the one from New Zealand just because they think New Zealand is a cute country; it has to be as good as the others.

He also adds, you can’t just put a video YouTube and think people are going to find it. “People just don’t do that anymore,” he says, because they are in the bubble of their own interests and discoveries come via recommendations.

Because of this, he says it’s unreasonable to think everyone should like your work, and you need to find those who will.

One web series that managed to do just that was Broad City, which follows two women throughout their daily lives in New York and make the everyday events play out in a hysterical and disturbing fashion.

It was created in 2009 by two American comedians/actresses/writers and later produced by Amy Poehler when it moved from the YouTube screen to the TV screen in 2014.

Harwood’s move to branch out and work on his own project and not that of a client has in some ways been years in the making, as he says the script was written a few years before production began.

Writing drama has always been an interest of his and he wrote it as a challenge for himself to see if he could do a whole show. It then sat in his draw because at the time, YouTube didn’t exist so a TV station would have been his only option.

Despite putting words to paper to create the script, Harwood doesn’t consider himself a writer, and it was his wife that pointed out he had been writing stories his whole life, including manuscripts and a couple of crime novels back in the 90s.

He does admit it’s becoming a bit of an occupation now though, as High Road’s success, has brought attention to his talent and people want him to develop stories for them.

“I wouldn’t want to put myself in the same space as people that have trained to be writers, but I guess people like the story and that’s part of the writing part.”

While he and the crew enjoy working on High Road, Harwood says it has to fit around the work of his own clients at Tomorrowland, and he wouldn’t want the agency to be impacted by their “hobby project”.

Because of this, High Road season three, which was shot in June/July and could have been turned around in two weeks, had to wait until the suites became free and editors were available to work on it.

“It’s a little bit frustrating, because you are always working on a client’s job and you think in the back of your mind ‘I wish I could get back into High Road because it is so much fun’.”

However, that aspect may in fact add to the enjoyment he says.

For this reason, he recommends all creatives find an outlet outside of their agency work, saying there’s no real excuse not to.

New Zealand is full of amazing talent and expertise he says, and any creative thing, be it a money maker or not, is a good thing as it can still serve to inspire people around the world.

“You just have to put your foot in the water and not worry too much about how it goes because it’s better to make it than not have it made… If it just sits in a draw it’s going to burn a whole in your soul, so get it made.”

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