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This story first appeared in the May 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Liam Collins isn’t exactly a household name in Hollywood, but he should be, given his role as overseer of perhaps the world’s largest production studio dedicated entirely to Internet videos. Collins heads YouTube Space LA, the lavish new studio in Playa Vista that occupies 41,000 square feet inside a former airplane hangar where Howard Hughes built the Spruce Goose.
Since opening in November after a $25 million renovation that gave it a mod-1970s feel — except for the 36 monitors that connect as one giant screen above the front desk — the studio has been crowded with everyone from Matt Damon to Amy Poehler using editing suites, recording booths, cameras, lights, mics, grip equipment, screening rooms and more. Everything is lent for free to those making content for YouTube — especially the roughly 200 channels the Google-owned site has partnered with and lended an estimated $250 million in exchange for an ad revenue split. With YouTube announcing May 9 that it will charge subscription fees for certain channels, quality content is even more important.
Collins, 40, earned the U.S. Navy Commendation Medal for his work in the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, then was an attorney with Gunderson Dettmer. The married father of a young daughter (his wife is a research psychologist with a Ph.D.) joined YouTube after Google in 2011 acquired Next New Networks, a company that was building video properties for the Internet and where Collins was COO. Now he is one of the key execs trying to figure out how to serve YouTube’s 1 billion unique visitors a month.
The Hollywood Reporter: YouTube now has studios in L.A., New York, Tokyo and London. Will you build more?
Liam Collins: Possibly one or two, but we view these as catalysts for the marketplace, and we already see others who produce at a high level on YouTube building or planning to build their own facilities.
THR: Are many of the high-profile channel partners actually using the studio?
Collins: We had a great day here with Matt Damon shooting a series of videos for The Water Channel on YouTube. We suggested he collaborate with others, so he filmed his project with about five other YouTube channels, and all of them saw their audiences grow. We worked with Amy Poehler and her channel, Smart Girls, and her production team is in love with the place. Simon Cowell is seriously thinking of doing something with his You Generation project because our spaces in Tokyo, London and Los Angeles are all networked, so a program that’s global like what Simon is thinking of is well suited for the facility.
THR: If you don’t charge partners to use the studio, how does it make money?
Collins: Our goal is to not make money but to focus on helping creators make great content. Our philosophy is that better content will benefit us and our channels.
THR: How does one qualify to use your facility for free?
Collins: We have a Creator Class, a three-month program that we’re switching to a one-month program. We’ll look at your upload and subscriber base and make sure you’re open to collaborating with others and are prepared to bring a crew. And we have residencies for established YouTube channels that understand how to make full use of a soundstage. FreddieW [from gamer Freddie Wong] is an example of that.
THR: Why do people need pay channels on YouTube when there is so much good free stuff?
Collins: Our goal has always been to catalyze content on YouTube. Adding paid channels to the platform is another way to bring more great content to our viewers that otherwise might not appear in an ad-supported model and give partners another way to build successful channels.
THR: What do you consider the best content on YouTube?
Collins: We try to stay out of the business of judging content, but my tried-and-true advice is to not be afraid to do new things and to make it shareable. And be authentic — because on the web, audiences are savvy and they know when you’re not authentic.
THR: Which Hollywood people who have channels are getting the most traffic?
Collins: AwesomenessTV [which DreamWorks Animation bought May 1 for $33 million] is a channel that really gets it. It’s from TV producer Brian Robbins, who worked with The CW a lot. Rainn Wilson, who launched Soul Pancake, is doing a great job. He’s at 300,000 subscribers. There’s an Asian-American-themed channel called You Offend Me, You Offend My Family, often referred to by the acronym YOMYOMF, which is a collaboration, and one of the folks involved is Justin Lin, the director of Fast & Furious. They’re approaching 500,000 subscribers, a really meaningful number on the platform.
THR: In the wake of the DreamWorks Animation deal and Time Warner’s investment in Maker Studios, why do these experts in creating content need to buy digital companies rather than create their own?
Collins: You can really get there both ways, but as is often true, an acquisition can help get access to key audiences faster. There is a whole generation of consumers on YouTube who have grown up on the Internet, are always connected through mobile devices and spend their time creating and curating content for social communities. This audience — we call them Generation C — influences more than $500 billion in consumer spending and can be challenging to reach through traditional mediums.
THR: What’s your favorite channel?
Collins: I really like Freddie Wong’s, whose channel is a top 10 channel. I also like a show on The Drive Network called Driven that is very cinematic and all about automobiles.
THR: We hear you’re getting $8 CPMs, which would be higher than average for web video but lower than Hulu. How do you get that closer to TV levels?
Collins: Without commenting on whether $8 is the right starting point, CPMs do fluctuate based on seasonality and domestic rather than foreign audiences. The one thing that always remains constant is that advertisers follow the audience. They did so when network TV expanded into cable, and we see it now as print audiences shift online. Advertisers are learning that through YouTube, they can develop deeper relationships with their consumers driven by engagement. When consumers are engaged, they are loyal.
THR: Can you name the “funded channels” that have paid back the money YouTube advanced?
Collins: No comment.
THR: Do you encourage cord-cutting so TV watchers can spend more time on YouTube?
Collins: First off, let me say that we’re not competing with TV, we complement it. Screen time is growing — it’s not a zero sum game, and there are enough viewers for all of us. Over the past year, we’ve actually seen many of our channels partner with TV networks — Fox with WIGS and AMC with Nerdist’s All-Star Celebrity Bowling, to name a few. But one of the biggest cross-platform TV successes that we’ve seen is with Ellen DeGeneres and Jimmy Kimmel, who are building big audiences by issuing user-generated-content challenges and featuring YouTube stars on their shows. Ellen is actually the No. 1 TV celebrity on all of YouTube with more than 1.7 billion video views.
THR: Any Hollywood creators you’d like to see working on YouTube?
Collins: George Lucas. He’s been an early adopter of technology, and ILM is a great example. Others would be James Cameron — it would be great to see him come back, because he actually shot 80 percent of Avatar in this building before we arrived, and I understand he likes the Playa Vista campus a lot. Disney/Pixar’s John Lasseter, because of how he’s advanced animation, and Michael Mann, because I personally would like to work with him. He’s a great storyteller.
THR: YouTube recently held its second annual upfront presentation. How are you persuading brands to spend less on traditional TV and more on YouTube?
Collins: The upfronts went really well. In the past year, we’ve seen the top 100 advertisers buying media on the platform, and we have 200 times more video advertisers than the average U.S. television network. Many brands — like Pepsi and Samsung — also are building channels on the platform and finding new ways to directly engage their consumers.
THR: But do viewers pay attention to ads that run on YouTube?
Collins: We’ve learned that skippable ads work well for the audience and for advertisers. It’s great for viewers because they only watch the ads they care about. And it’s an incredibly compelling value proposition for advertisers because they only get charged when someone is choosing to watch their ad, which typically happens between 15 to 45 percent of the time.
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