Amid all the dealmaker swagger and pubescent screams at last week’s giant Vidcon gathering in Anaheim, CA, one nagging question kept presenting itself: how do YouTube creators stay “authentic” to their demanding and devoted fans even as cheaper/better tech, vaulting creative ambition and the desire to make a living keep pushing into the equation. It’s a complicated question for this fast-evolving new media platform.
Most of the YouTube creators now boasting millions of followers started out with modest production values, technology and creative capabilities. Now, as those swooning Vidcon attendees can attest, the creators have fans, who have Expectations, which they share publicly and loudly. It’s a bit like the indie rock band that finally signs to a major label. Fans who thought they “discovered” and “owned” the band start screaming “sell-out.” It’s even worse now. Unlike in the days of Frank Sinatra, or Elvis Presley, or Shaun Cassidy, or the Backstreet Boys, fans can talk back to their favorite creators, and to each other, on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Vine, Tumblr, Reddit and other social-media sites and online communities. Too much deviation from fan expectations can be a killer.
At the same time, the few thousand or so emerging YouTube stars out there are grappling with the possibility that their back-bedroom obsession or late-night goof might just have become a way to make a living. I interviewed Grace Helbig, one of the “older” YouTube stars at a practically doddering 28, before she announced a new project, #HeyUSA, at Vidcon with fellow creator Mamrie Hart. The show launched Tuesday on YouTube but it feels a lot more like a social-media-soaked version of the amusing personal travelogue genre, which has been so successful on TV for notables such as Michael Palin and Anthony Bourdain. “It’s definitely a step up from what I’ve traditionally been doing on the Internet, and that was a goal of this,” Helbig said. Her show’s executive producer, Billy Parks of Astronauts Wanted, acknowledged that it has “a bit of a traditional show mentality there,” though it’s too soon for him to say it may lead to a TV version or international format sale. “I think we’re not really discussing the long-term vision of distribution,” Parks said. “But there’s a lot of avenues. We’re going to get (video at) all these great locations. There’s always an opportunity to package this content for further opportunities down the road.”
And Helbig and Hart aren’t the only ones with ambitions for “further opportunities down the road.” I had something of the same conversation with the Vsauce guys, who love the autonomy and fan connection of their YouTube channels, but want to expand their reach. And JennXPenn (18-year-old Jenn McAllister, now based in L.A. like Helbig, Hart and the Vsauce three) signed with Fullscreen’s talent-management unit. That unit is stocked with veterans of most of the old-line talent agencies, headed by former CAA videogame chief Larry Shapiro, and part of its job is help McAllister move into more hosting, acting and branding opportunities, even as she wraps a live appearance tour and continues to feed her online audience.
Meanwhile, major film and TV companies in the U.S. and Europe are investing substantial sums (at least substantial to the recipients, if not the giant entertainment conglomerates) to buy into some of the biggest YouTube multi-channel networks. During Vidcon, I sat down with Christian Meinberger, head of content programming and production for Studio 71, the multi-channel network that ProSeibenSat.1 launched last fall (ProSeiben also recently bought a 20% stake in U.S. MCN Collective Digital Studio). Meinberger’s challenge was to create compelling online content of a quality appropriate for the German broadcasting giant while not turning off potential fans. The company recruited 140 German-language YouTube creators to make new programming for Studio 71. One of its most ambitious initiatives is playing out now, in West Hollywood of all places, where six of its creators led by Gronkh (with 3 million subscribers, he has the biggest YouTube audience in German-speaking territories). They are living and creating in The Mansion, a series that’s something of a cross between Big Brother and Real World, but with the stars simultaneously making their own content. Meinberger acknowledged that “it’s always a funny path you have to follow” in the way the company creates and markets its online shows (ads for The Mansion appear on ProSeiben channels in Germany, Austria and German-speaking areas of Switzerland). “We have learned that you have to be authentic,” said Meinberger, invoking that crucial word again. In this case, that means don’t get too fancy with the show’s look. “You have to step down from (quality) expectations, but it’s hard sometimes.”
That said, the show is starting to stick. “We’re actually seeing some good signs on how to monetize,” Meinberger said. “There’s still a gap, a significant gap, but they’re not so far away anymore.” The Mansion attracted 100,000 subscribers in its first week. Three weeks in, that number is at more than 142,000, and the company is now considering extending the group’s West Hollywood stay. It also plans to create a Berlin-based equivalent in the fall, featuring U.S. YouTubers. Importantly, Meinberger says, with the show established, making product-placement and advertising deals is a lot easier. Studio 71 also is considering taking Gronkh, whose own videos are focused on videogaming, to primetime for a show on the ProSeiben mother ship.
The changes hitting the platform aren’t just about personalities wanting to make a living, or big media and brands wanting a piece, however. The tech foundations of the business are changing quickly, which will challenge YouTubers who want fans to stick around even as they try powerful new tools to do, well, really awesome stuff for not that much money.
For instance, as I worked in the Vidcon press room, I sat next to a tech tending a stack of hard drives connected to his computer. From time to time, one of his colleagues would drop off another storage device just pulled from a Red Digital Cinema camera called a Scarlet, its contents to be transferred for future editing. That Scarlet camera shoots in 4K resolution, and costs nearly $8,000 for just “the brain.” Given the quality of the resulting ultra-high-definition video, however, it’s practically a steal for low-end cineastes, and prices have dropped by half the past two years. Now it’s facing lots of price pressure from competing makers such as Sony, Panasonic, AJA and Blackmagic, who are making 4K-capable cameras for as little as $1,700. Equally important, prices are dropping for all the rest of the process of getting those 4K images on screen, with newly capable and affordable tools for editing, VFX, animation and more. YouTube is getting into it too, ensuring there will be an online outlet for such videos as it launches 4K channels, such as a demo site called Shot on Red. And that tech’s employer? He works for YouTube Nation, produced by AwesomenessTV, now a subsidiary of DreamWorks Animation. It shoots all its programming in 4K. And with 1.6 million subscribers four months after its launch, finicky fans clearly aren’t punishing YouTube Nation too much for its 4K polish. Other YouTubers have to hope they’ll be so fortunate going forward.