Is it really possible?
Justin Halpern made a move from Twitter to network television when his rants, entitled “Shit My Dad Says”, were picked up as a TV series.
According to a recent report out of Japan, five out of the top ten Japanese best sellers in 2007 were novels written by texting on a cell phone.
“The Last Messages”, a hit novel in Finland, is composed exclusively of roughly 1,000 text messages.
Tila Tequila, a Vietnamese-French from Singapore, has a MySpace page with a quarter of a billion hits. She moved from MySpace to magazines, to reality TV shows, to video games, and finally landed on an MTV reality show called “A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila”.
Michael Buckley from the web TV show “What the Buck” is one of very few examples of someone who moved from broadcast TV to the internet, and then to financial success and stardom.
The original plan of many bloggers, website administrators, and YouTube channel owners was to start out producing lots of free content, writing stories, and making videos online, build up an online following, and then cash in on it.
Five years into YouTube and a bit longer into first, MySpace, and now Facebook, a lot of people have invested countless hours, and often a lot of money, on their blog, or space, or channel. And now they want to know, “Where’s the money?”
To list the people who are stuck in the nearly-famous category of “Dude, you’re practically a celebrity” would be too long. So, first, let’s take a look at some success stories.
The first success that I ever heard of was a TV show called, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” which started on MySpace. When the boys finally got a call from a TV network interested in the show, the network asked them what it cost to produce an episode. The hosts had to make up a number on the spot because they had shot it with their mom’s video camera and a budget of zero. The network gave them more money than they had ever seen before and asked them to produce a full season of the show.
James Rolfe, AKA “The Angry Video Game Nerd”, started producing short videos doing comical reviews of old video games. Like “Always Sunny,” James started in 2004, before YouTube even came into existence. He originally posted on another sharing site and later moved to YouTube in 2006. Some of his earliest money-making products were DVDs of his previously released episodes. Other products included hats and I think even T-shirts. According to Wikipedia, “After his fourth online review on YouTube, ScrewAttack invited him to have his own section on their website. He has since been employed by MTV Networks’ GameTrailers.com.”
“On August 8, 2007, James was featured on the nationally syndicated radio show Opie and Anthony. Since then, additional videos have been played occasionally on the show.” Rolfe went on to host a show on Opie and Anthony’s XM Satellite Radio (now Sirius/XM) channel for their “Saturday Night Virus” block of shows.
The Angry Video Game Nerd has appeared on various TV shows on Spike TV, and he has been employed by Spike TV, doing reviews and location spots for his Cinemassacre website.
The first examples, “Tila Tequila”, “Always Sunny”, and “Angry Video Game Nerd” followed the path exactly, moving from free media to paid media. But the next two examples, Kevjumba and Ryan Higa are true Generation Y success stories, both of whom followed a path no one had anticipated in 2006, when YouTube started.
Ryan Higa, known as Nigahiga, has the single most-subscribed YouTube channel of all time. He has over 2,000,000 subscribers for his channel, where he does funny skits and song parodies. He was 16 when he started, and is 19 now. A couple of years ago, YouTube asked Ryan to become an ad partner, and he collects money from Adsense and other pay-per-click advertising. No one knows, at this point, how much he is actually earning, in total. But an independent researcher estimated that from simple pay-per-click advertising, he is earning $15,000 per month. In addition to this money, Ryan sells products. He also gets direct advertising revenue and has signed a three-movie deal with movie producer Derek Zemrak. He has also been invited to appear on “The Tyra Banks Show”.
Kevin Wu, AKA Kev Jumba, is just 20 years old. His YouTube channel has over a million subscribers and he is the number one in his category of comedy. It is estimated that just his pay-per-click advertising alone yields him well over $10,000 per month. He recently made the move from the tiny screen to the TV screen, when he was granted a place on “The Amazing Race.” He has also appeared on other TV shows: The CW Television Network’s Online Nation and Hooking Up from HBOLabs (the online arm of HBO).
As someone who is trying to make it in new media, and who is trying to make the jump from new media to the big screen and TV, the income numbers and the success of people like Kevjumba and Ryan Higa are depressing. My most popular video only has 55,000 hits. And my YouTube channel only has a bit over 1,400 subscribers. I subscribe to Ryan Higa’s twitter. I have 72 followers. Ryan has over a quarter million.
These are examples of the leading E-lebrities. Let’s put their numbers in perspective, compared to “real” celebrities.
The Final episode of Seinfeld had 76 million viewers, which is a site more than the two million that Ryan has. The “Friends” were each being paid a million dollars an episode for their final several seasons. The money that Kev and Ryan earn for a year from all sources is probably less than what a Friend earned per episode. And remember “Friends” did 234 episodes. That means a minimum of 234 pay checks, per Friend, not counting any residuals or merchandising rights that they may have negotiated.
Before I started doing my YouTube show, Martial Arts Odyssey, I approached every TV company I worked with to see if they would produce it or make a deal with me where we would share revenues. Every time I was on a TV show, I would pitch Martial Arts Odyssey to the highest person I could find. And none of them were interested. At the time, I thought they were nuts. I figured that with a budget of $5,000 an episode we could probably generate $10,000 a month, for years. The numbers made sense to me. But then I began to understand real TV. Some of the shows I worked on had budgets of $60,000 an episode, but they generated millions in revenues. And of course, there were reruns, syndication, residuals, and merchandizing. The reason big TV didn’t get too involved with the internet, in the beginning, was because the money just wasn’t there.
If you read between the lines with James Rolf, Kev Jumba or Ryan Higa, it seems that TV networks are forward thinking enough to get into internet TV, but they are smart enough not to spend millions on it. They are making deals for thousands or tens of thousands of dollars and are generous with giving away percentages of future income in lieu of upfront cash.
Next, the fame factor of the internet.
Ryan and Kevin are E-lebrities. At a convention for new media, people ask for their autographs, but they could probably walk down most streets and not be recognized. Ryan Higa attends college in Las Vegas, where he majors in film. In a recent interview, he said that none of the students in his film class had heard of him. That’s not the case with Jerry Seinfeld. Even Joey, the Friend who has had the worst career after the show ended, probably gets mauled every time he steps out of the house.
For myself, in the last year or so, I have noticed a huge increase in people recognizing me. Nearly all of the gyms I have shot Martial Arts Odyssey in, people recognized me when I showed up. Or, when I was pitching them, asking if I could film, they stopped me and said, “We know who you are.”
I walked into a gym in the Philippines, where the manager was reading a Black Belt Magazine, with my picture in it. In Thailand, I had a Russian guy come up to me who couldn’t speak more than ten words of English, and say, “You … video … Odyssey … good.” I had people from Sweden and from Iran ask for my autograph. And I got recognized on the alley next to my house in Saigon. But, with very few exceptions, I was only recognized in context. I was generally in a gym or talking to a gym about filming. In the incident on my street, we were talking about martial arts and suddenly, a Polish guy said, “You are the guy from YouTube.” Once in Phnom Penh, an Italian Rastafarian, who I didn’t know, approached me, speaking Italian, asking about Kru Bah, the monk I learned Muay Thai from in Thailand. When I asked how he knew who I was, he said he had read about me in an in-flight magazine. When I asked how he knew I spoke Italian, he said it was in my bio info.
But these events happen to me once in a while. I’m sure it happens to Kevin and Ryan a hundred times more often, but the point is, being an E-lebrity is almost a niche market. You are known by young people who spend a lot of time online.
As for me, or you, making it financially from being an E-lebrity, here are some thoughts.
First off, it may already be too late. All of the people mentioned in this story, joined YouTube almost as soon as it was launched, when there was a lot less competition for viewership.
Next, Ryan Higa and Kevjumba and about 8 of the 10 highest earning internet people are Asian-Americans, who started in high school. There have been a lot of articles recently saying that new media is driven by or favored by Asian-Americans. They are even saying that Asian-American’s success online is revenge for Hollywood passing them over for so many years.
Another point, if you are in high school when you start, you automatically get your whole high school. Then those kids tell other kids at other schools. High school kids probably spend more time on line than anyone else and are probably more actively engaged in social networking with kids from other schools, sharing videos and other entertainment with each other.
When I worked on Wall Street, back when the internet was new, we were told that we shouldn’t target high school kids for marketing because they didn’t have money. And hitting them online was problematic because they didn’t have credit cards, so they couldn’t buy anything. But neither Ryan nor Kevjumba were trying to make the bulk of their money from selling anything to their fan base. They earned their initial money from pay-per-click advertising. That advertising paid, whether the person who clicked actually had money to buy anything or not. So, they didn’t actually need to earn money from their fan base.
My latest project has been a 3D martial arts TV show, called Brooklyn Monk in 3D. It is a pay-per-download show. It would be nice if the show got wildly popular and had five million views. But another rule of the internet seems to be, as soon as you charge money, even if it is a dollar, you loose more than ninety-nine percent of your fan base. So, the money still seems to be in pay-per-click advertising, but you need millions of hits to make any real money.
Perhaps the unwitting YouTube success of Jack Rebney, “The Angriest Man in the World” is more indicative of the wealth and fame that E-lebrity can bring you. Long before YouTube even existed, Jack Rebney was hired as an actor, in an industrial video, demonstrating the benefits and features of a new style RV. While shooting the commercial, Jack encountered every imaginable problem, from broken equipment, to a swarm of bees. He lost his cool to such a point that he was cursing and screaming up a storm. The film crew saved all of these “bloopers” and circulated them around to their friends. Eventually, YouTube came along and the video appeared on YouTube, quickly becoming one of the funniest and most watched videos of all time. Jack knew nothing of the cult celebrity status he had achieved. Recently, an independent filmmaker named Ben Steinbauer tracked Jack down and told him that he was famous. Mr. Steinbauer then made the full length documentary film, “Winnebago Man” about Jack Rebney.
Ben and Jack appeared on Jay Leno to talk about the movie and the story behind it. Jay Leno asked Jack if he got rich off of the video and he said words to the effect of, (paraphrase) “It doesn’t work like that anymore. You just get famous. But there is no money.”
I guess what I am saying is, I hope someday, even if I don’t make money from the internet, I can achieve the goal of being the Angriest Man in the World.