Just before 8:00 A.M. in Anaheim, California, hundreds of teens are lined up, waiting. The teens are here, earlier than any teen should be up, to see Tyler Oakley, a YouTube star who has become one of the most recognizable faces of the digital video world. He has around 7.2 million YouTube subscribers, a 19-city international tour and a book deal.
Security guards fling open the door to Vidcon, the yearly celebration of Internet celebrity that has become a harbinger of changes coming to the entire media industry. Now in its sixth year, the convention brings together the entire Internet celebrity ecosystem together for a few days of panels, selfies and hugging — lots of hugging.
As Oakley awaits, the teens lead a polite stampede. Some break into an open trot but are harangued by security guards who admonish “no running.” They comply, technically, but seem to be moving just as fast. Olympic power walking could find some future talent here.
All of this adoration, this giddy joy in the presence of Internet celebrity, comes at a price. Underlying the booths and stars at the convention center is a miniature economy: endorsements, book deals, recording contracts. Vidcon might have started as a fun meet-and-great for fans, but the growth of the industry has led to an influx of money behind the scenes that suits Hollywood more than it does Anaheim.
The Internet celebrity phenomenon has its roots on YouTube, which remains the dominant platform at Vidcon. Long before creators like PewDiePie were making $7 million per year, the first YouTube stars were making just a little money off ads that ran alongside their videos. Some creators banded together to create the first “multi-channel networks” (MCNs), companies that grew to include thousands of stars and enjoy big acquisitions from major media companies.
Serious money started flowing after YouTube provided an influx of cash into the nascent MCNs scene. Lloyd Ahlquist, one half of the popular YouTube duo behind “Epic Rap Battles of History,” said that this money helped jumpstart the scene.
“You have to give credit to YouTube to have the vision to be like ‘if we distribute some money, it will come back to us,'” Ahlquist said.
And come back it has. By fomenting its most popular creators, YouTube ended up giving birth to some of the biggest online celebrities and attracting major brand dollars that sought to advertise to the young, fervent fan bases that emerged. Sensing the shift, big media companies began to invest in and buy MCNs. The biggest deal came in March 2014, when Disney bought Maker Studios in an acquisition that could eventually be worth around $1 billion.
This mix of investment capital and ad dollars — something that wasn’t around as recently as a few years ago — has dramatically changed the industry. Andrew Graham, a senior talent manager at Big Frame, a talent management firm that specializes in online stars, said that YouTubers that might have once just wandered Vidcon with friends now have a big entourage.
“All of them have attorneys. They all have business managers. They all have publicists,” he said.
Ad dollars are nice, but there’s plenty more money out there. While previous years has been about figuring out a way to monetize the channels that stars have developed on YouTube, Graham noted that this year there is a major push into traditional media. The influx of entertainment industry professionals has then drawn in film financiers, publishing agents and record label executives who now wander Vidcon, looking to tap these new stars, Graham said.
“Last year was all about advertisers, this year is all about owned and operated properties that are traditional media,” he said.
There are three floors to the Anaheim Convention Center and they do a relatively good job of showing the strata of the industry. The bottom floor is for the kids, with a convention hall full of stages and booths and personalities. This is where much of the screaming takes place that Vidcon has become known for. Community badges for this cost a cool $150. Vidcon sold 14,287 of them this year. It sold out weeks in advance.
The second floor is for the creators. Here is where people who aspire to learn more about the craft of making content — almost entirely video — and amassing fans. It’s an aspirational setting. One thing that’s hard not to notice — the bottom floor is primarily female, but skews male the higher you get.
The top floor is for the industry. That’s where people like YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki are giving keynotes and the big names are hobnobbing.
In other words, high above the kids on the ground floor, the adults are figuring out how to divvy up the cash that the teens are generating.
That the online video industry has matured is not surprising. But like many of its aficionados, there’s a sense that it’s still going through its awkward phase. That’s actually part of the charm. The person-to-person authenticity that has become the hallmark of this cultural movement — and what makes it so appealing to marketers — is apparent in real life as well. Every so often someone will recognize someone else that they watch online and stop for an impromptu photo. If they’re reasonably well known, a surprisingly orderly line or group will form.
Meghan Camarena, a YouTube star that goes by “Strawburry17,” has been coming to Vidcon since its first year. She’s seen the changes first hand as online celebrities have become bigger.
“Vidcon was initially not just a place to go and meet your favorite YouTube stars… It was more of a place to go meet all your Internet friends. The YouTube stars were just the cherry on top,” she said. “Now since the YouTubers have expanded and there’s a whole heck of a lot more, it’s switched a little bit.”
The media presence at Vidcon is considerable. Entertainment Weekly and People have a massive interview stage that is running just about all day for the duration of the convention, Thursday through Saturday.
NBC and ABC are here to in the form of their respective late-night shows featuring Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel. Of all the mainstream media attempts to break into this world, variety shows seem to have had the most success, with Fallon in particular generating numerous viral hits.
Coverage is going more mainstream. Katie Couric interviewed Grace Helbig, who in many ways is the biggest Internet celebrity of them all. Helbig even convinced Couric to do the “Say Anything Challenge,” which is a word game in which the winner gets apply tape to the face of the loser.