YouTube's Playa Vista Space: A Video Creator's Utopia or a Bid to Box out the Competition?

YouTube's L.A. Space in Playa Vista
YouTube's L.A. Space in Playa Vista
Ted Soqui

Also part of our spotlight on Playa Vista:
Playa Vista Was Going to Be a Utopian Planned Community...
One of the Most Exciting Ad Agencies of L.A.'s Madison Avenue
UCLA's Experimental Architecture Campus...With Robots

Chester See, a 2013 Streamy Award nominee for Best Online Personality, mostly comes to the YouTube Space in Playa Vista for the free drinks, and tonight is no exception.

It's the second annual What's Trending Tube-a-thon, a 2½-hour, live-streaming fundraiser of a holiday party held on a Thursday evening in December, featuring an elite group of goofy, earnest Angelenos whose six-figure jobs require not PowerPoint presentations but videos of themselves choking on cinnamon.

Any YouTube-crazed teenager traveling down the eerily isolated West Bluff Creek Drive that runs along the southeastern edge of Playa Vista, through the insular converted warehouses and capacious parking lots of the office campus, would never know that his favorite stars were cracking tipsy jokes and exchanging industry gossip inside the hulking, former helicopter factory.

An estimated 167,000 fans tuned in on Dec. 12 to see live performances and chatty commentary from YouTube stars like the studly, biracial See (1.4 million subscribers), comedian Grace Helbig (2.3 million subscribers) and visual effects/gaming guru Freddie Wong (6.8 million subscribers).

But at the event itself, where roving and jib-mounted cameras capture hugs, selfies and networking revelry under sparkly snowflakes and metallic plastic orbs, no one's eyes are on the stage or the live feed. Collaboration is crucial to success on YouTube - when a handful of stars makes a video together, everyone's audience grows - so the people in this room must get along, or at least appear to.

See stands in the corner near the open bar, an intense energy seething from his broad shoulders. Sure, he'll sing one of his signature ballads onstage in a bit - after all, tonight is about raising money for homeless-youth shelters -  but like many of the stars who came just for the party and the cause, he won't be recording a video here anytime soon.

A little more than a year ago, YouTube opened the 41,000-square-foot space as a community hub, hosting weekly happy hours and offering access to soundstages, editing bays, green screens, professionally built sets and tons of expensive cameras, sound and lighting equipment - all for free. The online video giant has started smaller production spaces in London and Tokyo, and a fourth will open this year in New York.

"We want to help you level up," explains Liam Collins, who runs the L.A. space. "[And] being more ambitious with production techniques is a way to do that."

Whatever is good for those who got their start on YouTube is good for YouTube itself, Collins says, whether that means acquiring more subscribers, views and advertising dollars for your channel or negotiating bigger partnerships off-platform with brands, celebrities and traditional media companies. High-profile visitors to the L.A. space in 2013 included One Direction, who live-streamed a seven-hour hangout; Fred Armisen and Jack Black, who cooed over the space's Phantom slow-motion camera while filming a web series for MOCAtv; and Robin Thicke, who performed "Blurred Lines" with a little help from Jenna Marbles (12 million subscribers).

But Collins is quick to acknowledge that there is little correlation between virality and Hollywood production values.

YouTube stars know the real money is still in film, television and brand partnerships, but when it comes to online video - which will help you get those higher-paying gigs - See resents the suggestion that bedroom vloggers and DIY pranksters need to hire gaffers or learn to use one of the space's three RED cameras. He says the YouTube Space is unnecessarily encouraging stars to focus on what advertisers and conventional media companies want to see: a shiny product.

"If you talk straight numbers, we wouldn't have to worry about pleasing the brands and building perceptions," See says, rattling off a list of his videos that have received more views in a week than an episode of the typical network sitcom.

See also: our YouTube issue

So if honesty and hijinks matter more to YouTube's core teenage audience than color correction and audio mixing, why would Google-owned YouTube spend $25 million building the largest and fanciest online video - production facility in the world?

Before the YouTube Space opened in November 2012, the only dedicated production spaces in Los Angeles for online video were at multichannel networks like Maker Studios, which guide and promote hundreds of individual YouTube shows. Although most networks initially were funded by YouTube itself, many now survive on venture capital and investments from traditional media companies.

For the past few years, networks have been offering the same privileges as the YouTube Space: high-profile connections, production facilities for ambitious projects and a community to collaborate with. However, many networks force stars to sign away the rights to their content, which has sparked a few acrimonious public fights and legal battles. With the YouTube Space, video creators get the perks without losing equity in their work.

"If the YouTube Space had existed before we joined a network, we wouldn't have," says Jessar Nygard, 25. Nygard, who runs a fitness channel called the Strength Project, says he and his partners plan to leave their network, Fullscreen, sometime soon. In early January, Grace Helbig announced that she'd be leaving her network, My Damn Channel. Within days, half a million of her 2.3 million subscribers had migrated over to her new YouTube channel.It's this pull - the ability of individual YouTube stars to carry their audiences with them wherever they go - that looms largest over the decision to build dedicated YouTube production spaces around the world. Like Kleenex or Rollerblades, YouTube is a company that has so dominated its field that the brand and the product have become interchangeable. But human talent, unlike proprietary tissue design, can easily switch allegiances.


What would happen if a multichannel network like the DreamWorks-backed AwesomenessTV began streaming video and selling advertisements from a different website, cutting out YouTube as the intermediary? Creators or channels that build enough of a fan base to take their content elsewhere no longer have to pay an onerous 45 percent of their ad revenue back to YouTube. (Keep in mind that Apple's App Store and Google's Play charge only 30 percent.)

The flight from YouTube has already begun. Hannah Hart, who hosts online show "My Drunk Kitchen," in which she attempts to cook while getting wasted, has begun including on her personal website clips embedded from both YouTube and video-sharing site Metacafe, which is owned by the network Collective Digital Studio. And back in September, Maker Studios acquired online video sharing and distribution company Blip; by late October, they had announced plans to help creators build personal websites featuring videos powered by Blip, not by YouTube.

See also: Our web series column, The Tangled Web We Watch

Of course, YouTube executives maintain that networks are their friends, and that having multiple production spaces available to YouTubers is a good thing.

As Brent Weinstein, head of digital media at United Talent Agency, points out, the online video landscape is rapidly changing. "YouTube will re-evaluate their economic model," he says. "There's a symbiotic relationship between creators and platform, and while there's tension from time to time, both sides have extracted an extraordinary amount of value from the relationship and are incentivized to find ways to make it work."

Back at Tube-a-thon, Chester See croons about love next to a giant teddy bear slumped in front of a Christmas tree on one YouTube Space soundstage, while George Takei is quietly filming a web series sponsored by the AARP on another.

Meanwhile, Shay Butler (1.8 million subscribers), one of the founders of Maker Studios, moves through the crowd, looking jolly as ever. Does he think the YouTube Space is trying to compete with his company?

"A little," he says, still smiling. "That was the natural reaction, to think that, but it hasn't been?...?." He trails off for a moment, searching for the right words, before settling on a diplomatic course: "There's room for both of us."

Also part of our spotlight on Playa Vista:
Playa Vista Was Going to Be a Utopian Planned Community... 
One of the Most Exciting Ad Agencies of L.A.'s Madison Avenue
UCLA's Experimental Architecture Campus...With Robots

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12422 W. Bluff Creek Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90094


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