When Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla first joined YouTube, they each received a free iPod nano from the site for signing up. Over ten years later, and Smosh, the channel they named after a junior high inside joke, is the sixth most subscribed channel on YouTube — just after Rihanna’s Vevo, but before Taylor Swift’s.
When they arrived at the IndieWire offices last month to promote their second feature, “Ghostmates,” co-produced by Defy Media and YouTube Red, they each donned crisp black jackets and fresh haircuts. (The latter caused much hubbub from fans during a Facebook live interview.) If “Pokemon In Real Life” is your only Smosh reference point, you might not recognize the sleek young moguls on the screen.
The Smosh empire now consists of 10 related channels, five studio albums, an X-box app, a comic book series, and two feature films. Thanks to a robust team of sketch writers and performers filling out the channels, Padilla and Hecox have been able to focus on diversifying their projects. With “Ghostmates,” Smosh takes another step in the direction of more traditional projects, though they remain loyal to their YouTube fanbase.
Hecox plays Ed, a man-child who dies by accidental strangulation the night he asks his girlfriend to move in with him. (For those concerned about spoilers, this is the first scene). When aimless Charlie (Padilla) takes over the apartment for the surprisingly cheap rent, he is greeted by Ed’s ghost, whom only Charlie can see. If Charlie wants some peace and quiet, not to mention for Ed to stop stealing his credit card, he must help Ed resolve unfinished business so he can get to heaven. Think “Ghost” with adorable bros. And T-Pain.
“Ghostmates” will certainly please avid Smosh fans, but it offers much more than the standard YouTube fare. The minute Ed’s tie gets stuck in the door his girlfriend just slammed on his face, choking him to death and stoking rumors of autoerotic asphyxiation, it’s clear that “Ghostmates” will not pull any punches. Whether it’s T-Pain’s recitation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, or a rousing dance performance of “The Notebook Live: Bollywood Style,” “Ghostmates” layers Smosh’s trademark humor over a structurally sound premise in a solid breakthrough for the duo.
“We wanted to tell a story first and foremost, and then add comedy to it,” Hecox told IndieWire. “We learned from the first movie, and we wanted to make sure we were involved in the writing process from beginning to end.”
The title of their first movie, “Smosh: The Movie,” sums up its contents pretty well. Directed by Alex Winter (“Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”) and using a time-travel device to allow for many YouTuber cameos, the movie remained true to the Smosh sketches, but did not deliver much more.
With “Ghostmates,” Hecox and Padilla pushed themselves to make a more story-driven comedy without relying too heavily on their signature slapstick. They worked closely with screenwriter Ryan Finnerty, a frequent Smosh collaborator, and hired young director Jack Henry Robbins to push them out of their comfort zone.
“When I first came in, I said: ‘Don’t hire me if you want to do the same kind of movie you did before,'” Robbins told IndieWire. “I wanted to make it more of a mainstream adult film, more mature. They hired me, and that was the first indication they wanted to do that.”
If Smosh was seeking Hollywood street cred, they need look no further than Robbins. The elder son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, the USC Film school graduate has a few human rights documentaries under his belt, as well as a comedy series about amateur DJs for Spotify and Comedy Central. His short film, “Hot Winter: A Film By Dick Pierre,” which he shot on VHS, will play the Sundance Film Festival this month.
With a resume like that, Smosh may not have been an obvious choice for Robbins. “I think I saw their Pokemon video back in the day, but let’s just say I was not an active Smosh member at the time,” he admitted. “I think if was a huge fan, it might have been a problem for them. They wanted to do something different. They have things they want to say, and the last film didn’t fulfill those wants.”
In their quest to step outside of their comfort zone, Hecox and Padilla interviewed many directors. “[Robbins] came in and he had ideas. Ways he would switch things up or make it look better on camera, and it really clicked with us,” Hecox said.
“He just gets our style of comedy,” Padilla added. “He held our hand and let us do what we wanted.”
Knowing they wanted to challenge themselves creatively, Robbins ran with that. “When I came in, I guess I was a little hard on them, but I wasn’t going to let them do what they usually did. I forced them to give different kinds of performances and not rely on things they’ve done in the past.” He let them keep a few uncouth corn dog-swallowing jokes, but added a scene where Ed dances with his girlfriend one last time before going to heaven.
YouTube stars charting courses to Hollywood success while maintaining online audiences have a great model in Hecox and Padilla, who always prioritize their original fanbase. “So many of our viewers are online, and we always want to try new things, but we don’t want to just leave everything behind,” said Hecox.
“But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to try new things,” added Padilla. “Part of the reason we’ve been able to keep doing what we’re doing is because we’re so open to evolving.”
Asked what’s next, Padilla revealed a most candid secret to Internet success: “You can’t really tell what’s next on the Internet. Things are evolving so quickly.”
“Ghostmates” is available now on YouTube Red.