How the creators of 'High Maintenance' have lit up the Internet

The creators of 'High Maintenance' talk about their weed Web series, which has new episodes hitting this week

The premise is simple. In every episode, a character known simply as "The Guy" makes a delivery to New Yorkers in need of marijuana. The customers might be a high-strung executive assistant, an obsessive shut-in with an ill mother or a pair of earnest, kombucha-swilling crunchies with a mouse problem. All of them have their reasons for wanting to get high. All of them share a strange intimacy with their dealer, with whom they are complicit in breaking the law. (Bereft of medical marijuana laws, New Yorkers still acquire their pot the old fashioned way: illegally.)

Since the Web series first hit the Internet in 2012, "High Maintenance" has drawn a devoted following among viewers and critics for its smart writing, darkly funny plots and an all-too-real 30-something angst. Its episodes have gotten anywhere from 300,000 to 720,000 plays a piece. The Los Angeles Times' Chris Barton declared it one of the most underrated shows of 2014. Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik included "High Maintenance" in his end-of-year top 10. And Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker hailed the show for "radiating new ideas about storytelling."

Last year, Vimeo helped finance six new episodes for exclusive launch on the service as pay-per-view Internet TV. Three of those episodes will debut on Vimeo on Thursday, with a special preview screening at the Cinefamily theater in Los Angeles tonight.

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For the show's creators, Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair (who also plays The Guy) it's been a joyous ride for a project that was born as — and remains — a labor of love. In fact, the first time the show was written up (a tiny blurb in New York magazine in 2012), Blichfeld says it came as a surprise: "We were like, 'Wow, someone watched this!'"

"Every day, we have to pinch ourselves," Sinclair says. "We're in this sweet position in terms of creative freedom, of being able to do what we want to do."

Blichfeld, 36, and Sinclair, 30, are a couple — they've been married for four years and together for almost half a dozen — with an affectionate banter between them. One of them will express an idea and the other will add to it, as they did over the course of a leisurely, interview at a Los Feliz bistro in late January.

"High Maintenance" began as a seed of an idea sometime in 2010. Blichfeld was then casting director for NBC's "30 Rock" and Sinclair was juggling a variety of creative gigs: doing bit parts on television, submitting films to commercial contests and working for Current TV as a contest promoter.

They hit on the idea for "High Maintenance" in the course of a bike ride around New York.

"We were watching 'Party Down' and a lot of 'Six Feet Under,'" recalls Sinclair — programs that every week featured a scenario centered on a slate of new characters. "And we thought it'd be fun to do something where the 'B' story becomes the 'A' story."

When thinking about who or what might link the different groups of creative professionals they were interested in portraying, they settled on the idea of a pot dealer. Except the story would revolve less around the dealer than the people who buy from him: a comedian dealing with a personal tragedy, a frustrated writer contending with a paralyzing writer's block, a young couple facing money issues as well as a nightmare assortment of Airbnb guests.

Despite its stoner-y title, "High Maintenance" is less about weed than is it about human relations.

"Our characters are people who are facing that they can't have it all," says Sinclair. "And a lot of them are smoking because they are trying to find an escape."

"[The Guy] only needs to be in the episode as much as he is in the lives of the people he's selling to," Blichfeld explains.

The first 13 episodes were shot on the stingiest of shoestring budgets, with cast and crew working for free. The expense of shooting was funded by Blichfeld, Sinclair and their co-executive producer, Russell Gregory. The couple says that the majority of their early episodes cost "high three figures" to make. 

But they say the limited funds helped the series find its voice.

"For us, it was, 'Make something that takes place in one room and is under five minutes,' because that is what we could afford," says Sinclair.

This gives the show a stripped-down feel. You don't get oodles of set-up or endless gobs of chatty banter à la "Girls." Locations are kept to a minimum and Sinclair plays The Guy deadpan, foregoing the obvious stoner tics for a low-key dude who is just trying to make a living selling some bud. The myriad stories are efficiently told — taking full advantage of revealing glances and awkward moments of silence.

For this reason, the episodes are as long as they need to be: five minutes, seven minutes, 12 minutes, 18 minutes. When it comes to TV on the Internet, there are no rules about length — and so far no advertising to have to program around. 

"The constraints have helped define us," says Blichfeld.

One thing the show isn't into is adolescent male gross-out. Nor is it full of endless relationship talk. If anything, Sinclair and Blichfeld say they have attempted to give "High Maintenance" a certain androgynous quality.

"We're careful not to skew in one direction," Blichfeld says. "Not just men, not just people in romantic relationships."

"We try to keep it diverse, but write what we know," Sinclair adds.

What they know has gotten them a good deal of industry buzz. For a while the FX network was circling (though it ultimately passed on doing a show). Then Vimeo jumped in. The show had been on the company's radar ever since Sinclair and Blichfeld posted their first episodes to the service — and "High Maintenance" occasionally appeared on Vimeo's "Staff Picks" page. Greg Clayman, Vimeo's general manager of audience networks, says that when the deal with FX didn't go through, his company moved right in: "We were thrilled to finance Katja and Ben's vision as our first Vimeo Original," he said via email.

Neither party would give details on the financials. But Blichfeld says that the Vimeo money took them from no budget to "nano-budget." And the sponsorship allowed Vimeo to test an on-demand model with new episodes going for $1.99 each and the whole set of six for $7.99. Clayman says the experiment has been a success.

"'High Maintenance' has aggregated a passionate, loyal following that's streamed the series multiple millions of times," he says. "Even with the most generous YouTube advertising terms, the series made more money selling directly to fans in two days than it would have in the two years total on an ad-based revenue model."

Moreover, in the first month the series sold in more than 100 countries.

Sinclair says the deal also allowed them to retain full creative control. "We own everything," he says. "The characters, the scripts, the episodes — everything."

In the meantime, the show continues its slow burn with fans. During our interview, in fact, a young man in his twenties runs up to our table and gushes to Sinclair: "I LOVE IT! I ... LOVE IT! THANK YOU, MAN!"

The couple is already pondering future episodes. They are also thinking about other projects. They may do a film together, though about what that might be they wouldn't say. 

Whatever comes next, the two will be telling stories and working together — an activity they both enjoy very much.

Says Sinclair: "I don't know another couple that hangs out as much us."

Blichfeld smiles in response: "We are together a lot."

The "High Maintenance" sneak peek screening will be held at Cinefamily, 611 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, cinefamily.ticketmob.com, Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 7). You can also watch the new episodes online starting Thursday.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah. Follow "High Maintenance" @hmwebseries.

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