I first heard about Sarah Penna when I met with YouTube brass at the company’s new production facility in Playa Vista—an ultra-modern space that takes the Google-ization of the workplace to new levels (flourishes include a fireman’s pole and unisex bathrooms). Anna Richardson, a sunny and gracious member of YouTube’s communications team and former Miramax-er, wanted to know if I knew Penna. I said no.
"Well, you should," said Richardson, who said that Penna was an up-and-coming digital exec and one-half of a YouTube power couple—Penna’s husband is the YouTube cult figure MysteryGuitarMan. Sort of like the new-age equivalent of Warren Beatty and Annette Bening.
So I asked Penna to lunch.
For YouTube novices, besides being Mrs. MysteryGuitarMan, Penna is the cofounder of Big Frame, a company that both manages YouTube talent and creates YouTube channels. There are only a handful of these companies that make enough of a creative and financial splash to really matter in the YouTube universe (others include Maker Studios and The Collective), and Big Frame is one of them. In creating channels like BAMMO and Wonderly, Big Frame is "like the new Viacom or the new NBC, and YouTube is kind of like the new Comcast," says Penna’s partner and cofounder Steve Raymond. (Raymond would know—he used to work at Comcast.)
Penna’s story mirrors YouTube’s own story in Hollywood. In the course of just a few years, she has gone from being a marginalized "weirdo who was into online video" into an a digital power player. On the day we met for lunch, she was rushing to and from meetings with brands, digital executives at the studios, and clients. And having once been dismissed as a "kiddo"—she’s 29—in a meeting with an advertiser, she is now highly courted by those advertisers, as well as the major talent agencies in Hollywood, who are eager to get into business with Big Frame’s talent.
Penna’s trajectory also sheds light on Hollywood’s embrace of digital, and how the two historically contentious worlds are trying to bridge differences in a more meaningful way than ever before.
Penna never envisioned herself as a member of the digerati. She studied literature and anthropology at Pitzer College, and her first job out of college was at the reality TV company World Wonder, producer of shows like RuPaul's Drag Race ("It felt like family"). But she eventually met up with Phil DeFranco, a pop-culture spewing personality on YouTube, who was blowing up just as YouTube started paying its creators through its AdSense program.
As Penna looked around at other YouTube creators, she realized that "brands were really starting to take notice (of them), and they were also starting to take advantage. And I saw people doing really bad brand deals, and their audiences reacting negatively.
"And I was like, I have an instinct for what is good, and how to run a brand deal, how to negotiate a higher rate. I’m not trained in it, I just have a knack. So Phil and I parted ways and I realized, there is a business opportunity here—working with brands and YouTube talent, and helping talent grow their audiences."
Penna’s eureka moment led to the creation of The Cloud Media, a management company she ran out of an office on Abbott Kinney Blvd. in Venice. One of her first clients, naturally, was her soon-to-be-husband, but pretty soon she had a lot more, and realized she needed a partner to help her get to the next level. So in 2011, Raymond came onboard, helping to raise money and create Big Frame.
Explaining the theory behind the company, which creates and aggregates channels under the Big Frame banner, Penna says: "One, it makes it easier to understand what these channels really are—we package it, explain it. Also, it makes things easier for YouTube. Because they know, there’s five big networks—Machinima, Maker, Full Screen, The Collective, and us—and so YouTube can make five phone calls instead of 5,000. They call us, we can distribute information, we can be the funnel. And it works the other way, too. So it makes the functionality easier on the YouTube side.
"Then there’s the ad-sales side. We actually sell the media against the channels... So essentially the channels are terminating their partnership with Google and partnering with a network."
"Because the talent is different than traditional talent, because they own the production and the distribution, essentially, and the IP. And so in order to add value to that, you have to really go above and beyond. You have to really be monetizing, you have to be really adding value.
"It’s very easy to have a misunderstanding in this space, because an actor, for example, needs to have an agent, because the agent has all the information funnelled through him. That actor is not going to have access (to projects) without an agent. But this talent has access to everybody, so they don’t necessarily need anybody, except in certain instances. So what we try to do is really add value."
Penna recalls taking DeFranco to a meeting at a major Hollywood talent agency when DeFranco was starting to take off on YouTube. The meeting had been set up by the agency, though that certainly was not how it felt.
"It was quite comical, actually" she says. "We went to the meeting, and they were like, ‘So. What can we do for you?’
"We were like, wait. I thought this meeting was for you to tell us what you could do, not to tell you. There wasn’t a lot of vision. So we kind of stepped away from that for a while."
These days, agents’ attitudes have changed dramatically, Penna says. "Now they’re like, ‘We have this track record of taking this blog and turning it into a book. Or taking this YouTuber and putting them on a TV show. And I think there’s more respect for what I do.
"There were meetings I was taking, this is with brands, where it would be like, ‘Oh, you’re a cute girl running your company!’ I had someone call me ‘kiddo’ in a meeting. That was a moment. I walked out.
"And now I get phone calls from those people. I think the space is starting to be validated."
[Photo: Jeff Brown; hair and makeup: Juanita Lyon for Celestine Agency]