WATCHING ME, WATCHING YOUTUBE
The week of July 19, 2015

Can Hollywood turn YouTubers into movie stars?

By Audra Schroeder

In the new film Bad Night, two high school girls on a field trip get into the wrong car and are mistaken for infamous art thieves. Thus begins the titular bad night, as the two friends dodge Russian villains, bumbling henchmen, and a badass Molly Ringwald.

It’s a familiar premise. Films like Superbad and The Hangover have modernized the night-gone-wrong comedy. But if you’re not up to speed on YouTube celebrities, you probably don’t recognize the stars, 19-year-old Jenn McAllister (JennXPenn) and 21-year-old Lauren Luthringshausen (Lauren Elizabeth). McAllister has more than 2 million subscribers on the site; Luthringshausen has more than 1 million.

Bad Night joins a crowded slate of films featuring YouTube personalities: Last year saw Camp Takota (with Grace Helbig, Hannah Hart, and Mamrie Hart), Shane Dawson’s Not Cool, and Expelled, which starred Vine sensation Cameron Dallas. This month, popular duo Smosh is set to release Smosh: The Movie; The Chosen debuts with YouTuber Kian Lawley; Laid in America, a road trip film with Caspar Lee and Olajide Olatunji, is slated for the fall; and The Outfield, starring Dallas and Nash Grier, is slated for 2016. YouTube is also funding an original series for Smosh, as well as Jesse Wellens and Jeana Smith’s PrankvsPrank, Joey Graceffa, and the Fine Bros.

This is a logical evolution. As the platform grows, more and more YouTubers are reaching the million-follower mark, a digital yardstick for success. Their fanbases can be leveraged for new projects, which means studios can minimize risk and expect a built-in audience. That’s good for the studios, which are, after all, businesses. And perhaps unsurprisingly, this bumper crop of YouTuber films doesn’t seem all that revolutionary: It’s still visibly male, white, and aimed at teens. In fact, Bad Night stands out in a sea of bro-list films, positioning two women as action-comedy stars in a summer crowded with male-led Hollywood action and superhero films.

“I think right now is kind of a turning point,” says McAllister. “There’s not too many female-driven comedies, and a lot of the time the focus is on male [YouTube] stars, I guess because the majority of our audience is female. But I think now there is this shifting point happening, and I’m really happy—and I know Lauren is too—to be part of it. I think there are a lot of funny females out there, and we’re finally getting a light for it.”

BADNIGHT_STILL_119_resizedBad Night

“I think it was important for us to do something that was not only based around friendship, but was female and girl-power-oriented,” adds Luthringshausen. “There’s a lot of fun romantic comedies, but there’s not a lot of girl YouTubers that do a lot of stuff together, especially in our demographic, so it was really important for us to do some girl-power, female-comedy leads and make it about friendship and two girls just being funny and goofy and saving the day.”

Yes, it’s an action-comedy starring two women, about friendship and saving the day. It’s also a film anchored with mainstream stars, perhaps indicating that studios aren’t certain YouTubers can quite carry a film on their own just yet. And it brings up a bigger question, seeing these online stars next to their Hollywood counterparts: If YouTube fame is often based on feelings of intimacy and authenticity—no matter how much you think you “know” a movie star, it’s not the same kind of “knowing” as seeing someone speaking seemingly right to you on their YouTube channel—what happens when personalities from one platform try to cross over to the other?

Fans have attached themselves to these stars because YouTube provides what feels like an authentic relationship. But when YouTubers start appearing in movies, can that feeling last?

Hedging bets

Luthringshausen has been on YouTube since 2011, joining its beauty vlogging wing when she was “just bored in high school.” But McAllister has been a part of the community since she was 12—seven years ago. In that time, she’s gone from making short films about sinister snowmen to landing a book deal and making a feature film. When she started, she says the most-subscribed YouTuber didn’t even have a million followers. But now that YouTubers are being taken more seriously as talent with an audience, it’s opened up how they can wield that influence.

“I think a lot of people on YouTube are now realizing that they have this platform,” Luthringshausen says. “It allows creators who started in one place to really expand other parts of their personalities or things they’re interested in. And that’s why it’s so important that brands and casting and other traditional media are taking us more seriously.”

No matter how much you think you “know” a movie star, it’s not the same kind of “knowing” as seeing someone speaking seemingly right to you on their YouTube channel.

One company eager to take them seriously is GRB Entertainment, distributor for reality TV franchises like Intervention. Bad Night is its first feature film, and in the last 12 months, it’s zoomed in on digital platforms like YouTube and “traditional ways for [YouTube stars] to play in the TV space,” says Mitch Federer, a producer on the film and GRB’s senior legal and business affairs counsel. About a year ago, GRB’s founder, Gary Benz, was eyeing the digital sphere, but when the company was offered international distribution for Camp Takota—a film starring the holy YouTube trinity of Grace Helbig, Mamrie Hart, and Hannah Hart—Federer says Benz got to the point: “We should be doing this game ourselves.”

Federer adds that GRB now has four YouTube-centric titles on the calendar for 2016, with a “range of genres.” They’ll follow a blueprint: “The leads will be the YouTube stars,” Federer says. “And similar to Bad Night, we’ll be populating the rest of the world of the film with traditional and recognizable film and TV actors,” just as McAllister and Luthringshausen join Molly Ringwald, June Diane Raphael, Matt Walsh, Casey Wilson, and Adam Pally.

Federer says that bridge between mainstream and YouTube is an important part of the experiment. “I think it legitimizes a lot of what the YouTube talent is doing,” he says, “and also I think it elevates the acting in the movie. Lauren and Jenn did a phenomenal job and we were so happy with their performance, and I think part of the reason we wanted to do traditional actors as well is: If you’ve never heard of Lauren and Jenn, and you’ve never heard of YouTube, you’re going to find this to be a really fun and enjoyable movie.” Call it maximizing your potential audience—or hedging your bets.

What about the story? How do you translate two vloggers to the big screen while preserving their appeal? Federer says the concept for Bad Night was “two sentences on a page,” which McAllister and Luthringshausen helped tweak. The story of Bad Night came “from what Lauren and Jenn wanted to make as a movie,” he says, and what their fans wanted to see.

Bad Night producer A.J. Tesler initially identified McAllister and Luthringshausen as YouTube talent that could carry a movie. “I built the entire process for Bad Night and it was all based on developing the story around Jenn and Lauren,” he says. “Daniel Kinno, the writer, wrote characters in their voice, and the directors gave them freedom to improvise so we knew that this was something that was going to feel natural for them and as a result they were going to be good at.

“Working with YouTubers is different than working with traditional talent,” Tesler continues. “YouTubers are accustomed to having complete creative control over every single aspect of their channels. Making a movie is in many ways the exact opposite, and everyone has to resign themselves to trusting their collaborators and the process. If Lauren and Jenn weren’t willing to do that, this never would have worked out.”

Camp Takota’s Chris and Nick Riedell were brought on as directors, working with writer Daniel Kinno to whittle down ideas to four main concepts. McAllister and Luthringshausen are credited as producers on the film, but McAllister says that they both “had a lot of creative say on the project,” and that Bad Night’s initial concept came from “a couple of stories based on our actual lives, but obviously [there was this] whole action [concept] as well.”

The brothers say they weren’t familiar with the YouTubers’ work. “That’s kind of the crazy thing about YouTube right now,” Chris says. “There’s so many stars that are continually rising and growing that have massive fanbases or are on the cusp of having massive fanbases, and all of a sudden you find out about them and they’ve got a good 2 to 3 million-strong fanbase. There’s always someone new, and I think that’s sort of the excitement and energy behind YouTube as a platform.”

Camp Takota was a promising moment for YouTube-led films in that it positioned three women as leads. While digital sales figures aren’t released like box office figures, George Strompolos, the CEO of multichannel network Fullscreen, says that last year “hundreds of thousands of people” purchased Camp Takota. (Helbig attempted a crossover to TV earlier this year with E!’s The Grace Helbig Show, but ratings weren’t great.) The Riedell brothers agree the film tested the waters.

“Working with YouTubers is different than working with traditional talent. YouTubers are accustomed to having complete creative control over every single aspect of their channels.”

“The crossover with Camp Takota was kind of an unknown, really,” Nick says. “We didn’t know if fans would show up to purchase a film that had nothing to do with their online persona. But like Chris says, the fans are really great because they’re so invested in the personalities that they want to see them in environments that are not online; they actually enjoy seeing them play characters.”

But as the number of followers grow, stars have to be careful that they’re not alienating dedicated fans with the wrong projects. McAllister isn’t too worried. “I don’t think there’s much of a gamble,” she says. “Our audience is really, really supportive of everything that we’re doing and everything we aspire to do. A lot of them have been around for a really long time and know our aspirations and goals and stuff. So I think a lot of people are excited to see us make this jump onto a different platform.”

“I think it’s one of those things where one day we’ll look back and be like, ‘Remember when we all started moving into a traditional space?’” Luthringshausen adds. “YouTube isn’t really quite understood yet, but in a few years, it’ll just be like, ‘Oh, she has a YouTube channel and she’s in this movie. It’s just another thing to add to a résumé, almost. I think it’s interesting being part of the first group of people really doing it.”

A new star factory

Smosh, the duo of Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla, is a unique case study. They got in on the ground floor when YouTube started in 2005 and have since amassed an astounding 20 million subscribers on their main YouTube channel and 4 million on their second, and added a branded channel for gaming, an animated series, and channels for videos dubbed in French and Spanish. They’ve also released four albums, a mobile game, an app, and are readying a webseries about working in a theme restaurant. Oh, and they’re wax figures.

Smosh is one of the most influential commodities on YouTube. Their shared wealth hasn’t been disclosed publicly, but Forbes estimated it at $10 million in 2013. And they don’t simply make money: Last summer, an oft-cited Variety survey asked 1,500 Americans ages 13-18 about 10 traditional celebrities and 10 YouTube stars, and gauged their influence. Smosh ranked No. 1, followed by the Fine Bros. and PewDiePie. Speaking to Variety about the survey, brand strategist Jeetendr Sehdev echoed a familiar caution: “If YouTube stars are swallowed by Hollywood, they are in danger of becoming less authentic versions of themselves, and teenagers will be able to pick up on that. That could take away the one thing that makes YouTube stars so appealing.”

Like McAllister and Luthringshausen, Hecox and Padilla say they aren’t concerned with the loss of authenticity or the gamble of crossing platforms. “We haven’t found any risk in it,” Padilla says. “People who watch our stuff have been almost begging for us to do a movie for many years. Probably for like eight years.”

For context, Smosh says they think their fanbase “started out 60-40, girls to guys,” Padilla says. “As the years went on, it’s actually flipped, I think.”

“So yeah, 60 percent guys at this point, 40 percent girls,” Hecox added. “I’d say it’s probably mostly teens as the highest demographic.” Smosh: The Movie is certainly eyeing that teen demographic, and yet a common refrain emerges: They say they “specifically wrote it so that people don’t have to know who we are,” which would limit their audience.

But their film is highly meta: After Padilla discovers an embarrassing video of himself on YouTube—which of course will hurt his chances with his crush at their upcoming high school reunion—he and Hecox embark on a mission to remove the video by journeying inside YouTube. Platform brands like Helbig and Jenna Marbles star alongside Michael Ian Black, who plays “Steve YouTube.” Taking the high school time-travel concept one step further, the film was directed by Alex Winter (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Deep Web).

AwesomenessTV, the multichannel network pushing the Smosh film, is particularly fired up this year: It has eight to 10 films in various states of production and has put its weight behind the upcoming Janoskians: Untold and Untrue, a mockumentary about the Australian comedy group; Shovel Buddies, another film starring Kian Lawley and Disney Channel star Bella Thorne; and last December’s Expelled—which reached the top of iTunes the day after its release, unseating Guardians of the Galaxy.

“YouTube isn’t really quite understood yet, but in a few years, it’ll just be like, ‘Oh, she has a YouTube channel and she’s in this movie. It’s just another thing to add to a résumé, almost.”

“What it takes most studios three or four years to do we did in three or four months,” T.J. Marchetti, AwesomenessTV’s chief marketing officer, says of Expelled’s production schedule. “And so Expelled was really, in the last 12 months, the film that we took to market that really changed the landscape of not only how you produce films of this nature for a specific demographic today, but also for us internally, how we were going to invest in developing a talent slate as a line of business. … I think the neat thing about Expelled was, the studios never saw it coming.”

Marchetti says AwesomenessTV doesn’t reveal revenue numbers for specific films but that Expelled did “very well.” He’s hoping to replicate that success with Smosh: The Movie.

“There’s a certain nostalgia that comes with Smosh,” Marchetti says. “Some of the younger millennials that kind of grew up with Smosh that may not watch them as much currently, I think the movie’s really going to appeal to them. That said, you also have the demo of that 13 to 17-year-old now that’s very much watching Smosh on a daily or weekly basis that we can activate as well.”

“I think the Expelled film was a little more squarely teen, and this one has teen-plus.”

Leaping to the big screen

Teens are the demo for many of these new titles, but there’s not a lot of diversity in content just yet. Shane Dawson’s film was criticized for its “ethnic stereotypes, scatological humor, profane language and characters who are not so much caricatures as cartoons.” Laid in America is essentially an update on the road-trip movie, hinged on two men’s quest to get laid. And with the exception of Laid in America’s Olajide Olatunji, the anchors of these films are mainly white.

Does tethering these films to mainstream stars signal that they can’t run on YouTube influence alone? Perhaps, but it’s not clear just yet that the talent is actively trying to make the jump into the mainstream. Padilla and Hecox say they want to stay on YouTube and find ways to grow from the platform; McAllister and Luthringshausen still offer their fans weekly videos.

Smosh is a proven product, and that’s ultimately what studios are looking for in this star-factory transition. McAllister and Luthringshausen are more of an experiment. Bad Night is betting on their shared needle-moving power—and their relatable vibe—to engage female viewers, and pick up new fans too. But the market for YouTube talent is still experimental.

“Successful YouTubers have a true talent to engage millions of people,” Tesler says. “And mainstream media will call more and more now that people are starting to understand it. But not all YouTubers will answer those calls. For many of them, the money, the time commitment, and the creative control they already get through their own channels is too much to pass up.”

McAllister and Luthringshausen aren’t sure how people will react, but perhaps their visibility will open up more roles for other female YouTubers.

“It was really important for us to take the leap and show other girls that it’s more powerful to come together and make people laugh,” Luthringshausen says. “And support each other and bring each other up.”

Illustration by Tiffany Pai