YouTube Takes Manhattan
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- October 12th, 2014
A few weeks ago, Zayna Aston, a communications executive at Google, met me at the company’s offices in Manhattan to show me around YouTube Space New York, the newest version of the production facilities the company has already opened in London, Los Angeles and Tokyo over the last two years.
The elevator in Chelsea Market that serves the YouTube office there was not ready to go to the production space one floor above, so we ended up at the freight elevator, which opened partway, closed and then left, before it took us to the studio.
“It’s a work in progress,” Ms. Aston said, smiling.
The same could be said for the 20,000-square-foot space we stepped out into on the sixth floor, but it is coming together quickly in anticipation of a Nov. 6 opening. It’s part production facility, part lab and a bit of a video university — all an effort to provide tools that will allow YouTube creators to advance their technique. And not coincidentally, it will let YouTube receive a larger chunk of the ad spending that used to flow to more traditional media companies.
YouTube, which Google bought for $1.7 billion eight years ago, mostly lives on the Internet, but to the extent that it has a footprint offline, it has been very much a West Coast enterprise. The space in New York, which is full of tech and video wonders, will bring YouTube in proximity to more traditional creators of media content, along with a huge new pool of talent.
The New York version will also include something called BrandLab, a first for the studios, where brands will have their own space to mingle — and perhaps do business — with video creators. In that sense, YouTube Space will share an island with Madison Avenue — part of an effort to convince mainstream advertisers that while YouTube is a great place to discover a toddler flexing his muscles in the mirror like his father, it also hosts creative output that can rival traditional television in terms of production values and marketing potential.
“People think of YouTube as a West Coast company, but we’re here because New York is at the intersection of many creative communities — fashion, film, big media companies and of course, Madison Avenue,” said Lance Podell, the global head of YouTube Spaces, who called into the studio — on video, naturally — from Berlin.
As a hypothetical, he said that a company like Maybelline could use BrandLab to host a day in which creators who traffic in beauty and makeup would be invited to collaborate. He uses the word “community” a lot, to underline the point that YouTube is not in the business of determining who teams up with whom or what they make.
“We don’t do notes or tell people what they should be doing with their work,” he said. “We enable them to do the best work they can as they define it.”
YouTube has long been the Wild West of video, a place where creative anarchy pursued viral magic. Many of the videos piled up viewing numbers that left traditional players envious, but advertisers continued to put low value on those vast audiences. Now, by upping the game of many providers, YouTube can become a perpetual pilot machine, kicking up winners based on real-time metrics that could upend the current order.
It’s not so much a makeover as a way of seeding and enabling the next generation of breakout video hits. More than one traditional New York producer I spoke to has an eye on what YouTube is doing in Chelsea, analyzing both the nature of the threat and the opportunity.
Actual shooting in the space is weeks away, but there is already some test shooting going on in a Halloween set that was designed by Guillermo del Toro, the director of “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy.” It’s a bit of a fantasy world even without those touches. It will be chock-full of expensive equipment wired for collaboration all over the world, and it will all be available at a cost of exactly zero.
Creators can easily gain access to the space. YouTube artists need a minimum of 5,000 subscribers to their channel and must be part of the company’s Partner Program, in which ads are hosted and revenue is shared.
Partners are given access to better cameras, production spaces and editing facilities as classes train them not just in shooting video, but also in makeup, design and anything else that might make programming pop online.
Artists of all stripes have created or established careers on YouTube, but sticking out in the ecosystem requires chops, guile and no small amount of enterprise. One billion unique users visit YouTube every month to watch some six billion hours of video.
Think of YouTube’s studios as akin to film schools in which students delay graduation as long as possible for access to first-rate cameras. Since the studios opened in other cities two years ago, more than 30,000 people have attended 450 workshops and created 6,000 videos that were viewed for 47 million hours.
In one of the many nooks set aside for collaboration, I visited with Charlie Todd, the founder of a channel based in New York called Improv Everywhere, which has 1.7 million subscribers.
Most of Mr. Todd’s videos involve public capers shot outdoors, but he says a production space in the city will help him and a lot of others do their best work.
“Space in New York is so tight and expensive that it will be great to have a place where people can make and collaborate on all kinds of things,” he said, talking over a buzz saw in the background. “Los Angeles has a lot of talented performers, but there is a more diverse group of people here.”
Chelsea Market is really three buildings that have been knit into one, including the former National Biscuit Company’s baking complex, where the Oreo cookie was invented in 1912. The ovens are long gone, but a kind of production will continue, with an array of high-end soundproof studios and state-of-the-art sound and video equipment
The lobby doubles as an amphitheater with stadium seating that offers a transparent view of the studio behind it; when the occasion arises, a large screen can drop from the ceiling. The conference room is rigged to also serve as a set for a dinner party, and, this being New York, a Seinfeldesque diner set is permanently available.
It is all in keeping with a “teaching hospital” approach, Mr. Podell said, in which best practices are shared. And after watching how YouTube creators used the locations in London and Los Angeles, he said it became clear that every available space was a potential set. So the lighting and infrastructure don’t stop at the formal studios.
Michael Stevens is the creator of VSauce, a cute science “edutainment” show — which averages 20 million viewers a month, roughly the size of NBC’s audience for “Sunday Night Football.” Speaking by phone from London, he said that sometimes the little things were what mattered.
“Just having a soundproof room where you are shooting video is a huge thing,” he said. “When I began shooting in the London space, everything got bigger and better quickly. My audience tripled.”
“It is so much easier to jump in, make stuff quickly when you have access to resources,” he added.
While free production space is swell, some creators have complained that YouTube’s take — 45 percent of all ad revenue — is onerous. They have argued that helping creators make things is fine and all, but YouTube is a difficult place to make a living. Production space can increase quality, but that won’t alter the economics.
Jason Calacanis, a well-known digital entrepreneur whose company received a grant from YouTube, told my colleague Leslie Kaufman that the math didn’t add up for producers of programming.
“YouTube is an awesome place to build a brand, but it is a horrible place to build a business,” he said.
Mr. Stevens doesn’t see it that way.
“You can be the funniest comedian on Twitter and receive exactly nothing for that,” he said. “At YouTube, there are no gatekeepers. You have access to an almost unlimited audience and really grow.”
Mr. Stevens will be using the space with collaborators in New York to make VSauce3, expanding what is becoming a tidy little global empire.
It’s tough to predict what the combination of creators will be at the New York space. As Businessweek pointed out, people still make videos in their bedrooms, hoping lightning will strike. But in Los Angeles, mainstream media companies, new multichannel networks and old-fashioned Hollywood agents are all mixing it up in the YouTube space — both the one that exists on the web and the giant physical studio that was once the site of Howard Hughes’s airplane hangar.
Given the various tribes in New York — downtown performance artists, Brooklyn indie bands, Off Broadway actors, along with a host of more mainstream creators of media — it could make for an interesting, combustible mix.
“We want it to be the kind of place where the chocolate accidentally mixes with the peanut butter and makes something new and delicious,” Mr. Podell said.