‘Smosh: The Movie’: The Biggest Test Yet for Crossover Appeal of Digital Stars

Jul 22nd 2015

Meet Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla — accidental international comedy superstars.

This story first appeared in the July 22, 2015 issue of Variety. Subscribe today.

Ten years ago, the Internet-famous duo behind Smosh were teens hanging out in the Sacramento suburbs making funny videos and song parodies just for the hell of it, and sharing them with friends on this new site called YouTube.

Today, Smosh is a multimillion-dollar enterprise, counting more than 30 million subscribers across its six YouTube channels, and encompassing merchandise, comics and game apps. The guys are on the vanguard of a trend Hollywood is eyeing closely: They’re starring in “Smosh: The Movie,” a slapstick-y caper in which Hecox and Padilla teleport into different YouTubers’ channels in a quest to delete an embarrassing video of Anthony. The comedy is set for digital release July 24, after a red-carpet premiere in Los Angeles and fan screening in Anaheim, Calif., timed for the annual VidCon online-video confab.

“It’s something that the fans really wanted, and we think they’ll love the movie,” says Hecox, who like his co-star, is 27. “You’ll definitely be seeing more movies from Internet personalities. The audience is there.”

That much is true. In 2015, at least a dozen feature-length films toplining digital-native stars with massive followings on YouTube, Vine, Twitter and other Internet platforms have been released or are slated to debut. Even more are in the pipeline.

But there are two questions: How many of these movies will make the cash register ring — some are bound to be total clunkers; and, over the long run, can digital stars really become bankable talent to carry wide-scale Hollywood releases to thousands of theaters.

For now, the wager on such “influencer-driven” movies revolves around two assumptions:

> First, the idea is the projects can succeed on low production budgets. “Smosh: The Movie,” for example, was produced for about $1 million by Defy Media (which operates the pair’s online properties) and AwesomenessTV’s Awesomeness Films. For one thing, producers don’t have to fork over tens of millions for big-name box office draws. Plus, the thinking goes, YouTube viewers have grown up watching content produced on the cheap, so they won’t necessarily expect fancysets, advanced vfx or exotic locales.

> Second, marketing spending on digital-starrers can be minimal — or even nonexistent — because the films’ principals will promote the releases for free to their legions of fans.

It’s critical for traditional film studios to get in on the trend, because teens today are spending more time with Internet video and social media than they are going to the movies, says Cinedigm chairman and CEO Chris McGurk: “Hollywood needs to figure out how to capture the minutes people are watching on YouTube.”

Cinedigm already has edged into the segment. Last year it released original series “Fight of the Living Dead” on its ConTV streaming service. The zombie thriller, produced by Alpine Labs and Revolver Picture Co., featured several YouTube stars including Justine Ezarik (iJustine), Meghan Camarena (Strawburry17) and Iman Crosson (Alphacat).

Other studios execs are also bullish. “This segment of social-influencer films and content is just starting,” says Mike Dunn, president of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. “It’s only going to continue to grow.”

Fox is handling digital distribution of “Smosh: The Movie” as it did for AwesomenessTV’s “Expelled,” a teen comedy starring Cameron Dallas (digital fanbase: 7.8 million on Vine; 3.7 million on YouTube; 7.2 million on Instagram). Released in December 2014, “Expelled” immediately shot to the top of digital-download charts. According to Dunn, it drove more first-time customers to Fox than any of its other 2014 digital titles, although that doesn’t mean it was the highest-grossing picture. Adds Dunn, “The beauty of ‘Expelled’ was, not one dollar was spent on traditional marketing.”

Another factor that has Hollywood taking notice is that the biggest digital stars have greater appeal among younger demos than do traditional celebs. At some point, it seems inevitable that there will be box office blockbusters headlined by YouTubers.

“Over time, some of these YouTube celebrities can make the jump to more mass appeal, but those will be the exceptions,” MKM Partners financial analyst Eric Handler says. He sees “Smosh: The Movie,” priced at $9.99 per digital copy, as a litmus test: “If the Smosh movie is successful, someone else will get an opportunity to make another movie, and maybe they’ll get $5 million, and the next one gets $15 million.”

But the caveats are notable. Internet stars amassed their fanbases by being clever with shortform content and adept at social-media engagement — skills that may not translate into acting ability. In addition, movies developed around digital personalities must capture the essence of what makes them popular or they’ll fail, McGurk says. “It doesn’t matter how much of an online audience someone brings to the table,” he notes. “If you don’t have great story and great characters, it doesn’t matter if they have 30 million followers.”

Disney’s Maker Studios, a major multichannel network, is watching the space to see whether a movie or other longform content makes sense for any of its creators, according to chief strategy officer Courtney Holt. But like McGurk, Holt believes in proceeding cautiously. “You can’t just take someone who’s big on YouTube and stretch that out to a feature film,” he says. “You need to have something to say.”

The current spate of movies with Internet stars began after the success of “Camp Takota,” a comedy starring popular YouTubers Grace Helbig, Hannah Hart and Mamrie Hart. The movie was released in early 2014, and sold several hundred thousand copies for at least $10 a pop, according to producer RockStream Studios.

“Takota” spurred Gary R. Benz, head of GRB Entertainment, a distributor of TV shows and films, to have his firm produce its own movie with digital stars. “I thought, OK, how do we get in on this?” he says. “We deconstructed what they did with ‘Camp Takota.’ What held appeal for me, is you’re bypassing studios or networks, and distributing a film directly to customers.”

GRB’s teen comedy “Bad Night,” with YouTube stars Jenn McAllister (jennxpenn) and Lauren Luthringshausen, is slated for a July 21 release. But Benz flipped the traditional movie-development model on its head: The script came last. He first hired a producer with digital expertise, A.J. Tesler, then signed the YouTubers before figuring out the story, in which Luthringshausen and McAllister play high-school kids mistaken for famous art thieves after getting into the wrong car during a field trip.

“When you have nontraditional talent, you have to make things in a nontraditional way,” Tesler says.

In many ways, the trend is a next-generation version of the way studios have taken TV shows or television actors and put them on the bigscreen. “Saturday Night Live” has parlayed sketches into full-blown movie franchises like “The Blues Brothers” and “Wayne’s World” — though it’s also had some notable flops (“It’s Pat”).

And just as with top YouTubers, Hollywood producers in the early ’90s had reservations about whether they could take TV stars and make them movie stars, notes McGurk, adding that thesps like George Clooney and Jennifer Aniston put that debate to rest.

Judy McGrath, former chairman of MTV Networks, says the low-budget “Jackass” movies — based on the crude stunts-and-pranks cable series — were the most profitable films Paramount Pictures ever produced. “They cost around $5 million to make,” she says. “We just hoped OSHA wouldn’t call us.”

McGrath’s new venture, digital studio Astronauts Wanted, launched in 2013 in partnership with Sony Music Entertainment, is producing “A Trip to Unicorn Island,” a documentary about the world tour of Indo-Canadian comedian Lilly Singh (YouTube’s “Superwoman”; 5.9 million fans), which concludes July 22 in Anaheim for VidCon.

But the fact that “Unicorn Island” is a documentary, not a scripted film, underscores an important difference between digital stars and those in TV. YouTube and social-media celebs are playing themselves, not characters, and their fans might be less interested in seeing them in conventional movie formats. Would, say, a pic starring game vlogger PewDiePie as an action hero prompt his 38 million “bros” to pay to see it?

Meanwhile, for now, YouTube’s biggest creators have expressed no interest in fully moving from the Internet into traditional media. While Lucas Cruikshank, creator of the squeaky-voiced Fred Figglehorn character on YouTube, abandoned his Fred channel for two years to do TV movies for Nickelodeon, he relaunched it last summer with Collective Digital Studio.

For many YouTubers, these movies are extensions of the digital creators’ primary business pursuits, which remain online. “We have no intention of leaving the Internet,” Smosh’s Hecox says. In fact, the duo banked episodes to stream weekly on their YouTube channel during the 18 days of principal photography for “Smosh: The Movie” last summer, to keep a flow of fresh material coming to their viewers.

“This is very different from ‘YouTube star makes a movie’ and their whole world revolves around that,” says Defy Media head of content Barry Blumberg. “It’s about finding the right place in their timeline for the brand.”

As for distribution strategy, opinions vary over whether movies with digital stars should strive for theatrical runs — and whether those should be for an exclusive window. Some execs think there would be demand in theaters, either in limited or wide release, depending on the property.

“The Chosen,” a horror film starring YouTube comedian Kian Lawley (superkian13), will be released on digital July 24, followed by showings in at least 18 theaters the next day; additional theaters will be added if enough fans sign up for a given location. In the movie, from digital studio Supergravity Pictures and Sunrise Pictures’ Terror Films, Lawley is a man forced to kill six of his family members to save his niece.

“We think you have to offer the ability to purchase or rent a film wherever you are, across phones, tablets, PCs, connected TVs, but also let fans have a theatrical experience as well,” says Supergravity co-founder Max Benator, who is also manager and producing partner for YouTube comedy team the Fine Bros. (at work on their own movie, an untitled teen comedy spoofing such fare as “Mean Girls”).

However, only a handful of such projects make sense to play in cinemas, says Fullscreen CEO George Strompolos. “There are a lot of studios already making great movies for theatrical distribution,” he says. “If you make 10 of these pictures, probably only one or two of them will look like they’re worth the investment to release theatrically.” Fullscreen, an MCN owned by AT&T and Chernin Group’s Otter Media venture, formed a film division earlier this year. Following the June release of “#O2LForever,” about the now-defunct vlogging supergroup Our2ndLife, Fullscreen has two more pics slated for fall — “The Outfield,” with Nash Grier and Cameron Dallas; and sci-fi pic “Lazer Team” from its Rooster Teeth division.

Another advantage of a digital-only release is that it eliminates the lengthy cycle of trying to line up theaters for wide distribution, speeding up time to market, says Greg Clayman, g.m. of Vimeo’s audience networks group. “With the whole film-festival economy, someone has to buy it, then a distributor has to pick it up — and maybe in a year and half, it comes out,” he says. “What you’re seeing in the online film creators is that it happens much, much faster.”

The IAC-owned video site is distributing several movies in the category for streaming and download, including “Smosh: The Movie.” The Internet, Clayman adds, is where the fans of digital stars already are consuming content.

Moreover, big theater chains demand exclusive exhibition windows, and that could hurt digital sell-through if a picture is pirated during that time. “If there’s a movie people want to see right away, they’ll find a way to get it,” says “Bad Night’s” Tesler.

It’s noteworthy that Lionsgate signed on last year to distribute “Smosh: The Movie,” hinting it might bring out the project theatrically — but that the studio subsequently decided to let Awesomeness and Lionsgate-backed Defy handle the digital distribution plan.

Ultimately, the combination of comparatively low budgets, marginal marketing expense, direct-to-consumer digital distribution and a built-in, passionate fanbase is a recipe for success, says Matt Kaplan, an indie film producer who last month joined AwesomenessTV as president of Awesomeness Films, which is hoping to produce up to 15 movies per year.

“I don’t believe that just because kids are used to watching shortform on YouTube means they’re not going to watch the next generation of ‘Ferris Bueller,’ ” he says. “For now, these movies are going to generate nice profits for everyone involved.”

Still, the model’s track record is unproven. Until such movies can show attractive returns on a consistent basis, there will be many in the biz content to stay on the sidelines. “Not every studio is going to greenlight a film with a digital star,” analyst Handler says. “Hollywood is very reactive.”

Crossing Screens: Recent and upcoming movies with stars from the digital realm

“Camp Takota”
Grace Helbig, Hannah Hart, Mamrie Hart
RockStream Studios

Cameron Dallas

“Man Up”
Kevin Wu, Justin Chon
Supergravity Pictures, Lakeshore Entertainment
May 2015

“Pentatonix: On My Way Home”
Scheme Engine
June 2015

Fullscreen, DigiTour Media
June 2015

“Bad Night” 
Jenn McAllister, Lauren Luthringshausen
GRB Entertainment
July 21, 2015

“Smosh: The Movie”
Ian Hecox, Anthony Padilla
Defy Media, Awesomeness Films
July 24, 2015

“The Chosen”
Kian Lawley
Supergravity Pictures, Sunrise Pictures’ Terror Films
July 24, 2015

“Summer Forever”
Megan Nicole, Alyson Stoner
Relativity Digital Studios, MediaWeaver Entertainment
August 2015

“Janoskians: Untold and Untrue” 
The Janoskians
Awesomeness Films
August 2015

“The Outfield”
Nash Grier,Cameron Dallas
Fall 2015

“Lazer Team” 
Burnie Burns, Michael Jones
Fullscreen’s Rooster Teeth Prods.
Fall 2015

“A Trip to Unicorn Island”
Lilly Singh
Astronauts Wanted
Q3/Q4 2015

“Natural Born Pranksters”
VitalyzdTV, Roman Atwood, Dennis Roady
Collective Digital Studio
Q4 2015

“Shovel Buddies” 
Kian Lawley, Bella Thorne
Awesomeness Films

“Who’s Driving Doug”
Ray William Johnson, RJ Mitte
Katz Agency
Late 2015/Early 2016