YouTube Fans Look Beyond Hollywood-ization of VidCon

Vidcon Exterior - H 2015
AP Images

Vidcon Exterior - H 2015

"It's an organized chaos," says one attendee about the online video industry's biggest fan event.

It's a hot Friday afternoon as a flash mob dressed in unicorn onesies descends on the courtyard outside the Anaheim Convention Center, causing the teens and tweens milling about to pull out their phones to snap pictures. Meanwhile, no one bats an eye at a young man narrating excitedly to a GoPro perched above him on a selfie stick.

A merchandise booth in the convention center's Expo Hall is selling a shirt that reads "Internet Killed Television." And if the sold out signs are any indication, that statement could soon become reality. This is the sixth annual VidCon, a YouTube convention that has drawn some 18,000 fans to Anaheim, California for three days devoted to online video stars.

Fans, creators and industry types alike walk the show floor, but teens make up the majority of the attendees, each having purchased a $150 pass to partake in the festivities that officially began Thursday, July 23. "It’s an organized chaos," summarizes one girl as she waits in line for an informal meet-and-greet in the hall.

Hollywood has long viewed YouTube, which turned 10 earlier this year, as an alternative means of entertainment, a place where low-budget vlogs can attract niche fandoms. But in recent years, the entertainment industry has come to recognize YouTube (and other emerging platforms like Vine) as a breeding ground for talent. Take comedienne Grace Helbig, whose quirky (and at times awkward) humor landed her a gig as host of E! Network’s The Grace Helbig Show, or top Viner Andrew Bachelor, who has booked a number of recurring television gigs and is signed on to star in a film opposite Martin Lawrence

But even as online creators increasingly look to Hollywood to grow their influence, they are already stars at VidCon, where it's practically impossible for one of them to step foot into the convention center without causing pandemonium. Vlogger Lauren Elizabeth Luthringshausen, for example, was driving into the event when her car swarmed by fans. "I felt like Justin Bieber for maybe 15 seconds," she says with a laugh. The passionate fans are the reason that this year VidCon organizers — led by founders John Green and Hank Green — arranged to have a select number of featured creators transported discreetly from one appearance to the next through alleyways, back entrances and freight elevators.

The added level of security has impacted chance encounters with top YouTubers, once a staple of VidCon. Many fans attend the event in the hope of meeting their favorite creators and for its first several years, that was possible — though "meeting" could describe anything from taking a blurry selfie in a crowd of 50 people to a more formal meet-and-greet. These days, accessibility to talent varies, with some high-profile creators like Connor Franta and GloZell Green posing with fans in high-security photo ops and smaller creators such as gamer Meghan Camarena and beauty guru Kandee Johnson hosting their own impromptu fan meet-and-greets in the convention center hallways. 

More than anything, VidCon represents the strength of the relationship that legions of fans have cultivated with their favorite creators over the years. Since the conference began in 2010, attendance rates have skyrocketed from 1,400 to more than 20,000 this year. Nineteen-year-old Selina Gonzalez, who is saving seats for beauty vlogger Louise Pentland's on-stage performance, explains that it's the connection to these YouTubers that drew her and her sister Josephine Gonzalez to the event. "We fell in love with the SacconeJolys — that's our YouTube family," she says of the Irish couple who vlog about their growing London-based family. "They’re not afraid to hide stuff from YouTube — they show a good amount of their daily life. They also show parts of England we’ve never seen.”

After each of the three signings Gonzalez and her sister attended, security removed and collected their wristbands — a new security precaution implemented this year — to prevent a re-sell market from emerging. During the 2014 VidCon, the organizers quickly realized their mistake in allowing fans to line up for creator meet-and-greets: In an unprecedented phenomenon, fans were lining up eight to 12 hours in advance, as early as 4 a.m. This year, the wristbands give fans access to lines only an hour ahead of their scheduled meeting time. 

This new lottery wristband system is a sign that VidCon, much like the online video industry it celebrates, is growing up. Despite larger crowds this year, the event had a more pedestrian atmosphere compared to the previous year’s hysteria. And while one-on-one time with creators might have been hard to come by, there was no shortage of big entertainment brands inviting fans to their events or into their booths. Lionsgate sponsored a nightly movie screening and Jimmy Kimmel Live hosted a booth.

Many describe the change as "bittersweet," since it takes away from the personal connection between creator and fan. "If you’re only here for the signings, you’re in the wrong place," warned one teen, who declined to give her name. It’s true: VidCon is more than your typical fan event. Its roots are in bringing together a widespread industry — one where early creators worked primarily from their bedrooms — for a weekend of education, socializing and fan interactions. And many fans are also themselves aspiring creators. "We have expanded our network through VidCon," Josephine Gonzalez, 24, says.

With 300 hours of video being uploaded to YouTube every minute, that network is expanding and growing more saturated, with creators trying to find their big break on online platforms. As the industry matures and gains traction in mainstream media, members of the online video community caution against letting Hollywood take control. "We're seeing the tip of the iceberg," says Dominic Smales, founder of management firm Gleam Futures. "I think the key to keeping successful is to remember why the industry is successful and not try to change it into something that already exists. I think the danger is Hollywood trying to turn this industry into what it knows already."

July 29, 11:11 p.m. This story was updated to reflect that that the SacconeJolys live in London. THR regrets the error.