DIY Innovator

Otessa Marie Ghadar ’04

By R. Monroe

When Otessa Marie Ghadar ’04 attended film school in the early 2000s, most of her classmates hoped to make it big in Hollywood. Her more adventurous peers dreamed of staying in New York and creating indie films. But Ghadar, now 31, had an entirely different plan in mind: “When I said I wanted to make a web series, everyone thought I was crazy,” Ghadar recalls. “That’s nothing against them—it really was crazy at the time.”

But a seismic shift in entertainment since then has proved Ghadar’s prescience, as more and more media is consumed on the go, with ubiquitous cell phones, tablets, and other mobile-media devices. The web series Ghadar launched as a film-school project, Orange Juice in Bishop’s Garden (OJBG) , which tracks a group of friends living in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s, is one of the longest-running series on the web. Its viewership of engaged fans spans 140 countries across the globe.

Growing up in D.C. in the 1990s, Ghadar was inspired by the brash, do-it-yourself spirit of self-published zines and riot grrrl culture. She initially enrolled in Columbia as a physics major, but soon realized that film was her true passion—and that Barnard was the right place to explore it. “You can’t live someone else’s version of your life,” she says. “Once I made that switch, everything started to fall into place.”

A course in documentary film taught her how camera angles construct meaning. Art history classes with adjunct professor Rosalyn Deutsche encouraged her to think about the intersection of feminism and art. Ghadar, whose mother and sister also attended women’s colleges, credits her time at Barnard with giving her the strength to pursue her dream. “The entire day, from waking up until going to bed, was incredibly empowering. There was a sense that we should be aware of the limitations that exist in the world and develop the skills to overcome them,” Ghadar says.

While pursuing her MFA in film at Columbia, Ghadar became convinced that online viewing would grow exponentially in the future. “I did a lot of research, and I kept finding that people were consuming more and more media but going to the movies less and less. People were getting content online instead. I realized that if I really wanted to tell stories and engage people, that’s where I needed to do it.” OJBG started out as Ghadar’s thesis project, but quickly took on a life of its own. The series is now in its seventh season.

The nontraditional platform meant that Ghadar wasn’t beholden to a studio system or potentially risk-averse investors. The show presents a diverse group of characters who look like the people Ghadar grew up with. The characters, largely teenagers, are white and black and brown, gay and straight and in-between.

The embrace of nontraditional storylines has proved to be one of the show’s main draws. “In mainstream media, if there’s a gay character, it’s always the best friend,” Ghadar notes. “I thought, why can’t we have the main character be gay? And it was that storyline, about a girl who has her first relationship with another girl, and that process of discovery, that made the show first go viral.”

The series winds down this year, but Ghadar is still innovating. In 2013 she organized the mid-Atlantic’s first digital media festival, which is scheduled to return this spring. She recently published the first textbook for filmmakers about creating work specifically for the web, titled appropriately, The Wild West of Film. The book covers everything aspiring web series creators need to do, from writing a script to hiring a crew and measuring viewership. “She’s so involved with so many things at such a young age,” says Steve Mariotti, founder of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, who met her through friends and soon became interested in her entrepreneurial path, which he says overlaps with his organization’s mission of teaching business skills to low-income teens. “If she’s what the future looks like, we’re going to be okay.”

When asked what advice she’d give young filmmakers, Ghadar laughs. “I was given this advice once, and I didn’t like it at the time,” she says. “But it’s true: You have to learn by doing. You don’t need to wait for money or permission. Go out and shoot on your phone. Get all your mistakes out. Build up your skillset. There’s no reason not to start today.”

Latest IssueSpring 2023