In a way, it all started with Fred Figglehorn, a chipmunk-voiced, fictional 6-year-old with a dysfunctional family, manic energy and anger issues who proved to be catnip to young viewers on YouTube.
Brian Robbins, a longtime TV and film producer and perhaps the first adult to ever voluntarily watch Figglehorn’s videos, started paying closer attention to the ADHD-addled character and the youngsters who religiously followed him. Robbins found that millennials, including his own kids, craved Figglehorn’s style of goofball fun and wanted it dished out at a dizzying pace—available 24/7 in bite-size bits, production values be damned, A-list celebrities largely absent. More and more, kids turned to YouTube to find and cultivate their own stars.
That led Robbins to finance and produce the first feature-length movie starring Figglehorn, played by Nebraska actor Lucas Cruikshank. It would become a massive hit for Nickelodeon and spawn a TV and licensing juggernaut. More importantly, it also alerted Robbins to YouTube’s tremendous reach and influence. It was there that, in the summer of 2012, he launched AwesomenessTV as an aggregator and curator of teen- and tween-targeted original content. “Kids now do not plop in front of the TV and wait for their favorite shows to come on,” Robbins points out. “They have an enormous appetite and the time and technology to consume a lot of content. They snack constantly. And if you serve up the right content, they’ll come.”
Robbins has built a humongous food court of nearly 86,000 kid-created channels on AwesomenessTV’s multichannel network. Among the most popular are girl next door Jennxpenn, the singing Cimorelli sisters, Aussie singers/stunt group the Janoskians, and prankster officialsampepper. The flagship channel, AwesomenessTV, culls talent from this fertile breeding ground and creates its own content, including the chat show IMO, reality series Cheerleaders, Party of Five-meets-Glee drama Side Effects, plus programming centered around gossip, advice, sketches, music and style.
Seemingly overnight, kids discovered AwesomenessTV, which at last count boasted 38 million subscribers, more than 65 million monthly visitors and half a billion views across its channels. And that’s not including mobile viewing, hugely popular with the 8-to-18 set. AwesomenessTV has attracted advertisers including Target, PepsiCo’s Aquafina, Subway and the movie studios. AwesomenessTV also spawned a hit show on Nickelodeon.
The heat around the brand caught the eye of Jeffrey Katzenberg, whose DreamWorks Animation bought it last summer for $33 million, plus another $117 million if it hits traffic and earnings targets. The acquisition and an infusion of financing for new programming development has provided “amazing rocket fuel for us,” says Robbins, whose producer credits include the network series One Tree Hill and Smallville and theatricals Wild Hogs and The Shaggy Dog.
“We want to build this as a media brand, not just a distribution company,” he adds. “We have to remain hungry and humble and realize that this audience is fickle and fast moving. We have to react quickly.” In that vein, an AwesomenessTV mobile app is being developed, along with ways to watch its content on Xbox, PlayStation and other platforms.
But it is the content and talent that are the beating heart of AwesomenessTV, Robbins says, and both must be fresh and abundant. To that end, executives are constantly scouting for new stars as well as additional projects for their existing marquee names. Awesomeness just wrapped a movie starring Lia Marie Johnson as her wacky YouTube character Terry the Tomboy, while Robbins is working on a documentary of pop sensation Austin Mahone.
In the current tech revolution, the prestige—and financial spoils—will go to those channels that can “truly understand and serve a specific demographic,” says Tim Staples, a former Omnicom Group executive who co-founded Contagious, a company specializing in branded viral videos. “AwesomenessTV has been smart about how they’ve focused their energy and resources. … They’ve done an amazing job of cultivating the kid demo, and they have the potential to be the go-to spot in the YouTube world for that really desirable group.”
If Teala Dunn wants to watch an actor, she’ll turn on the TV or go to a movie. If she wants to get to know someone, she’ll fire up YouTube. Dunn, a veteran actor featured in sitcoms like TNT’s Are We There Yet, Disney Channel’s Dog With a Blog and Fox’s Enlisted, had to learn to open up on YouTube. That meant shedding the quirky persona she had adopted in her early videos. “I was trying to make super funny videos on my vlog, and it just didn’t feel like me,” explains Dunn. “Then one day, after I’d been shopping, I said, ‘Let me make a haul video.’ And that really clicked.” Her AwesomenessTV channel, Tealaxx2, which has nearly 182,000 subscribers, is packed with beauty and style tips, bedroom vanity tours, morning and evening makeup routines, and Sephora purchases. She likes getting instant feedback from fans, something that isn’t possible with her TV work—though she doesn’t otherwise make much of a distinction between the media channels. She looks up to YouTube stars like Shane Dawson for his commitment (“He uploads every single day,” she points out) and Miranda Sings, the singer/dancer/actor/model/magician with 100 million views under her oddball belt. Though Dunn doesn’t do comedy specifically on her channel and she’s no longer playing a role, she hasn’t completely abandoned her silly side. “I’ll say during my videos that I’m so weird,” she says. “It’s OK to be weird.”
Kids really do say the darndest things—especially when somebody trains a video camera on them and gives them a YouTube channel. Up-and-coming comedian Kevin Fredericks knew exactly what he was doing when he set up his precocious and adorable son Isaiah (known as Zay Zay) on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Five-years-old at the time, he told his dad he wanted to be the world’s youngest comedian. Zay Zay, now 7, and his 5-year-old brother Jojo may be the tiniest stars in the AwesomenessTV galaxy, but their influence and audience are growing. The telegenic pair serves up no-holds-barred performances in their show, Crazy I Say, as well as their individual channels, complaining to the world that their parents make them eat salad (probably true) and lie about their ages for free food (maybe a fib). They bicker like siblings do and point out the shortcomings of their caretakers for the amusement of 38,000 subscribers and other viewers who have watched their videos more than 3 million times. Some have even compared them to Jaden and Willow Smith for their breakout star potential. Indeed, Zay Zay just landed his first film role, playing Buckwheat in The Little Rascals Save the Day, out this fall.
Jennxpenn has a million things on her mind—1 million subscribers for her AwesomenessTV channel, that is, on which she hangs out with friends, plays games like “intense musical chairs” and answers fan questions about embarrassing things. Jenn McAllister has amassed 765,000 subscribers, a whopping 347 percent increase since she joined forces with AwesomenessTV about a year ago. She would like more traffic for her videos, which have morphed from skits and play acting into her just being herself. “I talk directly to my viewers,” McAllister says. “It’s more of a blog style, and I think people have gotten to know me better this way. I feel like we have a personal connection.” She saw a noticeable uptick in views as her postings became more consistent, even though she’s had to deal with trolls and haters. One of her recent videos, dubbed Insecurities, deals head-on with criticism and gives her fans wise-beyond-her-years advice to embrace their flaws. “I struggled with negative comments at first, especially when I was younger, when people would say things about how I looked,” says the 17-year-old. “I just try to focus on the positive.” Like many of her AwesomenessTV cohorts, McAllister hopes to use the YouTube platform to launch a broader media career, maybe in acting or TV hosting. “I’ve always had that goal of 1 million subscribers, and maybe that will open up some other opportunities outside YouTube,” she says.
Imagine a female Jackson 5 or an all-girl Brady Bunch that’s as squeaky clean as the sunny Southern California days are long. Add some brand savvy (a recent ad for Subway) and a rock-solid family foundation that includes five brothers and you’ve got Cimorelli, six singing sisters on the cusp of multimedia fame. The Sacramento-born, Malibu-based group, signed to Universal Records, is readying a debut album after cultivating a following for their a cappella versions of pop songs. The ever-smiling sisters have racked up 2.5 million subscribers and more than 600 million views of their covers of Top 40 hits like Call Me Maybe, Cups and Made in America, though their first album will feature original music they’ve written themselves. And everything is family-friendly (if their 9-year-old brother wouldn’t be allowed to hear it, then it’s off limits). And next, the sisters—Christina (23), Katherine (22), Lisa (20), Amy (18), Lauren (15) and Dani (13)—are in talks for movies and TV projects. They may even become animated characters. “People have tried to tell us to be more edgy, but we’re not going to do that,” says Christina. “We’ve figured out who we are, and we want the things we do to be inspiring, empowering and positive.”
The last few years of Hunter March’s life have brought a series of fortunate events—as well as some dues paying and hard work. While still seniors in high school, he and his buddies filmed a remake of Lil Wayne’s music video for Prom Queen, with March standing in as the sought-after prom king. While it didn’t make them YouTube stars, it did land March an internship at AwesomenessTV where he parlayed his grunt work into shooting behind-the-scenes footage of original productions—something that was his own idea. He would graduate to full-time staffer, but when sitting behind a desk proved too limiting, March once again ended up in front of the camera. Almost 23, March hosts three AwesomenessTV series: the celebrity- and gossip-centric shows Awesomeness Hollywood and The Daily Report and the advice program Dear Hunter. Having attracted 33,226 subscribers, March, ever his nose to the grindstone, has even bigger ambitions, hoping to develop a TV-style pilot out of material from his YouTube channel and his AwesomenessTV appearances. Despite the huge audience numbers on the Web, the big production budgets are still in television, he points out. “Not that being on YouTube forever would be a bad thing, but TV is definitely a goal,” he says.
Johnson once made a YouTube video that featured her slowly eating a bowl of cereal, staring directly into the camera while her alter ego pestered her off-screen. It logged nearly 1 million views. The 17-year-old blonde, one of the most popular kids on AwesomenessTV, loves the creative freedom of Internet videos, even when that involves shaky old clips of her singing in church recitals or in-character skits of her wolfing down breakfast. Her YouTube experience started inauspiciously, with her mom posting videos for family and friends. Then Johnson met the Fine Brothers and became a mainstay on their Emmy-winning series Kids React and later Teens React. She populates her own channels these days with her musings on life (pet peeves are a hot topic) and sketch comedy, for which she created Terry the Tomboy. The character is so in demand that boss Brian Robbins recently made a feature-length film starring the frizzy-haired, tough-talking kid. The movie, packed with AwesomenessTV stars, could go to traditional TV, a cineplex or an alternative distributor. “Sometimes I feel like I have multiple-personality disorder,” Johnson admits. “So my viewers don’t know who I am because I play all these characters, but they really do because I make other videos where they see my own personality. YouTube is all about personality.” Viewers like what they see, with Johnson racking up more than 705,000 subscribers and 39 million views.
Photos: Karl J. Kaul
Robbins: Amanda Friedman