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The world is facing certain destruction from alien forces. But instead of a specially trained super soldier wielding the Earth’s most powerful weapon, a ragtag foursome of unlikely heroes each controls a single aspect of humanity’s last hope.
They are the Lazer Team, and they’re fighting two equally difficult battles: one against a powerful alien race, sure, but a separate front against assumptions about what a movie birthed on YouTube can be in 2016.
The film is among the first efforts of YouTube’s original content push ignited by the 2015 launch of its paid subscription-based service, YouTube Red, but it has roots that go much deeper into the YouTube community.
The project was initially funded via Indiegogo, where it surpassed its initial $650,000 goal within a day and ultimately set a record of more than $2.4 million as the site’s most funded independent film. During a 2014 VidCon session, creator Burnie Burns spoke of the power of only 37,493 individual backers to be able to realize a film project. He also pointed out that if that same number were the view count on one of his team’s videos on YouTube, they’d think something was wrong; the channel hits at least 100,000 views on every single video, often racking up over 1 million views per video. But by translating that level of devotion from view counts to monetary support, Rooster Teeth, an Austin-based production house behind Web hits like Red vs Blue and RWBY, has been able to produce a film that rivals any independent production—and even Hollywood.
“We take the power away from the studios who are just regurgitating or taking the lowest risk projects and greenlighting them,” Lazer Team star Alan Ritchson, who has experience in Hollywood blockbusters like the Ninja Turtles reboot, told the Daily Dot earlier this year. “The scope of what a team like this is able to do rivals what these suits are spending $75 million to do… It just goes to show the power of people, and that people these days can drive quality content.”
On that front, Lazer Team delivers. The attitude of the film is reminiscent of the surreal sci-fi flick Mars Attacks, a late ’90s gem that infused humor into the idea of alien invasion while other blockbusters like Independence Day took a much more serious approach to extraterrestrials. Lazer Team is decidedly more low-budget than a Tim Burton picture, but the feeling of the film is far from amateur.
Lazer Team isn’t in the realm of an Oscar contender, but it’s not a up for a Razzie either.
Acting-wise the cast is talented, and the script is entertaining if not exactly groundbreaking. It hits the tropes of Top Secret Mission movies, and the bumbling comedy ones as well, and soundly fails the Bechdel Test with its most prominent female character being mostly celebrated for her good looks in a sea of dudes. That’s not to say the dudes aren’t doing well in this film, with Rooster Teeth regulars like Burns and Gavin Free confident in their roles and a standout funny performance from Key and Peele’s Colton Dunn, who is currently on NBC’s primetime series Superstore. The special effects are impressive for their budget, with a good dose of explosions, spaceships, and hologram alien visitors; they could always have benefited from another million or two in crowdfunding, but the heart and soul of the film is enjoyable and on par with any ambitious beginner filmmaker in the sci-fi comedy realm.
To put it plainly, Lazer Team isn’t in the realm of an Oscar contender, but it’s not a up for a Razzie either. Instead, it’s a great indication that YouTube production companies can, with much less money than is normally invested in a sci-fi project, turn around a quality project. It also helps buck the trend on what a YouTube-to-mainstream project can look like.
Many previous YouTube-to-movie transitions have focused on singular personalities or duos reconstructing their YouTube schtick: Smosh’s Smosh: The Movie, teen-centric fare like Jenn McAllister and Lauren Luthringshausen’s Bad Night, or Nash Grier and Cameron Dallas’ The Outfield. For the majority, the format is a documentary, a peek behind the curtain that reads like an extended YouTube video, like Tyler Oakley’s Snervous or the Janoskians’ mockumentary Untold and Untrue. Even on television, the leaps from YouTube to the traditional screen have followed the YouTube format, from Grace Helbig’s non-traditional talk show on E! to RocketJump’s behind-the-scenes series for Hulu. While other ambitious projects like 2014’s Camp Takota were narrative trailblazers, Lazer Team is kicking off the era of YouTube is placing a premium, quite literally, on original content.
Lazer Team will be part of YouTube Red’s first slate of originals content, launching alongside Lily Singh’s documentary, A Trip to Unicorn Island, and Dance Camp, a teen-centric musical film from Awesomeness Films. The film industry got an advance look at the upcoming content at Sundance, which will all be available on Red “sometime next month,” according to Variety. While Dance Camp is slated to be the first film on Red, Lazer Team also got a theatrical release starting Jan. 27 in 34 theaters nationwide.
Lazer Team has the benefit of two modes for making a splash. Rooster Teeth can hope to convert fans at the traditional box office, and it can additionally bank on carving out a piece of YouTube Red’s $9.99 monthly subscription, thanks to the length of the project and hopefully high view counts. It’s already got a head start, with $1 million in pre-sales via Tugg, a platform that allows users to demand films in their areas and spark interest to ticket sales minimums to bring an independent film to their local cinema. If things go well, the film leaves room for a sequel and the chance for the Rooster Teeth community to prove that its support was more than a flash in the pan—that it’s something that could sustain the future of filmmaking and YouTube content.
Screengrab via Rooster Teeth/YouTube
A former YouTube reporter for the Daily Dot, Rae Votta has more than a decade of experience in the digital and entertainment industries. Her work has appeared on AOL, Huffington Post, Out Magazine, Logo, VH1, Current TV, Billboard, and NYMag. She joined Netflix in 2016.