Why YouTube is making feature films with its biggest stars

In an attempt to foster higher quality content on the site, YouTube has partnered with several of its top creators to make new feature films and original series.

Dado Ruvic /Reuters
A picture illustration shows a YouTube logo reflected in a person's eye, in central Bosnian town of Zenica, early June 18, 2014. Google Inc's YouTube said on June 17, 2014 that it plans to launch a paid streaming music service, amid criticism that its existing, free video website might block the music videos of labels that do not agree to its terms. YouTube has partnered with "hundreds of major and independent" music labels for the new service, the company said in a statement, confirming long-running rumors that the world's most popular online video website will offer a paid music service. The picture was flipped on its horizontal axis.

Long known for being a repository of shaky home videos, YouTube is looking to start featuring more sophisticated content. In order to do so, the video-sharing website is partnering with, and investing in, several of its top creators to produce original series and even feature films before the end of the year.

"At YouTube, we have a core belief: we only succeed if our creators do," the company said on its blog Tuesday. "We decided to take an even bolder step to invest in ambitious projects from our top creators."

While producing original series are not a great departure for YouTube, feature films are unexplored territory. The films will be made in conjunction with Awesomeness TV, a multi-channel network targeting teen and young adults. Although the content of the films is unknown, they will be driven by YouTube stars and premiere on YouTube.com before being marketed elsewhere.

"We work with amazing creators to make great short form content on YouTube every day," Brian Robbins, chief executive and founder of AwesomenessTV, said in a statement. "We think the platform is really ready for long form, so now we will make movies that will star YouTubers and premiere on YouTube. We will turn YouTube stars into movie stars."

In addition to producing feature films, YouTube is also funding four original series with members of the most watched channels on the site: Smosh, Fine Bros., Joey Graceffa, and Prank vs. Prank.

Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox, of the comedy duo Smosh, will be starring in a series about the lives of employees in a theme restaurant and their run-ins with out-of-control kids and crazy parents. Sibling team of Benny and Rafi Fine of The Fine Bros. are working on a comedy series that satirizes singing competition TV shows. Prank vs. Prank is launching a spin-off with even more daring pranks featuring celebrity guests as well as hosts Jesse and Jeana. Graceffa will be starring in a murder-mystery reality series along with other popular YouTubers.

Although YouTube has not said how much it is investing in any of these projects, higher quality content will allow it to secure more advertising revenue and possibly turn a profit. The investment is also a way for the company to motivate its top creators to stay on the site. In the past few years, an increasing number of YouTubers have made it big outside of the YouTube bubble.

For example, Grace Helbig, the YouTube star behind “Daily Grace” on My Damn Channel, recently launched her own late night TV show, “The Grace Helbig Show” on the E! cable network. “Fred: The Movie,” although ultimately unsuccessful, was based off a character created by YouTuber Lucas Cruikshank for his YouTube channel.

YouTube is essentially creating new upward mobility opportunities for YouTubers who have already achieved all they can on the site and may be tempted to leave.

In addition to wanting to keep its creators, YouTube needs to keep its viewers as well, which means competing with Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Vimeo, HBO Go, and other entertainment options favored by cable-cutting millennials. Creating original content, a strategy that has proven successful for YouTube’s competitors in recent years, will help elevate the video sharing platform’s status.

This is not the first time that YouTube has launched efforts to better support its creators. However, past investments have focused more on providing resources, such as the Creator Hub to educate YouTubers to help them get the most out of the site, and the YouTube Spaces in the US, UK, Japan, and Brazil. In 2012, YouTube invested $200 million to fund 100 different channels, so that they could test out different ideas.

This time, however, investments are more targeted and with more specific expected results. The first of AwesomenessTV's feature films is expected to be available on YouTube by Fall 2015.

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