THR's 2012 Digital Power 50
A cursory viewing of any number of viral videos -- with their irreverent tone, ramshackle aesthetics and simple approach to narrative -- might give the impression that fame in the digital video world largely rests on luck. But the founders of Maker Studios, a Culver City digital production company that is home to several YouTube stars, say that lasting online stardom is serious business.
"When I am meeting talent, the first thing I want to know is, how committed are they to it?" says Lisa Donovan, who co-founded Maker in July 2009 with CEO Danny Zappin. Zappin says that when mainstream talent tries to cross over on YouTube for self-serving reasons, audiences see through it, whereas with successful YouTube personalities, viewers "feel like they are talking to normal people."
Success on the video-sharing website requires dedication, says Donovan, along with a willingness to show a personal side that some might be loath to reveal. "Do you understand you have to engage with your audience?" she says. "This isn't TV and this isn't film."
But hitting it big online can lead to work in those mediums. Donovan would know: She parlayed her success on YouTube -- where her channel, under the moniker LisaNova, has received 200 million views -- into a stint on Fox's MADtv in 2007. Other Internet video sensations to cross over include Justine Ezarik (known as iJustine), who has appeared on Law & Order: SVU and Criminal Minds, and Kevin Wu (KevJumba), who was a contestant on the 17th cycle of CBS' The Amazing Race.
Maker has 200 employees and operates a full-service studio that its stable of YouTube personalities uses to shoot videos. It's a straightforward business model: Talent has access to nearly everything needed to make those clips -- from extras to costumes -- and in exchange, Maker takes a portion of the ad revenue they generate.
The company declines to discuss financials, but COO Courtney Holt stresses that Maker is "very friendly with talent; we try to be transparent with them. We make money in building out these brands." Maker is home to several notable YouTube personalities, including comedian Peter Shukoff, who posts clips under the name NicePeter that pair historical figures in absurdist rap battles (think: Darth Vader vs. Adolf Hitler). Shukoff's clips have been viewed 343 million times. Another, Ray William Johnson, best known for Equals Three, a series that offers commentary on viral videos, has 5.1 million subscribers, the most of any YouTube personality.
In October, YouTube, a subsidiary of Google, announced that as part of its $100 million slate of new programming, Maker had secured three new channels, including recently launched Tutele (bilingual cultural programming) and The Mom's View.
As the website evolves, Zappin believes it will morph into a hybrid of television and the Internet. But ultimately, success in the realm still will require forging a deep connection with audiences. "A lot of traditional people will look at YouTube and the people that are successful and won't see that as talent," he says, before emphasizing, "But we are looking for talented people."
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