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Deep Inside Chelsea Market, YouTube’s Unofficial Film School Is Reinventing the Studio System

Through the crowded corridors of Chelsea Market and past a gauntlet of coffee shops, you’ll find steel elevator doors stamped with YouTube branding—the gateway to a Willy Wonka factory for the digital age.

In YouTube Space New York, everything is shootable. The kitchen area, the conference rooms, the screening room—nearly every inch of the 20,000-square-foot space is meant to be filmed. That means you’ll see a talk show going on in one corner, while a bro comedy in a ’50s diner booth rollicks on in another. In an overcrowded city where just getting a permit to film on a subway platform can take weeks, that kind of freedom is incredibly valuable.

If you’ve ever been curious what a film school opened by a tech company would look like, well, this is for you. Plus, unlike a degree from a traditional film school, YouTube Space New York costs nothing—if you’re popular enough.

YouTube has made it easy for anyone with a smartphone to record a video and go viral, effectively reducing the benchmark for fame from 15 minutes to 15 seconds. But even though it’s probably easier to get noticed today than a decade ago, maintaining that fame is harder than ever.

Why? Production quality. Anyone with a smartphone can get lucky with a one-off idea. But most people don’t have access to expensive camera equipment, editing gear, or professional teaching.

That’s where YouTube comes in. In an effort to change the way content creators think about digital video, Google, which owns YouTube, opened five production “spaces” in major cities around the world that offer free equipment, sets, and expertise. The goal: give amateur content creators the resources they need to make powerful videos online.

The studios are located in Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, New York, and Sao Paolo. The flagship L.A. studio, which is 41,000 square feet, was the first to open in 2012. Last November, YouTube Space New York became the fourth studio, filling up 20,000 square feet a few floors above Chelsea Market—right across the street from Google’s Manhattan office.

The New York studio features three sound stages, five editing stations, four private editing suites, a few permanent sets, numerous conference rooms, and even some special rotating sets, like a bar set that included the original walls, phone booth, and cash register from the famed East Village music club CBGB. Aside from the rotating sets, every room has a modern feel, full of sleek furniture and equipment.

The charm of the space—and of YouTube in general—is its ubiquity. On a platform that contains short films, music videos, product reviews, comedy, interviews, how-to clips, and commercials, there’s legitimately something for everyone. In the studio, not only is everything shootable, but it’s also versatile. Sets have multi-purpose props, wall panels and decorations that flip around, and easily movable furnishings. And again, for content creators, it’s all free.

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself, “What’s the catch?” While classes and workshops are open to anyone with a YouTube channel, those who want to use the sets, post-production facilities, and equipment—which includes a few RED cameras—need at least 5,000 subscribers on their channels. (To use YouTube Space Los Angeles, creators need at least 10,000 subscribers.)

“The reason for that is we have a finite number of resources,” said Adam Relis, head of YouTube Space New York. “It obviously takes a certain amount of experience and expertise to know how to use things, so we want to make sure there’s a level of commitment to the YouTube channel before we start opening up the facilities. That said, our goal is to help people get to that point and bring them in, and it really is designed to help set people up.”

You can almost see the roots of Hollywood’s old studio system as a precedent—a powerful media conglomerate trying to nurture talent. What makes YouTube different is the absolute freedom it’s giving content creators to produce videos about anything.

The economic relationship between YouTube and its creators is where things get a little complicated. YouTube doesn’t charge a cent for use of the space, the equipment, or the expertise since they’re raking in revenue from ad sales. But some have claimed that the site takes an unfairly large chunk of ad revenue—45 percent—from the people who post videos as part of the YouTube Partners Program. Estimates suggest creators earn about $5 per 1,000 views before factoring in taxes and YouTube’s cut.

Essentially, YouTube has democratized celebrity. People use it to become stars; now, YouTube wants to help them along the process. And if the content creators can produce videos of a higher quality, then advertisers may be willing to pay more for pre-roll ad placements.

Interestingly, Google also chose to put their first BrandLab in the middle of YouTube Space New York. It’s a glass-walled conference room where companies hold workshops about content creation and how they can benefit from digital video. Major players like General Mills, Anheuser-Busch, and State Farm have already used it. When Relis gave me a tour of the BrandLab, he emphasized the glass walls, mentioning how anyone could drop in on a workshop to see what’s going on. It’s part of the YouTube Space mantra: Learn. Connect. Create.

If the entire space is like an unconventional film school, then the BrandLab is like an unconventional digital media school for marketers who want to adapt to a new media ecosystem.

According to Relis, YouTube doesn’t actively try to connect brands with creators, but if they happen to cross paths in the space, partnerships can always develop organically. It’s a smart play from YouTube, especially considering ad-revenue margins are tight for most creators.

“The reason these two pieces came together is because there’s a natural curiosity between creators and advertisers, and it’s only growing,” he said. “You might have certain ideas or misconceptions or just not know how creators or advertisers work, and this gives everyone a chance to see that exactly in action.”

Part of bridging this gap is also about control. Digiday notes that YouTube has penalized some creators and brands who work together on sponsored posts “unless the sponsor pays Google to advertise on that channel.”

Digital and mobile video has fundamentally changed how people consume content, and as a result, video advertising continues to evolve. YouTube even created their own ad unit, product cards, to outline how brands can film a quick sponsorship announcement before an individual creator’s video starts playing. Still, while expensive TV commercials may not reach the right audience, the Internet has become a video boon for brands. People who are famous on YouTube may even be more cost-effective spokespeople than traditional celebrities. A 2014 Variety survey found that the five most popular celebrities among American teenagers weren’t actors or musicians; they were YouTube stars.

Ideally, sponsors can offer these creators financial stability in exchange for exposure to a loyal, targeted audience of subscribers. When makeup star Michelle Phan was just starting out on YouTube as an amateur, French cosmetics company Lancôme signed her as a spokesperson to help the brand become relevant online. Fast forward seven years later, and Phan’s own company now brings in annual sales of $84 million.

Phan is an outlier, one of the rare few who found a smart way to monetize her videos and build her own brand, but there are others like her. Popular personalities like Jenna Marbles, Smosh, and PewDiePie rack up enough views on their videos to earn millions of dollars from ad revenue. But the YouTube spaces aren’t really designed to serve the platform’s A-listers. The established stars on YouTube may already have their own crews—Relis mentioned a few already bring their own teams to the New York space—and if they’re earning enough money, they’ll be able to afford to hire their own editors and film wherever they want.

It seems the YouTube studios are best suited for the emerging video star making the jump from amateur to professional.

Paul Gale is one such emerging creator, a filmmaker with 75,000 subscribers who shoots comedic videos such as “Why Starbucks Spells Your Name Wrong.” If you look on Gale’s channel, you’ll notice some videos have millions of views—his Starbucks clip has over nine million—while others have fewer than 40,000. He got involved with YouTube Space New York last year to see if the resources and expertise could help him find that level of high-quality consistency for all of his videos. Polishing his filmmaking skills is part of the equation, but another part that’s easy to overlook is learning best practices specifically for YouTube.

“YouTube does a good job of keeping you on the site, but the nature of the Internet is very frenetic,” Gale said. “It’s so difficult to keep people’s attention. I’ll see a great video and there won’t be any call to action. It’s so important to have links in the description. Allowing people to enjoy more of your stuff is key.” He also credits YouTube’s Creator Playbook as one of the tools that’s helped him increase his subscribers.

Gale has worked in YouTube Space New York three times since it opened and was one of the first people to use the temporary Lionsgate Halloween set for his video “Millenial Horror Story.” And based on the success of his channel, he recently teamed with Zipz Wine for a series of four promotional videos. “Now, I’m just trying to refine my voice and my craft and allow people to know more and more if they would subscribe to my channel,” he said.

Each month, YouTube receives more than one billion unique visitors who watch approximately six billion hours of video. For creators and brands alike looking to build audiences and make money off of their content, that only means one thing: There’s plenty of space to grow.

Image by James Steidl
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