A couple of weeks ago, while researching for a Future Week article about how to trick people into being obsessed with you in the future, I heard about a YouTube network called Machinima. The network specialises in a new brand of animation where, instead of designing anything from scratch, the animators use the ready-made characters and scenery of video games to create new stories. Google have already invested £20million into it and the network has had 43.7 billion views to date, so they're obviously on to something.
It's also recently come under fire from a part of its large network of filmmakers, who are protesting their low pay and supposedly creatively-binding contracts. I couldn't form too much of an opinion on the matter – getting over the fact that there were enough people out there creating Skyrim bikini contest videos to form some kind of union was too much for me.
So while I was talking to Philip DeBevoise, Machinima's co-founder, about the future of celebrity, I figured I'd go a bit more in-depth about his company and share the results with you here.
VICE: So, Philip, what exactly is Machinima?
Philip DeBevoise: The word Machinima is a portmanteau of the words "machine" and "cinema", meaning machine animation. It's an animation tool that allows filmmakers to leverage characters from the worlds of video games. It's also a powerful peer-to-peer marketing tool. People look at other people's work, ask about the games they were using and often go on to buy these games. So, you have a new video format, a marketing tool and this community of people that's getting more and more powerful as the internet grows.
How did you get involved in it?
About six years ago, my brother and I became aware of this small website, Machinima.com, which was started by a man called Hugh Hancock – a pioneer in the movement. We'd always been involved in media and technology – especially the integration of the two – so we reached out to Hugh and bought the website. YouTube was growing, we had this small but talented community of filmmakers from around the world at our disposal and we asked ourselves, "Is there an opportunity to create the MTV for the video game generation?"
That's such a niche thing to just stumble across. How did you know it was going to work on a large scale?
We realised the world was going through this third wave of video programming. If you look at broadcasting, it's gone through three major phases. In the first wave, networks like BBC, ABC and CBS dictated all the information and entertainment available to you. The second wave was defined by cable satellite television, which would be focused to a much more niche audience, like CNN, ESPN, HBO or Discovery.
Back in its original days, cable was all people preaching and doing all sorts of other weird things. A lot of people dismissed it, just like they did with YouTube when it was only videos of dancing cats and people having funny accidents. With YouTube, we now see the world going through this third wave of video programming – this third revolution. Suddenly you can watch and make anything you like, no matter how specific it is.
I'm guessing the idea of going niche wasn't obvious to everyone.
No. When we started, almost everyone would dismiss our product as "too niche". And we'd go on to reach a million viewers, ten million and people would still say, "That's it, it's not going to grow any more." But what they couldn't understand was that, because of the internet, our very specific audience was massive. So we moved Machinima.com to YouTube and asked all the filmmakers to join us and start their own channels. We brought YouTube a new type of audience that was previously fragmented and started getting millions of views a month.
How do you go about finding talent?
The traditional way. We have a big team with members located all around the world, and their job is to discover emerging talent. Often people reach out to us, too. What's a little different about us is that we'll also work with people who haven’t developed their skills and try to help by putting them together with some of our stars. Someone might be an amazing writer, for example, who hasn't yet perfected his directing capabilities. They don't even have to physically get together, all they need is an Xbox. That's the beauty of Machinima – movies are being created by groups of people from all over the world.
I guess the concept of the gamer as nerd is done.
Think of independent filmmaking; Machinima is the same thing. The guys we work with are filmmakers. They love video games, but also possess the attitude and distinguished voice to create animated comedies and sci-fi movies that speak to a larger audience. They are basically your next generation of filmmakers. Our shows don’t have to be about gaming to be successful – it can be a particular voice or attitude that's popular instead. What I find exciting is that these guys – the filmmakers – are becoming stars.
What are your stars like? Are they divas? Do their fan bases care about their lives outside Machinima?
Anyone who is creative and passionate about what they do is going to be demanding in terms of how their product is being treated. Like with any other field, you get a combination of people, but I honestly can't think of anybody who's been a prick. I think the community is intolerant of that kind of behaviour too. They tend to call people out on things like that.
But I suppose there are certain similarities to general celebrity culture. For instance, I was at the Brazil games show, which hosted something like 90,000 people, and it somehow got on Twitter that two of our celebrities in Brazil were there. Within 15 minutes, we were being chased around by 2,000 people. We had to call security to get these guys out of there. That was amazing.
Machinimists are also into Deadmau5.
I recently read this article on LA Weekly about how some of your stars are now accusing your company of tricking them into signing contracts that bind them with Machinima for life, all with unsatisfactory rewards.
In any business, talent has the ability to decide what it wants to do with whoever they want. If, for some reason, they decide not to work with us, we will support that choice. And it doesn’t mean we don’t work with them, as they're part of our network. Our contracts aren't culturally binding, but we have made shorter term contracts now. We see video makers as partners now. My goal is to support these partners, creatively and from a business standpoint. But you have to do that in a realistically sustainable business practice. The prices you are paying have to be reflective of what’s happening on that YouTube platform. We originally paid premium prices to aid growth and that worked. But it gets to a point where we have to look at our model and realise this isn't a sustainable business. Then you have to turn to your partners and say, "Here's what's happening, let's figure out how to work together."
There are a lot of fallacies out there. In that article and in others, people say networks are trying to renegotiate deals. That isn't true at all – we're trying to create a balance in the system where people are being paid the fair market value.
So it's basically a case of defining what constitutes market value in this very new type of business?
I guess, yeah. All we want is to create a system that people want to be a part of. It helps us grow when others are growing, too. Google and YouTube have been very supportive, which validates what we're all doing. It’s a fascinating time for everyone.
Follow Elektra on Twitter: @elektrakotsoni
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