YouTube’s new LA studios brings Silicon Valley dollars to Hollywood creators

Written by

It’s been a banner month for television on the Internet. Netflix shows “House of Cards” and “Arrested Development” got some major Emmy Award nominations. And the Writer’s Guild announced a change in their awards rules, letting online series compete with TV shows in some categories. Both are signs that online video is starting to pose some competition to the networks.

YouTube is part of that movement. The Google-owned video site has been pouring millions of dollars into original content. And it opened a studio in Playa Vista to help foster some of that new media talent.

A red Hughes 269A helicopter sits in front of YouTube Space LA, once an aircraft hangar owned by Howard Hughes.
A red Hughes 269A helicopter sits in front of YouTube Space LA, once an aircraft hangar owned by Howard Hughes. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

There’s a show called “Video Game High School” that, chances are, you haven’t seen. But about 35 million people have. It’s an action/comedy series featuring adorably nerdy teenage gamers. There are huge elaborate sets and big-budget special effects. But you won’t find it on NBC or CBS, or even USA or TNT. It’s only on YouTube.

And “Video Game High School” wasn’t made like a typical network or cable TV show either. The show was funded entirely through Kickstarter. The second season is being released this week, and a lot of the interiors were shot – for free – at YouTube Space LA.

“One thing that we believe is that our creators are very ambitious and resourceful,” said Liam Collins, head of YouTube Space LA. “And if we give them a few resources that may be just out of their reach, they’ll do great things.”

The company is shifting its focus from one-off videos to channels, encouraging video makers to develop loyal, engaged audiences. To help them do that, Google built this space, housed in a 41,000-square-foot aircraft hangar, once owned by Howard Hughes. A shiny red Hughes 269A helicopter now rests at the front entrance. Visitors entering the spacious lobby face a giant video wall.

The video wall in the lobby of YouTube Space LA. Photos by Avishay Artsy.

All this high-tech wizardry might scare off the typical YouTube’r who makes videos at home. That’s why the space hosts free workshops, tutorials and events like Comedy Week, Geek Week and Beauty Lab, that tap into the most popular genres of YouTube channels. As part of a competition called NextUp, YouTube brought in about three dozen content creators for a week of mentoring and professional development. Daniel Davis was one of them. He’s from Durham, North Carolina, and his channel Gigafide features do-it-yourself technology projects.

“It’s a wide range of things from computers, to just using stuff around your house and re-purposing it, kind of like the Maker movement,” Davis said.

Another NextUp participant is Genevieve Pasden, based in Chicago. She talks about parenting at her channel Mama Natural.

“It started out when I was pregnant with my son Griffin, and it was about demystifying natural childbirth and extended breastfeeding, but now it’s morphed into more of a health resource,” Pasden said. “So it’s just really, easy tips and tricks for healthy living, really simple changes you can make, and feel a lot better.”

Google reportedly invested $100 million last year in funding YouTube creators like these. What’s in it for the company? Potentially, a lot.

“The more we can enable them to grow their audiences and give them the tools to do that, the more successful they’re going to be. And when you’re a YouTube partner, you share a majority of the revenue that’s generated on your channel, so there’s an incentive there hopefully for them to grow their audiences, and YouTube benefits as well,” Collins said.

In other words – better quality content means more eyeballs means more ad revenue. YouTube reportedly takes 45 percent of ad revenue, with the channel’s owner pocketing the rest. And the company recently announced that viewers are spending twice as much time on the site as they did last year. It’s not to say YouTube doesn’t make big money off viral videos, like this one:

But the advent of channels means you can have big shows like “Video Game High School” as well as small, niche ones. One of the NextUp participants I met has a channel devoted entirely to making Japanese candy:

So while cable and network TV companies try to make shows millions of people will watch, YouTube can focus on developing lots of channels, drawing in relatively small audiences that eventually add up.