YouTube takes a hand in upload upgrade

The film set was professional, even if the actors kept messing up the scene by laughing at the star, who was flailing in front of a green screen, pretending to be eaten alive. “We need it clean,” the sound man shouted. They shot it yet again, the actors holding back their hysterics until the cameras were off.

The scene, an episode of a sketch comedy show called ‘AsKassem,’ was destined not for theatres or TV, but for YouTube. But with the green screen, film crew, actors and expensive cameras and lights, it went far beyond the typical one-man YouTube videos filmed in a basement with a webcam.

It was produced by Maker Studios, one of several production houses that have sprung up to help create and distribute videos for the Web. Financed by venture capitalists and grants from Google’s YouTube, these studios are trying to play the same role for the online video service that United Artists did almost a century ago for movies or MTV did for television in the 1980s.

“These are new-generation studios, folks that are growing up from the basement who are choosing to collaborate and form these networks,” said Hunter Walk, head of product management at YouTube, which is owned by Google. “In many ways they are like the first cable stations 30 years ago.” Maker Studios’ videos, for instance, have almost as many daily viewers as Nickelodeon.

It is a major shift in Google’s strategy for YouTube. Google is taking a much greater role in aiding the creation of original content for the site by nurturing these studios because betting on professional content from established movie and TV studios has not panned out. YouTube sorely needs more high-quality content to compete with video-streaming services like Netflix and Hulu for both viewers and advertisers.

“YouTube counts for the largest share of people’s home video-watching, but once people start watching that professional content on Hulu or Netflix, it quickly expands to become the predominant viewing and takes time away from YouTube,” said James L McQuivey, a digital media analyst at Forrester Research.

Some YouTube video creators have been making money, in some cases lots of it, for a couple years. But as the site has exploded – 35 hours of video are now uploaded every minute, according to YouTube – it can be difficult for video creators to build regularly viewed channels, not just one-hit viral wonders.

The start-up production companies – including Maker, Machinima, Mahalo, Vuguru and Next New Networks, which YouTube recently bought – try to help them. The studios are near but still outside the boundaries of Hollywood, both geographically and in the work they do.

They generally pluck talented video creators and help them make videos by providing the costumes, cameras and paychecks needed to make a more professional-looking video. They help build viewership with strategies like linking to their videos from other popular ones in the same network. YouTube sells ads and shares the revenue with the companies and creators.

Kassem Gharaibeh, the creator of ‘AsKassem,’ was working as at a Best Buy and doing stand-up on the weekends to crowds of 15 people at Chinese restaurants when he met the founders of Maker Studios. They paid him $1,000 a month, enough to pay his rent so he could quit his job and devote his time to posting videos more than once every three weeks.

Two of Maker’s founders and well-known actors, Lisa Donovan and Shay Butler, known on YouTube as LisaNova and ShayCarl, appeared in his videos, introducing him to their audience. He gained access to editors matter of time before long-form videos and episodic dramas appear online, video producers say. If Google TV takes off and people watch YouTube on their television screens, they could attract a much larger audience.

“I think you’re going to see it happening any minute,” said Allen DeBevoise, chief executive of Machinima, a network of video-game videos. “That stuff’s expensive, but we’re getting there because advertisers are moving to online video.”

Machinima is negotiating with a Hollywood TV studio to buy ‘Bite Me,’ a series about a zombie outbreak in Los Angeles that Machinima developed last year. Last month, Shangri-La Entertainment uploaded a feature film made for the Web, ‘Girl walks into a bar,’ starring Danny DeVito and Rosario Dawson and sponsored by Lexus. The studio likes to point out that if the number of views it received in the first two days were movie tickets, the show would have made $2.6 million at the box office.

New kind of content

“We’ve gotten more and more sure over time that there are good economic reasons that the content distributed through cable is going to continue getting distributed that way,” said Salar Kamangar, senior vice president at YouTube. “But we have more and more reason to see the new kind of content for the Web is increasingly attracting viewers’ minutes, so we’re focusing on those.”

YouTube is nurturing them with advertising revenue, coaching on copyright laws and grants, like the $100,000 one it gave to Maker. It has hired people it calls strategic partner managers, whose job is to be on call for the studios, offering advice many times a day on things like uploading problems.

By developing such tight-knit relationships with the studios, YouTube is treading in risky territory. “The second they go into the content business, their very valuable franchise of advertising, their ad network and their YouTube platform will come under attack, because why would anybody support somebody who competes with them?” said Jason Calacanis, founder of Mahalo, which makes videos teaching subjects from math to guitar playing and cooking.

Walk said YouTube is hands-off in the creation of videos, and considers itself “not a media company but a media catalyst.” But when YouTube acquired Next New Networks, it overnight became a smalltime video creator.

“It’s not at all a stretch to say they’ll get into production – not owning the producers, but investing,” McQuivey said of Google. “If Google does that, it gives these guys a shot at something they could never get in Hollywood, and it’s the new model for producers.”

The studios are already a welcome home for the masses of struggling actors, writers and directors who show up in Hollywood hoping for work. But though their videos often catch Hollywood’s attention, most of them, like Gharaibeh, say that’s no longer what they want.

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