YouTube Stars: Our Way or the Highway

Online video celebs more determined than ever to control their fates

You won’t see many of the megastars of Internet video splashed across marquees, billboards, TV or the covers of supermarket tabs. In the past few years, YouTube has spawned a cadre of digital-native celebrities — do-it-yourselfers who have bootstrapped themselves into a next-generation kind of fame. Though largely invisible to the mainstream media, they’re hugely popular with millennials. And they may serve as a model for how some of tomorrow’s entertainment icons will ascend into the spotlight.

Top YouTubers — like comedy duo Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla of Smosh, one of the Google site’s most popular channels — convey personas styled on authenticity, with flash-cut humor another typical hallmark. What’s more, they have a direct relationship with their fans, who treat them as peers rather than screen idols to be admired or gawked at from afar.

“Most of the time, we’re just making fun of each other,” Padilla says. “We have been doing this for seven-plus years, and we’re still not totally sure what will work.”

First-generation YouTube celebs all say there’s a guiding principle for attracting viewers: Be genuine.

“People online just want to see a real person,” says Michelle Phan, 26, who started her beauty and fashion video-blog on YouTube in 2007 while she was waitressing at a Florida sushi restaurant. Her YouTube channel now has 4.5 million subscribers.

YouTube stars — call them “channelrunners” — work fast, hard and on a shoestring budget. Universally, they say they love the creative freedom of the website: There’s no studio boss or network exec issuing marching orders or script rewrites. Smosh and others have teamed up with production partners, and they’re now looking to parlay YouTube stardom into more lucrative TV deals, but others are happy doing their own thing.

Hecox and Padilla, both 25, met at Albert Schweitzer Elementary School in Carmichael, Calif., a suburb of Sacramento. After graduating from high school, they kicked around in various jobs. Then one day in late 2005, they posted a video of themselves lip-synching to the theme from kidvid show “Power Rangers” — and continued making goofy clips as a labor of love before they started getting paid for their creations through YouTube’s revenue-sharing program. “I was like, now I don’t have to work at Chuck E. Cheese,” Hecox says.

SEE ALSO: PewDiePie Captures YouTube No. 1 Channel Spot

Smosh is now a small empire, run by digital media company Alloy Digital. The flagship channel has more than 12 million YouTube subscribers and the brand now includes a fast-growing videogame channel, Smosh Games; Shut Up! Cartoons (based on its catchphrase, “Shut up!”); and a Spanish-language channel (El Smosh). Alloy has even launched merchandise, mobile apps — including Super Head Esploder X on iTunes — and Smosh Magazine, distributing a run of 40,000 copies with a $5.99 cover price in late July. On the mag’s cover, Hecox is knocking out one of Padilla’s teeth.

These days, the Smosh guys shoot two episodes every two weeks, typically over two days. The filming is done on one of Alloy’s five stages in L.A. or from Sacramento, depending on where they are at the time. The instant feedback on YouTube fuels the creative process, Padilla says: “If people really, really like what we make, 10 minutes after we upload it we start thinking about new videos.”

Of course, even the biggest YouTube celebs don’t earn the same kind of coin as high-powered Hollywood thesps.

Jenna Marbles, who has 10.3 million YouTube followers of her comedy segs, generated $346,827 last year in ad revenue, according to an estimate by video ad-buying firm TubeMogul. Compare that with Angelina Jolie, who raked in nearly 100 times that — $33 million — over the past year, according to Forbes (despite Jolie not having starred in a pic for three years).

Still, the 26-year-old Marbles, a self-taught comedy video blogger whose real name is Jenna Mourey, isn’t eager to migrate to traditional media. Production companies have approached her about developing a TV show or a movie based on her YouTube channel, which melds offbeat jokiness, cutesy charm and disarming sex appeal.

She’s declined the overtures. “I’m not completely sold I have to do that,” she says. Studios “want to own your soul.”

Mourey shoots most of her YouTube videos from her Santa Monica home. They’re usually solo acts, though her two dogs — Mr. Marbles, a Chihuahua, and an Italian greyhound, Kermit (a.k.a. Kermie Worm) — make frequent appearances.

“I can do whatever I want (on YouTube), say whatever I want,” Mourey says. “And the coolest thing on YouTube is nobody owns you.”

Another difference: She doesn’t feel like a celebrity. Mourey says she occasionally gets recognized in public, mostly by young girls, who are the biggest segment of her audience. But they don’t treat her like a celeb: “It’s less of, ‘Can I get your autograph?’ and more like they already know me and we’re already friends. It’s not a weird idol thing.”

Other YouTube personalities, however, are keenly interested in moving to bigger screens (and bigger paychecks). The most famous to make the jump, Lucas Cruikshank, has done a series of TV and movie projects with Viacom’s Nickelodeon based on his high-pitched-voice Fred character. Since then, his YouTube channel has served to promote his TV work.

Meanwhile, comedy star Ray William Johnson (9.9 million subscribers on YouTube) is also looking to branch out from the site where he built his name. Johnson has a script deal with FX Networks and is skedded to launch a channel on Blip this year.

Alloy Digital has been in talks with several cable networks to bring Smosh to TV. But Alloy head of content Barry Blumberg says any project must remain true to Hecox and Padilla’s two-guys-in-a-living-room roots — which, he argues, is the key reason they’re so popular.

“They’re not going to be actors in a sitcom that is terribly different from what they’re doing,” says Blumberg, former prexy of Walt Disney Television Animation.

So is YouTube a farm-team system for talent with greater ambitions? Not everyone thinks that’s the way the biz will break, envisioning the Internet as an empowering force for creators.

Freddie Wong, whose nom-de-YouTube is “freddiew,” in 2011 formed Rocket Jump to produce videos full-time with partners Desmond Dolly and Matt Arnold (the three are alums of USC film school). The team works with multichannel network operator Collective Digital Studio.

Earlier this year, Rocket Jump raised $808,341 on Kickstarter to make season two of action-comedy “Video Game High School,” which bowed last month on YouTube and Rocketjump.com with 1.3 million views in the first three days.

“We could say, ‘Hey, let’s do a TV deal’ — but we will lose creative control, and we won’t own that intellectual property at the end of the day,” Wong says.

Conventional media companies are “coming in our direction,” as opposed to the other way around, Wong maintains: “There’s no incentive to go back to the old way of doing it.”

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