By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY
PLEASANT HILL, Calif. � Blending as it does into a forgettable suburban strip mall, Metro Skateshop is easy to miss. Not so its owner, Joel Jutagir.
The skateboarding fanatic has turned his decades-long obsession with filming himself and his friends into a popular channel on the video-hosting site YouTube, where roughly 15,000 subscribers regularly tune in to see his tricks.
"YouTube isn't just a video platform; it's really a social networking site, a place to show like-minded people what you're up to," says Jutagir, 36. "I've been totally amazed at the response."
Perhaps no more so than the folks at Google-owned YouTube, the Web's dominant video site with nearly a half-billion unique visitors a month.
If YouTube 1.0 was about showcasing random clips, YouTube 2.0 represents a quest to become a genuine entertainment destination. The company has become so convinced that grassroots content creators such as Jutagir are the key to this metamorphosis that last week it sent him and 24 others to its first-ever Creator Camp in New York.
Winners of the YouTube NextUp program were selected by users of the popular website. They received $35,000 to spend at will as well as training on everything from lighting a scene to marketing their brand. In return, YouTube hopes to grow its viewership and sell more ads targeted at specific demographics, revenue it then shares with the videos' creators.
Diverse as America itself, the attendees ranged from a recent Korean �migr� from Manhattan who is winning fans with her cooking videos, to a kid in Nebraska hoping to launch a homegrown MTV. Some of these would-be Scorseses eke out four-figure incomes through the ads on their YouTube pages. A few pull in six digits. All see a self-made future online.
"Getting together like this made me see that if I want it badly enough, making videos can be a way of life," says Jutagir, who immersed himself in courses with titles such as "Building a Loyal Audience" and "Breakfast with Rob Burnett," the Emmy-winning TV writer.
"For a growing number of people, this is not a hobby, it's a career, and we're just trying to move them up the ladder faster," says Tom Sly, YouTube's head of strategic partner development and programs, noting that another 20 up-and-comers will attend video training seminars in Los Angeles and Chicago this summer.
Sly bristles when asked whether such amateurs can pump out videos and shows able to compete for eyes with more professional Hollywood fare.
More than 20,000 people are YouTube Partners ? content providers who company officials feel can consistently upload innovative videos capable of driving viewers to their sites. Any ad revenue generated is shared, ?with more than 50% going to the partner,? says YouTube spokesman Matt McLernon. The number of partners making more than $1,000 a month is up 300% since early 2010, and a few hundred pull in six figures a year. YouTube hopes to increase the number in the latter camp; below are two such success stories, as well as three others who attended YouTube Creator Camp hoping to join their ranks:
Michelle Phan: Youtube.com/michellephan
Subscribers: 1.4 million
Total views: 393 million
Known for: How-to beauty videos with lots of creative flair, mixing music with graphics
Subscribers: 1.1 million
Total views: 302 million
Known for: Upbeat and borderline irreverent reviews of entertainment news and gossip
Next in line
Emily Kim: Youtube.com/Maangchi
Total views: 8.2 million
Known for: Fun, easy-to-follow Korean cooking tips
Bryan Odell: Youtube.com/BryanStars
Total views: 8 million
Known for: Interviews with rockers rumbling through Nebraska
Joel Jutagir: Youtube.com/metro236
Total views: 1.4 million
Known for: Skateboarding videos
"Amateur is not an accurate description of who they are. I'm continually impressed by the writing and production quality of these videos," he says. "This is about the American dream, which technology is now enabling in ways we never imagined possible."
Stressing audience interaction
Such hyperbole is rooted in reality.
YouTube may have started out as a place to watch America's funniest home videos, but it steadily has morphed into one of the key ways in which we consume media.
With the proliferation of broadband, television ? once the sole in-home delivery system for visual arts ? is being challenged by Apple- and Netflix-connected monitors that have some viewers unplugging from cable companies altogether.
"The eye is the prime sense used to take in the world, and the very definition of TV is changing to include whatever you see on your smartphone, your tablet or even the digital sign in Times Square," says Tracy Swedlow, CEO of InteractiveTV Today newsletter and executive producer of a recent conference in San Francisco called "The TV of Tomorrow Show."
"Interacting with your audience through video is unquestionably a new dimension for TV as we know it, and people are inventing new content formats all the time," says Swedlow, who recently saw a prototype of a small, disposable screen that would slip into a magazine much like a blown-in subscription card. "There are plenty of people learning on the job as the technology mushrooms. YouTube has democratized the concept of the professional."
That dictum certainly applies to camper Bryan Odell, 21, who recently notched 50,000 subscribers for his music-scene commentaries and interviews. He moved out of the basement in his parents' home in Lincoln, Neb., using his modest YouTube success to rent his own apartment.
"I want to be the Ryan Seacrest of YouTube and get to the point where any musician will want to come on my show," says the affable Odell, who started out doing on-camera interviews as an intern for a local TV station and quickly found he could attract an audience online. "I think people like that I'm a nerdy, quirky teen in a hoodie, talking to their favorite stars. They can relate."
So far, Odell has scored chats with the likes of musician and director Rob Zombie and the bands Korn and Slipknot.
"It used to be tough to get publicists to deal with me," he says. "But now I'm 'that YouTube guy,' and it's easier. Frankly, I'd love to do this for the rest of my life."
Michael Buckley not only knows the feeling, he's also even closer to realizing that dream.
A bona fide YouTube star with more than 1million subscribers, Buckley has been "making a comfortable six-figure salary for some years" through ads that accompany his show What the Buck?!, a manic Talk Soup-meets-Weekend-Update blitz in which Buckley skewers the day's celebrity gossip.
"I think what's different about media today is that instead of just watching something, we all want to share what we feel about it immediately, and that's where I come in," says Buckley, 35, of Wallingford, Conn. "It's a great life. I love what I do, and I get to stay at home and I'm my own boss. What's not to like?"
The wise-cracking Buckley is mining a rich vein.
Today, seven in 10 adult Internet users watch videos, and 50% report watching humorous videos, up from 31% in 2007, according to the most recent survey by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. Viewing educational videos jumped from 22% to 38%.
"There's certainly decent evidence out there that consumers like both professional as well as amateur content, whether it's passing on a clip they saw on Comedy Central or sharing something done by a name you may not really know," says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew project.
"But again, definitions easily get blurred," he adds. "If I'm shooting high-quality video of a classroom and posting that, is that an amateur video? The terms are really losing their meaning. And users increasingly don't care."
What they do care about, however, is being entertained, and in that sense we're in a new Gold Rush era, "where users and companies are all digging for that nugget," says longtime Silicon Valley observer Paul Saffo, managing director of foresight at Discern Analytics. "We're already seeing hits with print, like the success of (self-published Amazon author) Amanda Hocking, and I think TV will be next."
He says YouTube is making the right moves by "setting up a good marketplace. ? I happen to be a fan of (an online) channel that just shows videos of passionate cowboy artists. News is another area. One can imagine this generation's Walter Cronkite maybe coming from online, someone smartly commenting on events from their own home."
Video stars are born
For the moment, YouTube remains the biggest platform around for anyone with such aspirations.
During the past year alone, the site's hold on viewers rose 20%, from 33 million minutes per month to 40 million (about 28,000 days), according to the online-data firm comScore. By comparison, Hulu plus the top network-TV sites combined totaled 8 million minutes.
"But there remains a difference between the viral video hit and people producing videos that draw a consistent and loyal following, which is much more difficult to maintain," says comScore analyst Andrew Lipsman. "This is where TV still has an advantage."
Hollywood has remained largely on the sidelines when it comes to original online entertainment, preferring to use the Web as either an afterlife for its high-gloss productions (via Hulu) or as a concept testing area for established stars (see the FunnyOrDie comedy site).
That's not to say its execs aren't tuned into and admiring the comparatively low-budget support YouTube is throwing some of its promising stars.
"We can learn from the people up north, because Hollywood tends to fear failure while Silicon Valley doesn't mind experimenting," says Michael Yanover, head of business development at Creative Artists Agency, which had a big hand in starting FunnyOrDie. "YouTube isn't writing massive checks and they're not trying to take on the networks. They just want to see what might work, and that's smart."
Yanover says he's been impressed with the steady growth in professionalism of what he sees on the Web today.
"Some of those people really are improving their chops, to the point where we even represent a few, like Michelle Phan," he says. "I don't usually quote (media magnate) Barry Diller, but he said, 'Talent is finite,' and I agree. That said, Michelle is an example of someone coming off YouTube that's rising to a professional level."
Phan, who taught at the New York camp, has the kind of success story that can send millions scurrying to their webcams.
Four years ago, the now 24-year-old Vietnamese-American from Los Angeles was going to art school and working as a waitress at a sushi restaurant. In what little spare time she had, Phan blogged about her passion for doing makeup. Fans suggested she give a tutorial by filming herself.
Today, she has a million YouTube subscribers and rubs corporate shoulders with Julia Roberts and Kate Winslet as Lancome's online makeup artist, posting a video a month featuring Lancome products, filming and editing the clips herself. She focused her seminar on improving the look of amateur videos.
"My pet peeve is bad lighting," she says with a laugh. "I think that's one thing, a fairly simple thing, that I can help people with. I know everyone is very eager, some just need some polish."
Emily Kim, 54, is the first to admit her videos lack style, but they make up for it with charm. Her YouTube cooking channel has 41,000 subscribers, people from around the world who tune in for her tips on how to serve up either a traditional Korean dish or her own inventions featuring un-Asian ingredients such as collard greens.
Kim left South Korea a decade ago and moved to Toronto. Three years ago, she arrived in New York, where she worked as a domestic violence counselor. On the side, she indulged her love of cooking through online videos. She now has three self-published cookbooks on Amazon, and recently quit her counseling job to focus on her videos.
"I can't believe what is happening to me," Kim says. "I have a close bond with my people, though. One man, he came to visit me from the Netherlands. We filmed an episode together, making tuna pancakes. My people liked it so much, he came back to New York a year later and we filmed another one. So fun."
Kim offers a simple clue about what it takes to win online. Personality. She exudes it with her big smile, inviting demeanor and even her online nickname, Maangchi.
What does it mean? "Hammer," her codename from a period a few years back "when all I did for three years was play online video games, you know, killing villains and superheroes. I had to choose a macho name, of course."
?It?s gonna be cool?
Back in his cramped California shop, skateboarder Jutagir is about as opposite of a hammer as you can get. Soft-spoken and prone to staring off into the distance, he nevertheless is resolute about his mission, one he can now pursue thanks to his YouTube grant and training.
"I'm going to do a documentary about skateboarding around the world. We leave this summer," says Jutagir, pointing to a slight teen who will star in his Endless Summer-like travelogue that will capture the lives of boarders across the U.S. as well as in places such as Bangalore, India.
"It's gonna be cool," says Daniel DuBois, 16, of Martinez, Calif., whose appearances on Jutagir's YouTube channel have helped him land clothing and board sponsors. "It's weird to have people know me because of the Internet, but they do."
DuBois says he and his peers never watch television. "For us, what we want to see is online," he says. "It's quick, it's fast and no commercials."
Jutagir laughs. It's a giddy laugh, the kind you'd expect from a guy who owns a small skateboard store in a strip mall who is about to travel around the world chasing a dream ? and then share it with a waiting audience, one online clip at a time.