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Analysis: Managing Maker without altering the formula

Media analysts and filmmaker Morgan Spurlock weigh in on the Disney-Maker Studios deal, and what made Maker's YouTube-friendly, gritty authenticity attractive to the Mouse House. (Pictured: Maker Studios' PewDiePie)
March 26, 2014

Morgan Spurlock’s seven-year-old son says that when he grows up, he wants to be a YouTuber. Like other digital natives, he follows the young people who create content for their online channels — video stars whom most adults have not even heard of.

There’s no question that younger viewers are increasingly gravitating toward YouTube, and it makes sense that major media companies want to follow them there. That’s part of the reason why Disney’s acquisition of Maker Studios, a next-gen media company that runs 55,000 YouTube channels, is “brilliant,” says Spurlock, the New York-based filmmaker behind such films as Super Size Me and , and who recently directed This Is Us, a 3D doc about the superstar boy-band One Direction.

With the $500-millon-plus deal announced Monday, the Mouse House is cornering the market “on one of the best places for them to cultivate new young talent anywhere on the Internet,” notes Spurlock, who is also president of Warrior Poets Entertainment, which has produced web series such as Failure Club and Mansome for Yahoo!, and A Day in the Life for Hulu.

“Disney is really planting their flag and saying, ‘We are going to have a big piece of this real-estate and we want it to be valuable. We want it to have eyeballs,’— and it does, from day one for them. That’s huge,” Spurlock says.

But the bootstrapping nature of web-show creators and vloggers like Maker’s PewDiePie (pictured), whose channel has 25 million subscribers, is also part of their appeal.

Success on YouTube is tied to being authentic, in getting to know the audience and interacting with them, says Will Richmond, a leading online video analyst and founder of VideoNuze.com. Any buyer that swallows up a smaller company and tinkers too much with that formula will see that audience — which is already very fickle — turn away quickly, he tells realscreen sister publication StreamDaily.

“It’s a new management challenge for big media companies to learn how to succeed in this environment, and we’ll find out how well they do. The content is often less polished, raw and sometimes more profane – it will take some time to become comfortable.”

But one of the reasons Disney bought Maker is to tap into the YouTube grit that connects with younger audiences, and Richmond believes they will be careful not to mess with the Maker Studios philosophy.

Disney’s track record shows that it is able to take control of a company and amplify its resources and reach, without disrupting the spirit of its brand. For instance, Disney was able to successfully integrate Marvel, whose IPs were not a natural fit with Disney’s ethos, by allowing the company to keep creative control while tapping into Disney’s distribution and marketing machine to make it an even bigger success (Marvel’s The Avengers, for example, grossed US$1.5 billion at the global box office in 2012).

“Disney bought Maker to learn about the kind of YouTube authenticity that works well and how it connects with audiences, so they’ll be careful not to disrupt the formula,” says Richmond.

Spurlock agrees. “Maker has come out making a business model on free thought and people being able to create the things they want,” he says. “That’s what it means to be a Maker, and I think that part of the warts-and-all purchase of this must be the freedom for Maker still to be able to do that. Otherwise, why would Maker want to potentially sabotage all the goodwill it’s built with users up till now?

“I think what it brings to Maker is the ability to grow and expand and really become a much larger studio in its own right with the backing of this much larger studio.”

The key word here is potential: Disney now has the ability to incubate new shows, films and franchises, adds Tuna Amobi, senior media and entertainment analyst at S&P Capital IQ.

“The price tag for this is eye-popping for a company this size, but when you think about the Disney empire and what they can use this to do…I think that’s the potential long-term upside,” Amobi says.

From Stream Daily; with files from Todd Longwell

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.

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