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Why YouTube is the new Hollywood

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You would have thought Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were inside.

The scene at the Anaheim Convention Center last weekend for VidCon had all the markings of tabloid fanaticism—screaming fangirls, flashing camera phones, and long autograph lines—as roughly 11,500 attendees elbowed toward a closer look at their favorite YouTube stars.    

The fourth annual convention offered a glimpse of the potentially rich and Internet famous, a generation of artists crafting careers from their bedrooms. Your parents might not be able to pick them out of a lineup, but at VidCon, celebrities like Grace Helbig and Hank Green are not only big stars—they’re game-changers, too, changing the way people think of entertainment.

It was there that Helbig announced her new movie with fellow vloggers Hannah Hart and Mamrie HartCamp Takota, which will be released by the video-sharing site Chill—no theater or studio necessary. Likewise, Green, one of the cofounders of VidCon, promoted Subbable, a crowdfunded subscription service intended to support webseries. Both projects show the power that comes with first establishing a core audience online, one that’s connected and willing to financially support independent ideas.

In that regard, VidCon captured the paradigm shift the industry is facing, where the gap between YouTube and Hollywood is blurred at best. That can be seen in everything from AwesomenessTV’s teen empire (70,000 channels and 1.2 billion views), Annoying Orange’s Cartoon Network success, and YouTube fast-food critic Daym Patterson’s new Travel Channel show. Six million people may watch an NBC sitcom, but 53 million will watch the new Jenna Marbles video.

“We've taken the TV network model,” said Benny Fine, co-creator of popular YouTube shows Kids React and MyMusic, “and built a deeper experience more in line with how today's generation expects to view content.”

In 2013, YouTube is the new Hollywood.

The rise of the channels

YouTube was once viewed as a springboard to success. Now it’s the marker.

“You can lift yourself up by your video-making bootstraps and become a big sensation,” surmised George Watsky.

He would know. The poetry-slam veteran turned one viral hit, 2011’s “Pale kid raps fast,” into a career. His last album, this year’s Cardboard Castles, which he promoted through a YouTube webseries, sold 24,000 copies on iTunes. He’s sold out Irving Plaza and started his own production company, Steel Wool Entertainment. At VidCon, he was trailed by a group of teenage fans, all glittering braces and shaky hands.

Watsky’s career runs parallel to the changes seen in YouTube itself. Once seen primarily as a hub for one-off amateur videos (see “Charlie Bit My Finger”), the Google-owned site made a push for high-quality channels built around breakout talent—reportedly investing $300 million on original programming—with an emphasis on subscribers over individual video views.

“[People] were just uploading videos because they were playing around and no one really knew [the potential],” reflected Shira Lazar, host of YouTube talk show What’s Trending.

With time, a sort of “YouTube star structure” took shape, led by the likes of comedian Shane Dawson and iJustine, who reviews Apple products. There’s also something resembling a TV guide. Fans know when to tune into shows like Hannah Hart’s cooking series My Drunk Kitchen or Ray William Johnson’s daily wrapup, Equals 3. Where in the past, a teenager might tune into ABC at 8pm to watch Boy Meets World, now they know Daily Grace (Helbig) is going to respond to their comments on Tuesdays and teach them how to do something on Thursdays.

These stars aren’t necessarily churning out content from a studio system, either. Hank Green, who lives in Missoula, Mon., stressed at VidCon that YouTube makes it possible for talented personalities to be “discovered,” even if they’re just working out of their bedrooms. Just look at Jon Cozart, a pop singer and student at the University of Texas at Austin, who has more than 1 million subscribers, or 19-year-old Lucas Cruikshank, better known as Fred Figglehorn. From Columbus, Neb., he spun his series about a 6-year-old boy with anger management issues into three hit movies.

"In the old days, it was a guess and a hunch, that your ears would spot a hit, and that it would translate live, sell tickets, sell records," Kevin Morrow, the former president of Live Nation and Watsky's current manager at Steel Wool Entertainment, told the Daily Dot. "And there were so many failures, because you didn't really know. But YouTube actually gives you how popular the act is."

In the YouTube economy, subscribers directly translate to market power. That’s why Marc Hustvedt, the head of entertainment at Chill, signed on for Camp Takota, a movie starring three YouTube stars, unknown by traditional standards.

“If you’re taking any business angle on this, it’s that the talent is incredibly empowered here,” Hustvedt said. “The artists make the bulk of every dollar, because they’re bringing their community with them.”

The future of YouTube

At VidCon, teenagers sat in corners glued to their charging cell phones or walked around with their heads down looking at them. Some used handheld robotic arms to film themselves from a distance, making videos of their own.

“The younger generation, their stars are more on the Internet,” Jon Salmon of 5 Second Films noted. “Those people are going to grow up, and it’s not like they’re suddenly going to start watching television and movies again. This will be their norm.”

Indeed, YouTube appears to be driving a change in viewing habits. Not only has viewership grown 50 percent in the last year for the video-sharing site, but according to Nielsen ratings, YouTube now reaches more U.S. adults ages 18 to 34 than any cable network. In total, over 6 billion hours of video are watched on the site each month.

That’s not to suggest that YouTube will replace the traditional Hollywood model. It’s about disruption—leveling the playing field online and tearing down the walls between fans and stars.

“In general, when I hear ‘YouTube famous,’ it’s very weird,” said Laci Green, who created and stars in the sex education series, Sex+. “The Internet is a subculture, but it’s not the culture.”

“TV is not going anywhere, movies aren’t going anywhere, radio is still here,” Watsky added. “It’ll be synthesized … You’ll have your smartphone, and you’ll be able to watch TV, and then click through to a YouTube video, with way more cross-pollination.”

That transition is already taking shape, as evidenced by the duality of AwesomenessTV, a massive entertainment network with a presence on YouTube and Nickelodeon, and the transmedia elements of webseries like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

For some, like Franchesca Leigh, who broke out with the YouTube video “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls,” TV is still the ultimate end goal.

But Sarah Penna, the cofounder of Big Frame, a major YouTube network, is betting on the scales tipping more to online. She left a career in television (at Current TV, in fact) to work with Internet video creators. Penna said she made the right choice because budgets are growing, and audiences for Big Frame channels rival those of network TV sitcoms.

“It is tough to imagine a future entertainment landscape where all content will not be living digitally,” she told the Dot, “however this content can completely coexist. Mainstream TV and film is slowly discovering the talent and content that has emerged from this platform. Many of our clients share agents with other large talent that came out of the mainstream ecosystem, and the demand for YouTube talent from traditional agencies is growing exponentially.”

The demand may be there, but the YouTube talent won’t necessarily need the traditional path to find success anymore.

The Fine Brothers put it best: “YouTube isn't the future. It's the present."

Correction: Sarah Penna worked at Current TV, not HBO, as previously reported. We regret the error. 

Additional reporting by Austin PowellIllustration by Jason Reed