Awesomeness TV's Brian Robbins on Billion-Dollar Deals, Vine's Value and the Future of Content Delivery (Q&A)

Executive Suite Brian Robbins - H 2014
Aaron Fallon

Executive Suite Brian Robbins - H 2014

Soon after snapping up a YouTube rival for $15 million, the former actor-turned-CEO of the multiplatform firm talked to THR about the purchase and what he learned from acting.

This story first appeared in the May 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The west Los Angeles offices of AwesomenessTV saw a flurry of activity the morning CEO Brian Robbins announced his company had acquired fellow YouTube multichannel network Big Frame for $15 million. Moments after the reveal, employees' cheers erupted from his second-floor office.

The April 2 deal marked a turning point for the 100-person multiplatform media firm, which produces three to five tween-skewing YouTube videos a day. DreamWorks Animation purchased Awesomeness, which works with YouTube stars like actress Lia Marie Johnson, in May 2013 for as much as $150 million, a figure that now seems a steal considering Disney is paying as much as $1 billion for Maker Studios and rival Fullscreen is said to be fielding offers from NBCUniversal and Relativity in the same jaw-dropping range.

Robbins, 50, is quick to note that while YouTube is "an amazing place to scale an audience," it was not his endgame when he founded Awesomeness in 2012. "You have to have other businesses, just like any media company," he adds, to supplement advertising revenue shared with YouTube. For Awesomeness, that meant creating a Nickelodeon sketch-comedy series based on the YouTube channel, now in its second season.

For that project, Robbins -- an actor on the 1980s ABC sitcom Head of the Class who subsequently directed the films Varsity Blues and Hardball -- drew on his years as an executive producer on Nickelodeon's All That and The WB (later The CW) dramas Smallville and One Tree Hill. Robbins, an avid sports fan who lives in Encino with his wife, Tracy, often can be found supporting sons Miles, 16, and Justin, 14, on the basketball court.

He sat down with THR the morning of the Big Frame acquisition (and later after the NewFronts) to discuss the purchase, why he is bullish on Vine and what he learned from acting.

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Maker recently was acquired for as much as $950 million. Critics say you sold too early.

My mom. (Laughs.)

So why did you do it?

Jeffrey [Katzenberg] got a great deal, absolutely, but so did we. Where we were a year ago isn't even close to where we are now. I'm not sure we'd be where we are now without the support and help that we've gotten [from Katzenberg] -- he's very much an entrepreneur. I don't know if I would have survived well in a big ecosystem like Disney, personally. Yet I have a big brother now who has my back and encourages me to step out and take chances.

Why do you think Disney paid that much for Maker?

Maker has massive reach. What Disney is going to do with Maker day to day, I don't know. But what's happening now on YouTube and digitally is not different than what happened 25 years ago or 30 years ago when cable started: Brands were born on the back of a new delivery system. And what's the biggest part of the Disney empire? It's ESPN. So I think that's what these big media companies are betting on. There's going to be a lot of losers -- not everybody is going to make it -- but there are going to be some really big brands built on the back of YouTube.

So in five years, does every major media company have an Awesomeness or a Maker?

I think you're going to keep hearing more and more stories about big media companies making more of the Maker-type deals. It's great for the space. It's sort of validation, I think, for what's happening. Money speaks more than anything.

What was your reason for acquiring Big Frame?

I respect them a lot because unlike most of the people in this YouTube space, they really are a talent-driven company [Beauty vlogger Amanda Steele and personality Tyler Oakley are signed to Big Frame], not a tech-driven company. They've always had a boutique approach to their business. We are a talent-driven company as well, and we're about making great content. In order to make great content, you have to have great talent.

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Many are critical of YouTube as a platform to build a long-term business. Is that fair?

If your only revenue is from YouTube, yes, it's impossible to build a business. But we never looked at it like it's our only revenue stream. You have to have many different revenue streams, just like any diversified media company. It's harder when you're an individual YouTuber and that's how you're making your living. YouTube does take a big percentage of the revenue [typically about 45 percent], but they also provide a big service. If you were starting a YouTube channel tomorrow without YouTube and you needed all those servers and streaming capability and stuff, you would spend probably way more money than the revenue share that you're paying them. So I appreciate the grumbling, but it doesn't apply to us. We think YouTube is an amazing place to scale an audience.

What was your big takeaway from April's NewFronts in New York?

I thought the YouTube event [where Robbins was on hand for the launch of the DreamWorksTV YouTube channel] was great. Their message was really clear and clean, and people walked out feeling really good about Google Preferred [the top 1 percent of YouTube's channels]. The overall feeling is that, no surprise, as time continues to go on, you're going to see more and more TV dollars shift to digital. That's exciting.

How does the proliferation of streaming devices, like Amazon's new Fire TV, affect your business?

It's great for anybody in the content business. I mean, a box is just a box if it doesn't have content in it. You're going to see us on a lot of those devices because I don't think people differentiate anymore between CBS, NBC, cable and Netflix -- it's all just programming.

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Do you use your kids as a target for what's cool?

I'd be broke if it wasn't for my children. I just watched my own kids' behavior. I had a lot of successful shows on television, and I was watching how my kids don't watch live TV. I was like, "Holy cow, this thing is really changing before my eyes." I saw what happened, too, in the record business. That business was big and booming, and then one day it was completely changed, completely disrupted by digital. I felt the same thing was going to happen to television. You want to stay in front of that and not get left behind.

Are you looking at Vine as the next big platform for discovering talent?

Vine has become what the comedy club used to be. My gut on this is that the next wave of comedians is coming off of Vine. I'm just seeing it with my own kids' behavior: They watch Vine videos and crack themselves up.

How did your start as a teen actor shape your view of the industry?

I like to say that I went to Warner Brothers University. When I was on Head of the Class with Dan Schneider [now an influential Nickelodeon producer], we realized early that this whole acting thing wasn't it. The guys that were having all the fun were the guys who actually got to make the stuff.

Would you act again?

People tease me and ask, "How come you don't put yourself in anything?" I threaten my kids that I'm going to make a comeback just to totally embarrass them.