Screaming tweens. Boy bands singing Drake. People talking to video cameras. VidCon, the annual convention for all things YouTube, vlogging, and digital media, is certainly a sight to behold. The term “content creator” is rarely thrown around quite so often as it was in the hallways of the Anaheim Convention Center last weekend. If one thing is certain, digital culture is a lot more advanced than it was a few years ago. What can we surmise from VidCon about the future of the industry that has better numbers than the views on “David After Dentist?” This is real life for the digital age.
The Freshmen Online Stars Are All Grown Up
Grace Helbig, Jenna Marbles, and Hannah Hart each began vlogging in 2008, 2010, and 2011, respectively. In Internet years, they’re ancient. Now, they’re credited with shaping the style and creating a language for a form of digital media that is now over ten years old. Aspiring vloggers either try to emulate them or expand on what they began. Now, they run mini-media empires; with book deals, radio shows, and feature films all designed to expand their brands and achieve fame outside of the digital sphere. Hart’s first book, “My Drunk Kitchen,” landed on the New York Times bestseller list, and her second book, “Buffering: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded,” out this fall, boasts a glowing forward from fellow YouTuber and YA novelist John Green. Marbles has a line of dog toys and hosts a weekly pop culture show on SiriusXM radio, while Helbig’ podcast “Not Too Deep” debuted at number 1 on the iTunes charts.
Everybody Wants a Piece of the Pie…
YouTube reaches 81.2 percent of Internet users in the U.S., according to comScore data. Naturally, the big media companies all want in. The five major content creator networks all have heavy backing from media corporations: Maker Studios (owned by Disney), Defy Media (investment from Viacom and Lionsgate), Newform Digital (owned Discovery, Ron Howard, and Brian Grazer), and Fullscreen (AT&T). Maker hit it big with its original show “Epic Rap Battles of History,” while Defy media owns ScreenJunkies, the people behind the “Honest Trailers” franchise. Fullscreen produces long form content starring YouTubers (“Electra Woman and Dynagirl”), and Newform is our current pick for most highbrow digital media company (tied with Rooster Teeth, which has no outside investments). Newform produced the Emmy frontrunner “Oscar’s Hotel for Magical Creatures,” which uses puppets from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.
…But You Can’t Buy Respect
They may be raking in the dough, but more ambitious narrative content from major vloggers has gone largely unnoticed by leading media outlets. While Helbig and Hart’s first full-length movie “Camp Takota” (also with Mamrie Hart) scores a 7 out of 10 stars on IMDB user ratings, it doesn’t even rate on Rotten Tomatoes; no critics reviewed it. As far as we know, IndieWire was the only media outlet to review their second feature, “Electra Woman and Dyna Girl.” We gave it a B+. But outside of the (albeit large and very rabid) YouTube fan base, you’d be hard-pressed to find a person over 30 who even knows their names.
There’s an Audience for Everyone
VidCon hosted not just one but many panels about female creators, body positivity, race and representation, disability, LGBTQ issues, and mental health. Vlog viewers feel that the vlogger is their friend, someone who gets them when most people in their lives do not. There is a channel for every disenfranchised viewer who is tired of not seeing their likeness represented in mainstream media. There are huge swaths of eyeballs the white male media executives have largely ignored. Because of YouTube, they are starting to pay attention. Tyler Oakley, a gay male YouTuber with over 8 million subscribers, recently announced a deal to join Ellen Degeneres’ new digital network, with the aim of developing original online content for the network and eventually for television. This fall, new audiences will meet the wacky character Miranda Sings (née Colleen Ballinger), with the debut of her Netflix comedy series, “Haters Back Off.”
The Democratization of Content Means No Quality Control
Though it is notoriously tough to assess profit numbers in the digital marketplace, with prices like $9.99 per download in iTunes, VOD content with big name YouTubers likely does very well, regardless of quality. Jimmy Wong, a YouTuber and filmmaker with RocketJump Studios, thinks that sent the wrong message. “I don’t even know why they give those characters names,” Wong told IndieWire at VidCon. He added: “Am I watching this because it’s Hannah and Grace, or because it’s good?” YouTube Red and Maker Studios have attempted unwieldy ensemble pieces like “Escape the Night with Joey Graceffa” and “Internet Famous,” using derivative premises to pack as many YouTubers in as possible. The content is dictated by the talent — and a lot of this talent, frankly, could use an acting class or ten.