The all-comers creative space that YouTube has built in a mammoth former Hughes Aircraft hangar in L.A.’s Playa Vista neighborhood is rapidly becoming Crossover Central, as notable YouTube video creators based there work with studios and networks to create online companions to bigger media brands such as Star Wars, Godzilla and now BBC America‘s Almost Royal catfish-out-of-water reality series. The Star Wars project was relatively small, based around the annual May 4 (“May the Fourth be with you”) celebrations of that durable franchise, using a replica of the famous cantina scene in the original film. The YouTube operation helped Star Wars marketers pick four YouTube creators, who got to shoot episodes of their respective programs on the Cantina set.
A similar but much bigger effort this spring at the YouTube Space LA involved Godzilla in a cross-media project of a scale worthy of its gargantuan namesake. Legendary Film marketing execs came up with the idea of bringing in an actual set from the latest installment, a command bunker, then got sign-off from partners Warner Bros and YouTube in just a couple of weeks. The set, along with a destructible version of the San Francisco skyline, was installed in the YouTube Space LA studios. Legendary and Warner Bros chose 30 programming proposals from about 100 video creators recruited by YouTube, then set them loose on the set, said Legendary’s Pearl Wible. The ones chosen were pulled from many different sectors of YouTube content, ranging from Michelle Phan‘s beauty advice (Godzilla really, really could use some good moisturizer, now that I think of it) to Nerdist (which did a series of “Godzilla Week” segments tied to the film’s run-up) to hard science.
“We tried to do a mix of both high-subscriber channels and some smaller ones that were really kicking butt,” Wible said. For one called Could Godzilla Exist? on the Vsauce3 science channel, Legendary gave the creators the actual design metrics used in creating the latest movie’s monster, so they could calculate the (vastly unlikely) physics of the beast. The resulting videos were put into a playlist on Legendary’s YouTube channel so they all could be seen at once during Godzilla Week ahead of the film’s May 16 domestic release, Wible said. The film itself is still searing international markets such as China, and had a global box office cume of $439.7 million as of the weekend.
“One thing that really made us proud was the range of creators working here,” said Liam Collins, head of YouTube Space LA, one of four such community facilities YouTube has opened around the globe to give video creators access to high-quality production tools. “For creators working here, we’re finding opportunities for them to connect with big cultural things that are happening. The long-term success of the YouTube platform is linked to the success of these creators. We are in the business of building an audience and a platform.” In 2013, Collins said about 2,000 creators used the YTSLA facilities, which include studios, stages and postproduction/editing areas.
Many of the individual videos ended up attracting as many as a couple of million views each, reaching a broad range of audiences with different cultural perspectives. And the costs were minimal, other than transporting the sets to YTSLA. But key to the effort’s success, Wible said, was that Legendary and Warner Bros, after signing off on an initial concept proposal from each creator, “let them run wild on the set,” rather than trying to dictate a specific message or approach.
“For us, it was the essential part of this,” Wible said. “We don’t think of Godzilla as a concept. People have been playing around with him as an idea for 60 years. (With this project), people remixed him for the digital age.” She acknowledged the “inherent risk” in turning rambunctious young creative minds loose on a brand, especially ones who aren’t being paid, but given Godzilla’s cultural footprint and durability, Legendary judged that risk to be low. Other marketers, stewarding less robust brands, might be more nervous about letting go, though several of the people I talked with said loosening control is essential, so more authentic voices can come through to their core audiences.
For BBC America, working with online creators has become a useful habit, helping a smaller cable network smartly stretch marketing dollars. One online partnership was tied to the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. The latest online series launched last week, ahead of Saturday’s network debut of Almost Royal. “The big background is that we’ve long been enamored with the way YouTube creators are able to connect with their audiences,” said Matt Stein, SVP Marketing, Promotion and Creative Services. “It’s been our strategy for a while now to work with people who we think have a great connection with their audiences. For Almost Royal, we really felt we had a gem of a show, and we wanted to figure out a way to reach as broad an audience as possible.”
For that, Stein’s people worked with YTSLA to create a companion online series called Almost Royal Goes to YouTube.The network and YTSLA recruited eight YouTube creators and brought in a professional crew to tape and produce interactions between the creators and the two lead actors (Amy Hoggart and Ed Gamble), who play clueless English aristocrats befuddled by America. The series features such notable YouTubers as Grace Helbig, Chester See, Hannah and Mamrie Hart and Ethan Newberry of What’s Trending. Because they wanted to cross-pollinate with the young audience on the network’s series Orphan Black, the series also includes a segment with that show’s Dylan Bruce, and other episodes feature comedians Dave Hill and Michelle Collins, who both have sizable online presences. The resulting online series is on BBC America’s own YouTube channel and as a YouTube playlist.
Stein reiterates the concerns about control and authenticity, which is practically the only currency that matters to skeptical online audiences. “We explained what we wanted to do,” Stein said. “The YouTubers got it and thought it was in keeping with their voice. We didn’t edit them or direct them in any way. That was our mission to let them be them. If you don’t do that, their audiences won’t buy it and … it kind of just defeats the purpose.”