After breaking records with its first major feature film release, Rooster Teeth is busier than ever — in fact, when Indiewire got co-founder Burnie Burns on the phone to talk about "Lazer Team," it was just a few days before the premiere of "The Amazing Race," which features Burns competing against other YouTubers in a race around the world.
It’s all part of a legacy that stretches back to 2003, when the Rooster Teeth team began making a humble web series about the video game "Halo" that became the mega-hit "Red vs. Blue." Below, Burns (who stars in "Lazer Team," which he also co-wrote and produced) digs into how good advice helped him make sure that their Indiegogo campaign was one of the most successful of all time, the "Lazer Team" stunt that got saved for the last day (in case it killed him), how its YouTube Red distribution fits into the overall release strategy and why they made sure that "Lazer Team" would be a movie that newcomers would enjoy as much as long-time fans. An edited transcript is below.
I want to start off by congratulating you with everything that’s happened on "Lazer Team." I’ve been following the project since the Indiegogo campaign and am genuinely blown away by how it’s evolved since then.
Yeah, it’s been pretty nuts. I gotta admit, when you’ve been doing this a long time, going out to the audience and asking for them to help out with crowdfunding, it’s a gut check. You never know how that’s gonna turn out. Luckily for us, it turned out well.
Legitimately, when you first launched it, you only asked for $650,000.
You know what’s kind of interesting is that that is true. We did ask for that amount of money.
But with stretch goals?
We relied on other people’s expertise a lot. We were originally gonna set the goal at a million. But Indiegogo was like, "Well, why don’t you set in somewhere around six hundred thousand? Somewhere lower." We were like, we know our audience pretty well, they’ll probably get this, but they pointed out to us that crowdfunding, for a lot of movies this size, turns out to be your first marketing experience. It’s how you get people aware of the project.
They said that when you hit your goal, that will be a nice precedent that people can report on, and then when you break a million, that’s also a precedent that can happen. And we were like okay, that makes sense. So we set it at $650,000. The problem, if you want to call it a problem, the problem was that those two events were about eight hours apart. We broke a million dollars in the first thirty hours that the campaign was online.
That sets certain expectations, I’m sure.
It was really great. We’ll ask our audience to help out and our audience has always answered in record numbers and this was no exception. It’s overwhelming and still somehow not surprising at the same time. We are extraordinarily grateful for their support.
I’m blanking on the exact year "Red vs. Blue" started, but this is an audience you have been courting for over a decade.
We are at 13 years now. We started on April 1, 2003. So long ago you couldn’t watch video in a web browser, you had to watch it in a different player, like in Quicktime player or something like that.
From where you started to the "Lazer Team" campaign to where you are today, do you feel your relationship with the fans has changed in any way?
I think, over 13 years, the fanbase itself has changed a little bit. I feel like we always kept our core philosophy of making content that we would wanna watch and there’s definitely a different scale we are offering that at today. Most of the same creative voices that we had back then are all pursuing slightly different things. So yeah, I think we’ve maintained a great relationship with our audience.
How much of it is about entertaining the existing audience, versus building a new audience?
That’s the challenge, right? What we try to do is we try to make something our current audience will watch, but that will also expand on that, so we can find a new audience as well. "Lazer Team" in particular, one of the reasons we made a movie is we have an extraordinarily engaged fanbase, but it’s hard to introduce the people in their lives — like their parents, friends, girlfriends, boyfriends — it’s hard to introduce them to Rooster Teeth.
A movie is a great way to do that. "You know the thing I’m watching all the time online? They made a movie, here’s the movie, watch it." People are willing to sit down and watch a movie, but if you were to hand them a 14-year box set for "Red vs. Blue," that would be a little daunting to try and make their way through.
I like the idea of the movie as a gateway drug, essentially.
Yeah, that’s what we geared up for. A lot of what we do is — we kinda analyze the shareability of it. And a movie is a very shareable thing. Give somebody a Blu-ray or sit down and watch it together.
In terms of production value, you guys have always been very solid. But getting to watch the actual film just now, it really is cinematic on a whole new level. Is there anything you did, specifically, to make sure you reached that level of production?
Our creative director, Gavin Free, who plays Woody in the movie, he’s the best. We were trying to figure out our approach and how to describe it and he put it best — we were already well into the process, and he said, "What we’re trying to do here is we are trying to make the Rooster Teeth movie. We are not trying to make ‘Rooster Teeth: The Movie.’"
I think a movie that’s a bunch of inside jokes… You look back at groups like The Beatles and The Monkees — they made movies, and it was The Beatles and The Monkees and big adventures. But this is a movie that happens to feature some Rooster Teeth personalities and the principle cast. There are certainly some beats in there, and some cameos, that are very rewarding to people that have watched our content over the years, but it’s not about that. It’s just a stand-alone movie. It’s a bit of a stretch, from a production standpoint, to try and make a sci-fi movie with a lot of visual effects for $2.5 million, but we were able to do that because our director, Matt Hullum, has 10 years working on Hollywood movies in the visual effects department. That was something we could leverage.
How much were you able to go practical?
A lot of it was practical, because that was a big push during the Indiegogo campaign. We wanted to do a lot of practical effects, so every explosion you see in the movie is a practical effect. We might sweeten it with some computer graphics — like, when the ship crashes, every single explosion is a real practical effect and then we inserted the CGI ship skipping across the ground on top of the explosions.
I had a really tough one. There’s a stunt I had to do that was timed with the building we’re in that explodes. I had to do a stunt where I had to fall from a platform onto the hood of a truck from like 12 feet up, which was the hardest stunt that I’ve ever had to do. They scheduled that on the last day as the last shot, which was sending a very clear message that if I hurt myself, the movie would be okay. But I had to time it with this massive explosion, and there was no way that I could get scared or back out. I had to do it.
It sounds like they planned that well, then. Once you had a finished film on your hands, tell me about how YouTube entered the equation?
We started talking with YouTube right at the tail end of post-production. It’s funny, because when we started the Indiegogo campaign, I could show you so many other crowd-funding campaigns of other films, tech gadgets, TV shows — I studied everything to see where they went right, and where they went wrong. And part of what was wrong was that they didn’t communicate properly with their backers and tell them what they were doing.
So, from the very get-go, we were trying to make it clear what we were trying to do, what we weren’t trying to do. But at the same time, you know, something that we couldn’t possibly predict. And one of the big things about the movie was that people would ask, "Am I going to see this in movie theaters?" And I said at the time, as we were putting updates, "Absolutely. We would put it in movie theaters." But I can’t sit here and predict, 12 or 18 months from now, once we get this project done, how people will be watching content at that point in time. There was just no way to predict that. Everything is changing so quickly.
And I mean, case in point, YouTube Red came along. There was no way we could’ve predicted it. We’d heard some rumors that some of this might come along, but for it literally to come out, just as our movie is being released in theaters, that we’d be able to follow-up so quickly with a release on YouTube Red, that we could be potentially digital and theatrical within weeks of each other? Nobody could’ve predicted that. So yeah, we’re very fortunate that YouTube and Google were launching a new platform and reached out to us.
How complicated was it, in terms of negotiating for the YouTube Red distribution — while also remaining true to the original framework of the crowd-funding campaign?
The crowd-funding campaign, I feel, there was not much of a challenge there. We were talking with the backers and telling them, "Yo, this movie’s gonna go somewhere." Like, when Zach Braff crowd-funded a movie, it sold to Universal Studios. And there was a huge outcry about that. That’s a normal path for a movie. Then we thought, they were catching so much flack about it. It’s not like when you back a gadget on a crowd-funding platform and then it ended up in a retail store, where that’s a normal path for a consumer product.
So we were very clear, when we get this movie out in theaters, we’re going to be working with some big distributors. We’re going to have really cool announcements with that. Our audience, a lot of them found us on YouTube, so when they found out about YouTube Red and a premium offering, that wasn’t something that scared them. That’s a world they understand.
I mean, I feel like YouTube Red is this thing we’re all still figuring out. How have you felt about the service so far?
I subscribed to it the day that it launched a few months ago — I mean, I love it. I log in, I don’t get ads. One of the big things for me is that I travel a lot, and so to have the ability to download a video and then watch it as I need to? I mean, it’s a really specific part of the feature, but it’s one that I use almost every day.
I’ve talked to subscribers who have literally subscribed because they want to feel like they’re supporting their favorite YouTubers in some concrete fashion.
That’s really good. That’s been our experience, too. Of course, our first efforts to monetize our work — I hate the word "monetized" — but even going back years and years, we reached out with a subscription service of our own on our website, roosterteeth.com, and we said, "Look. We want to keep making the shows, and you guys seem to like it. If you guys want to support the show…" I mean, it was a Paypal button back in those days, and people just answered.
One of the things we’ve learned is that you cannot tell people how to support you, because people have their own ways of viewing content. They don’t like going outside of the platform that they love. And so many people love YouTube so for them it’s like, "Okay. This is a way I can support creators, by having a premium service? Then I’ll do this, and I’ll do that."
So in your head, do you think of "Lazer Team" as a Rooster Teeth production, where one of the distribution venues is YouTube?
Yeah, I think it’s definitely a Rooster Teeth production that was made possible to go digital right away on a premium platform by the launch of YouTube Red. That’s the way I look at it. It’s a movie that’s in theaters. Now it’s part of the original programs on YouTube and that’s how people will watch it. To me, it’s a lot like any other massive online digital video services out there that has its own original programming.