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YouTube is synonymous with amateur videos. But in the last year, it has spent tens of millions of dollars commissioning professionals to produce for the site. Those pros aren't necessarily coming from traditional TV and film studios. Instead, they're creating a new generation of studios to make content specifically for the Internet. NPR's Laura Sydell has a profile of one of them.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: In 1954, Judy Garland as Esther Blodgett in "A Star is Born" goes to Hollywood, sings in the chorus, until one night...
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A STAR IS BORN")
JUDY GARLAND: (as Esther Blodgett) My benefactor appeared with his card.
SYDELL: These days, you might not need a benefactor to get discovered.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hi. I got a package for Lisa Nova.
LISA DONOVAN: It's Lisa Knightess(ph).
SYDELL: This is actually Lisa Donovan, who created spoofs of pop culture on YouTube, as her alter ego, Lisa Nova. She got millions of views doing videos like this one from her L.A. apartment. She answers the door dressed as a Greek warrior from the historical film "300." The FedEx guy needs her signature.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)
DONOVAN: See, rumor has it that the Athenians have already turned you down. And if those philosophers and boy lovers have that kind of nerve, well...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What are you talking about? I'm just a FedEx guy.
SYDELL: Donovan started making a living from ads on her videos. She received offers to appear on television shows like "Ellen." Her fiance, Dan Zappin, shot a lot of her videos.
DAN ZAPPIN: We figured there's probably dozens and hundreds and maybe thousands of other content creators like us that if they had kind of a central infrastructure for production and cross promotion, that could be a business that could scale and grow.
SYDELL: In 2009, Zappin and Donovan became co-founders of Maker Studios. Now, it's an umbrella for 600 YouTube channels, employs 260 people and covers 30,000 square feet of studio and office space in Culver City. In old time TV, if a show isn't making it after a few episodes, the network kills it. Zappin says at Maker, they help the artist figure out how to use viewer comments and likes.
ZAPPIN: Sometimes it takes a year or two before someone finally gets that right format and they blow up. I know even Ray William Johnson, whose the number one subscribed channel on YouTube, went for probably over a year or so before he really found his format, fine tuned it and then it really took off.
SYDELL: What talent get from being part of Maker is access to professional help. Zappin takes me on a tour of the studios.
ZAPPIN: Back here is the actual production space.
SYDELL: Maker just moved into a new facility made possible by an influx of venture capital and a commission from YouTube to do three channels, including one for music and one for bilingual programs. Maker can offer it's talent costumes, props, sets, editing booths, quiet studios and an animation department.
ZAPPIN: We have an animated channel that stars our talent as cartoon characters.
SYDELL: The idea of this animation studio is to help Maker talent reach new audiences. William Ray Johnson had a successful channel doing comedic reviews. But he wanted to try a new idea.
GLASGOW PHILLIPS: He wanted to make some animated music videos with a band that was in his head.
SYDELL: Glasgow Phillips runs the animation department.
PHILLIPS: Have them drop a single every couple of weeks and have an animated music video to go with it.
SYDELL: The result was a series called "Your Favorite Martian." Maker Studios animates videos of darkly humorous songs by Johnson like "Santa Hates Poor Kids."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SANTA HATES POOR KIDS")
RAY WILLIAM JOHNSON: (Singing) I really hate it that my family's poor. I really wish I was a rich kid 'cause they always get all the pimp gifts for Christmas. Did I get a new Xbox? Fat chance. While Billy gets a new pony and a lap dance.
SYDELL: This video got close to eight million views. In general, Johnson gets at least a million views for all his videos, animated or not. Though the production facilities here are not as plush as the big TV and film studios, Maker is starting to siphon off some of the talent. In fact, animation department head Glasgow Phillips used to be a staff writer for programs like "South Park" and "Father of the Pride."
PHILLIPS: I loved being a comedy writer in television. It's great. But it's also really structured. You can spend a year in a conference room with people that are very funny, but that's a long cocktail party. Here, it's, ideas in the morning, content in the evening, pass/fail. Either people watch it or they don't.
SYDELL: Maker is actually in an increasingly crowded field of companies creating content for the Internet, says Allen Weiner, an analyst with Gartner.
ALLEN WEINER: There's competition for the higher quality creators. You have a number of places as an individual video creator that you can distribute your video.
SYDELL: And the audience for these videos is only going to grow. Every new TV ships with a connection to the Internet. But Weiner says in a world with endless channels, it's going to be hard to get the attention of an audience.
WEINER: It's going to be pretty complex this new kind of TV industrial complex that will emerge where you've got the NBC, Comcast, Universals butting heads against some really talented guy who just graduated NYU Film School.
SYDELL: That kid from NYU is going to need more than talent. He's going to need money and promotion to help get an audience. The founders of Maker Studio hope their model will give that NYU student and lots of others like him the chance to be discovered as a whole new entertainment industry emerges online. Laura Sydell, NPR News.
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