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YouTube Superstars: What's Their Next Move?

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There are so many superstars around today, it’s hard to keep track of them all. In the days of three networks and Hollywood movies, the giants were household names. The rise of cable TV gave us scores more. Then the reality TV boom gave us so many stars and wannabe stars, basic cable couldn’t hold them all.

Now with many YouTube channels outpacing cable audience numbers, we’re getting the strangest group of stars of all: megastars for a small group of people. When PewDiePie, a young Swede also known as Felix Kjellberg, overtook Smosh with the most-subscribed YouTube channel in August, it was a shock. I’d never heard of this guy, and I’d never watch a channel with such a terrible name. But then I’m not in PewDiePie’s demographic, so he’s not losing any sleep over it.

There are enough YouTube superstars around that I’m starting to wonder where they’re all going. Advertisers can’t wait to discover new YouTube talent. In August, I got my first look at the Emerging Talent Tracker, a research tool created by Outrigger Media and licensed to Digitas. Its function is to ferret out tomorrow’s YouTube stars today so that advertisers can hitch their wagons early.

Advertising is on board, but that’s an easy one. It’s easy to imagine brands wanting to get in front of a younger demo. But what about Hollywood? Are the studios paying attention to YouTube celebs?

All signs point to yes. Consider that there are already prominent talent agencies such as Big Frame and The Collective looking for the next online sensation. And consider that several online stars have already begun crossing over to broadcast and movies. Annoying Orange got a show with Cartoon Network, and Fred has created movies and shows for Nickelodeon.

To find out what’s to come, I spoke to Brendan Gahan, vice president of brand strategy at Fullscreen. I interviewed him for this issue’s Streaming Spotlight but also got his take on YouTube celebrity. Can YouTube stardom lead to more than millions of followers and a packed room at VidCon?

“I think they’re going to become bigger than traditional celebrities,” says Gahan. “Everything digital is getting bigger; there’s a rising tide with digital.”

Online celebs benefit from a tighter relationship with their fans than traditional celebs ever had. They can mobilize those fans and turn them onto new projects.

“A digital celebrity who became famous online, they’ve got their audience there and they can leverage them in a way that traditional celebrities are not able to. I think they’re going to continue to grow bigger and bigger,” Gahan says.

What about crossing over into bigger projects? When I think about online video stars, I think about goofballs and gamers. They act out juvenile skits for a young male demo or they talk about the latest hot games. Is there a place for that in Hollywood?

Silly question: As Gahan points out, there’s more to YouTube stars than preadolescent humor. There’s Devin Graham (Devin Super Tramp), for example, who’s creating beautifully shot extreme sports videos. There’s Lindsey Stirling, a violinist who creates fantastic music and dance videos. These stars not only have a large online following, but they have also done well with traditional media.

“We still tend to think more of the comedians and the Jackass-type content, but there are a lot of creators who are very diverse and have been very successful on the platform,” Gahan notes.

YouTube is a vast place, and the people rising to the top might be niche, but they’re not all the same niche. Get an early look, because it’s the fertile breeding ground of the next wave of superstars. Just don’t try to keep track.

This article appears in the December 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "What’s Ahead for YouTube’s Superstars?"

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