A road diverged for two 27-year-old USC film school grads, and each went a different way: one the Sundance/Harvey Weinstein path that has been a young filmmaker's dream for two decades, the other through new-media outlets such as YouTube and Kickstarter.
One became the toast of the indie-film world after winning two top prizes at January's Sundance Film Festival. Another is an icon to a core group of Internet experts and millions of teen fans.
These days it seems the latter has the advantage — YouTube is the new frontier, and it can be more lucrative, even if top indie-film projects still enjoy more prestige. But as the two release wildly divergent new projects this month, it's possible both of them represent the future of filmmaking.
On a recent Friday, Freddie Wong is working at his production company's new headquarters in Burbank, a loft adorned with Lego models and Walking Dead posters. A storage space downstairs is piled with wooden set backdrops and Guitar Hero instruments. He and his team are rushing to finish postproduction on the second season of Video Game High School, about a sort of gamers' version of Hogwarts — one of the most ambitious web series ever.
“The moment you've brought a toothbrush to work, then you're getting into crunch time,” Wong says.
As a kid growing up in Seattle, Wong enlisted his entire high school in a homemade kung fu flick. He made more “stupid movies” as an undergrad with his USC dormmate (later producing partner) Brandon Laatsch, then worked odd jobs, including producing video games for Fox and a horror movie about an angry bear.
While making promotional videos for Samsung at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Wong saw a path to fulfilling his creative ambitions when he met YouTube personality DeStorm Power, who explained how online stars make money through their ad revenue partnership with the site.
Wong could have gone a more traditional route — he turned down an offer to direct a film, a direct-to-DVD horror flick about killer hail. Instead he called Laatsch from Canada and told him that this YouTube thing could really work.
His hunch was correct: The pair's channel now is in the top 20 on the site, with more than 5.8 million subscribers to its comedic action videos, like one featuring a cat in army fatigues mowing down bad guys (20 million views). That's enough to bring in at least six figures annually. Wong lives comfortably in a downtown Arts District condo but notes that his production company, Rocket Jump, is like a start-up, with revenue going into future projects.
Its biggest project so far is VGHS, which Wong co-created and co-directed. He works with various collaborators, including the Collective, a management and production company that helps with merchandise and set up a product-placement deal with Dodge for the racing scenes. The second season's budget was $1.4 million, and the Kickstarter campaign easily surpassed its goal of $636,010, raising $808,341. Wong helps dole out rewards to his backers — a fan in Maine paid $2,500 for him to show up unannounced, with donuts.
“Everyone talks about, 'Get your foot in the door,' ” he says of Hollywood, “but I never understood that mentality. Why would I want to go in that house? Why not build my own house? Why not take a chair and smash a window?'”
Later that same Friday, Ryan Coogler sits in a courtyard at USC's film school. It's a couple hours before a screening of Fruitvale Station, Coogler's fictionalized take on the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, who was murdered by cops at an Oakland BART stop in 2009. Nearby is a statue of Douglas Fairbanks, a founder of the original Hollywood DIY company, United Artists.
Coogler is greeted by a steady stream of well-wishers, from classmates who worked on the film to a cinematography professor he's never previously met. (Wong and Coogler didn't know each other at USC; Wong was a class of 2008 undergrad, Coogler got a master's in 2011.)
“We used to camp out over there to sign up for classes,” Coolger says. “People would stay overnight. People would bring guitars. People would watch YouTube clips.”
Coogler was born in Oakland before his family moved to nearby Richmond, where he lives now. He didn't know what a screenplay was until a creative writing professor at Saint Mary's College of California read a story of his and called him in to chat. What did he want to be? A doctor, he said. She told him he wrote visually, and that he should consider Hollywood.
“I'm from the 'hood — we tell someone we want to be a doctor, they're like, 'That's awesome,' ” he says. “I thought she was crazy.”
He later played football at Sacramento State and was considering trying for the pros when he got accepted to film school at USC. While there, he would hide behind a desk when the editing suites closed, so he could stay there all night. He went back for a pro tryout, but it didn't go well. “I was super out of shape,” he says. “I was down here making movies and not sleeping.”
Forest Whitaker saw Coogler's short films and invited the student for a meeting. Coogler told him about Fruitvale; Whitaker signed on as a producer.
Coogler knew a law student who worked on the Grant family's civil case, and got himself hired to help organize witnesses' smartphone footage of the murder; that helped him get interviews with the family. He was inspired by working-class stories such as City of God and The Wrestler, and by movies that take place in one day, like The Bicycle Thief and even Friday.
Unlike Wong, Coogler says he's still “hand to mouth.” He's been supported by Sundance Institute and the San Francisco Film Society during filming, and now by his film's distributor, the Weinstein Company.
But after the acclaimed Fruitvale comes out this week, opportunities will come: an HBO pilot, perhaps. Or even a web series.
“My path to my first film was relatively traditional,” he says. “but I admire all paths. I look at new media and I'm so excited.
“That was one of the biggest lessons I learned at USC,” he adds. “People would talk about how their career went, and no two stories were ever the same.”