VidCon Matures as Hollywood Descends

Vidcon 2014 - H 15

Vidcon 2014 - H 15

The fifth annual online video conference runs July 23-25 in Anaheim.

When John and Hank Green hosted their first VidCon in 2010, the conference had just 1,400 attendees at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza. It was such a homegrown event that a Los Angeles Times story from that summer describes it as “less slick Hollywood and more of a cross between a comic book convention and summer camp.”

Five years later, that’s all changed. VidCon, which has since moved to the much larger Anaheim Convention Center, is expecting crowds of more than 20,000 YouTube stars, fans and industry types when it kicks off July 23. Over the course of the three-day event, panels about building brand campaigns and finding crossover success are interspersed with concerts, signings and film premieres. And, in the biggest sign that VidCon could turn into the next generation's Comic-Con, Hollywood is descending. Lionsgate, for example, has partnered with YouTube Network Fullscreen to sponsor a three-night film screening series that will include a sneak peek of the official trailer for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, which first debuted at Comic-Con.

VidCon’s growth is symbolic of a larger shift in online video. As the industry and its stars mature, the opportunities are becoming bigger and increasingly de-centralized. Facebook, Vimeo and scores of startups are competing for talent and their slice of growing online audiences all while YouTube, now 10 years old, remains the juggernaut when it comes to shortform content. “This year, YouTube entered middle age,” says Hank Green, one half of the YouTube channel VlogBrothers and VidCon co-founder. “It now understands what it does, its advantages and its resources — and the opportunities that those things make possible.”

Taken together, these factors make for a more complex ecosystem than even one year ago when the talk of VidCon was traditional media’s big move into the space with Disney's $500 million acquisition of Maker Studios. Here are the big questions weighing on the industry as it heads into the three-day annual celebration of all things online video.

Can YouTube stars find crossover success?
This year more than ever there is a focus at VidCon on YouTube creators’ off-YouTube endeavors. Wednesday night saw the premiere of Smosh: The Movie, starring Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla, creators of the Smosh YouTube channel; and Friday will be the “black carpet” event for thriller The Chosen, starring YouTuber Kian Lawley. Meanwhile, a number of creators will be promoting their recent book releases. “There are very real stars emerging from YouTube and Instagram and Vine, and those very real stars are doing movies and TV shows and selling books,” says Max Benator, co-founder of The Chosen producer Supergravity Pictures. “That’s because online video is not a subset of another business — it’s simply the next iteration of media consumption.” Few of these projects have reached the mainstream in a way that they can be called true crossover hits, but many companies are placing early bets that they will. AwesomenessTV and Fullscreen have both launched film divisions, and UTA helped to develop a publishing imprint, Keywords Press, for these digital stars’ books.

Is there too much noise?
There are now more creators on YouTube today than there ever were before, and tomorrow there will be even more. This much saturation has made it increasingly difficult for new stars to emerge and rise above the noise. “It’s very difficult for any independent creator to get noticed,” says Green. “It’s still happening, but YouTube is a mature content platform.” The solution? Move to a new platform. YouTube still rules the online video roost, but there are a lot more options for creators than ever before. Vessel is opening up new revenue streams through its three-day early access subscription service, Vimeo gives creators control over pricing through its Vimeo On Demand offering and Victorious is creating a suite of apps for top creators. That leads to the question…

Which platform is the right platform?
The multiplatform landscape is all the more evident at VidCon this year, where Vessel CEO Jason Kilar is sitting for an interview on the same day as a panel about generating revenue using Facebook video. “Platform diversity actually allows independent creators to build other paths to monetization and sustainability,” says Green. But as the ecosystem has broadened, few creators are looking at their options as a zero sum game. “People should go wherever they feel it’s going to best benefit their business,” says Nikki Phillippi, a lifestyle vlogger who runs a channel with more than 930,000 subscribers. “Being present on a lot of different platforms is nothing but good, but the key is whether you can do it well. You can spread yourself too thin.”

Will fans pay for content?
There’s no question that the thousands of fans who will descend on Anaheim this weekend are willing to pony up for books, merchandise and other products from their favorite creators. After all, it cost them $150 just to gain entry inside VidCon. But observers are still watching to see whether fans will pay for content they’ve traditionally watched for free. Vessel’s Kilar told The Hollywood Reporter last month that fans are paying the $2.99 for exclusive access to content on his platform, though he won’t disclose just how many paying customers Vessel has. Meanwhile, YouTube, which began to dabble in the subscription game with the trial launch of its Music Key offering, recently said it has 90 percent of its creators on board for a new video subscription service that is expected to launch by the end of the year. Peter Csathy, CEO of consulting firm Manatt Digital Media, says subscriptions are fueling more competition for the best talent among platforms. “Exclusive, original content drives so much interest,” he says. “For any distribution platform or new media company, you need talent that really matters and has engagement.”