Please Subscribe: New Documentary Looks at What Makes a YouTube Star
Courtesy of Dobi MediaJenna Marbles in Please Subscribe
Some people like to have only egg whites in their omelet," declares a tomboyish young woman as she weaves around a sparsely appointed L.A. apartment kitchen, her words intermittently slurred by inebriation. "That's a good way to make an omelet shitty." After a few non sequiturs laced with tongue-in-cheek cooking tips, she blurts out: "You ever feel like your cat is judging you?"
If it sounds random, well, it is. But this Web series starring Hannah Hart, better known by her YouTube handle My Drunk Kitchen, has earned a half-million subscribers and a staggering 45 million views.
Then there's the baby-faced Venice resident with a smattering of facial hair. He plays a Brazilian, soccer-inspired song on empty soda cans, simultaneously managing to bang out multiple rhythms and riff on both a bass guitar and a couple of wooden guitars.
He is Joe Penna, better known as Mystery Guitar Man, and he has 2.3 million subscribers and more than 300 million total views.
He, too, is pretty random.
"When I was new to YouTube, I was, like, 'You can make money off this?!' " says Dan Dobi, 29, a Marina Del Rey music-video and commercial director. "I was shocked to learn people could get a million hits or this massive amount of subscribers."
Dobi's fascination with the phenomenon led to Please Subscribe, his feature documentary spotlighting Hart, Penna and other YouTube stars, which recently screened at several L.A.-area theaters. It's awaiting release at more than 200 theaters across the country, as well as an online release March 23.
Dobi had initially posted videos of his own on YouTube but was left wondering why he, an accomplished director with real industry credits, wasn't getting many hits. After he made friends with other YouTubers, some with huge followings, their insight led him to a greater understanding of the factors that can lead to YouTube success — and also why so many people watch these short videos in the first place.
"This is an unfiltered human being, a guy talking, telling you his opinions. It's a more honest voice," Dobi says of the average YouTube star. "But there are a lot of people on YouTube that are successful because they were at the right place at the right time, and they got one tweet that put them over."
Hart and Penna are among the many YouTube stars who skew younger, with broad comedic or musical appeal. Craig Benzine, another star of the film, has a zaniness that's more arch, a bit more highbrow. Working out of his Chicago apartment under the handle "Wheezy Waiter" — a reference to his day job for years — the stocky, balding 32-year-old resembles a young Paul Giamatti with a smidgen of Bob Hoskins.
In the documentary, Benzine comes across as edgy and smart, his energy less manic than in the hundreds of videos he's made. In those, he speaks to the camera, sometimes augmented by visual effects, others accompanied by a video-doubled "clone" of himself.
"I didn't know what it was going to be," Benzine says of his first videos. "I had some ideas about waiting tables, but the style just sort of formed while I was doing it."
He adds, "I didn't really know about the whole community when I started."
Again and again, the documentary's principals explain that stardom came about almost accidentally, the byproduct of combining their desire for personal expression with a strong work ethic.
Courtesy of Dobi MediaAnother still from Please Subscribe
"There are still a lot of content creators who do it and don't really care that they're making only $8 off their views," says Please Subscribe producer Mike Cruz. "They just do it because they love it. And that's their goal. But it has become more like cable TV, and getting yourself heard through the din of so many channels is extremely difficult. Three or four years ago, if you had 1 million subscribers, it almost guaranteed that right away 800,000 would watch your video. Now you might get 100,000 views."
San Diego native Adam Montoya, 26, has made a name for himself as "SeaNanners" in YouTube video-gaming commentary. "I was one of the very few guys in the very beginning doing this," he says. "The subscriber count back then was nothing. It's definitely difficult to say today what it takes to grow rapidly. There are thousands of guys doing it now.
"These kinds of YouTube content creators share a very certain kind of character type," he adds. "I think that people appreciate someone who is articulate, genuine, honest and is willing to listen and have a conversation. With celebrities, people see this over-the-top version. Tom Cruise is one thing, but that sure as hell isn't YouTube."
With YouTube ad profit–sharing, sales of merchandise, product placement and side opportunities stemming from their brand familiarity, most of the stars in Dobi's film now make healthy six-figure incomes. Hence the question they're asked constantly: How can I become a YouTube star, get rich and win the adoration of millions without ever leaving my living room?
Montoya admits, "It's easy for people like myself to say, 'Work very hard, focus on things you love.' But life is a curveball. Sometimes things make sense, sometimes things don't. I've seen people create characters based on what they think their audience wants to see, and I've seen people lose their minds based on the feedback comments, the ratings, the likes. In general, my best advice is being willing to laugh at yourself.
"If I'm telling people, 'Don't be so hard on yourself,' " he concludes, "I'm really telling myself that failure is part of the process."
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