CULVER CITY, California – 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 startup 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.
The videos these studios produce are mainly sketch comedy, how-to lessons and video-game tutorials. But it is only a 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.
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.
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 say that’s no longer what they want.
Lisa Donovan, a founder of Maker Studios, became hugely popular on YouTube as LisaNova with clips like her impersonation of Sarah Palin. She uploaded her Palin video more than a week before Tina Fey did her impersonation on “Saturday Night Live,” proof to her that the layers of decision-makers at professional studios slow things down. “We spend a lot more time making stuff than talking about it,” she said.
She prefers to stay on the Web rather than get on television. “This feels like this is the future,” she said. “Trying to get on TV would be going backwards in my mind. It’s a waste of time.”