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Tello Films' Christin Mell and Nicole Valentine Create the Shows Lesbians Will Want to Watch: Interview

Tello Films' Christin Mell and Nicole Valentine Create the Shows Lesbians Will Want to Watch: Interview

Tello Films co-founders Christin Mell and Nicole Valentine have created an exciting and fun hub on the web where women can find thoughtful original, lesbian content for a less than a cup of drip coffee from a chain coffee shop. The new media innovators are behind the likes of several web series including Cowgirl Up, which features a cast of wonderfully strong actors, the hilarious mockumentary style show McManusland, starring Bridget McManus and the new horror series Diary of a Black Widow.

Tello Films co-founders Christin Mell and Nicole Valentine have created an exciting and fun hub on the web where women can find thoughtful original, lesbian content for a less than a cup of drip coffee from a chain coffee shop.

The new media innovators are behind the likes of several web series including Cowgirl Up, which features a cast of wonderfully strong actors, the hilarious mockumentary style show McManusland, starring Bridget McManus, and the new horror series Diary of a Black Widow.

SheWired chatted with Mell and Valentine about how two not-so-tech-savvy girls from Chicago decided to go for it and create what they thought was missing on the internet.


SW: For those not in the know, what is Tello Films all about?

Nicole: Tello Films is distribution and production house for web content specific to lesbian interest. We have two sections of the site. One is premium content, which is of most interest to our audience now a days. We find people who are out there producing high quality content, and quality doesn’t mean big budget to us, it just means that it’s done really well and has a mass appeal to an audience that might be interested in the content.

And then Tello acts as a distribution house. We cut out a middle man for a lot of people. We see a lot of web series that are very, very popular and very big, but they spend a lot of time and energy and money creating a website just for that singular project instead of coming to a place like Tello where they can put up that premium content, and they get paid for that content. We have a great percentage split to host the site, maintain it, and get the audience there and make sure that everything is running smooth -- then they can spend the majority of their resources and time and creating the content and making sure they can do a second season and third season, which is where the hang up seems to be.

SW: Can you explain a bit more about the other work you do on the site?

The the other part of that, which is what Christin and I do and why we started Tello Films in the first place, is to create our own content. So we are constantly either getting proposals or pitches or getting together creating funny scenarios for different shows and ideas which we can hopefully produce and turn it into something of interest not just to us but for other people as well. 

SW: A few years ago you both attended a blogger conference (Q-Me Con) that I happened to be at. You mentioned you were just starting the site then, and looking at it today, it’s grown so much. How have you come so far in such a short time and to what do you attribute the site's success?

Christin: Oh yeah, that was at Q-Me Con in New York, gosh we were just starting out then. We have just been doing this for four years now and at Q-Me Con we were so early…we were so new. We had just sort of stumbled around in this new venue called the internet, as far as content, and we just figured it out through experiences. 

And one of the biggest things that happened to Nicole and I was actually at Q-Me Con when we met Gina Mamone, founder and president of Riot Grrrl Inc. We made this wonderful connection with her and started to do interviews for some the folks she had on her label and going to concerts and videotaping that and so we literally just figured it out by -- not screwing up -- but by not doing it the exact right way first. So we realized that if we did interviews with people that had a big fan base and big following, then their audience would probably come to our site. And I personally I am Nicole’s biggest fan as an interviewer and I think Nicole does an amazing job on her interviews. They are just fantastic.

Monica Roberts

Nicole: Aww.

Christin: I do, I think that her interviews are evergreen in that I could go back and watch an interview that was done like three years ago and there are still funny things in it. Because it’s not like “what are you doing now” or “tell me about this project…” I think Nicole gets to know the person a little bit so you can go back and watch the person, like a Bridget McManus or Jill Bennet or Marnie Alton interview, and still really enjoy them because you really get to know who they are. But in order to get to that place we had to go to OutFest one year and not get any interviews and totally screw up the one we did manage to get. (laughs)

Nicole: That was terrible. It was half in the dark, the theater was closing, the theater guy was taking out the trash. It was those big trash bins rolling through. We were bumbling and we got home and were like, “well at least we got that interview…” and we didn’t even get that.

Chrstin: But the next time we went there we had it figured out. We were like, “all right, here is what we are going to do…” and we landed all these great interviews. One of the big ones we got was here in Chicago with Guinevere Turner, and we had to do the interview in the bathroom of a club. That was the only place we could go where there wasn’t pumping music behind us. It was a really dark interview, and so after that I went out and bought a light and poor Nicole has to schlep this light around where ever we go.

Nicole: The bane of my existence.

Christin: (laughs) Because I was like, “I’m never going to be in a position where I don’t have a light with me to do an interview.”

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SW: So all this time has it just been the two of you schlepping?

Christin: Yeah. Well, I should say, Nicole and I don’t know how to code the website so we have always had a web designer, a web person. But Nicole and I always saw ourselves as the aggregators of content and we were doing our own content and also pulling things from YouTube, creating different storylines that you can find in one place.

Then One More Lesbian comes along and they do it so much better than we do. Nicole and I have never been afraid to look at our business model and look at what we are doing and look at what’s out there on the internet and say, gosh OML is doing this better than we are, so let’s just focus on creating our own content and providing content that we think is good and hopefully other people will think is as good, and let's partner with as many people as possible to get original content. 

We kind of stopped being an aggregator and started saying, “Ok what’s on our site that’s original? And let’s get rid of anything that’s not and keep everything that is.”

I mean literally it has just been like we kind of screwed it up and then figured out and thankfully we were smart enough to learn how to do it right.

Nicole: Basically Christin and I just had a shared interest in lesbian storylines and content and there just wasn’t a lot out there. Neither of us had a background, like Christin said, in any sort of tech stuff or whatever. But what we do have a background in is that I have a passion for writing and Christin has a passion for directing and doing film work, and we both wanted to have an outlet for where we can create things. 

Mitch Kellaway

That kind of lead us on a journey of sorts where we were just literally '”trying it.” It’s like what we tell our fans all the time, “You don’t have to know, you don’t have to have the best equipment, you don’t have to know all the ins and outs of how to do something. You just have to literally -- if its filming -- pick up the camera and try it." And we were very fortunate along the way we did meet people that did give us great advice and kind of saw that we weren’t in it for any sort of propaganda or agenda reasons. We genuinely just want to put good content into the universe and we've always kind of been universe people. We literally are just fans trying to produce.

SW: Do you think subscription content is the wave of the future and that the internet is the place where we will -- to use an Ilene Chaiken phrase -- "tell our stories"? Do you think the internet is future for good lesbian content as opposed to cable TV or other mediums?

Christin: I don’t think that paid content is necessarily going to take the place of cable by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think that with niche audiences, like the lesbian market, it’s really difficult to create really good content for free. We kind of saw that with Anyone But Me. They put it out for free for two seasons and then they were like, we can’t do this for free anymore. But I don’t think, as far as all this new media stuff, I don’t think it’s going to be free like it has been in the past.

Nicole: As far as content goes basically this has become an indie generation. It has happened with music and with video. Obviously people will start to pay for content --  they already are. And I think that people will start to support it because it will get them closer to what they want. It’s like when we do our interviews and I say a swear word you don’t worry, "Oh can I say that?”

We are not corporate owned so it definitely is a more artistic, natural and organic place to share whatever it is that you have and that you want to put out there. And I think that people really respond to that versus the filtered stuff you get on TV.

I think as much as we can put that control back into the audience's hands, they will start paying for all content: music, video, magazine, newspaper. Everything will start to be controlled by the people who are consuming it, which is such a power switch from what it is now. It is a very exciting time and I think that there are just so many great, great ideas that are just not being seen and produced and why? Why not? If we have the opportunity to do it, let’s take full advantage.

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SW: Do you have ads on Tello Films?

Christin: No, we don’t have any ads on the site.

Nicole: We are open to advertisers wanting to produce a show or underwrite it, like if we had say, a cowboy boot line that wanted to underwrite Cowgirl Up or something. We are not opposed to that sponsorship. We see them more as a producing credit than say banner ads or things of that nature.

SW: Speaking of Cowgirl Up, you guys had a killer cast for that series. How did you make that happen?

ray(nise) cange

Christin: We are really lucky. We fortunately partnered with and co-produced/exec produced with Nancylee Myatt and Paige Bernhardt. We had some friends that were willing to come on board and play with us. We did pay everyone -- all the cast and crew. They are not obviously buying a second home with it, but we pay them for their time on set and their talent.

So between Nancylee and Paige and Nicole and I, we knew everyone in the cast. I think we either knew everyone or someone from the cast suggested someone. We knew Marnie Alton and she came on board; Nancylee knew Mandy Musgrave; Marnie suggested Kodi Kitchen and we read Kodi and we cast her; and I know Niki Lindgren from Second City and Niki is friends with Marybeth Monro, so she suggested her... There was just this wonderful network.

Sam Dylan Finch

Nicole: And again its one of those universe things. We had so many last minute actors that couldn’t get in from Canada and a switch up of actors. Bridget McManus will say, in the interview I did with her, that she was literally a day-before addition. She had to come out after she finished a comedy show to do the shoot. The cast just ended up working out so well. We could not have been any happier. It was the cast that was supposed to be there. But it was a lot of favors and a lot of universe happenings that made all of it work and we are so happy with the end result.

SW: Do you have any new projects on the site that you are super excited about?

Christin: Yeah I’m actually working on one right now with Nicole Pacent and Shannan Leigh Reeve. It’s a completely original project that we are doing, it’s called I Hate Tommy Finch and we are performing it as a play. So if you are in Chicago we are going to do a three-day run and record one of the performances on camera and then put it on Tello as a web series. Not only is it really cool story telling, but it’s a story that I haven’t really seen out there in the lesbian genre, and that is, we are following these two friends from the ages of 8 to 36 in these little increments of their life. It follows not only their friendship, but their eventual relationship. So you just watch this interesting story arc.

There are going to be these relateable moments from when you are 13 and you remember this huge crush you had on your friend and for some odd reason you were very interested in her, and you just wanted to be as close to her as possible.

It brings back those moments where you are looking back and are like, “Oh that’s why I did that. It’s because I was gay.”  We haven’t really seen that yet as a story telling device so am super excited that we are doing this, it’s such an interesting way to tell a story and we have these two actors -- Pacent and Reeve -- who are fantastic, and I am really excited to work with Nicole. I just watched the season finale of Anyone But Me and I just think she is great.

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SW: You are both fans of original content and original writing, but I am wondering what are your thoughts on reality TV? The second season of The Real L Word premiered and people love it and love to hate it. Does Tello have any interested in further exploring the lesbian reality genre?

Christin: For me, the closest we got to reality TV on Tello is the game show we did (Who Knows Her Better), but I don’t really have an interest. Just for me, time wise, it’s not something that I am necessarily interested in. Again, speaking for me, I love working with actors. I absolutely love them, so I would much rather have a great story to really dig into and have some great arcs and character arcs. I’m not a big fan of what it would probably take to do a reality TV show.

Nicole: And while Christin is correct, it does seem like the undertaking would be huge, I could definitely see us and definitely have an interest in doing it. I don’t know if I would do an entire series, but one of my best friends, Katie Todd, is a musician and I would love to do a behind-the-scenes on the road, reality/documentary type of thing. And I know Christin and I have a really big not-for-profit arm and have discussed working with LGBT youth, so if they wanted to tell a story about their lives and share with the world what they are going through, whether it be high school or with their families, coming out or whatever, there is definitely a space for that on Tello for sure.

And while Christin and I are producers separately, I could definitely see us adding a reality element to the library. Again I don’t know if that’s something we would do ourselves outside of our personal interests, but we would definitely be interested if someone had a great idea or great story with a documentary feel -- we would definitely be open. Everyone loves something to hate. It was one of the first things Christin said to me, “I want to make something to piss people off,” (laughs). Who knows, we may go down a mockumentary sort of a road or take on something a little more controversial.... We usually are pretty vanilla but we've been known to roll the dice a few times.

SW: Have you reached any achievement markers with the site yet, where you’ve turn to each other and high-fived and said, “Yeah say we did it!” For instance, with subscription counts, the kind of content you make, who is part of the content you create…

Nicole: Christin and I do that pretty much on a daily basis. We have such a rewarding situation where we were high-fiving and it is for a few big things. Our international audience is very strong, which we think happened through a viral outreach, so the fact that we have an international audience we'll say, "We are huge in France! High-five!" or "I just watched McManusland on my iPhone and it was awesome! High-five!" Christin, on the other hand, has visualizations of where the site would go in terms of the broader benchmarks of success, but every day is a high-five situation where we are concerned.

12 Trans Writers

Christin: Yeah, every morning that I wake up and there are no tech problems that’s a good day. That is a definite high-five. You know, I was reading this article the other day and it said that Glen Beck, since leaving Fox News, started his own website and he charges like $4.95 or something, if you just want to watch two hours of just his Glen Beck show. Then if you want to watch the network it’s like $9.99 or something, I don’t have the exact numbers, but it’s more if you want access to the whole site. Well he has 80,000 subscribers… When I read that I was like, that is my new goal. (laughs)

Granted, Nicole and I never had our own TV show on Fox but I thought, you know, if Glen Beck can have 80,000 subscribers, Tello films can have 80,000 subscribers.

SW: Hell yeah! High-five.

Christin: (laughs) The gauntlet has been thrown Glen Beck, let’s go!

SW: Bring it Beck.

Nicole: Maybe that will be our reality show, Chasing Beck.


SW: This is the dawning of something very big for Tello. (laughs) Now for my very last, very serious question: Can we follow you on Twitter?

Christin: Absolutely. You can following @TelloFilms for site updates.

Nicole: And you can follow us individually @Christintello and @Valentinetello

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