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Multiplex hecklers, musicians and marksmen are turning YouTube into a career path — and in some cases, a cash register

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In 2009, Julian Smith moved from Music City to Los Angeles. Like so many, the Nashville native wanted to make movies. He had a deal in the works to create a pilot for MTV, which discovered Smith's humorous short films on YouTube.

At the time, he was using his YouTube channel just to build his portfolio. But it was MTV that fell by the wayside. Instead, he found a career on YouTube, that free online scourge of office productivity and timesuck to the nation.

"I'll run into an old friend and they'll be like, 'So, what are you doing for work right now? You sure seem to have a lot of time to make videos,' " Smith tells the Scene from his home in L.A., laughing. "People just have no idea. ..."

They have no idea that the 88 videos he's posted have racked up more than 1.5 million subscribers and nearly 300 million views. Or that according to SocialBlade — a site that projects the value of YouTube channels — they bring him a salary as high as $195,000 a year.

But Smith didn't need to leave Nashville to make that happen. A modest but growing crop of local musicians, filmmakers and content creators is starting to make handsome salaries on their viral presence.

Jeremy Scott (left) and Chris Atkinson of CinemaSins - PHOTO: ERIC ENGLAND
  • Photo: Eric England
  • Jeremy Scott (left) and Chris Atkinson of CinemaSins

While Julian Smith likes to make movies, Chris Atkinson and Jeremy Scott like to watch them. Step into Atkinson's shoebox apartment in Hillsboro Village, and you'll see framed lobby cards for films like Lost in Translation and Your Friends and Neighbors. Pan over a few feet, and proudly displayed on a mantle are worn VHS copies of The Hunt for Red October and Sneakers.

In their wintertime dorm-room chic, neither Scott, 38, or Atkinson, just turning 37, looks like he's going into an office anytime soon. Nor do they need to. Boasting close to 1.6 million subscribers and more than 190 million views, CinemaSins, the YouTube channel they launched less than 14 months ago, is paying their bills — and then some.

Their bread and butter is a video series called "Everything Wrong With ...," in which they boil down famous films to clip reels of flubs. Ever notice the primitive CGI in the aerial cutaway shots during James Cameron's Titanic? (Those extras look like Sims characters.) Or that Marty McFly's hand in Back to the Future starts to disappear after George has won over Lorraine at the school dance? As their tagline reads, "No movie is without sin."

The series is so popular that when you enter the words "everything wrong with" on YouTube — or for that matter, Google — the search auto-fills by the time you type the first "w."

"We don't have any spend-out besides [buying] the Blu-ray," Scott says with a laugh. "We've sort of stumbled into a format that simply doesn't require us to set up a camera, have lights and hire actors."

Each episode takes four days to produce, and they typically upload two a week. That rate is key to the channel's success. December was a slow month, they say, because they slowed down to one post a week for the holidays.

They got only 22 million hits.

Their typical effort averages 40 to 50 million views per month, tapping into a global audience of fellow film geeks binge-watching their videos. Among their fans are filmmaker Kevin Smith and comedian Dane Cook. "This rocks so hard," Smith tweeted, linking to the channel's homepage.

Not everyone agrees. Less than amused by CinemaSins' Looper takedown, director Rian Johnson tweeted a link to it, along with words like "nasty," "thoughtless" and "wrong." Prometheus screenwriter Damon Lindelof was incensed by the pair's riffing on The Dark Knight, tweeting sarcastically, "Hmm. I'm gonna get a lot of attention for myself by ripping about something that everyone loved instead of MAKING something myself."

"We don't just make fun of movies everyone loved," the pair replied. "We also made fun of Prometheus."

Atkinson and Scott met in 1999 as managers at the Regal Hollywood 27 at 100 Oaks. Atkinson worked there starting in 1993 as a teenager, until just last year. Along the way he studied radio and television production at MTSU. "I thought I was going to be an editor at one point, but, um ..." he says, trailing off.

Originally hailing from Indiana, preacher's son Scott grew up in a household where movies were deemed sinful, something he'd make up for with obsessive cinephilia in his college years. While Atkinson's family was just happy that Hollywood 27 provided him a stable job for his 20-year tenure there, Scott's family wasn't as accepting of his movie theater job.

"I got plenty of passive-aggressive shit," he says. "It doesn't seem from the outside like that respectable of a career, I guess, or maybe it's that Peter Pan, postponing-adulthood kind of career — and that was certainly what kept me in it for as long as it did."

At the theater, Atkinson and Scott watched a lot of movies. Especially bad ones. On Thursdays after closing time, the pair would host their own DIY RiffTrax sessions, nitpicking the best and goofing on the worst. The seeds for CinemaSins were sown.

The channel launched with an episode titled "Everything Wrong With The Amazing Spiderman in 2 Minutes or Less" on Dec. 11, 2012. The video is well on its way to 5 million views. Of those, 250,000 came the first week, when Buzzfeed picked up the video. Their next, which skewered The Avengers, did even better. Overnight, they'd gone viral.

"The only reason we're here today is that our first few videos got posted on some big sites, and we piggy-backed that as best as we could and reached out to some of them directly with the next few videos," Scott explains, noting that CinemaSins videos are almost a fixture on Buzzfeed, Gawker, Reddit and Huffington Post. "You've got to have gatekeeper sites for your audience, whoever that is, write about you."

The pair's fortune continued when their takedowns of Titanic and Back to the Future landed on the YouTube homepage in back-to-back weeks, netting them a whopping 60,000 subscribers. Since its launch, the channel has consistently attracted 4,000 to 6,000 new subscribers a day, ballooning up to 10,000 on days they post a new video.

"Occasionally it is fun to see that you're passing The Black Eyed Peas Vevo," Atkinson says. "Barack Obama was the big one I remember," Scott interjects. They both laugh. CinemaSins currently has more than quadruple the amount of YouTube subscribers as the White House.

The site is growing so fast its creators don't even know where the ceiling is, or if there is one. It hit the million-subscriber milestone in October, 10 months after launching; it reached 1.5 million subscribers in December, three times as fast. In the coming year, the pair hopes to move CinemaSins into an office and hire freelance writers and editors.

SocialBlade recently ranked CinemaSins the 323rd most popular site on YouTube. It calculates the site's yearly earnings as anywhere from $137,500 to $1.7 million, based on a value scale that slides between 70 cents to $7 per 1,000 views.

"We're hopelessly unprofessional and not prepared and all that stuff," Scott says. Atkinson, chuckling, notes that they still haven't formed an LLC or figured out how they're going to do their 2013 taxes.

"I'm happy to be making so much money I don't know how to do my taxes right," Scott says.

Could someone lay out a business plan that would net this kind of success? It's doubtful — and that's both the weird fascination and perpetual frustration of the Internet. As much as Madison Avenue has glommed onto "going viral," it's not as easy as it seems to produce the next kitten on a keyboard with 200 million views. It's harder still to make money from it.

But creators are finding ways to harness a shifting, surging, short-attention-spanned global audience. They're beneficiaries of new technologies and a gluttonous shift in viewing habits. More mysteriously, they're making a living on YouTube, perhaps the most voracious exemplar of the principle that everything on the Internet is free.

Most people the Scene contacted for this story were familiar with (and fans of) CinemaSins. But few knew the channel is based in Nashville. That's another quirk of online stardom — its celebrities can be as faceless, anonymous and untethered to place as they want.

Others crave that attention, though — particularly musicians who came to Nashville looking for it.

Jessica Frech
  • Jessica Frech

Two years ago, Jessica Frech was a freshman Belmont songwriting major with saucer eyes and a million-dollar smile. She wrote a light-hearted ditty called "People of WalMart" inspired by the self-explanatory photo blog, which was all the rage at the time (and now seems like medieval history).

With help from her audio-engineer father, then her business partner, Frech recorded the song and filmed the video in a week, hoping it would create a buzz online. It did. Within a week, "People of WalMart" logged more than 1 million views on YouTube, hitting the platform's homepage.

"It was overnight," Frech tells the Scene. "We didn't expect it to be that big, but there was some strategy behind it — we knew these photos of these people (at Walmart) with their butts hanging out and stuff like that were going viral."

Two years later, the video has nearly 10 million views. Those numbers caught the attention of car manufacturer Hyundai, which tapped Frech for a pair of commercials.

The experience inspired the budding songwriter to pursue performing as well. Capitalizing on the exposure, she did what every YouTube star-in-the-making must — feed the beast. Internet stars rise and fall by how consistently they post new content.

Frech stoked the fires with a weekly series in which her fans (aka Frechies) submitted prompts for her. "Make a rap song about ADHD," they wrote, or, "Write a song about how my great-aunt looks like a potato." That one got 250,000-plus views.

After 23 weeks, though, the grind almost broke Frech. "It beat us down," she recalls. Beyond that, the singer — who released an album in 2012 and has a follow-up in the works — wants her audience to demand more than viral-video click-bait.

"It's a tight line to walk," Frech explains, "because I am a real artist who writes real music and wants real cuts. But I also have this comedy, quirky side that I can write about anything, and usually when my fans want me to write about stuff it's about funny stuff. ... I think that's why a lot of my YouTube stuff has slowed down this year."

Still, Frech says she's making a living off her viral presence, and that's financing her recording career.

"I think I'm a good example of how you can utilize [YouTube] over a record deal," she explains. "The idea that I can fully fund myself through my fans watching my videos brings in this whole new game of indie artists being able to make it."

Jessica Frech has a deal with Maker Studios, which bills itself as the "number one producer and distributor of online content reaching millennials in the U.S." For most YouTubers on the climb, the trajectory looks the same. Typically, it involves partnering with a multichannel network.

Multichannel networks are essentially digital media companies that partner with content-creating channels as their advocates. They target advertisers, help package and promote content, and in some cases connect creators with studio and production resources — even bankrolling and producing projects.

"We enable creators to continue to grow their business," says Dan Weinstein, president of multichannel network Collective Digital Studio, which has partnerships with blockbuster Web series The Annoying Orange, college-humor giant eBaum's World and CinemaSins. "We provide [partners] an infrastructure that would be cost-prohibitive for them to try and figure out on their own given their individual scale, and we provide them the knowledge base, the expertise, the bandwidth, and a number of other things to help them with that business."

That includes — among other jargon-fraught services — teaching best practices in search-engine optimization on YouTube; being a resource for media sales and brand integration; and providing access to television, film, merchandising and other media. For that, networks typically get a 30 percent cut of revenue, the same claimed by iTunes for a 99-cent download. They're the back end — human agents doing for YouTubers what Google, which is basically an agnostic, automated platform, cannot.

You don't have to partner with a network to make money off YouTube traffic, but it's hard. Google pays creators with AdSense, an automated, option-based advertising program that attaches lower-value ads to videos.

"An MCN [multichannel network] or another enterprise party, has the right to actually sell into YouTube against specific content," Weinstein explains. "YouTube couldn't possibly scale selling individual channels or individual videos or individual pieces of content. ... We're the ones that go to Dodge, in this case, and say, 'We have the most successful Web series on the planet, it looks like television, everybody loves it, hits your demo right on the nose,' and we go and sell a premium package around that particular piece of content."

If your viral career starts with a CinemaSins- or Jessica Frech-sized sensation, multichannel networks will come to you pretty much immediately, falling over themselves like pre-Y2K A&R execs in a bidding war.

"Creators who are doing 50 or 60 million views a month can make real money, become millionaires and do the whole thing," Weinstein says. "So it would seem like it's easy. But really, the reason why it's easy is because it's the [easiest way] to build an audience. A river of pennies, for example, is more valuable than a swimming pool of dollars.

"Everybody's on YouTube, so you're starting with ultimate saturation of audience. The trick is, how do you get the audience that's already there to stumble upon or find or share your video content?"

Megan and Liz
  • Megan and Liz

Collective Digital Studio is testing that with its in-house record label. Its flagship act, Megan and Liz, consists of 21-year-old twins — one fair-haired, the other brunette — who have more than 1.3 million subscribers and nearly a quarter-billion views on YouTube. Weinstein says Collective signed the sister act to "see if we can turn them into Taylor Swift — it was nothing short of that as the goal."

In 2011, Megan and Liz moved from small-town Edwardsburg, Mich. (population 1,256) to Nashville after high school. They lived here for two years before ditching Music City for what they thought would be L.A.'s greener pastures. This week they're moving back.

"We left Nashville because at the time, our music was leaning more in the pop direction, and everyone was kind of telling us L.A. is the place to go for pop," Liz Mace says. "But as we stayed in L.A. we realized we're way more songwriters and we're super into that songwriting scene that Nashville has, that L.A. doesn't really have."

The duo took to YouTube in 2007. Then 15, they posted videos singing fun bedroom covers of Taylor Swift, Jason Mraz and Katy Perry in addition to originals. In 2009, their cover of Demi Lovato's "Here We Go Again" hit the YouTube homepage and got a million first-week views.

"After that video we realized, 'Oh my gosh! This is something that can really make us a name," Mace says. From that point, the duo started feeding the beast — posting better quality videos more regularly, and posting them at strategic times. Later that year the duo appeared via satellite on Oprah alongside one of their biggest fans, Taylor Swift.

"It was a dream come true, and it still is a dream come true," Mace recalls. "That's your idol [Swift] and one of the most iconic women ever [Winfrey] talking about your video and saying they enjoyed it."

Certainly the appearance didn't hurt when it came to landing sponsorship deals with the likes of Oral B, Disney and Macy's, which featured the duo as the face of its 2012 back to school campaign.

"[YouTube] is where we come from; it's what's brought us everything we have," Mace says. "It's almost like our YouTube presence is, in a way, our platinum record. ... We have a million subscribers. So in a lot of people's eyes, a million subscribers really means that we have value."

Like Megan and Liz, many of YouTube's startup musicians have built their careers singing covers, making the platform virtually a viral extension of American Idol. As with Idol, however, it's often hard for YouTube artists to transition from piggy-backing off a hit song's fleeting familiarity to original material.

"YouTube artists, they are stars in their own right because they're singing hit songs," Liz's sister Megan Mace says of the covers phenomenon. "[But] you have to wean people off of the fact that you're singing their favorite songs. It just takes a lot of hard work and persistence in the songwriting category."

Julia Sheer
  • Julia Sheer

Julia Sheer can relate. An unsigned pop-country singer-songwriter, she relocated to Nashville from Colorado last year and brought along her 450,000-plus YouTube subscribers. Her covers of hits like Blake Shelton's "Mine Would Be You" and Maroon 5's "Payphone" are often as slickly produced as the originals.

"I guess that people just like to hear different versions of these songs that they're listening to on the radio," Sheer tells the Scene. "I honestly don't really know, I don't get it."

Nevertheless, her originals rival the covers in views. "You Will Never Be Me," a song she co-wrote with fellow country-tinged Colorado YouTube mainstay Tyler Ward, is Sheer's second most popular video. It has more than 5 million views and counting.

Hot on her heels is Nashville singer-songwriter and full-time YouTuber Landon Austin, with 165,000-plus subscribers. As with Megan and Liz or Sheer, many of those followers were lured to the Belmont alum's page via his many cover versions of contemporary pop hits. He says there's a science to selecting songs to cover: "Releasing a song that's going to be popular before it is."

The video that broke Austin was a coffeehouse-style cover of Foster the People's 2010/2011 sleeper smash "Pumped Up Kicks." Like an A&R man with his ear to the ground, he decided to adapt the song the first time he heard it.

"I was one of the first covers on YouTube for [the song], and that was huge," Austin says. By the time the song hit the charts, his version was there to reap the searches. The clip pulled an impressive 800,000 views. The top comment says it all: "I freaking love this cover. This was my ringtone for a few month(s) last year."

  • Photo: Eric England
  • Landon Austin

Push play, and you won't see a pre-roll commercial but rather a 28-second clip of Austin himself, bedheaded and shilling in his living room for Airbnb (social media's Craigslist-like travel-agent replacement). Much like radio personalities doing their own commercials, Austin, Megan and Liz, CinemaSins and others have all taken these kinds of direct ad deals, usually shepherded their way by their networks.

"When you get to a point where you have a big enough audience, you have a lot more opportunities to make money," Austin says. But many people might not realize that the Airbnb ad didn't just make Austin money. It made Foster the People, its label and its publisher money as well.

For a long time, for viewers, clicking on a music-related YouTube video felt like playing Russian roulette: A copyright-violation notice was as likely to show up as your favorite song.

But now, because of licensing agreements with multichannel networks, major labels and publishers are cashing in on YouTube instead of cracking down. Whenever anyone on YouTube posts a song in any “pseudo-video” form, artists, writers and labels get compensation.

As proof of this dramatic change, Austin has a partnership with Sony Publishing that allows the singer access to its catalog. Not only will he not get shut down for covering Sony songs, he’ll split proceeds 50/50 on those he covers and posts.

“They’ll send me an email list every week saying, ‘Cover these songs; these are songs that are approved’ — they want you to cover them,” he says.

But other artists say Nashville still has some catching up to do with YouTube. Julia Sheer says that when she’s pitching to labels and publishers, Music Row isn’t as in touch with YouTube as the coastal music industry. Julia Sheer says that when she's pitching to labels and publishers, Music Row isn't as in touch with YouTube as the coastal music industry.

"When we came down to Nashville to showcase for a label, we told them our numbers and online views, and they didn't care at all," she says. "But then the next week we went to New York, and they were, like, so intrigued. ... But I think that [Nashville] is slowly becoming more aware of it, and it's starting to grow down here."

Jessica Frech treks out to L.A. for two weeks every six months to take advantage of Maker Studios' creative space and collaborate with other YouTubers. The fact that her viral revenue stretches much further in Nashville might be the only thing keeping her here.

But the recent launch of the Made In Network — Nashville's first multichannel YouTube network — is perhaps a sign that Music City's turning the corner.

Like Collective Digital Studio, Fullscreen or Maker Studios, Made In strives to help its channel partners grow their brands, discover revenue streams and learn YouTube best practices. But unlike those aforementioned major media entities, Made In's programming has a local, neighborly focus.

"The idea [behind the network] is that this is a network about the creative process and artists," says Kevin Grosch, Made In's precocious, excitable 24-year-old CEO. "There are these massive networks that have just become huge aggregators of channels. We're trying to make stuff.

"And so we're talking about building a small niche community of the best music channels on YouTube ... and building on creatively is happening [in Nashville]."

Essentially, the network wants to show the world how the sausage is made in Nashville. Operating out of a large space downtown and bankrolled by boutique tech consultancy FLO {thinkery}, Made In boasts an eight-person staff including in-house editors, sales reps and a CFO. The network went live in November. In addition to partnerships with channels like benfoldsTV, Infinity Cat Recordings and NoiseTrade, the network currently has about a dozen mostly music-oriented Web series in development.

One is 24HR Records, in which a handpicked supergroup of local musicians who've never played together are locked in a studio for 24 hours and filmed while they write and record an EP. Another, Find the Beauty — the experimental network's most viewed show to date — dispatches an artist to remake a horrible lost nugget from pop music past.

"I want [Made In] to be part of a movement," Grosch says.

Of course, not every YouTuber is in love with multichannel networks or living in Los Angeles. The Ian MacKaye of Nashville YouTubers, Olan Rogers moved here from Memphis almost three years ago. Now 26, he has more than a half-million subscribers and says he's turned down partnership offers from virtually every multichannel network on YouTube.

"I don't want to freaking put commercials on my videos," Rogers says. "I HATE commercials! I. Hate. Commercials. It doesn't make any sense to me that you would put your audience through a commercial in order to get paid.

"I kind of made a stand early on and said I'm not going to partner with anybody, I'm going to stay independent. I know a lot of people do it, and a lot of people are making money off of that, but I'd rather find other ways to do that than put all my stock in putting commercials in front of the video."

Olan Rogers
  • Olan Rogers

To make up for that easy money, three years ago Rogers launched a clothing company, Olan Rogers Apparel. Part of the proceeds goes to charity; the rest funds his videos. He also currently has a deal in the works to create a Web series for NBCUniversal-owned digital movie ticket retailer Fandango.

"I'm sure they'll [use] sponsors and put commercials in front of their stuff, and I'm fine with that, because that's their channel, that's their business," he says. "With my stuff, I put so much heart into that I just want to leave it the way it is. ... I don't make videos to make money, I make videos to make videos."

Nevertheless, he admits that refusing to sell out isn't always easy. "It's so tempting," he says, "but it's gotten to a point where if anybody sends me an email and they start off, 'We can increase your CPMs,' I just ignore it." As an aspiring filmmaker, Rogers sees his stance as a long-term investment of sorts.

"I don't want to be known as a YouTuber, I want to be known as a filmmaker," he says. "The moment you start partnering up and you start doing stuff with other YouTubers, you kind of get branded that way, and nobody [in the film world] takes YouTube seriously.

"Literally, I've tried to do things [within the industry] where people have just laughed at the idea when I say I've done some YouTube videos. They just laugh, point blank, in my face."

Ironically, Nashville's biggest YouTube star is not an aspiring musician, filmmaker or meme-savvy pop-culture wonk. In fact, he only agreed to speak to the Scene on condition of relative anonymity, preferring to go by his YouTube handle: Hickok45.

  • Hickok45

"I'm too old to be famous," he jokes, speaking via phone from his wooded compound north of Nashville. There the 63-year-old gun collector and marksman shoots most of the nearly 900 videos his adult son urged him to start six years ago. He now has nearly a million subscribers — and upwards of 200 million views he never aspired to have.

A retired middle-school English teacher, he started making videos while teaching his class the Western novel Shane. In the clips he'd display antiquated Western firearms, sometimes dressing up as the book's main character. His earliest videos are so raw that at the beginning and end, you see him reaching toward the camera to turn it off.

"I had no idea it would get this big," he says. "My [idea] of YouTube at the time was that it was for kind of stupid stuff, and comedy. ... I didn't really use it, I didn't know there was really much on there that was useful."

His first video to go viral featured the host using a .40-caliber Glock to carve a jack-o'-lantern with Martha Stewart-worthy precision. "Oh man, I got contacted by every newspaper and blog in the country it seemed like wanted to interview me about that, it was just crazy," he recalls, joking, "I didn't know people didn't know the proper way to carve a pumpkin."

"YouTube puts me in touch with new shooters, young people and just anybody, to educate them a little bit about gun safety," he says, along with the history, mechanics and capabilities of various firearms. Hickok45's virtually unedited videos routinely feature the unassuming elder in his backyard shooting range. Professorially, he drops dry-witted, geeky gun knowledge, then unleashes hellfire on everything from exploding watermelons (in Peckinpah-esque slow motion) to busted, janky lawnmowers. He aims to counteract the soldier-of-fortune wannabes who create stigmas for gun owners.

"I get so many emails [saying], 'Wow, it's good to see just a regular person enjoying a gun,' " he says. "I didn't realize that those other Rambo types were our best marketing agents — they alienate a lot of people. Who knew?" Last week, perhaps as a nod to his teaching tenure and his oft-speculated identity, Hickok45 posted a video he shot while traveling through Albuquerque of him posing in front of Walter White's house from Breaking Bad.

Like Olan Rogers, Hickok45 receives unsolicited offers from YouTube networks and other entities. But so far he's turned them all down, opting instead to stick with the bare-bones partnership he forged early on with Google.

"I know some friends who have joined networks, and some of their experiences have not been so great," he says. "We want to stay independent and maintain our credibility. Obviously, I'd like to make more money, and if we see an opportunity where we can do that and still do what we're doing with no one telling us when to make videos or how to make them or who to make them with and all that sort of thing, we might consider that."

There's also the matter of privacy. "It's strictly the weirdos on the Internet you run into occasionally," he explains. He says he's had odd characters drive by his house, stand on his porch. The value of his arsenal also makes safety a major concern. "The bigger [Hickok45] gets," he laments, "the harder it's going to be [to remain anonymous]."

He says it with resignation. But for a generation of optimistic YouTubers, it's music to their eyes.

A sampler of clips from artists mentioned in the story can be found at the Scene's Country Life blog.


  • Illustration: Noah Patrick Pfarr

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