YouTube’s Dilemma: Why Online Stars Struggle to Make Good Movies

Sure, you can earn big bucks from online fame. But digital stars seeking to shift to Hollywood would do well to seek quality over quantity.
VidCon 2016

A movie starring two YouTubers will make its money back in iTunes sales, regardless of its quality. That may sound like a good thing, but it’s not if you’re an online content creator looking to transition into traditional Hollywood projects and shake your reputation as a one-trick pony. Speaking from the sixth VidCon, the annual convention for digital content creators and their fans, creator Jimmy Wong is uncertain about his and others’ crossover prospects.

“It’s really hard to transition YouTube stars into traditional acting roles,” says Wong, who rose to YouTube fame with his viral hit “Ching Chong! Asians in the Library Song” — a timely response to an ugly, racist video rant.

READ MORE: Diversity is Thriving on YouTube and Four More Reasons to Be Excited for VidCon 2016

Wong is a filmmaker at RocketJump, a digital movie studio and YouTube channel that also hosts original content on its website. RocketJump produced the digital series “Video Game High School,” directed by the company’s founder and Wong’s brother, Freddie Wong. The studio is developing a new series, “Dimension 404,” which recently announced appearances by Patton Oswalt, Megan Mullally, and Constance Wu.

Though many stars learn about YouTube series from their kids (like Jon Favreau, who featured Wong’s cooking show in the background of “Chef”), it’s unlikely they lowered their rates just to delight their children; it’s clear RocketJump and other digital studios have big enough budgets to draw at least B-list talent.

But digital studios could stand to hire better writers. In May, Fullscreen released “Electra Woman & Dyna Girl,” a remake of a Sid and Marty Krofft series, toplining two of YouTube’s shining stars, Grace Helbig and Hannah Hart. The script, which follows two small-town superheroes seeking fame in the City of Angels, poked fun at its own derivative plot, but relied too heavily on inside jokes. Helbig and Hart play their best Helbig and Hart, though, which is exactly what their teenaged fans want.

“I honestly wouldn’t remember their character names if they weren’t in the title of the film,” says Wong, adding, “are we watching this movie because we heard it’s good, or because it’s Hannah and Grace?”

READ MORE: YouTube Has a Quality Problem and 4 More Takeaways from VidCon 2016

Digital box office numbers are extremely hard to gauge, as the industry is notoriously tight-lipped on the subject. However, insiders say that Helbig and Hart’s first feature, “Camp Takota,” more than made its money back. “I think it sets the wrong precedent,” Wong says. “When your priority isn’t necessarily the quality of the product, but the ability to make a profit with iTunes sales. That’s Hollywood in a nutshell though.”

Conversely, you won’t see any YouTube stars in “High Maintenance,” the most critically acclaimed web series to date, which debuted on Vimeo in 2014 and will come to HBO this fall. HBO also tapped Issa Rae, creator of “Awkward Black Girl,” to develop a comedy series for the network. Rae originally hosted “Awkward Black Girl” on YouTube, but seems to be distancing herself from that audience; she canceled her scheduled VidCon appearances at the last minute this year.

YouTube stars seeking industry respect should take a page out of Rae’s book: do quality work, gain a respectable online following, then get the hell out of dodge. However, if money is the goal (rather than mainstream fame), YouTubers can clean up with book deals, brand partnerships, and iTunes sales. According to Wong, companies routinely fork over $80,000 for a few product placements on a popular YouTube channel.

For now, it seems young content creators must choose between money and prestige. But if they want to cross over into traditional Hollywood projects, they’re going to have step up their game.

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