Making It Big on YouTube
LOS ANGELES - If it's Wednesday, it's production day for Shane Dawson.
Dawson makes a living producing videos - mostly spoofs of pop culture - that run on YouTube, the Web's most popular online video service. He lives on his split of the advertising revenue. (YouTube won't say how much it gives out.)
On Monday, he writes the script. Tuesday and Wednesday are for props and production. On Thursday, he edits. And on Friday, he promotes, tweeting heavily on Twitter and getting the word out through Facebook, MySpace and YouTube e-mail blasts.
The new video makes its debut every Saturday at 8 a.m.
It's a rigorous schedule. But with the monthly check that YouTube deposits in his account, he gets to work for himself, set his own hours and live in a two-bedroom home in North Hollywood with a spacious backyard and pool.
"Thank you, YouTube," says Dawson, 21. Dawson, who has more than 1.4 million subscribers to his two YouTube channels, is one of what YouTube says is "thousands" in its Partner Program, set up to financially entice its most popular producers to keep the pipeline full.
While music videos from record labels are consistently the most-viewed videos on YouTube, Dawson and others' homegrown fare are the most-subscribed-to YouTube channels. This means they attract regular, consistent views.
"A band won't offer a new video every new week, but the partners will," says James McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research. "The channels are a great way for YouTube to create a regular viewing pattern."
Despite its position as the dominant home for online video, with more than 100 million viewers monthly, YouTube has yet to turn a profit for Google, which paid $1.65 billion for it in 2006. But Google says YouTube will soon be profitable and that the huge audiences attracted by its independent producers will help it get there.
You, too, could make a living producing videos for YouTube, but you'd need to devote massive hours (figure about 75 hours a week) making videos and spreading the word. You must stay in constant contact with the community, via the comments left on your work.
And once you finish the video, you'll need to top it with another. And another. And another.
"You're only as good as your last video," says McQuivey. "But in the traditional TV world, you produce a pilot, wait to sell the show and then premiere nearly a year later. In the YouTube model, you make a video, post it and hear back from your audience immediately. You get instant feedback. For a producer, that's got to be addictive."
'Better than a part-time job'
Dawson won't talk money, but Cory Williams, who produces videos for YouTube on his SMP Films channel, says he sees about $8,000 monthly from YouTube. Justine Ezarik, whose iJustine channel is also popular, says she averages about $75,000 annually.
Ryan Higa, whose YouTube channel is the most-subscribed-to on the service, recently called the pay "better than a part-time job."
Tom Pickett, YouTube's director of online sales, says YouTube has thousands of partners, many earning "six figures" yearly.
"We don't have anybody making a million yet, but the curve continues to grow," he says. "We hope to get there."
YouTube attracted 126 million viewers in October and showed 10.5 billion videos, according to measurement service ComScore Media Metrix. (NBC, Disney and Fox's Hulu had 42 million viewers and showed 855 million videos.)
Most of YouTube's material comes from its viewers - 20 hours of footage every minute of the day.
But YouTube doesn't run ads on submitted videos unless they're from YouTube partners.
Beyond producers such as Dawson and Ezarik, YouTube has many big-name music labels and TV producers that provide professional content in exchange for a split of ad revenue.
The smaller, independent partners tend to produce topical content, usually parodies of current events or trends. Ezarik makes fun of constant Twitter updates in Statusfaction, set to the Rolling Stones' Satisfaction. Dawson dons multiple wigs to play all or most of the characters in parodies of TV shows Sex and the City, Degrassi High or America's Top Model.
While the content can often be edgy and unsuitable for prime time, many of the videos attract prime-time-size audiences. Dawson's videos have been viewed more than 150 million times across YouTube. His spoof of the movie Twilight pulled in 5 million views. Ezarik has nearly 300,000 subscribers. Her videos have been viewed more than 64 million times. About 4.8 million viewers tuned in for her take-off of the Black Eyed Peas song I Gotta Feeling.
Sponsors on videos of the most-viewed YouTube partners include Disney, eBay, Kodak, Puma, Activision and Samsung.
Advertisers have been wary of appearing next to amateur-produced funny animal and kid videos or bawdy teen content.
But with partner-produced content, "There's a great comfort level," says Rob Davis, interactive marketing director for ad agency Ogilvy. "The people in the program are a known commodity, and since they're in it to make money, the chances of them doing something non-advertiser-friendly is less."
Additionally, the videos pull in those huge audiences. "Advertisers like to fish where the fish are," Davis says.
Still, the contributors aren't without controversy. A year ago, Dawson was working in sales for weight-loss company Jenny Craig and made a video on company property that he posted on YouTube. His employers deemed it inappropriate and fired him. A Jenny Craig spokesperson confirmed this. (YouTube has since deleted the video.)
With no luck finding a new job, Dawson focused on YouTube videos and trying to get into the Partner Program. Once he was accepted, the checks began arriving.
He says he realized that "if I really put a lot of time into this, and build an audience, I could probably actually make a living."
More traffic on YouTube
Ezarik, 25, has been working for years to find fame and income from the Internet. She was a "lifecaster," broadcasting her life with a live camera for six hours a day on Justin.tv and looking to sites such as MySpace and Twitter to plug her career.
But now she's turned her attention to YouTube, because she gets so much more traffic there.
"This is where everyone goes," she says. "It's the biggest audience."
She has nearly a million followers on Twitter and 500,000 fans on Facebook. But that doesn't garner checks - YouTube does.
Recently, Ezarik parlayed her YouTube notoriety into TV gigs. She had a bit part on a recent Law&Order episode and got hired by MTV and Dick Clark Productions to host online preshows for awards broadcasts.
"I work 60 hours a week on videos," she says. "Once I start, I don't go to sleep until I finish, but I love what I do. I have no complaints."
Despite the influx of YouTube cash, many of the partners produce their work with off-the-shelf, low-priced consumer video tools.
Higa uses a $200 Flip video camera for his videos, while Ezarik opts for a $400 Canon PowerShot point-and-shoot camera set to video mode.
"It works," she says. "And it's a lot easier than using a video camera."
Dawson works with an $800 Canon video camera from a room with a painted green wall, which he uses as his "green screen," a special-effects tool for superimposing different backgrounds.
For her green screen, Ezarik bought a $12 green rug from Ikea and puts it up whenever she's ready to make videos.
Both Ezarik and Dawson do all their videos themselves, playing camera operator, lighting director, sound engineer, performer and video editor.
Ezarik's big expense: wardrobe changes.
"If I wear the same thing three times in a row, people start complaining," she says.
McQuivey says the partners are smart to work on low budgets. Video hams such as Dawson and Ezarik should save their money now and invest well, because their shelf lives, like one-hit rock bands, could be short-lived, he says.
"This is an ideal job for a certain kind of narcissist at a certain point in their life," he says. "It's like being the most popular kid in high school. It looks like fun, but you have to work the crowd, be seen with the right people, innovate in how you're dressed. This is a grueling, emotionally difficult thing to do, and it won't last forever."