An Open Letter to YouTube Channels

Dear YouTube content creators:

Just over a year ago, Google invested in many of you. More than $100 million was doled out in the new channel initiative, which was meant to propel the creation of more engaging original content. A few months ago, Google followed up with a similar investment in European channels, and is now on the verge of announcing a second wave of funding in the U.S.

Pundits have yet to weigh in on the success of the initiative, but, for me, one thing is clear — many of you refuse to accept that YouTube is very, very different from any other medium that has come before. It is not simply a small television. Original content created for YouTube can be more immersive, more compelling, and more affecting than anything we have seen on television, in the movies — or even on your YouTube channels to date.

History has shown that any time a new technology or platform arises, it takes creators time to understand and unleash the true power of the medium. In his new book “The Art of Immersion,” Frank Rose accurately documents this paradigm when he writes, “Every new medium has given rise to a new form of narrative.” That includes the motion picture camera, which was invented around 1890, but didn’t give birth to feature filmmaking until 1910. It also includes the television, which creators initially looked at as a technology to capture the vaudeville stage experience (a single stationary camera and live broadcast). It took television creators almost a quarter-century to embrace a multiple-camera technique which ushered in a new comedy style — the sitcom.

I recently spoke to a group of independent filmmakers at the Film Independent Forum in Los Angeles. I pleaded with them to consider making content for YouTube in addition to chasing the dream of screening their work at the Sundance Film Festival. One of the attendees later told me, “YouTube isn’t a place for our content. The core audience on YouTube isn’t looking for interesting and creative content. I’ve seen the popular personalities the YouTube audiences like, and I feel like I’ve entered into Mike Judge’s movie ‘Idiocracy’ every time I watch those videos.”

It’s easy to dismiss the “premium” original content on YouTube today. But if you conducted the same exercise with early cable content, early broadcast television content, or early movie content, you would have come to the same dismissive conclusion. Just as the content on those media evolved, so will the content on YouTube.

But YouTube is very different from anything that has come before, and here’s how: At Zefr, we don’t play in the original content game — but with a billion monthly views of movie, television, music, and sports content, we have unique insight into the platform. First and foremost, YouTube is a social platform for media, one in which you can have a direct dialogue with your audience. The statistics are staggering: 100 million people take some sort of social action on YouTube per week, 500 years of YouTube content is watched every day on Facebook, 700 YouTube videos are tweeted every minute. YouTube allows content creators to solicit your community in the creation of content.

Furthermore, there is immediacy to the platform: It is global and accessible on thousands of types of devices. Content creators no longer have to be constrained by programming time slots or release windows. Content can be pushed at any time to any territory around the world, and on most devices. At last count, YouTube had been localized in 46 countries and more than 60 languages worldwide. And lastly, since it is a platform grounded in technology, YouTube empowers creators with greater insight and data than ever before. The standard tools used to measure success or failure with television and movies are just plain superficial compared to YouTube’s analytics and data.

What, then, is the hurdle on such a social, immediate and global platform? Content creators need to simply realize the power of the platform and have the guts, the creativity, and the imagination to go for it.

I recently read an article in which a creator was explaining that the only way to have success with content on YouTube was to make it look more raw or “cheap,” and to have the subject speak right to the camera. Why? Because this is what has worked to date on the platform? This is exactly the kind of thinking that has caused stagnation in Hollywood, because something works — until it doesn’t work, and then what?

In the late 1960s, it was that type of thinking that almost brought the studio system to its knees. The industry was saved by a group of young rebels who thought differently. Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese led the movement that upended the conventional storytelling of the time. They leaned on technology to make it possible. Lucas continued to develop sound and visual technology as a way to further propel storytelling.

So, to content creators on YouTube on the eve of this new funding opportunity, I plead with you to not settle. Take a page from those who have used technology to propel content and media. YouTube is a new platform unlike anything that has come before. Recognize it and embrace it, and it will open up new opportunities which will lead you to build real media businesses on this platform of the future.

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