YouTubers on the big screen: A look at upcoming digital films with online stars


Comedic YouTube duo Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox, known as Smosh, weren’t the first and certainly won’t be the last digital stars to take their talent to the big screen. This year, digital content creators are expected to star in a dozen feature films that will be released on various video-on-demand platforms.

The slew of digital releases comes as no surprise as younger audiences increasingly gravitate toward online stars, who have racked up millions of fans on YouTube, Vine, Instagram and other digital platforms.

A recent study from Defy Media, the digital entertainment company behind “Smosh: The Movie,” found the desired 13-to-24-year-old age bracket watches 11.3 hours of free online video and 10.8 hours of subscription online video weekly. Those figures are nearly twice the time reported for free online TV offerings from broadcast and cable networks (6.4 hours) or for regularly scheduled TV (8.3 hours).


Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed said digital delivers the content they want to watch and to which they can relate. By comparison, 41% said the more traditional TV platform has content to which they can relate.

Smosh’s movie follows successful rollouts for “Camp Takota,” which stars Grace Helbig, Hannah Hart and Mamrie Hart, and “Expelled,” which stars Vine creator Cameron Dallas.

“Camp Takota,” released in February 2014, outperformed Oscar-nominated films on iTunes the week before the Academy Awards. George Strompolos, CEO of YouTube network Fullscreen, said at the Re-Code conference in December that the film sold “hundreds of thousands” of copies.

“Expelled,” which came out in December 2014, follows Felix (Dallas), a legendary prankster who seems to always charm his way out of trouble. The film was trending worldwide on Twitter after its Los Angeles premiere. It debuted at No.1 on iTunes and stayed in the top 10 for four weeks.

As consumer appetite for online videos continues to surge, Hollywood has taken more of an interest in creating or investing in digital content.

GRB Entertainment, a company that has primarily made reality TV shows for the last three decades, is shifting gears to focus on digital films.

First up in GRB’s digital film slate is “Bad Night,” which follows YouTube stars Lauren Elizabeth Luthringshausen and Jenn McAllister. Traditional Hollywood stars, including Matt Walsh (from HBO’s “Veep”) and Adam Pally (from “The Mindy Project”), co-star. It launched on Vimeo on Tuesday.

“It was a tremendous learning curve for us to understand the nuances, the ever-evolving platforms and the process a digital film needs to go through in order to get the viewers,” said Gary Benz, president and CEO of GRB Entertainment. “You have to distribute and sequence the film correctly to maximize the value.”

SuperGravity Pictures, a film studio launched by Max Benator and Marc Hustvedt, is taking its first film, “The Chosen,” to VidCon, a three-day conference held at the Anaheim Convention Center that links some 20,000 attendees with digital stars. The supernatural thriller, which stars YouTube star Kian Lawley, premieres on Friday.

Astronauts Wanted, the new-media youth-content brand run by former MTV Networks CEO Judy McGrath, will launch “A Trip to Unicorn Island,” starring YouTuber Lilly Singh, later this year. The company has experienced huge success with its digital reality show “Summerbreak,” which is now in its third season.

YouTube is also jumping on board with the digital film release trend. The video giant announced in April that it is collaborating with AwesomenessTV to release several feature-length films over the next two years.

The hope is that the films will eventually become distributed elsewhere after launching globally on YouTube. The network and video platform are tentatively planning to release the first of the films in fall 2015.

“If someone has enough appeal to draw audiences to go see a feature film, than it doesn’t matter what platform they came from,” Paul Verna, an analyst at EMarketer, told the Los Angeles Times in a recent interview. “At the end of the day, a star is a star.”

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