How a Strange Side Project Can Lead to a Career Win

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This is how Other People's Problems was born.

When Penelope Chai and Jane Dickenson started their bartering project Clothing For Correspondence in 2009, none of their friends and family knew quite what to make of it. Both writers, the pair offered to pen letters on behalf of anyone who asked, in return for second-hand clothes.

“Back then it was just a joke,” says Penny. “But it kind of took off because it was so bizarre.”

Word spread across the pre-social media internet that a couple of enviro-conscious Aussies were offering to write love letters, Dear Johns, and complaints in exchange for hand-me-downs, and the requests started rolling in thick and fast.

For the next few years the besties barely had to shop for clothes at all. Over the life of the project, they wrote over a hundred letters to housemates, supermarkets, airlines, lost friends and old lovers of strangers who got in touch with their stories.

Now they’ve taken their passion for recycling and transformed the material from Clothing For Correspondence into the script for a web series. Currently screening on ABC iview, Other People’s Problems follows fictional letter-writer Florence and her relationship with best friend and soon-to-be-former-housemate Anne.

The five-part web series was produced as part of Long Story Short, a joint initiative between Screen Australia and the ABC, and in February will make its international premiere at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival.

Here’s how the whole thing went from weird and wacky side project to successful web series.

A bit of outside perspective

In the early days of Clothing For Correspondence, Penny’s day job was assistant to film producer Sue Maslin (best known for The Dressmaker). “I’d tell her all those stories, show her the letters and the clothes, and she just really loved the project,” says Penny. “She thought it was really cool and really funny.”

Sue optioned the idea and eventually became the executive producer on Other People’s Problems.

Later, script producer Mike Jones commented that the duo were sitting on “every writer’s dream”. “We had this project that turned into a database of information and experiences that was just sitting there,” says Jane, “and we hadn’t thought of it that way until it was pointed out to us.”

Finding the right format

Having Sue option the project was one thing – next up was deciding exactly what form the project would take. It took nearly four years for Penny and Jane to settle on a short form web series. Their initial thought was to turn the material into a romantic comedy, but the idea didn’t quite sit right. A book was briefly considered. It wasn’t until some of the early web series success stories started appearing that everything clicked.

Shows like High Maintenance and Broad City’s online series (before they were picked up by Comedy Central) helped shine a light on the possibilities.

“Once we stumbled across a good web series that we really liked and became more familiar with that format, we could totally see it working,” says Jane.

“It began as an online project, so being an online series felt right,” says Penny. “It felt like a natural home for it.”

The best strategy is no strategy

Penny and Jane never set out to turn Clothing For Correspondence into something bigger. In fact, early on they made the decision not to monetise it so that they could let it grow organically as a project without any pressure to perform financially.

“A lot of people said we should look for ways to monetise the website, and we chose not to,” says Jane. “And I do believe that making that decision allowed it to evolve in a different way. It would have gone in a different direction if we had monetised it.”

Letting the project exist and grow on its own terms may be the reason so many people connected with it, and what led to so much raw honesty and candour from the letter requesters.

“Now it’s a much more common thing to create a blog that might one day be turned into a film, or using it to showcase something else,” says Jane. “That wasn’t on our radar. There wasn’t much planning or intention – it was just, let’s do this fun thing together.”

For anyone out there needing help wording a special message to someone, the Clothing For Correspondence website is still open for trade. And new letters might just pop up onscreen in season two of the show.

“It’s amazing how total strangers from around the world have opened up to us about their stories,” says Penny. “The letters we chose, we’re pretty convinced that they’re quite unusual. But there’s a universality in terms of the human emotion. That’s what was cool about it.”

Other People’s Problems screens on ABC iview until March 31.

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