Ron Howard-backed incubator boosts YouTube stars to the next level

In the world of digital media, a successful incubator is as much a mission and state of mind as it is as business process.

New Form Digital has separated itself from the pack of ad hoc studios whose goal is to aggregate and represent the works of digital storytellers born of YouTube rather than apprenticeship or film-school pedigree. Digital content networks like Evox Television Networks, Amazon Studios, and divisions within broadcasters such as NBCUniversal and CBS often are more about realizing finished projects via monetization than creating a new generation of sustainable digital content. Launched in April by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer along with Discovery Networks, New Form is intended to nurture and mentor a crop of budding YouTube stars in hopes of elevating them from user-generated content pros to producers of commercially successful webseries and short films.

Kathleen Grace, the chief creative officer for New Form, explained mentorship lacks set rules when it comes to digital storytelling. The former YouTube executive (and person behind YouTube Spaces) says that the work between the digital studio and its filmmakers involves a lot of give and take and often boils down to just some practical advice.

“Some of the work is formal: There can be three to four rounds of notes on scripts and on editing,” Grace told the Daily Dot. “But then there are filmmakers who just need help finding a location or are unfamiliar with permitting processes.”

Among those in the first class of budding geniuses working with New Form Digital are Joey Graceffa, Joe Penna (MysteryGuitarMan), Sawyer Hartman, Meghan Camarena (Strawburry17), Tony Valenzuela (BlackBoxTV), Craig Benzine (WheezyWaiter), PJ Liguori (KickThePJ), POYKPAC Comedy, Tim Hautekiet, and Yulin Kuang. By and large, this crop of YouTube stars are enormously popular with millions of subscribers, but Grace and her team hope to smooth out some of the rougher production and script elements with a focus on upping their cinematic storytelling chops.

Camarena may be a prototype of what New Form Digital hopes to craft into a narrative filmmaking star. Camarena is a self-taught digital filmmaker who has graduated from Flip cameras to a professional Red Digital Cinema monster that shoots in 8K. Over her career, she also has refined her editing skills from doing what is known as “in-camera editing” to mastering Adobe Premiere Pro. With close to 800,000 subscribers on her YouTube page, Strawburry17 made her a star long before New Form came calling.

Camarena, who has appeared on the CBS reality show The Great Race, has a production style that defies easy categorization. She features cosplay cooking clips (The Legend of Zelda Bento Box), spooky challenges (Eating Dirt! w/ Joey Graceffa), and a music video of sorts (Ultimate Playlist!). Her ability to quickly get into the theme or story of the clip makes them accessible and fun and a tad off the wall (in a good way).

The incubator gave her a grant to film The Void, a 7-minute short with a postapocalyptic tone, complete with zombies and pistol-packing survivors. Camarena welcomed the advice she received through the process and knows that New Form will be able to work with her in securing distribution for her film and future projects, leveraging vast resources for exposure. In one week, the film has amassed close to 75,000 views.

PJ Liguori is a bit more low-key in personality, but when it comes to his digital presence, there’s nothing shy to be found. His YouTube presence, KickthePJ, is a collage of personal diaries and a series of oddball, endearing characters. With funds from New Form, Liguori, who lives in the U.K., was able to take his art form to a rather remarkable level with Oscar’s Hotel, a home away from home for non-humans (and that’s an understatement). With nearly 90,000 views on YouTube since its posting, the 10-minute film is reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 Brazil but with handcrafted special effects and a fraction of the budget.

In his YouTube films, Liguori told the Daily Dot that he generally was able to focus either on characters or story, but with the financial backing and editorial assistance from New Form Digital, he was able to do both. At first, though, he admitted he didn’t know what to expect working with a third party. “I sent [New Form] a first draft, and they helped shape the film,” Liguori said. “They see things in a way I personally didn’t see them, which made the editing process faster. It helped to show it to a fresh set of eyes.”

Liguori already has a vision for where he sees Oscar’s Hotel going. “I would love to be able to take the idea of the hotel and take it into a webseries,” he said. “These are characters that the audience of YouTubers will love. I would love to carry it on.”

With its lofty ambition, the role of the incubator moves forward with an uncertain future. Grace noted that there is an nearly unquenchable appetite for online video, but the current ecosystem from creation to consumption is one of disconnected parts: consumer-generated video, professionally produced digital content, subscription streaming services such as Netflix, an array of consumption screens, and unproven financial models. The question that may be answered over the coming years: Will be is it better to do one thing extraordinarily well like New Form Digital or many things slightly above average like Netflix and Amazon?

Screengrab via Strawburry17/YouTube

Allen Weiner

Allen Weiner

Allen Weiner has been a market research analyst in the area of new media and technology since 1994. He’s worked as writer, publisher and newspaper executive. He is the co-founder and publisher of Kombucha Network and the former managing vice president of Gartner.